While the motorcycle racing world awaits the return of real racing, contract time is heaving into view. Though the methods are different – Skype calls and WhatsApp messages, rather than private conversations at the backs of garages or between trucks – the objective is the same: to find the best match of bike and rider, giving the most hope of success.
Having to work remotely is the least of both managers' and teams' problems. The bigger issue is that there is next to no data to go on. Teams and factories are having to make a guess at who they think will be strong in 2021 based on who was fast in 2019, and who showed promise in the winter tests. Riders have no idea which bikes have made progress over the winter, and which have stagnated. Is it worth taking a gamble on KTM? Has the Honda gotten any easier to ride?
For the Moto2 riders in with a chance at moving up to MotoGP, they have had just a single race in 2020 to show their worth. What's more, it was very far from an ordinary race: the last-minuted decision to make it a night race instead of a day race complicated tire choice, which some got right and some got wrong. Jorge Martin was widely regarded as the hot ticket for promotion to MotoGP in 2021, yet he had a miserable race at Qatar, finishing 20th. Tetsuta Nagashima won the race, while Joe Roberts dominated practice and qualifying. Nobody was mentioning their names as possible promotion candidates in late 2019.
Largely unknown unknowns
The race at Qatar doesn't seem to have done Martin's prospects any harm: he is still being widely courted by MotoGP teams for 2021, being strongly linked to the Pramac Ducati ride. Whether it affected the other candidates – Lorenzo Baldassarri, Luca Marini, Jorge Navarro, Xavi Vierge, Enea Bastianini, Augusto Fernandez, Remy Gardner – or throws up new names such as Roberts, Nagashima, or Aron Canet, remains to be seen.
But for riders to move up to MotoGP, first others have to make way for them. And that means riders moving, or retiring. At this moment, the rider market is waiting for two big decisions, though in both cases, the decisions are presumed to have been already taken.
The first is Andrea Dovizioso, who is currently in conversations to extend his contract with the factory Ducati team. All involved appear to be assuming that the deal is as good as done, though flirtations remain. Sky Italia has reported that KTM has shown interest in Dovizioso, despite KTM boss Pit Beirer saying that he wants to keep his current line up of riders in both the factory and Tech3 teams.
The KTM hints could be little more than contract maneuvering. Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella has made it clear that he believes that Ducati needs to recognize the contribution which Dovizioso has made to the program. This is indisputably correct: the Italian rider came to Ducati in 2013, and has spent the last seven seasons helping to turn the bike around, from a machine which struggled for top tens to a machine which was runner up in the championship for the past three seasons, and regularly wins races.
Dovizioso's problem is that his last contract was negotiated in the light of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when it looked like he could finally break Márquez' domination of MotoGP. The 2021 contract is being negotiated on the back of the 2019 season, in which Márquez won comfortably. In 2017, Dovizioso had 6 victories. In 2018, 4 victories. In 2019, just 2. Though Dovizioso scored more points in 2019 than in either of the two previous seasons, and matched last year's total of 9 podiums.
Then there's the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis that trails in its wake. There is simply less money in the sport, and so riders who haven't already signed a contract face major cuts in salary. (And those who have signed a contract may also be asked to take a pay cut as well.)
There are hints that interest from KTM is not just a figment of Dovizioso's – or rather, Simone Battistella's – imagination. In an interview with Spanish radio, KTM factory rider Pol Espargaro hinted that he would be open to leaving the Austrian factory. There are only two bikes the younger Espargaro brother would be interested in, however: the Repsol Honda, and the factory Ducati seat, of which there is only one available now that Jack Miller has signed.
"During the winter tests I had a conversation with [team manager] Mike Leitner about options to sign with a satellite team," Espargaro told Spanish radio. "I told him that in the hypothetical case of changing teams, I would only do it for something much better." Yamaha is out of the question – Espargaro's history with Tech3, having signed a contract with the factory and only being given a satellite bike, have ruined that relationship – which leaves only factory Honda and factory Ducati.
So a straight swap between Pol Espargaro and Andrea Dovizioso is not completely unthinkable, though much would have to happen to make that possible. Were Espargaro to sign with Repsol Honda, then that would also open the way for Dovizioso at KTM.
Repsol wrapped up
The idea of Espargaro heading to Repsol Honda seems unlikely, however. The only seat available would be that of Alex Márquez, and ditching the younger Márquez brother after a single season so badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic would sit very badly with older brother Marc.
Marc Márquez wields unparalleled power in HRC, understandably given his proven track record of delivering titles year in, year out, whatever the state of the Honda RC213V. Despite having signed Marc Márquez to an unprecedented four-year contract, Honda are not going to risk losing the goose that has laid them golden eggs for six of the past seven seasons. Contracts inevitably contain escape clauses, especially when one of the parties is basically handed a clean slate to put in whatever they see fit.
So Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati look destined to remain together for at least another season. Dovizioso's development input remains crucial, and his consistency has been the one thing which has created a challenge for Márquez in the defense of his title.
Yet we should not underestimate the significance of the Jack Miller signing. Ducati have thrown the kitchen sink at trying to win a title, to repeat their victory of 2007. They signed Valentino Rossi, to no avail. They dropped former Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi, and poached Gigi Dall'Igna from Aprilia, handing the man who has won titles in the 125, 250, and World Superbike classes a blank check and giving him a free hand to organize the racing department as he sees fit.
They signed Jorge Lorenzo for an astronomical sum – though only marginally more astronomical than the money paid to Valentino Rossi – and if Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali's patience had held for just a couple more weeks, it might even have paid off. And throughout, they have stuck with Andrea Dovizioso, who has worked diligently and relentlessly to improve both the bike and himself.
So far, though, no titles. At least the bike is competitive, as the recent influx of silverware in Ducati's trophy cabinet so clearly demonstrates.
So they must take another tack. If the old approach fails, then a new one must be tried, both literally and figuratively. Marc Márquez has beaten the old MotoGP guard every year but one he has been in the class. So factories are turning to youth to try outwit the reigning champion.
The older riders such as Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi were the benchmark which Márquez knew he had to beat when he entered the premier class. Now 27, he is the man the younger riders have been watching as they worked their way through the smaller classes. For them, Márquez was the benchmark.
That is one factor in Ducati's decision to sign Jack Miller. The Australian watched Márquez racing, and knows he is the man to beat. Miller has made major steps as a rider and as a human being in the past couple of seasons, learning some much needed maturity, which has paid off in results. Miller is Ducati's future, at least in the short term.
Ducati's youth strategy has been apparent for a while. They signed Pecco Bagnaia to a Pramac Ducati contract before the 2018 Moto2 season had even started. They tried to poach Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo from Yamaha. And they are currently scouring the ranks of Moto2 in search of The Next Big Thing, showing a great deal of interest in Jorge Martin. Miller has been given a year to succeed in the factory Ducati team. But Ducati also have a pipeline of younger riders if he doesn't.
The other big question hanging over the paddock at the moment is the fate of Valentino Rossi. The Italian has a guarantee of full factory support with Yamaha for 2021, though there is no place for him in the factory team. It is taken as read that the Italian would switch to the Petronas Yamaha satellite squad, in a straight swap with Fabio Quartararo. But this is not quite as simple as it seems.
First of all, the enforced lack of racing has given Valentino Rossi a chance to reflect. And he has, perhaps to his own surprise, found that he has enjoyed life without racing, though the choice was not his. "I have to be sincere, I had a great lockdown," Rossi told BT Sport. He could spend time with his girlfriend, his family, his pets at home, and it was the first time in 25 years he wasn't spending the bulk of his time flying from racetrack to racetrack with the constant pressure to perform.
The life of a MotoGP racer sounds glamorous – indeed, it is glamorous – but it can become as much of a grind as any other profession. Riders travel to the same circuits, stay in the same hotels, shake the hands of the same VIPs year in, year out, all while trying to focus on trying to compete. What's more, they have to live with the bruises, scrapes, friction burns, and fractured bones that come with falling off a racing motorcycle.
This is not just the first time in 25 years that Rossi has spent several months at home, it is also probably the first time in 25 years he hasn't woken up to a litany of aches and pains. That must be a pleasant novelty.
The crew conundrum
The real complication of a Rossi move to Petronas is what happens to his crew. Johan Stigefelt, Razlan Razali, and Wilco Zeelenberg carefully put together the best team of mechanics and engineers they could find. The fact that there are more blue factory shirts in the satellite Petronas hospitality of an evening than in the official hospitality is indicative of just how good the atmosphere is.
If Valentino Rossi wants to bring his crew, most of whom he has been with either since his arrival in the premier class in 2000, or since his switch to Yamaha in 2004, then Petronas would risk losing one half of the garage. What's more, the entire transplanted Rossi crew – a closely-knit group, part of their success – would feel like an outside entity imposed on the Petronas team.
The fact that there have been no public pronouncements on this, other than to say that talks are ongoing on the subject, is telling of itself. Rossi has said that talks are going on through Yamaha, rather than with the Petronas team directly. That, again, is a sign that this is not all smooth sailing.
A decision sooner, rather than later
We will not have too much longer to wait for a decision from Rossi. Yamaha Managing Director Lin Jarvis told German-language website Speedweek that Yamaha and Rossi had a verbal agreement over the winter to decide on Rossi's future before the end of June. Despite the fact that there has so far not been any racing, Jarvis said he does not believe the timing of Rossi's decision will be substantially different.
Will Rossi decide to retire, or want to continue? I don't think even Valentino Rossi knows at this point. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the decision doubly difficult, both by robbing Rossi of the five or six races he wanted to base a decision on, as well as offering him a view of what retirement might be like. From the outside, it is impossible to judge which way his decision will fall.
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