It is the second week of January, and there as yet no substantial rumors of MotoGP rider contracts being signed. Compared to recent years, that is a bit of a late start to Silly Season, given that all but a handful of riders have their contracts up for renewal at the end of 2022.
In past years, January has been a hive of activity. In 2020, there were rumors over the new year period that Maverick Viñales was being courted by Ducati, with Yamaha forced to make an early announcement to keep the Spaniard in the Monster Energy factory team (and we all know how that turned out). A couple of weeks later, rumors followed that Ducati had signed Jorge Martin, and at the end of January, we learned that Fabio Quartararo had been signed to the factory Yamaha squad, displacing Valentino Rossi.
Two years earlier had seen a similar story, with Yamaha signing both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi up in January, in time for the team launch. And to think, Valentino Rossi bemoaned Casey Stoner's move to Repsol Honda for the 2011 season as a decision taken early, when the deal was sealed after the Jerez round of MotoGP in early May, 2010.
By those standards, the current lack of movement on the contract front almost qualifies as tardiness. Riders are not jumping on contracts early, and factories are not pushing hard to sign riders before they get poached by someone else.
A different environment
That reflects a couple of important factors in MotoGP. Firstly, the ongoing global pandemic now rewards patience. Although the world is in a much better place than it has been since the start of the pandemic, uncertainty hangs over every event. Although it looks like the 2022 season and preseason testing will go ahead as scheduled, it makes sense to wait until bikes are actually on track, and get a look at them all before making a decision about where the future lies.
Secondly, and more importantly, both riders and factories have much more choice. All six of the manufacturers in MotoGP have now been on the podium, with five of the six having won races. Though there are clearly bikes which are better – the Ducati Desmosedici is unquestionably the best bike on the grid – and bikes which are worse – the Aprilia RS-GP has one podium to its name, and is making progress, but is not quite there just yet – all of the bikes on the MotoGP grid are capable of being competitive. Riders no longer need to be on a factory Yamaha, Ducati, or Honda to be in with a shot at the title.
That works the other way round, too. The reason Ducati chased Viñales so hard in 2019 and 2020 was because they felt their bike was better than the riders they had. That is no longer the case: Pecco Bagnaia came close to taking the title in 2021, Jorge Martin won two races in his rookie season and morphed into a credible podium threat every round, Jack Miller continues to be a serious championship candidate, and Enea Bastianini made huge steps forward through his rookie campaign.
Spoiled for choice
The same is true for pretty much every manufacturer in MotoGP: Yamaha have the reigning champion in Fabio Quartararo, and a multiple winner in Franco Morbidelli. Similarly, Suzuki have the 2020 champ Joan Mir and multiple race winner Alex Rins. Honda have Marc Marquez (presumably and hopefully, but more of that later), and Pol Espargaro put the RC213V on the podium.
KTM have talent coming out of their ears, with Brad Binder, Miguel Oliveira, stunning Moto2 rookie Raul Fernandez, and even more stunning Moto3 champion Pedro Acosta. Even Aprilia have Maverick Viñales alongside Aleix Espargaro, Viñales' record of 9 premier class victories proof that he can win races when the circumstances are right.
Sure, every factory in MotoGP is keen to snag the best talent available. But in contrast to previous years, they are fairly happy with the riders they already have under contract. The incentives for riders and factories to look elsewhere is arguably lower than it has been for a decade or more.
That doesn't mean that everyone is destined to stay where they are, however. With margins in MotoGP so tight, everyone is looking for an advantage. And there are plenty of riders with reason to be moving on. Joan Mir was frustrated with the performance of the Suzuki in 2021, and the slow rate development of the GSX-RR. Miguel Oliveira has also expressed frustration with the KTM RC16, and its lack of performance. Even Raul Fernandez, despite not yet having started his rookie season in MotoGP, is said to be unhappy with KTM, feeling railroaded into a deal when he was in talks with Yamaha.
So there is plenty of room to speculate, and rumors are circulating on who might be available and where they might go. But first, it is worth taking stock of who is already signed up, and who might be looking to move on.
First, the riders who are already under contract. Marc Marquez has a contract with Honda through 2024. Likewise, Brad Binder is signed up with KTM through 2024. Franco Morbidelli has a contract with Yamaha through the 2023 season, and Aprilia have an option on Maverick Viñales for 2023 as well.
Then there are the riders unlikely to be moving on. Pecco Bagnaia is Ducati's golden boy of the moment, with little reason to go elsewhere. Jorge Martin is happy with Ducati, his only objective to move up to the factory squad, while Enea Bastianini will likely also be looking to move inside the Ducati hierarchy, rather than away. Aleix Espargaro has helped get Aprilia where they are today, and is likely to have his future with Aprilia in his own hands. MotoGP rookies Marco Bezzecchi and Fabio Di Giannantonio are almost certain to be given a second year in 2023, as will Remy Gardner. Luca Marini is well set inside the VR46 setup, and will likely stay put for next year too.
At the center of it all
So where might movement come? In many ways, Marc Marquez is the linchpin of the MotoGP rider market, as befits a six-time premier class champion. Marquez is quietly working on his recovery from the eye injury he sustained last year in an enduro crash. Normally, the lack of updates might pass unremarked, but firstly, this is Marc Marquez, the greatest rider of his generation and arguably the best in history.
Secondly, this is not Marquez' first rodeo, regrettably for the Spaniard. For the past three winters, the six-time champion has been recovering from injury. Surgery on his left shoulder from 2018 to 2019, surgery on his right shoulder from 2019 to 2020, then the drama and disaster of the aftermath of his Jerez 2020 crash, and ensuing bone infection. And just as he seemed to be coming back into form again (or at least, finding a way to consistently rider around the limitations of his right shoulder), he banged his head and damaged the nerve in his right eye, a repeat of the damage done to his eye at Sepang in 2011, which nearly ended his racing career.
So far, updates on Marquez' recovery have been sparse. Official statements couched in the most general of terms, saying that his treatment will continue on a "conservative" course, meaning at least surgery is not yet being considered. Occasional social media updates, showing him working on his cardio fitness at least. That might leave fans cautiously optimistic about a return.
But Marquez will not be present at the upcoming online Q&A session set up for the media this coming Friday. Understandably, as if he were, he would face a barrage of questions from the media about whether he will be fit in time for the 2022 season, a question he probably can't answer at this moment in time. Instead, those questions will be aimed at his brother Alex, who throughout the past couple of years has been very good at deftly deflecting them without displaying the undoubted irritation he feels.
What does the future hold?
Will Marc Marquez be ready for 2022? Given the cloak of secrecy behind which Marquez and his manager Emilio Alzamora like to hide, it seems fair to say that nobody inside HRC knows, even if Marquez himself were to know.
The uncertainty surrounding Marc Marquez leaves Honda with a knotty problem. The Spaniard has three more years on his contract, and if he can ride, then HRC's decision is a no-brainer. But what if he misses the first part of 2022, and makes a return later in the season? Or worse, what if he misses the entirety of the 2022 season? What if his double vision can't be cured, and he is forced to retire from racing altogether?
In the first scenario, no doubt Marquez will be replaced by some combination of HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, and possibly Iker Lecuona, given the young Spaniard has a contract with HRC to race in the WorldSBK championship and experience on a MotoGP bike.
Lecuona could also be called upon if Marquez is forced to sit out the entire 2022 season. In that case, Honda might choose to move Alex Marquez back into the Repsol Honda squad and slot Lecuona into the LCR team. Rumor has it that Alzamora and Marc Marquez have been angling for a return to Repsol for Alex, and applying pressure to achieve it.
If – and it is a very big if, and a complete unknown at this moment – Marc Marquez is forced to retire, then Lecuona might once again be brought in as a stopgap for this year, while HRC go looking for the rider to replace their goose that laid so many of those golden eggs for them. A key part of that will be how well the completely redesigned RC213V which made its debut at the Misano test last September performs. Without Marquez' otherworldly skills, Honda will need a bike that more riders can exploit to its full potential.
Replacing the irreplaceable
One name being bandied about in connection with Honda is Joan Mir. According to rider manager Carlo Pernat, HRC is already deeply in talks with the current Suzuki rider, and could possibly seal the deal before the start of the season. While Pernat is not known to be cautious in venturing opinions, there is likely some truth in Honda's interest in Mir. HRC was in talks with the Spaniard to move up to MotoGP with them, before he elected to join Suzuki. Paddock rumor has it that Marc Marquez vetoed that move, a decision that saw Mir go to Suzuki and Jorge Lorenzo join Marquez at Repsol Honda.
There is reason to believe Mir would be open to offers from other factories. The Spaniard was open in his frustration with the slow pace of development of the Suzuki GSX-RR in 2021, making the defense of his 2020 MotoGP crown extremely difficult. Suzuki were the last MotoGP manufacturer to bring a rear ride-height device, turning up in Austria, and the first iteration was rather crude. Later versions were significantly better, but they were not the automatic versions seen on the Ducati and Aprilia. Mir wants to fight for a championship, and the slow pace of Suzuki development is something he fears.
For Honda, signing Mir would bring them a rider who has proven capable of winning both races and a championship. And by signing Mir early on, it would give them breathing room to wait to see what happens with Marc Marquez. If Marquez returns and is fit, then Mir would replace Pol Espargaro. If Marquez cannot return, they have another year to evaluate whether Espargaro is a long-term solution for them.
Fabio Quartararo could be another potential option for Honda, according to well-connected Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino. That would be a much more expensive choice, however: according to Carlo Pernat, the Frenchman's management has told Yamaha that renewing his contract with the Japanese factory would cost €20 million a season. The price for Honda is unlikely to be much lower.
That figure is based on what Marc Marquez was reported to be earning. Reliable paddock sources suggest that Marquez was due to be paid around €25 million a year in 2020 before he was injured. That seems like a lot, but it is a result of Marquez' success. When he joined Honda in 2013, he started on a generous salary of €5 million a season, with an automatic salary increase of €2 million built in for a championship victory.
Six titles made for an automatic wage rise of €12 million, the remainder being a token of just how keen Honda are to keep Marquez (and an admission of how reliant they are are on the Spaniard for their continuing success).
Fabio Quartararo has only won one championship, and so whether he can afford to demand €20 million a year is open to question. Quartararo clearly showed just how good he was in his first season, when he pushed Marc Marquez in a number of races, then backed that up with race wins in 2020 and a mature and impressive title victory in 2021. But the question of whether he is capable of dominating in the same way that Marc Marquez has is still very much unanswered.
Those financial demands are the biggest obstacle to a Quartararo departure. Few factories beyond Honda could afford that kind of money, and it would be a stretch for Yamaha to pay the Frenchman that much money.
A change of scenery
Whether the Iwata factory would be willing to pay Quartararo that kind of money depends on just how easily they believe they could replace him. They already have Franco Morbidelli on their books for 2023, a rider who proved in 2020 that he was capable of winning, but missed much of 2021 with a knee injury. But they would want someone alongside Morbidelli capable of challenging for a title.
Yamaha would appear to have two options. The first is to bring their WorldSBK star Toprak Razgatlioglu into the MotoGP fold. Razgatlioglu and his manager have made no secret of their interest in MotoGP, but they have also made it crystal clear that they are only interested in a switch to a factory team.
Such demands have met with much criticism from the MotoGP paddock and media, the point being made that previous WorldSBK transferees have had to pass through a satellite team first. Ben Spies and Cal Crutchlow both went from the Yamaha World Superbike squad to the Tech3 Yamaha team, Spies then moving up to replace Valentino Rossi in the factory team. The widespread feeling in the MotoGP paddock is that Razgatlioglu has to serve his apprenticeship in a satellite team before being allowed into the factory squad.
This belief, born of the widespread prejudice against the WorldSBK championship inside MotoGP, makes a couple of important mistakes. Firstly, though the switch from the production-based championship to MotoGP is a major one, that underestimates how big the change is from one MotoGP manufacturer to another. The KTM and Honda are supposed to be very closely related, yet Pol Espargaro has struggled switching from the RC16 to the RC213V.
Happy where he is
Secondly, Razgatlioglu has proven his worth in WorldSBK by doing what is needed to qualify for a MotoGP ride: he took on Jonathan Rea over an entire season, and beat him fair and square. He did so without making mistakes of his own, and withstood all the pressure Rea tried to heap on him. Rea was always the gate which anyone wanting to get to MotoGP had to pass through, Rea being a known quantity, and Razgatlioglu passed the test with flying colors.
Finally, Razgatlioglu has another card up his sleeve. He doesn't need to switch from WorldSBK to MotoGP. He is happy in the production-based series, and feels no need to make the switch just for the sake of validation. He would be happier to stay put in WorldSBK and keep racking up the championships rather than switch to MotoGP to be an also-ran in a satellite squad. He is only interested in winning, and will only make the switch to MotoGP if the conditions are right.
The unhappy Spaniard
Beyond Razgatlioglu, Yamaha may have another choice. KTM rookie Raul Fernandez has made no secret of his displeasure at ending up in the Tech3 KTM squad. The Spanish Moto2 sensation has not forgiven KTM CEO Stefan Pierer for forcing him into Tech3 by announcing the contract during free practice at the Red Bull Ring in August of last year. Pierer had allegedly decided to push forward the announcement after Fernandez and his management had been spotted having dinner with Yamaha bosses in Austria, after Yamaha had offered to buy the Spaniard out of his contract with KTM.
After a stunning rookie year in Moto2, when he took the championship all the way to the final race, Fernandez believes he deserves a factory seat. If Miguel Oliveira decides to leave KTM, then Fernandez could opt to stay with the Austrian factory and move up to the factory team. But if a vacancy opens up at Yamaha, he could make the switch to the Japanese manufacturer.
Could Oliveira leave KTM? It's certainly a possibility. The Portuguese rider has been frustrated with the direction of development of the RC16, the bike not doing what he wants from it. He was not the only one, and technical director Mike Leitner paid the price, losing his role to Pramac team boss Francesco Guidotti. The switch is aimed at making the bike more friendly for the riders, and easier for everyone to use. Progress in that area will determine a lot where Oliveira and others end up.
All this and more awaits MotoGP in 2022. There are far more questions than answers, and still a lot of time for decisions to be made. Where the Silly Season in previous years has very much lived up to its name, this year's contract merry-go-round is likely to be a little bit more sedate and considered. But that doesn't mean there won't be any surprises.
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