The next piece in the puzzle which is the 2017 MotoGP grid has fallen into place. As had been widely expected, Alex Rins has signed a two-year deal to race with the factory Ecstar Suzuki team from next year. Rins will line up alongside Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki GSX-RR next season.
Rins had long been favorite to take the second seat at Suzuki, as his profile best suited the Ecstar Suzuki team's strategy of having young rider with potential alongside a fast, more experienced rider to help lead development. When Maverick Viñales left for the Movistar Yamaha team, Rins was the name most touted to take his place.
The surprise came when Suzuki announced they had signed Andrea Iannone immediately after Ducati announced they would be keeping Andrea Dovizioso. The signing of Iannone was the writing on the wall for Aleix Espargaro, as it did not fit with Suzuki's strategy to have two older, more experienced riders. In Barcelona, Espargaro was openly critical of Suzuki's attitude, pointing out that he was not far behind Dani Pedrosa in the championship.
Suzuki Japan are believed to have been hesitant to sign Alex Rins alongside Andrea Iannone, as it means having two brand new riders in the team. They would have preferred to keep Espargaro, as the rider with experience of the bike, to partner the rookie Rins. Davide Brivio was in Japan last week to convince them to let him sign Rins, a mission which has been successful.
Rins' signing also leaves Johann Zarco in limbo. The Frenchman had gone to Japan to test the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, as part of a contract he had signed with the Japanese factory. That contract also included Zarco racing at the Suzuka 8 Hour endurance race this year, though it was unclear whether the contract extended beyond the end of this year. After his test in Japan, Zarco canceled his plans to race at Suzuka, which was taken by many that any plans he may have had to ride a Suzuki in 2017 had fallen through. The announcement that Alex Rins was signed to the factory team was merely confirmation of that.
That leaves Zarco looking for a MotoGP ride for 2017. Hervé Poncharal has made it clear that he has a strong interest in Zarco, and is in talks to sign the Frenchman to ride alongside Jonas Folger next year. That deal is not yet signed, however: an announcement is unlikely at Assen, which means that the Sachsenring will be the earliest place a deal could be signed.
As for Aleix Espargaro, the signs are that the Spaniard will end up on the only other factory bike left on the grid. There are strong reports that Espargaro will announce that he will be joining Sam Lowes on the Gresini Aprilia RS-GP for 2017. Lowes, in turn, is due to get his first taste of the Aprilia in a test after Assen. He will be riding last year's version of the bike, though, to allow him to get used to the Michelin tires and the carbon brakes, and generally get the feel of a MotoGP bike.
This is the way the factory teams look after all but one seat has been officially confirmed:
Below is the press release announcing that Suzuki have signed Rins to a two-year deal:
ALEX RINS SIGNED FOR TWO YEARS WITH TEAM SUZUKI ECSTAR
Team Suzuki Press Office – June 20, 2016; 09:00hrs (CET)/08:00hrs (GMT)
Suzuki Motor Corporation announces the agreement with Alex Rins to become its factory rider for the next two seasons. This defines the Team Suzuki MotoGP rider line-up for 2017 and 2018 with Rins alongside Andrea Iannone aboard the factory GSX-RR.
Alex Rins Navarro was born in Barcelona on the 8th of December 1995 (20 years old) and started to race at the age of seven. His debut in the World Championship was in 2012, at the age of 16 in the Moto3 class. He won his first pole position at the second race of his debut season. He raced in Moto3 for three seasons, collecting a total of eight victories, becoming vice-champion in 2013. In 2015 he stepped up to Moto2, ending his first season in the class with 2nd place overall, winning the Rookie of the Year award after collecting two wins, a total of ten podiums and three pole positions. In 2016 he has already scored two wins and currently leads the points standing after seven rounds.
As a consequence of this new signing, the collaboration between Suzuki and Aleix Espargaró will come to an end after the 2016 MotoGP™ season. All the Suzuki family is extremely grateful to Aleix for his contribution to the growth of the MotoGP™ project and the development of the GSX-RR. Both Team SUZUKI ECSTAR and Suzuki Motor Corporation will continue their unconditional support to Aleix, looking forward to the best possible results in the remaining 2016 MotoGP™ races. Suzuki wishes all the best to Aleix Espargaró for a bright and successful future.