Kawasaki has completed the unexpected Eastern Creek test debut of its 2009 ZX-RR MotoGP motorcycle and will now head for a far more crucial encounter at Phillip Island.

Mystery continues to surround the future of Kawasaki's MotoGP project, which looked dead and buried when Kawasaki Heavy Industries announced a 'suspension of its factory MotoGP activities' from 2009.

But with development of the all-new 2009 ZX-RR well advanced, contracts in place with riders Marco Melandri and John Hopkins - and warnings from Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta that Kawasaki must honour its contract to race this year - an agreement to place the green machines with a privateer outfit, probably funded by Kawasaki and Dorna, look ever more likely.

The Eastern Creek test provided the first concrete proof that the ZX-RRs may race on and confirmation that Kawasaki test and development riders Olivier Jacque and Tamaki Serizawa will now head for a second test at Phillip Island indicate that some sort of deal is still being worked on behind the scenes.

Under such delicate circumstances, it was extremely unlikely that Jacque would give a depressing assessment of the 2009 ZX-RR's track debut at Eastern Creek, whatever happened, although in fairness to the former 250cc world champion he avoided making any grand claims.

"Well it is the first shakedown so everything is brand new. We have a new engine and a new chassis. It takes time to set up all these things correctly but the first impression is quite positive," he told the official MotoGP website. "The new chassis gives more feedback on the front end which was a problem last season. We have been looking closely at that this winter and we now have lot more stability on the front which helps with turning. Of course there is still work to do though."

With Eastern Creek not on the grand prix calendar - Jacque had not ridden at the circuit for '14 or 15 years' - the pace of the new Kawasaki would have been difficult if not impossible to judge. But that will change during the next Phillip Island test, when Kawasaki will be returning to a track which hosts the Australian Grand Prix and where the team had tested in late November.

The test will thus be a crucial one since, while improved feel and feedback is important, those features do not always translate directly and proportionally into a better lap time; a fast bike sometimes 'feels bad' and is often difficult to ride, as Casey Stoner has illustrated in recent seasons, but what matters most is if that feeling actually affects the lap time or not.

"It takes more than two days to set up the bike properly so that is why we will go to Phillip Island, where we will know what gear ratio to use and which set-up configuration to use," said Jacque. "It will be easier there. But first of all here we just needed to clean up the bike and polish the first set-up."

Meanwhile, Ezpetela has suggested that the previous Kawasaki team structure, headed by Michael Bartholemy, will remain in place for 2009, whilst others also link Jorge Martinez 'Aspar' to the privateer project.

Aspar - who failed to secure a third ZX-RR for 2009 due to his requirement for a Spanish rider - is also being associated with Yamaha MotoGP machinery for 2010. But if Aspar does join forces with Bartholemy, and bring Spanish sponsors to the project, his insistence on a Spanish rider will presumably remain the same - spelling bad news for either Melandri or Hopkins.

With Kawasaki's only significant sponsor of the 2008 season, Monster Energy, set to announce a new helmet sponsorship deal with Valentino Rossi, it is speculated that Hopper's position at Kawasaki has weakened - but the Anglo-American still has a Kawasaki contract in place and, along with Melandri, should expect first refusal if the team is revived.

Kawasaki only took four podiums as a factory MotoGP team from 2002-2008 and, after a best ZX-RR race finish of fifth last season, Hopkins and/or Melandri may feel they have little to gain from riding for a privateer version of the team anyway - where development of the machinery is far from assured.

With all other 2009 MotoGP grid places already taken, their other options look extremely limited, although attempts to increase the number of machines available by limiting the amount of spare bikes could make a satellite Honda or Yamaha seat a possibility.

The first official MotoGP test of 2009, attended by race riders, will be held at Sepang in Malaysia from February 5-7.

 

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