If you think that silly season has been a bit quiet this year, you'd be right. Normally by now, we would have passed through the stage of outrageous fabrication, left the wildly inaccurate rumors behind us, and be well into probable rider signing scenarios. This year, the annual merry-go-round has barely registered, with very little sign of who may end up where for the 2016 season.
Of course, for the most part, this is because all of the factory seats bar the second slots at Aprilia and Ducati are already spoken for in 2016. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, and Alvaro Bautista all have contracts for next year. Maverick Viñales' seat at Suzuki is safe through 2017. Of the currently active factory riders, only Andrea Iannone's contract could be ended after 2015, but Ducati will be keeping the Italian for 2016 as well. The only truly vacant seat is the one at Aprilia vacated by Marco Melandri, who never really wanted to be in MotoGP anyway.
With no factory seats available – or rather, with no truly desirable factory seats available – options to move up the MotoGP food chain are limited. Teams, too, are reluctant. 2016 sees the return of Michelin and the advent of spec software, making teams wary of changing too many variables at one time. Better to stick with the rider you know, whose data you already have and understand, and who has a solid relationship with the crew chief and team, rather than get a new rider in and spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out whether problems are down to the rider or adapting the bike to the new technical regulations.
There is a further complication among the private teams, and one which is far more serious and far more threatening. The paddock is suffering a spate of sponsorship and team woes, both legal and financial. Forward Racing team boss has been arrested on charges of money laundering and corruption, putting the continued existence of the team at threat. Forward may not make it to the next few races, let alone into next season.
CWM boss Anthony Constantinou is to face trial on charges of sexual assault, and his company is under investigation for fraud and money laundering. The original business CWM was promoting – CWM FX, a foreign exchange trading platform – has ceased operating, as the exchange platform CWM was selling to its clients was withdrawn by the platform owner. Despite denials by LRC Honda team owner Lucio Cecchinello, there are credible reports that the CWM name and logo will disappear from the bikes and garage before the end of the year, possibly as early as Brno. It is looking increasingly likely that CWM will no longer be sponsoring the team for 2016, making it impossible for LCR to run two bikes, forcing them to cut back down to one.
The Aspar team is also rumored to be in financial difficulty, after losing their Drive M7 sponsorship at the start of the year. Though the logos of Power Electronics quickly found their way back onto the bikes of Nicky Hayden and Eugene Laverty, it is unclear just how much the Spanish firm is actually paying for the exposure, if at all. There are question marks over the long-term stability of the team, and whether they can afford to keep racing in MotoGP in 2016.
With all this uncertainty over which teams will even be on the grid next season, riders and their managers are finding it difficult to negotiate the minefield of options for 2016. Even those with contracts are getting nervous, if it turns out that the team they had signed with folds before the start of the season.
Despite the doubts, there is still plenty that we know, and that we think we know. So here's a run down of the possible and likely permutations for 2016.
All this uncertainty has made the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha seats two of the most desirable on the grid. The team is well run and (relatively) well financed, and will have the bikes currently being raced by championship leaders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo at their disposal. Both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro are out of contract at the end of this year, but both look likely to stay. Smith is having an impressive year in MotoGP, and is currently sixth in the championship, tied on points with fifth-placed man Andrea Dovizioso. He is the best-placed satellite rider, and has continued to improve. Smith changed his approach a little this year, working more calmly and quietly with the team and booking better results because of it.
Smith was rumored to be close to a deal at the Sachsenring, with every chance that a new contract will be signed at either Indianapolis or Brno. The situation for Pol Espargaro is a little more difficult, as the younger of the two brothers is contracted by Yamaha, not Tech 3. His fate rests in the hands of Yamaha, and a poor season so far has done little to press his case for a contract extension. Winning the Suzuka 8 Hour race for Yamaha, and setting a lap record to secure pole, will surely have helped, though. Espargaro himself has been sniffing around Honda rides, believing he could take on Márquez given the same material. Scott Redding believed the same, and has been shocked to discover just how tough that is. Espargaro's best bet remains the Yamaha M1.
Looked at from another angle, you could ask who would take the place of either Espargaro or Smith. Of the other riders in MotoGP, only Cal Crutchlow has either beaten or matched them, and Crutchlow is five years older than the current pairing at Tech 3. Much the same is true of those looking at moving up from Moto2: both Tito Rabat and Johann Zarco have made it clear that they want to step up to MotoGP in 2016, but the reigning and (most likely) future Moto2 champions are both older than Smith and Espargaro. Replacing proven quantities with rookies who are older is not common practice, unless such rookies show exceptional talent.
There had been talk last year of Jonas Folger moving up to the Tech 3 squad, but Folger's contract kept him in Moto2 for 2015. Despite winning two races this year, Folger has proven to be extremely inconsistent, not the basis for a good MotoGP rider. The one rider who has caught the eye of MotoGP teams and factories is Alex Rins, but Rins is committed to staying in Moto2 for another year and trying to win a title there. Given his rapid progress this year, that sounds like an entirely achievable prospect.
Smith and Espargaro are not the only riders likely to stay where they are. Cal Crutchlow has already scored a podium for the CWM LCR Honda team, and has adapted to the Honda RC213V very rapidly. His contract ends in 2015, but the signs were strong at the Sachsenring that he will be back on a Honda next year. Rumors placed Crutchlow on a Honda alongside Scott Redding at Marc VDS, but an extension with LCR Honda is more likely.
Why would Crutchlow get the seat at LCR and not Jack Miller? Miller has a contract with Honda through 2017, but the objectives HRC have for him do not match the needs of a one-rider satellite team. Miller has been given space to learn, and needs the time given the fact that he has been bumped up directly to MotoGP from Moto3. He may not be ready to be fighting for podiums, or close behind, by 2016, and HRC do not want to put too much pressure on him this early.
If LCR goes to a one-bike team, where will Miller ride? The short answer is "wherever HRC put him." With his bills paid for by Honda, Miller is an attractive prospect for a cash-strapped team such as Aspar. If Aspar cannot foot the bill for a two-rider team, they are more likely to manage the costs of one rider, with Honda paying for Miller as a second rider. There is some speculation that Miller could be given a different crew chief, with fellow Australian Matthew Casey, currently working with Nicky Hayden, and previously paired with Aleix Espargaro.
Part 2 of our Silly Season overview will be published tomorrow, Thursday 30th July. Check back later for much, much more.
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