At the start of this year, I made three predictions for the 2018 MotoGP season: that Marc Márquez would win more races this year on his way to the title than he did last year; that Valentino Rossi would sign a new contract with Yamaha; and that this year's Silly Season would be a disappointingly tame affair, with most riders staying where they are.
Three months into the year, and it looks like one of those predictions will be right, as Rossi is already close to signing a new contract already. It's too early to judge the Márquez prediction, with racing still to start, though the Repsol Honda rider has looked very strong in preseason testing.
But I am starting to believe that my final prediction, that Silly Season would turn out to be something of a dud, will be proved completely wrong. After three MotoGP tests and a whole lot of talking, the rumor mill is running at full tilt. And what it is saying is that this could be the season where the grid is turned upside down. Though at this stage, much is still just gossip and rumor, it looks like the only factory team to remain unchanged will be the Movistar Yamaha team.
In their public pronouncements, factory bosses have said their intention is to try to continue with their current rider line up. That is the standard corporate line trotted out at the start of a season intended as cover for the hardball negotiations to come. But there have been unmistakable signs that the Silly Season is about to explode, once the paddock gathers for the start of the season.
Tech3's announcement that they would be leaving Yamaha for KTM was the canary in the coal mine. There have been signs of a shift in the underlying structure of the MotoGP paddock for some time now, as the other factories have risen to challenge what was once a duopoly of Yamaha and Honda.
First, Ducati hired Gigi Dall'Igna, and he shook up the racing department and helped build a competitive bike. That paved the way for Jorge Lorenzo to gamble on a switch to Ducati, and opened up a seat at Yamaha for Maverick Viñales. Suzuki's increasing competitiveness has made the Japanese factory a much more attractive prospect than it was before they left MotoGP at the end of 2011. Aprilia, too, have been edging closer to the front. And KTM have demonstrated they are committed to pouring in the financial and engineering resources to make a success of their RC16 MotoGP bike.
So Tech3's decision to switch to KTM is a sign of an increasing pool of competitive machinery in MotoGP. More competitive bikes means more choice for teams, but also more choice for riders. It is no longer necessary to cling on to the same ride throughout your career, as it is entirely possible to win on other bikes as well. There is movement ahead both for teams and for riders.
First, a word of caution. The information in this article has been gathered from a range of sources, including talking to some of the protagonists. It is very early in the negotiating process, and so the situation is very fluid. It also means that those sharing information will often do so with an agenda: they may be putting a rumor out to weight the scales in their favor. Or they may be putting out a rumor to distract from what is really going on behind the scenes. The situation presented below will almost certainly look very different by the end of the season. But that real change is coming to MotoGP, of that there can be no doubt.
The new system
A key part of the grid shake up coming is down to the bikes. Tech3's switch to KTM has had two important effects: it has made the satellite Yamaha M1s available, two of the most desirable bikes on the grid. And it has prompted Suzuki and Aprilia into speeding up their plans to supply satellite bikes to teams. The approach pioneered by Ducati, of supplying a full factory bike with strong support in a satellite team, is being copied by almost everyone.
Honda have a de facto third factory bike in the LCR Honda garage with Cal Crutchlow. KTM will have four factory-spec RC16s on the grid in 2019. Suzuki seem likely to provide the latest spec bikes to any team they might supply. And Aprilia would be forced to go down a similar route if they wanted to attract a satellite team.
The only holdout at the moment is Yamaha. The Japanese factory has traditionally supplied Tech3 with the previous year's bikes, with next to no upgrades throughout the season. They could do it that way because Tech3 didn't have an alternative, treating their satellite team as a source of income.
It does not look like Yamaha will change their approach for 2019 and beyond. After all, being second in line behind the factory team sounds pretty good to the teams which are third in line. And so Marc VDS, the Angel Nieto Team, and Avintia are all looking into dropping their existing bike suppliers and switching manufacturers.
Leader of the pack
Marc VDS appear to be in the driving seat. The Belgian team have already had talks with Yamaha, and are also said to be in talks with Suzuki. Where their preference lies is hard to discern, and depends on who you talk to. Speak to one team source, and they say Suzuki. Speak to another team source, and they will tell you Yamaha.
This is part of a semi-regular series of insights into the world of motorcycle racing, exclusive for MotoMatters.com site supporters. The series includes background information, in-depth analysis, and opinion pieces. Though the majority of content on MotoMatters.com remains free to read, a select amount of the more interesting content will be made available solely to those who have supported the website financially by taking out a subscription.
The aim is to provide additional value for our growing band of site supporters, providing extra original and exclusive content. If you would like to read more of our exclusive content and help MotoMatters.com to grow and improve, you can join the growing band of site supporters, by taking out a subscription here.