While the eyes of the world will be on Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati as far as MotoGP's Silly Season is concerned, the three remaining manufacturers in MotoGP will play an integral part in how this all plays out. What happens at Suzuki and KTM is crucial to how things play out at Honda and Ducati, especially, while Aprilia will also have a role to play, albeit a lesser one. As I wrote in part one of this Silly Season primer, this year's set of contract negotiations look a lot more like musical chairs than anything else.
Suzuki is at the heart of Silly Season this year. Or rather, Maverick Viñales is. Viñales is the talent Honda, Ducati, and to a lesser extent Yamaha are keeping an eye on. Viñales has two more years on his contract with the Suzuki ECSTAR team, but an option to leave at the end of this season. The Spaniard faces two choices: stay with Suzuki and build a long-term relationship, becoming the new Schwantz – a rider Viñales has identified as his hero – or switch to another factory in pursuit of instant success.
Viñales' choice will come down to a single factor: how much improvement Suzuki have made with the 2016 version of the GSX-RR. The Spaniard has already shown he is capable of setting fast times during testing, both at Phillip Island and Qatar. The question is how well this translates into the race. If Viñales can consistently challenge for podiums and perhaps even wins, then his decision-making process gets a whole lot easier. The same applies if he finds himself struggling to finish in the top six.
Rolling the dice on Suzuki
It's the in between which complicates decisions: if the Suzuki is nearly there, and Viñales is finishing just off the podium, then has to decide whether he believes Suzuki are willing to put in the extra bit of effort and money to bridge the gap. Likewise, the other factories have to decide whether the gap from Viñales to the winner is down to the bike, or down to Viñales not quite having what it takes to become a bona fide alien. Viñales has said publicly that he will take five or six races to decide what his next move will be. That gives Honda, Ducati and Yamaha five or six races to evaluate him, in turn.
If Viñales does decide to leave, this would leave Suzuki to decide between a seasoned veteran and a young talent. Their current rider pairing has been carefully selected to complement one another: Aleix Espargaro is very much the development rider (much to his chagrin), drawing experience riding a good variety of machinery. Maverick Viñales is the young superstar, signed for his potential to be a future champion. If Viñales goes elsewhere, Suzuki will have to either pursue a similarly talented youngster, such as Alex Rins, or try to grab the rider who is forced out to make way for Viñales. If that rider is Dani Pedrosa, then Suzuki will have a chance to see how well their bike holds up in the hands of a proven winner. If that rider is Andrea Dovizioso, then Suzuki will have to decide whether his skills as a development rider outweigh the fear that Dovizioso is not quite quick enough to win races.
Both Dovizioso and Pedrosa are riders who could threaten the position of Aleix Espargaro at Suzuki. The elder of the Espargaro brothers is valued for his feedback, something which Dovizioso especially excels at. The Italian has the added advantage of having now also ridden for three different manufacturers during his time in MotoGP, which brings extra value to a development role. Dovizioso was linked to Suzuki a couple of years ago, before they decided to postpone their return to MotoGP until 2015. With the Suzuki team based in Italy, and with several key Italian staff, most notably team manager Davide Brivio, Dovizioso could be an asset Suzuki cannot resist.
Alex Rins – Factory now or factory later?
If Viñales leaves, Suzuki stand a better chance of signing Alex Rins. Viñales would be leaving to fill a more desirable factory seat, leaving Rins with the choice of either the Yamaha-backed seat at Tech 3, or a factory ride with Suzuki. The choice would require patience from Rins, whichever way he decided. Were he to go to Suzuki, he would have to hope that the Japanese factory could do for him what it presumably failed to do for Viñales (otherwise, why would Viñales leave?). If he chooses Yamaha, he will have to sit in the Tech 3 team on a factory contract, waiting for either Valentino Rossi to retire, or Jorge Lorenzo to try his chances elsewhere. Neither of those outcomes are assured, and given that both Rossi and Lorenzo are among the greatest riders of all time, the chance of Lin Jarvis moving either of them aside to make room for Rins is infinitesimal.
Being at Tech 3 isn't the worst thing in the world for Rins, however. "Our package is closer to the factory guys than it has ever been before," Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told me. That is largely down to the new common software and the Michelin tires, he explained, making all the bikes much more competitive. If Rins has the same kind of talent as Viñales, as many believe, then he should be capable of challenging for podiums at Tech 3, once he has adapted to MotoGP. Given the speed with which he adapted to Moto2, that should be within his first season.
Moving up from Moto2
Rins is not the only prospect in Moto2, but the number of riders likely to move up is limited. Poncharal said he saw Sam Lowes, Alex Rins and Johann Zarco as clearly the best riders in Moto2, and certain to make the move up to MotoGP. Lowes already has a three-year deal with Gresini, racing in Moto2 in 2016, then in MotoGP with Aprilia in 2017 and 2018. Rins is the real hot ticket, chased by everyone, but Johann Zarco will also be on the radar, of satellite teams, if not of factories.
The way Zarco dominated Moto2 in 2015 was very impressive, but it came as something of a surprise. "At the end of 2014, nobody expect to see Zarco do what he did in 2015," Poncharal said. "So maybe we will see some surprises." Zarco is clearly in the running for a seat at Tech 3, but the suspicion of many paddock insiders is that Zarco will end up at KTM. The KTM factory MotoGP team will almost certainly be run by Aki Ajo, the Finnish team manager already in charge of their Moto3 program and now also charged with developing their Moto2 machine. Ajo and Zarco have a strong relationship, and the Frenchman has always flourished when he has ridden for the Finn.
There are downsides to Zarco, however. The Frenchman will be 26 this July, which doesn't really qualify him as a young talent. What he did in 2015 was remarkable, but so far, he has failed to make any impression during preseason testing. Zarco also brings with him his rather idiosyncratic manager Laurent Fellon. Fellon has brought the very best out of Zarco, but has caused him major problems as well. Zarco had signed with one Moto2 team one year, when Fellon rescinded the contract, after seeing something in the team's garage he did not like. That kind of inexplicable behavior can be hard to deal with, but the fact that Fellon is now getting increasingly caught up with coaching his son, who is just starting to go racing, means he will be less of a factor in any arrangement with Zarco.
The Moto2 possibles
Moto2 has a few other possible candidates to make the move up to MotoGP. Hervé Poncharal mentioned Jonas Folger during our conversation, a rider Poncharal tried to sign for 2016. Folger could not get out from under his two-year Moto2 deal with AGR, but as he will be free at the end of this season, Tech 3, and possibly some other teams, could be interested. Folger has won Moto2 races and finished on the podium, but he has also managed to finish outside the top ten. Consistency is Folger's bugbear, and any team signing him will have to try to coach that into him.
Two Italians have also shown plenty of promise. Lorenzo Baldassarri has impressed with his speed during testing, the Forward Racing rider making excellent progress after leaving the Gresini team and the Suter. Franco Morbidelli made his mark in 2015, easily outclassing his teammate Mika Kallio, who was Moto2 runner up the year before. Morbidelli has struggled a little since breaking his leg in a training accident last August, and has not quite lived up to expectations during testing. If he can recover his confidence, Morbidelli promises to be a real talent.
Taking racing seriously
Though team managers are looking at Moto2 for new talent, they have discounted bringing a rider in from Moto3. "There is a lot of talent in Moto3," Hervé Poncharal explained, "but you need the experience in Moto2." Team managers have been put off by the example of Jack Miller, who failed to live up to his promise in his first year in MotoGP, after choosing to skip Moto2. That may be more down to Miller than to Moto3, however: the Australian's relief at not having to starve himself on a Moto3 machine went straight to his stomach, putting on nearly 8kg before the start of the 2015 season. It took Miller half a season to figure out that he needed to turn his approach around, and with the assistance of Alberto Puig, drafted in by HRC to help, Miller was much more professional in the second half of 2016.
He will need to be. His lackadaisical approach to MotoGP did not endear him to Honda bosses during 2015, and there is already solid talk of HRC looking to get out of his contract a year early. Miller is now in a better environment, Marc VDS boss Michael Bartholémy having experience with turning wild young men around, as he previously did with Scott Redding. Miller will have to produce if he is to stay at Honda for another year.
While Miller's seat may be in question, that of Tito Rabat looks relatively safe. Rabat has always been a slow learner, and his start in MotoGP has been nothing to write home about. But Rabat does learn, at his own pace, and so what he needs most is patience. Rabat has earned that from team owner Marc van der Straten, after bringing the team the Moto2 world title they have worked so long to achieve.
The Austrian affair
Among the most intriguing potential seats for 2017 and beyond are the rides in the KTM team. The Austrian factory is due to make its debut in MotoGP in 2017, its RC16 bike currently undergoing testing in the hands of Mika Kallio, Alex Hofmann and Randy De Puniet. Kallio took on the role as test rider with the express hope of earning a full-time ride in 2017, but he faces almost insurmountable competition for the role. KTM will be looking to replicate the approach of Suzuki, with one experienced rider and one young talent, possibly coming up from Moto2.
The role of experienced development rider will be fiercely contested, with three names most prominent in the chase. Andrea Dovizioso is an obvious choice, should he become available as expected. Dani Pedrosa is another option: already a Red Bull rider (KTM is already backed by the Austrian energy drink), he is a proven winner, and has strong developmental skills. His former crew chief Mike Leitner is running KTM's MotoGP project, and will have a major role when they return to racing. Leitner has recruited other former members of Pedrosa's crew to KTM, valuing their experience in helping to develop the bike.
That may end up posing an insurmountable obstacle to a move by Pedrosa to KTM. Leitner resigned as Pedrosa's crew chief after the Spaniard asked for two of his mechanics to be replaced. Those same mechanics are now working with KTM on their MotoGP project. Were Pedrosa to switch to KTM, it would make for a most uncomfortable situation.
The other alternative for KTM could well be Bradley Smith. The Englishman was very impressive during 2015, having made a major progression to finish sixth in the championship, ending as the first satellite rider and ahead of riders on factory bikes such as Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso, both Suzukis and both Aprilias. The Tech 3 rider has made it clear that his objective for 2017 is to be on a factory bike. "I know this is my last realistic chance of getting to ride for a factory team," Smith told me at the Yamaha launch in January. Smith will be 25 this year, and knows he must have another strong season to prove that he has earned a shot at a factory ride. Realistically, KTM is his best shot at a factory contract, and his ability to explain with exceptional clarity exactly what is happening with a MotoGP machine is perhaps his greatest asset. If KTM need a fast, relatively young rider with great development skills to help move the RC16 forward, Smith could well be their best bet.
The final factory in MotoGP faces a much tougher task. The brand new prototype RS-GP which Gresini Aprilia debuted at Qatar a couple of weeks ago is still very much a work in progress, and was still a long way off the pace of the other bikes. Aprilia already have one rider signed for 2017 and beyond in Sam Lowes, and will need to attract a second rider. Unless their performance improves drastically, that will be an uphill task. The best outcome they can hope for if they can't make a massive jump is to re-sign one of their existing riders, and that is most likely to be Stefan Bradl. The German is clearly talented, as he showed when he was on the LCR Honda, and at 26, still has several years ahead of him. Alvaro Bautista has also proven his mettle in the past, but at the age of 31, is starting to get past his prime. In planning for the future, Bradl is the better prospect.
Maverick Viñales/Alex Rins
Bradley Smith/Andrea Dovizioso
In the final part of our Silly Season primer, we will tie up the last few loose ends, and venture into the unknown waters of satellite teams.
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