This was supposed to be a quiet weekend. Winding down at the last race of the season, with only the most symbolic of prizes still on the line: the team championship; third overall in MotoGP. But the final round of MotoGP at Valencia has exploded into a frenzy of rabid rumor, wild speculation, and bizarre conspiracy theories.
It all started off with Jorge Lorenzo announcing he would be retiring at the end of 2019. Though the rumor had been floating around the paddock since the summer, it still came as a surprise. The rumor mill had calmed down a little since LCR Honda had first announced that Johann Zarco would be stepping in to replace Takaaki Nakagami for the last three races of the season. There had been a lot of talk of whether that meant Honda would sack Lorenzo, or Lorenzo would leave Honda for another team, with no satisfactory outcome.
Lorenzo's retirement was the sort of surprise which you half expect. After an evening of digesting the idea of MotoGP without Jorge Lorenzo, the hive mind of the paddock turned to thoughts of who might replace the Spaniard. On Friday, it didn't seem like it would be settled any time soon, rumor suggesting that Honda would not make a decision before the Jerez test.
There were five, maybe six possible candidates to take the second seat in the Repsol Honda team: Cal Crutchlow, already on an HRC contract; Takaaki Nakagami, a Japanese rider with two years under his belt, who would make a solid partner to Marc Márquez; Johann Zarco, the Frenchman who had shown so much promise on the Yamaha and had picked up the 2018-spec Honda RC213V incredibly quickly; Stefan Bradl, HRC test rider; Alex Márquez, Marc's brother and newly-crowned Moto2 champion; and rank outsider Alvaro Bautista, signed to race with HRC in WorldSBK, but with the experience and age to be a solid placeholder for a year until 2021.
A strong case could be made against all six of them: Crutchlow has been a Monster athlete for a decade or more, and is close friends with Rodney Sacks, who owns the Monster Energy brand. Nakagami had been solid, but never set the world on fire during his career, with just 2 victories in Moto2, and not a single podium in MotoGP. Zarco was clearly talented, but had broken his KTM contract mid season, and proven difficult to work with. The fact that Alberto Puig and Mike Leitner are old friends from their Repsol Honda days, and still breakfast and lunch together in the Red Bull KTM hospitality meant that Puig got to hear the KTM team boss' unfiltered opinion of the Frenchman.
Stefan Bradl has proven to be a reliable test rider, but his wildcard performances had shown that Bradl was what in some sports is known as 'just a guy', a fast rider with the kind of talent who is easily replaceable. Fast enough to take the bike to its limit, but not fast enough to earn a full-time ride on merit.
Alex Márquez has just clinched the Moto2 title, adding it to the Moto3 title he won in 2014, but it had taken him five attempts to win the Moto2 crown. He hadn't won a Moto2 race until his third year in the class. Most of the other Moto2 champions in MotoGP had won a race in their first season in Moto2, and taken their titles in their first or second years.
Alvaro Bautista, last of all, was an outside chance. He has an important role to play in helping develop the new excessively lettered Honda CBR1000RR-R for WorldSBK, and has been out of MotoGP for a season. He was occasionally fast in MotoGP, but too often inconsistent, and had struggled with the Michelin tires much as the similarly-sized Dani Pedrosa had.
That was Friday. But things were starting to move fast. Behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the media, meetings were being held on the future of the second Repsol Honda seat. But those meetings would have repercussions far beyond Honda. The number of pieces which had to be moved to fill the Repsol Honda seat mean that some kind of reshuffle at Ducati is also on the cards. The only question is whether that's a big reshuffle across all three teams, or a smaller one inside Avintia.
French journalist Michel Turco was the first to break the news. Alex Márquez would take the place of Jorge Lorenzo at Repsol Honda for 2020. That would mean that Johann Zarco moving to Ducati, the initial rumor being that the Frenchman would replace Karel Abraham in the Avintia Ducati squad.
How did we get here? It starts with Marc Márquez and Johann Zarco. Reportedly, Marc Márquez had initially not wanted his brother Alex to join MotoGP on a Honda, knowing how difficult the bike was to ride. An approach to Petronas was rebuffed, rumor saying that Yamaha would not allow a Márquez to ride the bike. So instead, Emilio Alzamora had spoken to Pramac Ducati about the option of going there for 2021.
Two things happened to make that change. First of all, Alex Márquez won the Moto2 title. Every single rider who became Moto2 world champion ascended to MotoGP, so Alex Márquez earned the right to do the same. Secondly, the more Marc Márquez mulled over the prospect, the more he became intrigued with the idea of having his brother as a teammate.
On Friday, Marc denied he would ever push HRC to take his brother Alex as a teammate. "It's not in my hands and I will never force any situation. This is clear. Honda will decide," Marc Márquez said. Honda will indeed decide, but Honda's highest priority is keeping the rider who brought them six titles in seven seasons happy. And if Marc Márquez made it clear that what would make him happy is having his brother as a teammate, then it is in Honda's interest to give that possibility their fullest consideration.
It is said that Carmelo Ezpeleta is not best pleased at the idea of the Márquez brothers as the Repsol Honda line up. Whether justified by Alex' results or not, it looks bad, as if Honda caved to Marc Márquez' demands, as if the Repsol Honda line up was at the whim of its most important rider.
Keep the rider happy
Honda, on the other hand, can point at the fact that taking the reigning Moto2 champion is a valid choice to make in the situation. Their choice of riders is limited, they have a rider who is capable of winning the championship, so taking a gamble on a rookie is worth the risk. And if it had been any rider other than Alex Márquez, that would have looked like an entirely valid line of reasoning.
That gets to the core of the issue. The problem is not that Alex Márquez doesn't deserve a MotoGP ride: as reigning Moto2 champion, he has earned that right. Nor is it that Alex Márquez is being selected over a long list of other options, as might be the case at the end of 2020, when everyone is out of contract and there is suddenly a glut of riders on the market, giving Honda more choice.
The problem is that Alex Márquez is Marc Márquez' brother, and it is impossible to know whether Alex would have been afforded the same chance if he had not been the sibling of the reigning world champion. Whatever the justification of the choice, no matter how valid the reasoning, it looks bad.
The situation isn't helped by the decision being made so quickly. Alex Márquez is reigning Moto2 champion now, and that simple fact makes the choice a little easier. If Alex had stayed in Moto2 for another season and lost his crown to another rider, it would have been harder to justify taking Alex over a rider who wasn't his brother.
Positives and negatives
On the other hand, it could have a positive effect. At the moment, Marc Márquez wants Honda to build a motorcycle that he is sure will allow him to win on. Whether others are successful on the bike is irrelevant to him. But if his brother is also on the bike, and struggles as a rookie, Marc Márquez has a clear incentive to make the bike easier to ride for everyone, including his brother. If that pushes Honda in the right direction, that could pay off in the long term.
Another problem is that such a move would make life exceedingly difficult for the Marc VDS Moto2 team. They would be deprived of their world champion rider, with no chance of finding a rider of a similar level to replace him. What's more, Alex Márquez will take his crew chief, and probably one or two more crew from his side of the garage to MotoGP with him.
The Marc VDS team exists solely because Marc van der Straten, a former beer billionaire, wants to spend his money on going racing. He wants to go to the races, spend time with friends and guests, and then end Sunday on the podium with one of his riders. As his withdrawal from the MotoGP class showed, he has no interest in backing a project with no chance of success. If the Marc VDS team spends a year struggling for podiums, Mr Van der Straten may choose to spend his money elsewhere. And if he did, that would mean losing one of the most well-funded, well-organized, and successful teams in Moto2. And that would be a tragedy.
Frenchman on a Ducati?
If Alex Márquez takes the Repsol Honda seat, a move which we expect to be announced on Sunday, then where does that leave Johann Zarco? In a seat at Ducati, it seems, though Zarco has made his preference quite clear. The Frenchman believed he would have had a shot at the Repsol Honda seat if he had been able to finish inside the top five, which he believes the bike is capable of. "Maybe if I was in the top three it will be easier to decide for Honda," Zarco said. "If I was top five, I would be more sure about this performance. I feel I can do it, I feel the bike can do it and I say honestly that it's possible."
The fact that Johann Zarco still has offers of MotoGP rides on the table for 2020 is because he has help from people in high places. "I have the promoter of the French GP, Claude Michy," Zarco said. "He's not my manager but he's helping me a lot. So I'm confident with him because he knows really well what I need." Michy sees Zarco as a powerful promotional tool for the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. More so than Fabio Quartararo, the Petronas Yamaha rider having spent so much of his youth in Spain that French fans see him as more Spanish than French.
He had also been going for advice to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, Zarco revealed. "I come to see him sometimes. I came to him to explain my situation when I left KTM and he respected and I said, 'look I'm playing the game until the end'. I'm playing the game to maybe catch Jorge's bike. It looks like the opportunity is possible so let’s see. Yes he wants to see me but then we have to manage… I don’t know. I told you, it's not in my hands. The best job I can do is be fast on the track."
Having the ear of Carmelo Ezpeleta puts Zarco in a powerful position. If Ezpeleta wants to help a rider, he can talks to teams and factories about what to so, and can offer them financial incentives to do what he wants. Zarco wants to race, and Ezpeleta wants him racing in MotoGP, not Moto2.
The obvious place for Zarco to race would be in the Avintia team. If Ducati were to step up their support, for Zarco's side of the garage at least, and Avintia had two Ducati Desmosedici GP19s to race, there is no reason Zarco can't be competitive.
But Avintia is a team on a shoestring budget, and it shows. Technical issues abound: On Friday, one of the Avintia bikes had dumped oil all over pit lane, producing some awkward moments. With less money, there are fewer staff to prepare the bike, and it is easier to make a mistake or overlook something important.
That reputation has convinced Zarco that he does not want to ride there. "I want a good bike, with a good team, and then work on myself," the Frenchman had said. "Because I believe in what I can do and I see that when the feeling is coming back the motivation is even getting better because you can work and progress. As I said I want a good team and a good bike and for me Avintia is not a top team, so if I have to lose more myself in that place, I will manage to move in Moto2. But the target is the Honda place at the moment, unless you know something more than me. But that's it."
Things get wild
The latest round of rumor madness to emerge on Saturday night is that Johann Zarco might not need to worry about the Avintia team. The rumor, believed by a number of senior people in rival teams, is that Johann Zarco is to be placed in the Pramac Ducati team in place of Jack Miller, who would move up to the factory team and take the place of Danilo Petrucci, who has underperformed since returning from the summer break.
It was a rumor which a Pramac source scotched immediately. "Gigi Dall’Igna says no, Paolo Ciabatti says no, Paolo Campinotti says no," blustered the Pramac sources. Campinotti had defended Jack Miller over the summer when Dall’Igna had wanted to put Jorge Lorenzo into the Pramac Ducati squad. If Ducati were to try to steal Miller away again, the source said, Campinotti would make them pay a very high price. "Paolo will tell them, 'how many truckloads of gold are you going to give me?"
Could this happen? At the moment, anything is possible. MotoGP contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. Ducati pay Danilo Petrucci something in the order of €700,000 a season, which, while a sizable price tag, is not a showstopper in the way that Jorge Lorenzo's €4 million could be, if Honda had been forced to pay him after sacking him at the end of this season.
But in a sane world, all of this would not happen. In 2021, there were will be a major reshuffle of the calendar and the rider line up, as the older riders retire and a host of rookies arrive in MotoGP from Moto2. There is plenty of time to take a carefully considered decision.
Unfortunately, carefully considered decisions have fallen out of favor. And so madness reigns.
Oh yes, there was practice and qualifying as well. Fabio Quartararo took pole, just edging out Marc Márquez and Jack Miller. All three of them plus Maverick Viñales have excellent pace, promising much for the race on Sunday. Pol Espargaro had a massive moment at Turn 13, the huge mound coming up and over the hill, when the rear of his already sliding KTM RC16 stepped out. The Ducatis and Valentino Rossi are not far behind, both happy enough with their pace.
But to be honest, nobody is paying very much attention to that. The sensation of last-season madness seems to have set in early this year.
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