That this Silly Season – the (bi)annual round of rider contract negotiations – was going to be remarkable has been obvious for a very long time. Only very rarely have the contracts of nearly every rider on the grid ended at the same time, leading to a frenzy of speculation and rumor about who could and will be going where for the 2017 season. That this year is special was made obvious at Qatar, where both Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith announced they had already signed two-year deals for 2017 and 2018 before the flag had even dropped for the first race.
Jorge Lorenzo has been the key figure in this year's Silly Season, however. Of the four current MotoGP Aliens, he is the most likely to move, and to be offered big money to do so. Valentino Rossi is nearing his retirement, and his long-term future is tied up with Yamaha, so re-signing with the Japanese factory was a no-brainer. Marc Márquez may leave Honda at some point in his career, but at the moment, he has too many ties binding him to HRC. Dani Pedrosa may be a proven winner, but he is the only one of the four not to have won a championship. It is Lorenzo who is attracting all of the interest.
It now appears that Lorenzo's future may already be settled. Well-informed sources inside the paddock have told MotoMatters.com that Jorge Lorenzo has already signed a deal with Ducati, and perhaps at a record price. Certainly at a price which Yamaha would be unwilling – and probably unable – to match.
The numbers game
There is reason to be cautious about this information, however. The numbers involved vary between sources, with one telling Jensen Beeler over at Asphalt & Rubber that the money on offer was a little over €11 million a season. A different source insists that the number is much higher, Lorenzo's salary being somewhere between €15 and €20 million. With MotoGP riders' salaries a notoriously secretive affair, the numbers should be treated with a pinch of salt, but what makes these reports so interesting is that they agree that the deal has already been signed, and that they come from sources which are in a position to be privy to such information.
There is plenty of reason to give credence to this information. It is an open secret that Ducati is interested in Lorenzo, Gigi Dall'Igna having been impressed with the Spaniard when they worked together in 250s, when Jorge Lorenzo won two titles for Aprilia, where Dall'Igna was boss. Then, last week, in an interview with the Italian website Quotidiano.net, former world champion Giacomo Agostini said that he was certain that Ducati, with backing from owners Audi, had made Lorenzo a "super offer". Whether it is €11 million, €15 million or €17 million, that would indeed qualify as a "super offer".
There is also good reason to believe that the money involved may well be €16 or €17 million. When Valentino Rossi signed with Ducati, his salary was rumored to be €15 million, paid for by tobacco giant Philip Morris. As part of the battle of egos – to creatures as competitive as MotoGP racers, what matters is not the precise size of the salary on offer, but rather whether it is larger or smaller than that of their rivals – it is entirely plausible that Lorenzo would want to be paid more than Rossi was.
It is certainly much more than Yamaha offered Lorenzo. Both Lorenzo and Lin Jarvis, boss of Yamaha Racing, described it as "the best offer of his career". An educated guess would put that in the region of €10 million, though that number is based on an increase over his current salary, rather than on information on sources. (Again, a word of warning on rider salaries is in order: even for well-informed paddock insiders, finding out actual salary figures is almost impossible. At best, we can make guesstimates based on rumors and reports from sources who can have their own, ulterior motives for supplying a particular number. Caveat emptor. And definitely do not trust lists of rider salaries which pop up on websites you have never heard of before.)
But can he win on it?
Money is all very well, of course, but as Valentino Rossi found out to his cost, it will not buy you a championship. The situation at Ducati is very different than when Rossi signed for the Italian factory. Rossi's failure to win a race on the Ducati resulted in new owners Audi bringing in new management to shake up the racing department, with former Aprilia Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna eventually being appointed.
Dall'Igna unleashed an internal revolution on the organization, which has vastly improved the functioning of Ducati Corse, which in turn has created a truly competitive Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP machine. Both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso have been able to consistently put the bike on the podium, and run at the front. With one of the most successful racers of all time on board, the bike should be capable of winning races and championships. Test rider and former champion Casey Stoner certainly believes the bike is capable of winning, now that he has ridden the bike.
Lorenzo himself was cagey in the press conference in Argentina. "The situation is more or less the same," he said. "I think we have to concentrate on the next two races that are very important. And to be honest, I don't want to talk about it, I want to keep it private, and to decide in the next weeks." Whether he has signed a contract or not (we believe he has done, but we cannot know for certain), it is unlikely to be announced until the MotoGP circus returns to Europe. The publicity value of announcing a major signing at Jerez, for example, is immeasurably greater than it would be at either Termas de Rio Hondo or Austin. TV news crews are much more likely to travel to Jerez or Barcelona than they are to Argentina.
If Lorenzo departs Yamaha for Ducati, that opens up the most attractive seat on the grid to a younger rider. Yamaha's top target is almost certainly likely to be Maverick Viñales, and with the money freed up from Lorenzo's salary, they should easily be able to offer the young Spaniard a better package than Suzuki, in terms of both money and equipment. If they could then also persuade Alex Rins to take Pol Espargaro's seat in the Tech 3 team, then they would have double insurance for the future, with two riders who may have the potential to grow into race winners and champions.
As for Pol Espargaro, there have been reports in recent days that he is to return to the bosom of the Pons team. German-language website Speedweek has reported that Sito Pons has been offered the last open grid slot in MotoGP for the 2017 season and beyond, bringing the grid back up to 24 riders in 2017, with KTM joining as a factory squad with Bradley Smith and another rider. (This is a change from their original plan, but then the series has changed since their decision to build a MotoGP machine, their idea to sell a production bike to Open Class teams obsolete.)
Which bike Pons might use is yet to be decided, but the rule changes, forcing each factory to make at least two bikes available to satellite teams, should they ask for them. The most obvious candidate to supply a bike to Pons would be Suzuki. Suzuki boss Davide Brivio has already spoken about the budget constraints of supplying a full two-bike satellite team, but having to support a single extra bike would be much more affordable. In addition, having the two Espargaro brothers on the Suzuki would be a huge boon, both in terms of publicity for Suzuki, and in terms of development. The two brothers, Pol and Aleix, are very close, and would work together very well, despite being in different teams.
For Sito Pons, a return to MotoGP is something which has been a long time in the making. Before the end of tobacco sponsorship, Pons was one of the top teams in the paddock, fielding such huge names as Alex Barros, Alex Crivillé, Carlos Checa and Loris Capirossi, and regularly winning races. Since his departure from MotoGP, the Pons team has been one of the top two or three Moto2 teams, winning a championship with Pol Espargaro, and hiring upcoming young talent like Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales. Pons is capable of putting together an exceptionally competent and competitive package, and should be a very strong force in the premier class.
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