The 2016 MotoGP season hasn't even got underway yet, and there is already so much to talk about. New bikes, new tires, new electronics: viewed from this point in the season, the championship is both wide open and highly unpredictable. Testing has given us a guide, but it was clear from the three preseason tests that much will change throughout 2016, with the balance of power changing from track to track, and as Michelin bring different tires to different circuits.
All of this will also play in to what is likely to become the biggest talking point of the 2016. At the end of this year, the contracts of all but two of the 21 MotoGP riders are up, with only the friends Jack Miller and Maverick Viñales having deals which extend through 2017. Even Viñales and Miller are not certain to stay where they are, with Viñales having an option to leave, and Miller so far failing to impress HRC. And with KTM coming in to MotoGP in 2017, there could be up to 22 seats available.
That has and will generate a veritable tsunami of speculation and rumor surrounding who will be riding where in 2017. There are so many unknowns that anything is possible, from a total overhaul and general shuffling to just minor tweaking, with most of the protagonists staying where they are. The most likely scenario, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, with a few big names moving around, and plenty of shuffling among the satellite squads.
When the music stops...
Though the horse trading among teams and riders is usually referred to as Silly Season, it makes more sense to view this year's rider market as a giant game of musical chairs. The music has just started playing, and all the riders are up and circling the bikes available for 2017, with all eyes up at the factory end of pit lane. Unlike musical chairs, however, it is not a question of everyone rushing for open seats when the music stops. Instead, the riders slot into garages one by one, as contracts are settled.
Therefore it makes sense not just to look at this year's contract merry-go-round not just from the point of view of the riders, but also from the perspective of the teams and factories. Looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each factory can provide some insight into not just which riders the factory might sign, but what their current riders will be looking for in a new contract.
Yamaha's embarrassment of riches
With arguably both the best bike on the grid and the strongest rider line up, the Movistar Yamaha team will be the axis around which all of Silly Season will revolve. Who they sign and what their riders decide to do for 2017 and beyond will dictate much of the rest of the rider market. A vacancy at Movistar Yamaha would be the most desirable seat available, and Yamaha could take their pick. The question is, will there be a vacancy?
Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi could choose to either stay or leave, though their destinations and motivations would be very different. Lorenzo's choice is between staying with Yamaha as his best chance of chasing more MotoGP titles, or taking a chance on Ducati, as well as a very fat paycheck from Ducati's sponsors Philip Morris. For Rossi, the decision will come down to whether he still believes he can win or not.
Jorge Lorenzo has already made the first move in what could turn out to be a protracted game of contract chess with Yamaha. At the team launch in Barcelona in January, Lorenzo told the media he wanted his contract sewn up as soon as possible. He has repeated those comments since then, stating that he would like to have a deal done before the first race of the year in Qatar, so that he can concentrate on the 2016 championship, rather than his future beyond this season.
It is no secret that Ducati are keen to sign Lorenzo to race for them, however. So far, Ducati Corse boss has publicly denied making an offer to Lorenzo, though it is far too early in Silly Season for factories to be admitting to having made concrete approaches to riders. Ducati are confident they have built a motorcycle capable of winning a MotoGP race, but they face four of the best riders in history. Winning a race would be a good deal easier if they, too, had their own Alien, and persuading Philip Morris to throw money at an existing top rider is quicker and easier than bringing on young talent and waiting for it to develop. But not easy: Philip Morris are still wary after spending something in the region of €15 million a year on Valentino Rossi, only to see him struggle on the GP11 and GP12.
Lorenzo – bluff poker, or straight cards?
So Lorenzo's choice is likely be between a massive payday, similar to Rossi's during his Ducati period, and a guarantee of being in contention for the championship for at least the next couple of seasons. Lorenzo is hardly underpaid at Yamaha – the exact figures are unknown, despite wildly inaccurate claims from some websites – so the choice is between two types of ambition: the ambition of matching Valentino Rossi's tally of world championship titles, and attempting to be the best Spanish rider in history, or the ambition of proving himself capable of winning a title on different machines, with the added bonus of winning on a Ducati, something which Rossi conspicuously failed to do.
There are those who argue that Lorenzo's public statements on wanting to have his contract settled before the season has started is a way of putting pressure on Yamaha. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis has refused to be drawn into a bidding war with Ducati so far, both because Yamaha can't afford it, and because they are in the luxury position of having a rider capable of matching Lorenzo's performance, and a package capable of attracting a replacement rider of similar potential to Lorenzo should he leave. As Steve English pointed out in an upcoming episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast, Maverick Viñales has an eerily similar style to Jorge Lorenzo, and could jump at the chance of a factory Yamaha ride if offered. Then there's Alex Rins coming through, who Yamaha will also be working hard to attract.
Which way will Lorenzo fall? I believe Lorenzo is driven more by hunger for titles than hunger for money, and is more likely to stay with Yamaha. If he does, and goes on to win more championships, then he will become one of the brightest permanent stars in the Yamaha firmament, ensuring him of an income for life from the factory. Lorenzo may earn more money in the long term with Yamaha than if he leaves Yamaha now and heads to Ducati.
Rossi – Yamaha legend
Valentino Rossi's choices are dictated by the same reasoning. Rossi's long-term future is with Yamaha, whether he continues racing with the factory or not. His VR46 Riders Academy has just penned a deal with Yamaha to supply bikes and support, and as he starts mulling over his options once he retires – if it is not at the end of this contract, then it will almost certainly be at the end of the next contract – then strong ties with Yamaha would make it easier for Rossi to transition into some form of management position.
For now, though, Rossi still wants to race, but only if he believes he can be competitive. He has no interest in circulating in mid-pack: he wants to win more races, and win another title. If that is not possible, then he knows he has a bright future ahead of him once he hangs up his leathers, and already has most of the pieces in place ready for the next step in his career.
Yamaha cannot wait for ever, of course, and so Rossi will have to make a decision in the first half of the season. Once again, the general feeling is that Rossi will take the first six races to assess how competitive he can be. And once again, the sixth race of the season is at Mugello. It would be an ideal place at which to announce his retirement. But he won't do that from a podium he earned and with a win or more under his belt.
What do Yamaha want? The constant references in their press releases to a "dream duo" makes it evidently clear where they stand. If Rossi and Lorenzo stay, they win, and could still place Alex Rins with Tech 3 ready for the moment one of them does leave. If Rossi retires or Lorenzo leaves, they can either chase Maverick Viñales or Alex Rins for the factory seat, or take Dani Pedrosa if he gets the boot from Repsol Honda, or perhaps even move one of the Tech 3 riders up. If both Rossi and Lorenzo depart, then they face a tougher situation, but even then, they should have no trouble finding suitable replacements. The departure of both Rossi and Lorenzo would make the Movistar Yamaha team a lot more appealing to Marc Márquez, and could even tempt him way from Honda's clutches, should the Spaniard struggle to tame the 2016 Honda RC213V. The fact that the Yamaha M1 is the best bike on the grid makes it an easy sell to potential recruits.
Márquez – a gilded cage is still a cage
It is clear that Repsol Honda have put all of their cards on Marc Márquez for the future, and so HRC will not be keen to let the Spaniard go. In many ways, Honda are in the toughest position of the big three factories in MotoGP: the RC213V is clearly the most difficult bike on the grid to ride, as the differential in performance between the five men on Hondas during testing clearly shows. Honda need to retain Márquez, not just because he is the most talented rider of his generation, but also because if he leaves, it will cast a shadow over the factory's reputation and make it much harder to find someone to take Márquez' place. Unless other riders – Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow – can succeed on the bike, and persuade talented youngsters that it is a competitive package, the loss of Márquez would also mean the loss of a competitive replacement for Márquez.
Would Márquez want to leave? Financially, he is well catered for at Honda. Like Rossi and Lorenzo, the only thing he truly cares about is winning, and his decision will be based almost exclusively on whether he believes he can do that on the RC213V. The big step forward his team made with the bike at Phillip Island and in the final hours of the Qatar test may go some way to persuading him to stay, if it translates into the races as well.
Márquez' situation is complicated by the relationship his management team has with HRC. Emilio Alzamora and the Monlau Competicion structure have very close ties with Honda, as support to the Marc VDS Racing satellite team, and as the de facto factory Honda squad in Moto3. Márquez' mechanics and crew chief have all been taken on by Honda, and are deeply embedded in the Japanese company. Disentangling all that could be difficult, but if Alzamora helped Márquez move outside of HRC, Honda might be inclined to do just that. Then there are the sponsors, especially Spanish companies Repsol and Estrella Galicia, who benefit enormously from the popularity of Márquez in his home country. There are many powerful factors conspiring to keep Márquez in Honda. He will need a good reason to leave.
The second seat at Repsol Honda is more interesting, and also more complicated than it looks. Dani Pedrosa is the ideal teammate to Márquez: capable of winning when Márquez doesn't, and aware enough of his situation inside HRC to keep the relationship with his teammate entirely amicable. Márquez is a great admirer of Pedrosa's talent, but he does not feel threatened by the Spanish veteran.
That would be very different for any of the possible replacements for Pedrosa. HRC is known to be keen on both Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins, but Marc Márquez would not look kindly on having either of those two as teammates. Both are young, Spanish, ambitious, and fast, and unlikely to respect Márquez as the leader of the Repsol Honda team. Rins, especially, would be very awkward: the Spaniard is still bitter about the way Emilio Alzamora treated him as a manager, so much so that Rins has been rejecting approaches from other managers to look after his affairs. He is also angry at the way Alex Márquez received preferential treatment in the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Moto3 squad, with Alzamora arranging the team so that Márquez Jr. would take the Moto3 title. There is no love lost between Alex Rins and the Márquez clan, so having Rins in the Repsol Honda garage would be an awkward and uncomfortable affair. The distractions that would cause are reason enough for HRC to seek options elsewhere.
Rise and fall and ...
Originally, Jack Miller was being groomed to take Pedrosa's place at Repsol Honda, but his early promotion has been far from a success. Miller has not produced the results expected, but much more importantly, HRC have been unimpressed by Miller's attitude. Alberto Puig, former manager of Dani Pedrosa, has been brought in to help Miller in that respect, and has made a massive difference. To his credit, Miller is now working much harder on his fitness than he did in the past, and is approaching the business of racing much more seriously. He will need to convert that approach into results, however. Rumors of Honda's displeasure with Miller continue to swirl around him.
Honda could do much worse than to hang on to Dani Pedrosa. Though the Spaniard will be 31 in September, he showed last year that he could still be competitive, once he was fully recovered from the arm pump surgery. Pedrosa knows that time is running out if he wants to win a MotoGP title, but at the end of 2015, this year looked like being his best shot at a championship. Testing has not gone well for him, leaving him in a quandary. Pedrosa has spoken before of retirement, and it seems unlikely that the Spaniard would go to a satellite squad should he lose his seat at Repsol Honda. Ducati may be tempted to give Pedrosa a chance if he has won races this season, and if Yamaha loses both Rossi and Lorenzo, then Pedrosa would be a solid teammate to a young talent.
Pedrosa has even been linked with KTM, as his former crew chief Mike Leitner is running their MotoGP program. Pedrosa would be an ideal rider to lead development of their RC16 MotoGP machine, the Spaniard also having played a key role in getting the Honda RC212V out of the doldrums where its original design had left it in 2007. But the relationship between Leitner and Pedrosa is uncertain: Leitner resigned as crew chief in part because of Pedrosa's insistence that two mechanics be replaced. If there are still trust issues between the two, Leitner may prefer to take a younger rider to lead development.
A lack of alternatives
Who would take Pedrosa's place if the Spanish veteran left the Repsol Honda team? It might actually be easier to look at who HRC would not sign to the factory team. The most unlikely candidates to join Repsol Honda would be the growing army of ex-Honda riders. Stefan Bradl, Alvaro Bautista and Scott Redding would all be seen as a step back by HRC, and Redding, in particular, would not be interested in going. Cal Crutchlow might be a possibility, as the Englishman has at least shown he can be fast on the Honda, but as he is the same age as Pedrosa, it seems vanishingly unlikely HRC would put into the Repsol Honda team. Pol Espargaro would love to get his hands on a Repsol Honda, and lobbied Michael Bartholémy of the Marc VDS Racing team in 2015 for a Honda. But HRC will not look kindly on either the criticism the former Moto2 champion has made of Yamaha, nor on his second season at Tech 3.
Could HRC take a gamble on Michael van der Mark? Senior executives inside HRC are said to have a very poor opinion of World Superbikes, viewing it as a waste of budget which they could be spending on MotoGP and Moto3. However, HRC are said to have a very positive view of Van der Mark, his Suzuka 8 Hour wins in 2013 and 2014 weighing very heavily with Honda top brass. Though a satellite ride with Marc VDS is a much more likely destination for the young Dutchman, taking the place of Jack Miller if he fails to live up to expectations, a seat at Repsol Honda is not entirely unthinkable. Extremely unlikely, perhaps, requiring a lot of other things to happen, but not impossible.
So who will fill the Movistar Yamaha and Repsol Honda seats for the 2017 and 2018 seasons? Here are our predictions:
Maverick Viñales/Dani Pedrosa
Tomorrow, we will continue to take a look at the possible permutations of Silly Season for 2016, starting with the other three man factory teams. Who will take the factory Ducati seats? Can Scott Redding or Danilo Petrucci move up to the factory team? Will Suzuki be able to keep Maverick Viñales, and what do they do if they can't? Who will want to take a chance on Aprilia? And will KTM go for youth or experience?
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