A strange week in the rider market took another turn with the threat from Simone Battistella, manager of Andrea Dovizioso, claiming that his rider would sit out 2021 in search of the right opportunity the following year.
It’s a brave gamble to take, but with Dovi set to be 36 years old by the time the season starts in 2022, it looks like a hollow threat. If Dovi sits out a year at this stage of his career, he would find it very difficult to get back on a competitive bike in the MotoGP field.
As things stand who has more leverage? Ducati, with Jack Miller under contract - not to mention having Johann Zarco, Pecco Bagnaia and a host of other riders waiting in the wings - or a 34-year-old veteran threatening to call time on his MotoGP career?
Youth vs experience
The answer seems pretty much self-evident. Speak to MotoGP managers about riders, and they will tell you that age is a big factor, preferring youthful potential over age and experience. This is one reason managers give when you ask them about signing riders from the WorldSBK paddock: they are too old, is the general consensus, with teams preferring to take a risk on a young rider from Moto2.
Andrea Dovizioso faces the same fate. If he chooses to sit out 2021, it is more likely that Ducati will choose to reshuffle their current stock of talent to make room for a fast youngster from Moto2 in either Pramac or Avintia, rather than give in to Dovizioso's demands.
It’s a sad state of affairs for Dovizioso as he clearly deserves to be paid. He’s finished second in the championship for the last three years and is closing on Casey Stoner’s record number of podiums for Ducati. He should feel aggrieved, and his manager should be flexing his bargaining muscles.
Could we have seen a foreshadowing of these negotiations in the WorldSBK paddock, perhaps? The news that Michael van der Mark elected to leave Yamaha for BMW in WorldSBK was greeted with a gasp by many. After enjoying a very successful three-year stint (sound familiar?) with the Japanese manufacturer, he opted for BMW. Why did he leave and will he be the only free agent to make a similarly surprising decision?
There are plenty of tea leaves that can be read about what we’re seeing in the rider market, but Van der Mark could be a telling domino to fall. His reasons for leaving will be varied, performance and potential will have counted, but we’ll see in the coming months that money, as always, will be a very important factor in the rider market.
Having won races, including the Suzuka 8 Hours for Yamaha, the Dutchman would have expected to see a certain offer come his way. When it was less, he may have felt it was best to look at his other options. It’s not an easy decision for a rider to leave a team and a bike that has proven successful. But it does become easier when the numbers don’t add up.
Money's too tight to mention
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the motorcycle industry hard. Factories were forced to shut down production and dealerships in many countries remained closed for a prolonged period of time. The realities of that shutdown have set in; penny pinching has become a key reality for many.
The same pattern is being seen across the sport. Dovizioso will find that at the negotiating table with Ducati. The same is rumoured to be happening to Chaz Davies in WorldSBK, and other personnel within the Italian squad. When belts are being tightened, it gets harder and harder for everyone.
“Ducati prefers to wait a few races before starting the negotiation with Dovizioso,” explained Battistella to the Spanish DAZN "Cambia el mapa MotoGP podcast. “The rider always wants a better bike to win, a constant evolution on all technical aspects. The rider always wants more. Of course, Andrea wants the bike to go better, especially in certain situations in which the circuits do not adapt to the characteristics of the bike. I think it is a normal aspect, which always happens, but I also think that the rider should improve his way of interpreting the bike.
“In recent years I’ve noticed that the Márquez-Honda pairing has managed to create a harmony with the rider that no one else has. That combination has shown everyone a different style: the bike must support the characteristics of the rider and rider must be able to interpret the bike in the best way. Others should seek that.
“Everyone could see the tension [last year]. When things get tough, there is tension. In any box, when results don’t come there is tension. It’s not a unique situation. Those tensions don’t necessarily mean negativity, because both have the same objective. Ducati and Dovizioso have been the only ones who have competed with HRC and Márquez in the Championship. The only alternative to Márquez has been Ducati and Dovizioso and that has also been the result of tension.”
Moving forward in the silly season the majority of MotoGP seats are filled, and if Dovizioso did opt to sit for a year it would be a move that would all but end his career as a premier class title challenger. As Battistella commented, it is now difficult to win in MotoGP if you don’t have the package where a rider can adapt to the bike and the team adapt to the man sitting on the bike.
This is almost certainly where the two parties are at odds. For Battistella, the priority has always been the entire package, and not just the financial side of a contract. But money means something too: the budget a factory is willing to spend on a rider is a reflection of their commitment to winning in MotoGP. If they are cutting corners with the rider, it may mean they are spending less on the project than they need to win.
With that in mind, and the Covid-19 reductions in resources, there are still some very interesting deals to follow. What happens at Aprilia in MotoGP? Will Davies stay with Ducati? Who will replace Van der Mark at Yamaha? The most interesting players to follow will be behind the scenes with rider managers looking to earn their crust and grow their reputations. It can be a risky game to play but one that the rewards can be big.
This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.
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