The first half of 2016 has seen a long and intense period of speculation, gossip and conjecture over which rider ends up where in MotoGP. Big names have jumped from one factory to another, the entry of KTM has opened up opportunities for established satellite riders, and there has been much talk of the rookies entering MotoGP from Moto2 – Sam Lowes to Aprilia, Alex Rins to Suzuki, and Johann Zarco to Tech 3 (though the latter is still to be announced).
What there has been much less talk of is who is to fill their seats. Traditionally, Silly Season for Moto2 and Moto3 starts much later than for MotoGP, speculation and negotiations commencing in the run up to the flyaways and often only being finalized at Valencia. But with three of the strongest teams in Moto2 having seats to fill, team managers are looking ahead a little earlier than usual.
Filling the void
Who will take the place of Lowes, Rins and Zarco? Answering that question varies from easy to hard, depending on the team involved. Starting with the easiest of the three, finding a replacement for Johann Zarco should be very simple indeed. Aki Ajo has set up his structure to bring young riders through from the Red Bull Rookies and into MotoGP.
That pathway has worked for Johann Zarco, and now it looks like working for another Moto3 rider. With Brad Binder currently stamping his authority on the Moto3 class, he is the prime candidate to take the place of the departing Zarco in Moto2. Though a deal is yet to be signed, Binder will be keen to move up to Moto2 after five seasons in Moto3.
Moto3 to Moto2 – a step too far?
That move is no guarantee of success, however. The 2015 Moto3 champion Danny Kent has amassed just 14 points in the first eight races of 2016, the same number as 2012 Moto3 champion Sandro Cortese. That is still more than the 2014 Moto3 champion Alex Márquez, who languishes in 20th place with 13 points. On the other hand, there is the 2013 Moto3 champion: Maverick Viñales is set to join Valentino Rossi at the Movistar Yamaha team for 2017.
While Binder is set to replace Zarco, who will take the seats of Lowes and Rins is much less certain. At Gresini, the obvious candidate to take over from Lowes would be Enea Bastianini. After three seasons in Moto3, the Italian should be ready to take the next step in his career. The question is, however, whether Bastianini wants another year in Moto3 to try to chase a title. With a deficit of 102 points to Binder, the 2016 Moto3 title is out of reach for the Italian.
A tough act to follow
Alex Rins' seat at Pons Racing is a much more interesting and much more difficult proposition. Pons has had a succession of top Spanish riders in their Moto2 team. Pol Espargaro rode for Pons in 2012 and 2013, taking over from his brother Aleix, and winning the title in 2013. He was replaced by Maverick Viñales, who made a devastating impression from the start. When Viñales left after a single season, Alex Rins took his place, and Rins has been almost as impressive as Viñales.
So Sito Pons needs to find a rider capable of filling such massive boots, and preferably a Spanish rider to keep his sponsors happy. Yet the field of eligible candidates is thin: there is no obvious replacement currently in Moto2, and in Moto3, the only talented Spanish rider available is Jorge Navarro. Whether Navarro is ready to make the move is uncertain. The Estrella Galicia rider has been very impressive in the past couple of seasons of Moto3, but the question is whether he has the maturity to adapt quickly to the requirements of Moto2. Some people close to the team believe Navarro needs another year in Moto3 before making the step.
The Monlau/Marc VDS career path
If Navarro were to decide to move up to Moto2, the obvious destination would be the Marc VDS Estrella Galicia team. This, after all, is the structure set up by Michael Bartholemy and Marc van der Straten, together with Emilio Alzamora and the Monlau Competicion organization. Nurture talent in PreMoto3 and the FIM CEV championship, then bring them into Grand Prix racing and offer them a path (and a stable sponsorship environment) from Moto3 through Moto2 to MotoGP.
Yet the Marc VDS Moto2 seats are very firmly filled. Contrary to initial reports, Alex Márquez is likely to keep his seat for another year, the Spaniard finally showing signs of making headway in the tough intermediate class. Franco Morbidelli, the team's other rider, has performed superbly, and is well on the path to success. The chances of either of those two riders making way for someone else are very slim.
Waiting for the young guns
That also has to do with the dearth of talented riders ready to leave Moto3. Apart from Brad Binder and Romano Fenati (who is to race in the Sky VR46 colors in Moto2 for 2017), the only riders showing signs of making the step are Navarro and Bastianini. Niccolo Antonelli has the age and the experience to move up, but he also has a tendency to crash.
The cream of the Moto3 crop are all in either their first or second seasons. Team managers are as excited as the fans about riders such as Nicolo Bulega, Joan Mir, Fabio Di Giannantonio, and Aron Canet, but those young men are all at the very start of their careers. They will be in Moto3 for at least another season or two before it is time to make the move to Moto2, and eventually MotoGP.
While Silly Season may have started for the Moto2 class, it has yet to build up any head of steam. There is still much to play for for the rest of the season, and much to be gained. Names will only start to be matched to bikes after the summer break.
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