It had promised to be a spectacular Silly Season in MotoGP this year. With all 22 rider contracts up for renewal at the end of this season, several long months of hard bargaining was expected, resulting in a major shakeup of the grid. Few seats were expected to be left untouched.
Yamaha dealt the first body blow to any major grid shakeup, moving quickly to extend Maverick Viñales' contract through 2022, then moving rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo to race alongside him in the Monster Energy Yamaha team. Valentino Rossi was promised full factory support from Yamaha in a satellite team if he decided to continue racing after 2020 instead of retiring.
Yamaha's hand had been forced by Ducati. The Italian factory had made an aggressive play for both Viñales and Quartararo, and Yamaha had brought the decision on their future plans forward to early January. Yamaha decided to go with youth over experience, and Ducati was left empty-handed.
Next stop Hamamatsu
The Suzuki riders were the next target, paddock rumor suggested. Alex Rins looked firmly tied up with the Japanese factory, but approaches were being made to Joan Mir, it is said. It seemed like there could be movement at the factories after all.
At the launch of the Suzuki Ecstar team's MotoGP project in Sepang, team manager Davide Brivio told reporters that talks were already ongoing about extending the contracts of Rins and Mir, and that he expected to have both riders back for the next contract period. "We've been talking for a long time with them," Brivio said. "We are quite relaxed from this point of view, for the moment! I mean we didn’t yet sign an agreement but it’s quite clear Alex wants to continue with Suzuki, Joan is happy to continue with Suzuki."
Brivio acknowledged the interest in Rins and Mir from other factories. "Sometimes I'm quite pleased that our riders are becoming so attractive on the market! It means we did a good job and made good choices," Brivio joked. "It's clear we are happy to keep them and they are happy to stay. It's quite normal that everybody talks to everybody, also there are rider managers asking us about the situation in Suzuki, there are probably manufacturers contacting riders. It's quite normal in this environment."
Yesterday, it emerged that Suzuki has managed to win the tug of war with other manufacturers. Oriol Puigdemont, respected MotoGP reporter for the Motorsport.com network, reported that Suzuki is near to announcing it has signed two-year deals with both of its riders. Alex Rins and Joan Mir are set to race for the Suzuki Ecstar team for the 2021 and 2022 MotoGP seasons.
That makes sense for both Suzuki and its riders. The objective of the team was to sign young talent from Moto2 and challenge for championships by developing them into top level riders themselves. That was why Suzuki never really got enthusiastic about the prospect of either Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa riding for them.
"We are very happy to keep them, because also we started quite a clear project with them two years ago when we decided to develop a rider like Alex as a rookie," Brivio explained at Sepang. "Then once Alex became strong, in our opinion, we did the same with Joan. Our idea is to have two riders potentially between the top riders, maybe a group of the top five or six or whatever. But two of them should be our riders, and then see what happens. It looks like it's working and that's why we want to keep both of them and continue this project and see what we can achieve together."
Put on hold
Once the announcement comes that Suzuki has signed Rins and Mir, then Silly Season in MotoGP is likely to come to a grinding halt for quite some time. The obvious talent will have been signed, and the most desirable seats will have been filled, or at least be close to being sewn up.
Once Mir and Rins sign, then both factory Yamaha and both factory Suzuki seats will be off the market. The spare Petronas Yamaha seat will have Valentino Rossi's name penciled in for it, at least until Rossi makes a decision on his future during the summer break, at which point either a pen or an eraser will appear. Barring disaster (or subtle pressure from the other side of the garage), Franco Morbidelli will likely stay on in Petronas as well.
Marc Márquez hasn't signed a contract yet, but his demands mean he is not going anywhere other than HRC. Those demands are not about money (or rather, the money isn't the important part), the demands are about who controls and directs the MotoGP project at HRC. Márquez and the people around him want as much control as possible. That is only realistically possible at Honda: developing the trust which is required for engineers to delegate responsibility for the direction of the project takes time.
Ducati may be keen to sign Marc Márquez, but Gigi Dall'Igna would not be at all keen having the development direction dictated to him by Márquez, Emilio Alzamora, and Santi Hernandez. (Although as both Dall'Igna and Márquez are obsessed with ever-increasing horsepower, they might be able to find at least some common ground.)
No room at the inn
So Marc Márquez is almost certain to stay at Repsol Honda. Technically, the second seat at Repsol Honda will be open in 2021, but Alex Márquez is likely to keep that seat. And on the strength of a very solid performance at the Sepang test, he will deserve it too.
Seats at KTM are pretty much spoken for, the Austrian factory currently awash with talent young and... not so young. Pol Espargaro has led the development of the RC16, but if Brad Binder and, say, Miguel Oliveira outshine the Spanish veteran, then KTM have the option of moving the Portuguese rider up. That team is sewn up, the only possibility being some kind of internal reshuffle.
That leaves just four factory seats available for 2021. Aleix Espargaro is odds on to keep one Aprilia seat, and deservedly so after grinding out the hardest of yards on the pre-2020 RS-GP. Which means realistically that in 2021, there will be only three factory seats up for grabs: one Aprilia, and the two factory Ducati seats.
When the music stops
Which leaves Ducati out in the cold. Their grand strategy over the winter appeared to be to try to poach a top rider from another team. But their approaches have all been rebuffed: First, Viñales and Quartararo turned them down. Then Joan Mir chose Suzuki. And Marc Márquez isn't going anywhere (and would be expensive even for the seemingly bottomless pockets of Philip Morris).
What next? "At this moment, the most reasonable thing to do for us is to wait for a little bit," Gigi Dall'Igna told Italian website GPOne.com. With the biggest hitters taken off the market, there is no reason to rush into a decision.
As a consequence, MotoGP's Silly Season has come to a grinding, if temporary halt. The hottest riders have been signed, and the biggest factory player has stepped away from the market. We await the developments over the first few races of the season, to see who has the pace to attract the attention of Ducati, both for the factory team and for Pramac, and for satellite teams such as LCR Honda, where Cal Crutchlow is due to retire at the end of the year.
Silly Season may have stalled, but you get the feeling that what has happened so far will have a lasting legacy. The relationship between Gigi Dall'Igna and Andrea Dovizioso – that's the Andrea Dovizioso who finished runner up to Marc Márquez for the last three seasons, and took the 2017 championship down to the last race – has been at Antarctic levels of frostiness for nearly two years now. Ducati making a not-so-subtle play for a top rider sends a very clear message to Dovizioso indeed: "Sorry Andrea, we don't think you're good enough to win us a title."
Now, though, the shoe is on the other foot. Sure, Dovizioso may not have many options outside of Ducati, but if the Aprilia is as competitive as the Sepang test suggests (and it doesn't fall apart every other race), then having a bike that turns – something Dovizioso has urged Dall'Igna to give him ever since the former Aprilia engineer arrived at Ducati – might be a tempting prospect. Or enough of a tempting prospect to force a big payday out of Ducati to retain his services.
Ducati have other options, of course. Jack Miller looks on course to take over one of the factory seats at Ducati, if he continues his impressive development. Pecco Bagnaia has made progress, though he will have to make a big step to earn a factory seat. There's Johann Zarco, of course, who came to the Avintia team with the express intention of getting a factory ride. And there is Danilo Petrucci, who will have to have an astonishing season if he is to keep a spot in the factory team.
Perhaps Ducati can tempt someone like Miguel Oliveira away from KTM, if the Portuguese rider is denied a spot in the factory Red Bull team. Maybe Augusto Fernandez, or Jorge Navarro, or Jorge Martin, or Fabio Di Giannantonio will catch the eye of Ducati (though the Moto2 riders are more likely to find a place in Pramac, rather than the factory team).
Thanks, but no thanks
The question is, of course, how attractive is Ducati as an option right now. Sure, the bike is fast, and capable of winning races. But when Ducati senior management keep managing to upset their riders, what is the value of a factory seat? How do you focus on learning to ride a tricky Desmosedici with the constant swirl of rumors that Ducati are considering replacing you?
There is much to admire about Ducati Corse. Gigi Dall'Igna is an outstanding engineer and manager, who has turned the Ducati from clearly the worst factory bike on the grid to one of the best. Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti has managed the logistical and people side of the team to create a close-knit team capable of competing. Team director Davide Tardozzi has helped pull his riders and the teams around them to a higher level.
But the level above Ducati Corse is where it all seems to go wrong. Jorge Lorenzo won his first MotoGP race on a Ducati just after hearing his services were no longer required. Had Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali had just a fraction more patience, the Spaniard would have stayed at Ducati and arguably challenged for the championship in 2019 and 2020.
It is history repeating itself. The one rider who was capable of winning a championship for Ducati was chased away, after senior management refused to believe that Casey Stoner was genuinely ill. However attractive the prospect of a seat inside the factory Ducati team may appear, the dark shadow of what happened to Stoner, Lorenzo, and now Andrea Dovizioso hangs over it. That, arguably, is the first thing that needs fixing.
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