This year's silly season – the endless speculation about who will end up riding where next year – has not so far lived up to the expectations from the start of the year. With all four factory Honda and Yamaha riders out of contract at the end of 2014, real fireworks were expected in the battle to secure signatures. That bidding war never unfolded, and with Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa back with Repsol Honda, Valentino Rossi already signed up to Movistar Yamaha, and Jorge Lorenzo looks likely to finalize his deal – a two-year contract with some kind of option to depart after a year – before the season resumes again in Indianapolis.
But silly season has been far from a disappointment. Over the past couple of weeks, the jostling for the remaining seats in MotoGP has really taken off, with the promise of wholesale changes taking place up and down the grid. With the exception of Pol Espargaro, who is expected to remain at Tech 3 for the second year of his two-year contract with Yamaha, just about every other seat on the grid could see a new occupant. The arrival of Suzuki and, it now appears, Aprilia offers four new factory seats to vie for, opening up new opportunities for the current crop of riders. The upgrading of Honda's RCV1000R makes the production Honda a more attractive proposition. And there looks set to be an influx of young talent into the class. The 2015 MotoGP grid could look very different, once you look past the top four.
While the factory line ups at Honda and Yamaha will be unchanged for next year, the factory Ducati team is likely to sport two new faces for 2015. Although Cal Crutchlow has a year to go on his contract with the Italian factory, neither party is particularly happy with the arrangement. Crutchlow has never really got over the shock of just how poorly the Ducati turns compared to the Yamaha he left behind, and has found it hard to keep his criticism to himself. Ducati, in turn, are not enamored of Crutchlow's forthright manner of speaking, nor of his criticism of the bike. Crutchlow's results have also been a disappointment to Ducati, although the Italian factory must bear some of the blame, given the many mechanical and electronics issue the bike has suffered. Ducati point to the performance of both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, though conceding that the two Italians have already had a year on the bike. For anyone who rode the Desmosedici GP13, the GP14 is a huge improvement. For anyone who rode a 2013 Yamaha M1, it is a complete disaster.
Crutchlow has an option to leave, which expires at the end of this month, but he needs somewhere to go to. On the other hand, if Ducati want Crutchlow to leave, they will have to buy him out of the second year of his contract. Some kind of compromise will probably be found, whereby Crutchlow is given a lump sum to go quietly.
Andrea Dovizioso's contract with Ducati expires at the end of the year, and the Italian's manager, Simone Batistella, has been negotiating an extension. Those talks have been described as 'long and hard', however, with little optimism that they will be brought to a successful end. Dovizioso has an offer from Suzuki, and that may look more attractive to the Italian than another year with Ducati, trusting that Gigi Dall'Igna has finally done what his predecessor never managed to do: build a competitive bike.
Ducati are instead looking to Andrea Iannone, the young Italian who has impressed with his speed this season. Iannone has strong backing inside the Pramac Ducati team, but is desperate for a full factory ride. Iannone has greatly improved his weakest point, his tendency to crash, and at 24 years of age, is on an upward trend. Dovizioso, at 28, is at the peak of his career. With Ducati still building towards the future, Iannone appears to be the better choice for the Bologna factory. An official announcement that Ducati have signed Iannone is expected in the next few days.
Who will share the garage with Iannone? Spanish media are convinced that it will be Aleix Espargaro. The young Spaniard has had a phenomenal year on the Forward Yamaha, but is desperate to ride a factory bike. To ride a factory option bike in a full factory team is an offer Espargaro the elder cannot refuse. A factory team is the only real option he has of buying himself out of the contract he has with Forward. Forward boss Giovanni Cuzari paid Aspar some 400,000 euros to buy Espargaro out of his contract with the Spanish team, and signed a two-year deal with Espargaro allowing him to leave if he gets a factory offer, but only on condition that he pays the rest of sum owed to Aspar, believed to be in the region of 250,000 euros.
That Aleix Espargaro should choose to ride for Ducati also has a deeper background. Ducati has been in talks with Jorge Lorenzo for some time, though both sides knew that they would be taking a risk if the double world champion were to desert Yamaha and jump on an unproven Desmosedici GP15. At the Sachsenring, Lorenzo's manager Albert Valera told Ducati formally that Lorenzo would not be riding for them next year. Valera is also manager of Aleix Espargaro, and has negotiated the deal with Ducati on Espargaro's behalf. Placing Espargaro at Ducati could presage a move by Lorenzo in 2016, with Valera in position to evaluate both the competitiveness of the GP15 – which will be a completely new bike, with a redesigned engine and chassis – and the situation inside Ducati Corse, and their willingness to listen to and work with riders.
With Iannone and Aleix Espargaro at Ducati, that leaves Dovizioso and Crutchlow riding elsewhere. Both men have had talks with Suzuki, but Suzuki boss Davide Brivio has only a limited budget for riders. Brivio is looking for a line up consisting of one experienced rider and one upcoming youngster. Of Dovizioso and Crutchlow, the Italian has more experience in MotoGP. Dovizioso has ridden a Honda RC212V, a Yamaha M1, and now a Ducati Desmosedici. That experience would be invaluable in trying to develop the Suzuki XRH-1, a bike which is still several seconds off the pace in the hands of test rider Randy De Puniet. That experience makes Dovizioso the favorite to take the Suzuki slot.
The talented youngster alongside Dovizioso could well be Maverick Viñales. The reigning Moto3 champion is one of the new breed of riders which team managers are looking to in their quest to find a way to beat Marc Marquez. Viñales has a two-year contract with the Pons squad in Moto2, and has already posted some impressive results in the class, including a victory at Austin and podiums at Barcelona and Assen. Whether he is ready to move up to MotoGP remains to be seen, however. Viñales has been fast, but also inconsistent. His team manager Sito Pons believes an early move to MotoGP would be a mistake.
Suzuki isn't the only factory likely to enter MotoGP in 2015. Aprilia's new boss Romano Albesiano is pushing for an entry next season, a year ahead of the original schedule. The reasons for the early return are simple: at the moment, the only Aprilias on the grid are the ART machine being ridden by Danilo Petrucci in the IODA team, and the Aprilia-powered bikes of the PBM team. Neither team is making much of an impression against the new Open class bikes, and Aprilia fears their reputation is being damaged by seeing their name being linked with such uncompetitive teams. Aprilia's plan is to come to MotoGP with a completely new bike, only loosely based on the ART RSV4, replete with seamless gearbox and pneumatic valves. This, along with factory support, is meant to provide a much more competitive package.
Who would ride the new Aprilia? Alvaro Bautista's name has been linked with the Italian factory. Bautista's place in MotoGP has been under threat for several years, but his experience with Suzuki and on the Gresini satellite Honda makes him a prime candidate for the factory. Bautista also won a 125cc championship for Aprilia in 2006, and was runner up in the 250cc championship on an Aprilia in 2008. Partnering Bautista could well be Eugene Laverty, currently riding with Suzuki in World Superbikes. Laverty also raced an Aprilia in 250s, and was teammate to Max Biaggi for the Italian factory in World Superbikes. Laverty has also had talks with both Pramac Ducati and with the Suzuki MotoGP team, having tested the Suzuki in Phillip Island earlier this year.
Although a factory ride comes with a lot of advantages, a seat on a satellite Honda may well be more desirable. The bike is clearly competitive – as Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa have demonstrated – and for many riders, it is their best shot of getting on the podium. Although LCR Honda boss Lucio Cecchinello is keen to keep Stefan Bradl, the two men having an excellent relationship, HRC is putting pressure on Cecchinello to replace him. Despite official denials from Honda, Cal Crutchlow looks the favorite to take the LCR Honda seat. Crutchlow came very close to taking Bradl's ride last year, but only pleading by Cecchinello secured another year in the team for Bradl. Aleix Espargaro has also been courted by HRC, with the promise of shot at the factory Honda seat in 2017, when Dani Pedrosa's contract expires. Espargaro is unlikely to resist the siren call of Ducati, however; a factory ride next year is worth much more than the chance of one in two seasons' time.
The other name being linked with the LCR Honda seat is the current Moto3 leader Jack Miller. Dorna were very keen to see the Australian racing in MotoGP, as the Australian broadcasting rights for the series are up for renewal soon. A fast, exciting Australian youngster in MotoGP would go a long way to boosting the value of the broadcasting rights in his native country. Contract difficulties with Marc VDS Racing made it difficult for Miller to move. There were also serious and justified doubts over the wisdom of a move straight to MotoGP from Moto3. A MotoGP bike is much heavier and much, much more powerful than a Moto3 machine, meaning that things can get out of hand very fast indeed. Miller was advised to spend at least a year in Moto2, where he can make a more gradual step, first getting accustomed to the greater weight, before being confronted by the extra horsepower. For now, it looks like Miller will end up in the Pons Moto2 squad replacing Viñales, though it could prove costly to buy the Australian out of his contract with Marc VDS.
There is a very good reason to postpone moving to MotoGP until 2016, one which is true for both riders and teams such as Marc VDS and Pons. With Michelin due to be the new spec tire supplier for 2016, and the rules imposing a single set of spec electronics that year, entering MotoGP in 2015 means that everything a rider learns may have to be unlearned again. It is better to wait until 2016, and start off the season on the same foot as existing MotoGP riders, rather than having to contend with their knowledge of the Bridgestone tires. For the teams, waiting until 2016 also means that they can assess which bike is adapting to the Michelins best during the testing period. Choosing which package to go with will be easier next year than it is this season.
At Gresini Honda, Scott Redding should take over the seat vacated by Alvaro Bautista, as his contract says he should. Gresini was holding off on a commitment, but with Bautista gone, the choice is much easier to make. Even if Redding doesn't get the RC213V, he should be on a more competitive package anyway. Angered by the Open class package which Yamaha has offered to Forward Racing, HRC has vowed to produce a much more competitive bike for 2015. Next year's RCV1000R will feature pneumatic valves and much more horsepower, and be used in part as a test bed for the 2016 rules, when all of the entries switch to a single set of rules. The performance upgrades should give the bike the top end and acceleration it has been missing this year, though the bike will not have the seamless gearbox being used by the factory option bikes.
Who will take the second bike at Gresini – or perhaps even the second bike at LCR Honda, if they get the additional sponsorship they hope from their new partner, CWM World? One candidate is Johnny Rea, the Irishman currently riding for Ten Kate Honda in World Superbikes. Rea has regularly shown he is capable of getting results beyond the capability of the outdated CBR1000RR, and with there still being no sign Honda actually producing and selling the V4 sportsbike they have threatened to introduce for the past two seasons, Rea's options of competing for a WSBK title are limited. Rea has repeatedly stated that he will not come to MotoGP just to make up the numbers, but the new version of the production Honda may offer opportunities which this year's bike does not have. Whether Rea receives any support from HRC remains to be seen. The relationship between HRC and Honda Europe is not such that HRC would automatically assist Rea with a seat.
With Pol Espargaro committed to staying in the Tech 3 Yamaha team – perhaps persuaded by the fact that Jorge Lorenzo will have an option to leave at the end of 2015, possibly opening the way for Espargaro to enter the factory team – the question is who will take the other seat in the Tech 3 garage. Herve Poncharal has still not ruled out keeping Bradley Smith, but the Englishman has had a string of disastrous results. Smith has not lacked speed, often being among the fastest riders on track during the race, and even topping the timesheets during free practice, but he has failed to translate that into points and results. Smith will make way for a newcomer, most likely a rider from Moto2. Jonas Folger is the name currently being bandied around for the ride, the young German having adapted rapidly to Moto2. His problem is that he is even more inconsistent than Maverick Viñales, as he too is just a rookie in Moto2. Moving up this early could be a risk for Folger, though it would be a popular move in Germany.
An even more outlandish suggestion is that Alex Rins could take the seat at Tech 3. Herve Poncharal insisted to me at Assen that he was seriously considering riders from Moto3, as they would be excellent publicity both for the Monster Tech 3 team, and for MotoGP in general. Rins is known to be on the list of candidates talking to Tech 3 for a move to Moto2. It is just a small, if somewhat speculative step to foresee Rins skipping Moto2 altogether.
Rins has plenty of other options, however, and some fairly strong ones. Several Moto2 teams are interested in the Spaniard for 2015. Perhaps the most likely place for Rins to end would be with the Marc VDS Racing team. That team is believed to be close to a deal with Alex Marquez for 2015, and with the team likely to drop its Moto3 slot, it could be given a third place on the Moto2 grid. That would make room for both Alex Marquez and Alex Rins, as well as allowing Tito Rabat to spend one more year in Moto2. That would leave Mika Kallio without a ride, but given the outstanding year Kallio is having, he should have no problems finding another seat.
With Colin Edwards retiring and Aleix Espargaro destined for a factory seat, the Forward Racing team will have two seats to fill for next year. The most obvious candidate to fill one seat would be Bradley Smith, as his experience with the Tech 3 team would give him a head start on the Forward bike. His input would also be invaluable in helping develop the Forward frame, as Yamaha will only be providing engines for lease next year, and withdrawing the chassis package which Aleix Espargaro is using this season. The second seat alongside Smith is up for grabs, with Yamaha interested to use that seat as a second channel for bringing young talent into MotoGP. Right now, there are few candidates to make the move, which could leave the seat vacant for Stefan Bradl. If the German does lose his ride at LCR Honda as expected, he would make an excellent candidate in the Forward racing team.
Forward Racing's Giovanni Cuzari is not the only team manager interested in signing Bradl. With Iannone almost certain to vacate the Pramac Ducati seat, Bradl could be moved in as his replacement. Bradl is also a useful figure for Ducati in Germany, as he is from Augsburg in Bavaria, not far from Ducati's owner Audi. Having Bradl ride a Ducati could provide a key marketing tool for the Italian factory in one of its most important markets.
Bradl could still remain with Honda, but it would be on a production RCV1000R. Question marks remain over whether Hiroshi Aoyama will retain his seat at Aspar, though Honda are keen to keep a Japanese rider on the books. The original plan was for Takaaki Nakagami to make the step up from Moto2, but the Japanese rider is having a nightmare season with the Honda Idemitsu team. The entire team, run by former Repsol Honda rider Tady Okada, is new to the Kalex chassis, and they are struggling to find a base set up. For the moment, it looks like Nakagami is stuck in Moto2.
Whether Bradl takes Aoyama's ride, or the Japanese rider stays with Aspar, they will be teammates to Nicky Hayden. Hayden is in the first year of a two-year contract with Aspar, and despite continuing problems with his wrist, intends to stay at least another year in MotoGP. Hayden will be staying where he is, as will Karel Abraham on the Cardion AB Honda.
After a year of more serious input from Kawasaki with scarce results, the Avintia team looks set to abandon the Japanese factory and switch to Ducatis. The deal would be similar to Yonny Hernandez' contract for this season, with the Avintia squad racing this Desmosedici GP14s next season. They would at least be a good deal more competitive than the current ZX10-R based machines.
Below is a matrix with all of the expected signings in the next few weeks. Many of these should be confirmed by the time racing resumes at Indianapolis on 10th August.
|Andrea Dovizioso / Cal Crutchlow|
|Maverick Viñales / Eugene Laverty/Aleix Espargaro/Andrea Iannone|
|Cal Crutchlow?/Aleix Espargaro|
|Jack Miller?/Johnny Rea?|
|Jonas Folger / Alex Rins?|
|Stefan Bradl? / Eugene Laverty|
|Alvaro Bautista?/Hiroshi Aoyama|
Names in bold are either confirmed or the most likely candidate for the slot.