Why do they call it Silly Season? Its origins lie in the 19th Century, when a London publication found itself concocting trivial stories to try to pad out its pages. Its meaning has mutated to cover any story consisting mainly of speculation and rumor meant to fill empty column inches. And in motorcycle racing, it has come to mean the period of time during which riders and teams are negotiating over new contracts, and working on who will be riding where the following season.
This year, Silly Season has needed a new name. It has gone from beyond silly to being outright insane. In a normal year, riders touch base with teams at Jerez, start talks in earnest at Mugello, and sign contracts during the summer break, announcing deals at the first race after the break. But this is no normal year. As we approach the first race after the summer break of 2016, all but two of the twenty-three seats in MotoGP have already been filled, officially or unofficially, and Silly Season is basically over.
The madness started before the season had even begun. At the Movistar Yamaha launch in January, Jorge Lorenzo stated publicly that he wanted to sign a new deal with the team before the start of the season. Yamaha did their part, sending offers to both Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi in the period before the first race at Qatar. Lorenzo did not sign his deal, however. Valentino Rossi did. The seven time MotoGP champion has tied his long term future to Yamaha, and never seriously looked elsewhere. Yamaha and Rossi will be making money for each other for many years to come.
The early bird gets the worm
Rossi was not the only rider to pen a deal before the first race of the season. In perhaps the most bizarre timing in recent years, Bradley Smith announced on the grid at Qatar that he had signed a two-year deal with KTM, to develop and race their new RC16 MotoGP bike due to make its debut in 2017. Total races completed: Zero. Total 2017 contracts signed: Two.
Lorenzo's failure to sign a contract launched a tidal wave of speculation. The Spaniard had asked for a deal before the start of the season, and Yamaha had offered him one, yet he had not put pen to paper. Where else could he go? The obvious answer was Ducati. Gigi Dall'Igna had made no secret of both his admiration for Lorenzo, who he worked with closely when the Spaniard was racing in 250s, and the need to hire one of MotoGP's four aliens if they were going to finally deliver on their objective of actually winning races and competing for championships.
By Argentina, it became clear that Lorenzo was in serious talks with Ducati. At Austin, it was apparent that the deal was done. At Jerez, the new contract was announced. Why did Jorge Lorenzo sign with Ducati? He has plenty of reasons to go there. Money is just one of them: Lorenzo's contract with Ducati is rumored to be the largest ever signed in MotoGP, beating the previous deal between Ducati and Valentino Rossi.
Chasing a legacy
The deal will also give him a chance to do what Rossi couldn't manage, win a race on a Ducati, and maybe a championship. Such a comparison will be unfair: Ducati is a very different company, and the Desmosedici a very different bike from the time Rossi was on it. But fairness is not a column which appears in the history books, and any rider who can win a race will be embraced by the intensely passionate Ducatisti.
If you think you have spotted a theme to Lorenzo's reasoning, you are right. Lorenzo's move to Ducati is another chapter in the unending story of Sepang 2015. The title fight between Rossi and Lorenzo, and the fallout from Rossi's clash with Marc Márquez in Malaysia rumbles on through MotoGP, with no end in sight. The way Yamaha handled the end of 2015, and Lorenzo's championship, appears to have left the Spaniard feeling unappreciated. The chance to be the clear number one at Ducati, as well as a chance to rub Rossi's nose in his success is too tempting for Lorenzo to pass up. Of course, first, he'll have to win...
The next Schwantz?
With Lorenzo out at Yamaha, speculation became even more intense. Who would grab perhaps the most desirable seat on the grid? The obvious answer was Maverick Viñales, though that would mean giving up the chance at becoming the next Kevin Schwantz. If Viñales could win races with the Suzuki, his place in history would be assured. Switch to Yamaha, though, and there are no question marks hanging over whether the bike is capable of winning.
Then came Dani Pedrosa. At Le Mans, credible sources reported that Yamaha was either close to, or had already penned a deal with the Spaniard. That led to irritation from Pedrosa, who angrily decried the distractions, saying that nothing had been settled. That turned out to be true, and soon afterwards, Yamaha announced that they had signed Viñales.
Was Pedrosa ever a serious option for Yamaha? He surely was. Whatever his critics may think, Pedrosa remains one of the only four riders on the grid capable of consistently winning races. He has won despite the Honda, rather than because of, the demands of wrestling a physically tough RC213V more onerous for a rider of Pedrosa's size. The Yamaha would be different, less tiring and more suited to Pedrosa's ultra-smooth riding style.
Falling like dominoes
With the signing of Viñales, the pieces of the 2017 rider puzzle all started to fall neatly into place. Viñales' place at Suzuki will be taken by Andrea Iannone, Andrea Dovizioso getting to stay alongside Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati. Pedrosa extended his contract with Repsol Honda, as did Marc Márquez. The price for Márquez' loyalty, though, was assurances that HRC would listen more closely to the Spaniard's criticism, and act on the input from his technical team.
Moto2 proved to be a rich vein of young talent, with Alex Rins joining Iannone at Suzuki. (Technically, it is Rins who is replacing Viñales, in line with Suzuki's scheme of hosting a young talent alongside a more experienced fast rider.) Johann Zarco was confirmed at Tech 3, where he will join Jonas Folger. And Sam Lowes will be moving up to Aprilia, in line with the contract he signed with the Gresini team last year.
Having two seats open at Tech 3 came as a result of Pol Espargaro joining current teammate at KTM for 2017. The rationale was simple: two relatively young riders, with comparable technical feedback, coming from the same bike, with the same expectations make developing a bike much simpler. Though KTM has plenty of experience in Grand Prix racing, having raced in Moto3, 125s and 250s (and forgettably briefly in MotoGP), they are starting their project from scratch, and having a predictable baseline is the best place to start from.
Aprilia was the last factory to complete its line up. With Aleix Espargaro released by Suzuki, he made a strong target for the Italian factory. Espargaro has wide experience of various bikes, having ridden Ducatis, Yamahas and Suzukis. Whether he is an upgrade compared to Stefan Bradl or Alvaro Bautista remains to be seen.
Little change among the satellites
Despite LCR flirting with Suzuki – which would have put Johann Zarco into that seat – team boss Lucio Cecchinello stuck with Honda for 2017, and honored the option on Cal Crutchlow's contract. The Marc VDS Honda line up will remain the same, Jack Miller coming good and Tito Rabat still learning. Pramac Ducati is the same, despite interest from outside the team. Hector Barbera will remain with the Avintia Ducati squad, and Alvaro Bautista looks set to join Aspar Ducati. That leaves only two seats not yet spoken for. One of those will probably go to Yonny Hernandez, while Loris Baz is in the running to keep his seat at Avintia.
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