Brno was a busy time for teams, managers and riders. Apart from dealing with jet lag and the sweltering heat, silly season kicked off in force at the Czech round of MotoGP. The summer break and the chaos which ensued from the situation around the Forward Racing team put everything on hold over the summer, with tentative talks starting at Indianapolis. Those talks, and events outside the paddock, helped clarify the situation, and at Brno talks began in earnest. The empty spaces on the MotoGP grid are starting to be filled.
The weekend kicked off with the fairly sensational news that Danny Kent was talking to Pramac Ducati about a ride in MotoGP, going straight from Moto3 and skipping Moto2. The deal on the table would be a three-year deal with support from the factory, racing a GP15 alongside Danilo Petrucci. It was an offer Kent was giving very serious consideration, and expected to think about in the run up to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Given that Octo is the title sponsor of the Silverstone round, and also the sponsor of the Pramac Ducati team, announcing a British rider at the British GP would be a sponsor's dream.
Signing Kent has not come out of the blue. The Moto3 championship leader has made it clear he will not be back in Moto3 next year, whatever happens. Kent has options in Moto2, most notably with his current Kiefer team, who run on the Leopard Racing banner. Kiefer are set to move up to Moto2 in 2016, and are keen to retain the services of Kent. But Kent sees 2016 would be an ideal moment to make the jump to MotoGP, given the technical changes which are coming next season. Michelin tires, as the biggest change, will mean a much more level playing field, as everyone in MotoGP, veteran and rookie, will have to work to figure out how to get the most out of them. The more rear-biased style, using the extra grip of the rear to carry more corner speed, may also help a rookie coming up from Moto3. Ducati certainly think the switch might work, Davide Tardozzi telling me at Brno "this is not something we thought up last night, we have been thinking about this for a while."
In Brno, the decision looked to be in Danny Kent's hands, but there have been rumors since then suggesting that Kent will be heading to Moto2 instead. Kent has gelled with his crew chief Peter Bom, and stepping up to Moto2 together, on competitive Kalex machinery, would give Kent his best chance of putting on a strong challenge in Moto2.
If Kent does not go to MotoGP, then Scott Redding is the first rider in line for the second Pramac seat. Redding's manager Michael Bartholémy admitted to myself and MCN reporter Steve English that they had been speaking to Pramac about switching from the Marc VDS Honda to Pramac Ducati, after Redding's dismal time with the Honda RC213V. "Scott is not happy on the bike," Bartholémy said. "He wants to try something different. If something isn't working, you have to make a change." Redding hinted at his thinking at Assen, after a difficult weekend there. "When I think about what I could have had... " he had told us. Redding had in mind the very successful test he had with Ducati back in the summer of 2012, before he came to MotoGP with Gresini. At that test, he had been faster than Andrea Iannone, and had a better feeling with the bike. But it was Iannone who made the jump to the Pramac team. Redding has seen Iannone's progress on the Ducati and believed he could do the same, as Iannone was one of the riders Redding spent all his time battling against in Moto2.
If Redding does go to Pramac, that leaves a gap at Marc VDS. As manager of the Marc VDS team, as well as Redding's personal manager, Bartholémy has come under a lot of pressure from sponsors to achieve better results in MotoGP. Redding has spent his time on the factory bike hitting a brick wall, the RC213V being far more difficult to ride than he (or any of the other RC213V riders) had expected. Redding has been able to make progress on race pace, but once he has to push for a fast lap at qualifying, he has been unable to find the extra three quarters of a second that everyone else has. He feels he is constantly on the limit, and the lack of progress has been getting Redding down. That has been hard for Bartholémy in both managerial capacities. "I don't want to put a rider on my bike who does not have a smile under his helmet," he said.
Who would take Redding's bike if he leaves? One choice which is being bandied around is Cal Crutchlow, as Honda are keen to retain the services of the Englishman, and Crutchlow has shown himself capable of good results, at least when he doesn't suffer the fate of so many Honda riders trying to push and crashes out. Bartholémy said that as much as he would like to sign Crutchlow, he simply cannot afford it. "I have forty families who rely on me," Bartholémy said. "Marc VDS and Monlau have put together a big project, with Estrella Galicia, a pyramid which gives a chance to a 12-year-old kid to go from Pre-GP all the way through to the pinnacle, to MotoGP, with our support and the support of our sponsors. We can't jeopardize all that to take a rider for one year."
Bartholémy would not be drawn on who he would replace Redding with, should Redding go to Pramac, but a simple equation puts Tito Rabat in the driving seat for the ride. Rabat is desperate to move up to MotoGP, and has been speaking to a lot of teams about the step up. Rabat's problem is the same one he suffered in Moto2: teams see him as the son of a very wealthy jeweler, rather than as Moto2 champion, and look at his wallet rather than his results. That would not be the case would he move up to MotoGP with Marc VDS, the first team to take him, pay him a salary, and treat him like any other rider, with the result that he won a Moto2 title for them. At the Sachsenring, Bartholémy told us that if he were to get a second grid slot, then he would give Rabat the first right of refusal. If Redding goes to Pramac, which seems likely, then Rabat could take that slot.
Marc VDS was not the only team Rabat has been talking to. The reigning Moto2 champion is also believed to have been talking to the Aspar squad. Team manager Gino Borsoi refused to discuss riders when we asked him, saying that their first priority had been to agree on bikes for 2016. At Brno, they had reached agreement with Honda to supply 2015 Honda RC213Vs to the Aspar team, and with that in place, they could start to look at riders. "But first, we still have to find the budget," Borsoi told us.
One way to solve that problem would be for Jack Miller to take one place in the Aspar team. Miller and his crew are paid for by Honda, as the Australian is on a contract directly with HRC. At the moment, Miller is in the LCR team, but with title sponsor CWM due to be removed from fairings, race trucks and hospitality units from the Silverstone round of MotoGP, CWM boss Anthony Constantinou currently facing trial on multiple charges of sexual assault, and the original firm sponsoring the team – CWM FX – having ceased trading, it looks highly unlikely that they will reach deal with CWM for 2016. In that case, LCR would continue as a single rider team – almost certainly with Cal Crutchlow – going back to the tried-and-tested format of having multiple sponsors and offering them title sponsorship for individual rounds.
If LCR are unable to pay for a second bike, then Miller's destination is mostly likely to be the Aspar team. Aspar get a free rider, and are left with less money to find for the rest of the year. That they are talking to other riders is rather unusual, as Eugene Laverty has a two-year deal with the team, for 2015 and 2016. Aspar would like to get out of that deal, so they can hire a rider who can bring money to the team. Whether they can do so without being forced to buy Laverty out of his contract remains to be seen. Laverty is determined to remain in MotoGP, having taken the Aspar deal on the basis that he knew he was getting a bike that would not be competitive in his rookie year in the class, but would be on better equipment in 2016, having spent a year learning the ropes.
The other rider who had been expected to move up to MotoGP is Johann Zarco. The Frenchman has been imperious in Moto2, and had been talking to Pramac about taking the seat on offer to Kent and Redding, but in the end, it had been Zarco who had withdrawn. He had decided he was not yet ready, and was looking instead at staying in Moto2 with his current Ajo Motorsport team. With Ajo being tipped as a candidate to run the KTM factory effort when they arrive in MotoGP in 2017, that may make a certain amount of sense.
While Zarco will be staying in Moto2, Sam Lowes looks almost certain to move up to MotoGP. The Englishman has a precontract with Aprilia, which foresees Lowes staying at the team for the next three years. There have been various rumblings of other riders taking the place – Stefan Bradl has been named in this respect, the German having done a solid job replacing Marco Melandri, already matching the pace of Alvaro Bautista – but the deal with Lowes looks almost certain to be announced at Misano. Though the paperwork is yet to be finalized, the chances of anyone but Lowes getting the ride are very slim indeed.
The one rider which everyone is looking at in Moto2 at the moment is Alex Rins. Rins has been deeply impressive from the very first race in Qatar, and has two poles, a win, and five other podiums to his name this year. But Rins is tied up closely to Sito Pons' Pagina Amarillas HP 40 team, with a watertight two-year deal to remain in Moto2. The factories are keeping a close eye on Rins, and are likely to open a bidding war for the services of the Spaniard in the middle of next year, with Yamaha said to be making the running. Given his Monster sponsorship, the most likely destination for Rins is the Yamaha-held seat at Tech 3, currently occupied by Pol Espargaro.
Espargaro's seat at Tech 3 for 2016 was confirmed at Indianapolis, to the irritation of teammate Bradley Smith. This lured Smith into using some rather choice language about his contract situation, while making clear his desire to stay with the Tech 3 team for another year. Investigation of Smith's contract negotiations proved difficult: ask Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal about it, and Poncharal would say that Smith has a contract which just needs his signature on it. Ask Smith about it, and he says he has yet to see a contract. The truth of the matter seems to be that Smith's manager and Tech 3 are haggling over the details. Silverstone is a good place for a British rider to announce a new contract for 2016, and Smith seems likely to announce his deal there.
What is clear is that for 2016, there will only be four Yamahas on the grid, the two Movistar Yamahas and the two at Tech 3. At Brno, Yamaha managing director Lin Jarvis confirmed that the Forward project had been put on hold as soon as news of the arrest of Forward Racing team boss Giovanni Cuzari reached them. "Obviously, Giovanni is innocent until proven guilty, we have no view on that," Jarvis told me, "but Yamaha is a big company and we can't afford to risk our reputation by association." Should Cuzari be completely cleared of all accusations, then that might change the matter, but Yamaha could not afford to wait for the wheels of Swiss justice to finish turning.
It was also too late for another team to take over the bikes from Forward. "Yes, we are a big company, but the racing department is a small group of highly specialized engineers," Jarvis said. "We have to plan their time very carefully. It's too late to change our plans for 2016 now, even if a team were to come forward." MotoGP machines are hand built prototypes, assembled from parts designed and machined specifically for MotoGP. Producing them is time-consuming, requiring incredible attention to detail. You can't just throw a bunch of machinists at it and hope they get the job done.
Honda will also be reducing the number of bikes it will supply next year, to seven, HRC's Livio Suppo told me. The exact destination of those bikes is not known, but there will be two factory Repsol Hondas, at least one Estrella Galicia Marc VDS bike, at least one LCR Honda, and two Aspar Hondas (if Aspar can get the budget to run a team). If LCR has the budget to run two bikes, then they will retain their two current riders. If LCR cannot run a second bike, then there is a chance that Marc VDS may run a second bike. Michael Bartholémy told us at the Sachsenring that doing so would be contingent on finding the extra budget, and obtaining a second grid slot from an existing team, complete with travel allowance and free tire allocation.
Such grid slots will be up for grabs for 2016. Forward Racing are to continue for at least the next two races, though their future is very much in doubt beyond that. The team is likely to concentrate on Moto2 for 2016, a much more affordable class for all concerned. That means their slots will be available for purchase for 2016, and the money paid will help fund the future of the team for 2016, allow it to get on an even keel. There are those who have their eyes upon such slots, especially with a view to 2017, when the funding of the series changes, more money will be available to the teams and the cost of the bikes is capped.
Among those interested are Kiefer, Ajo and Pons. At the moment, Pons and Ajo seem the most likely candidates, as the two teams with the strongest riders to take to Moto2. Sito Pons used to be in MotoGP, until the cost of machinery drove him to the lower classes, and he is keen to make a return. The Pons Moto2 team has seen a cavalcade of top talent pass through it, with riders such as Pol Espargaro, Maverick Viñales and now Alex Rins. But Pons has not been able to benefit from that talent, the riders leaving as soon as they got a chance at MotoGP. If Pons can secure a grid slot for 2017, then he could move up along with Alex Rins, and have a chance to shine in the premier class with a clearly talented rider.
For Ajo, the motivation is similar, but perhaps part of a larger scheme. It has been clear that what Johann Zarco has needed has been the right environment in which to thrive, something he demonstrated in 125s, and is now showing in Moto2. Moving up to MotoGP with Ajo would give him a trusted environment and the confidence to attack the premier class. For Ajo, it would give him a full development path, somewhat similar to the Monlau/Marc VDS set up, with the ability to take a rider from Moto3 all the way to MotoGP. Ajo has also been linked with KTM's return to MotoGP, due for 2017.
So who will be on the MotoGP grid in 2016? The four Yamahas and seven Hondas will join six Ducatis – two factory GP16s, two Pramac GP15s (or GP15.x), and two Avintia GP14.2s – two Suzukis and two Aprilias, making a grand total of 21 bikes on the grid. The two Forward slots will disappear, unless either Pons, Kiefer or Ajo pick them up. Karel Abraham's AB Motor Racing team looks set to leave, though Abraham himself is very keen to stay. And IODA Racing will lose their financial support from IRTA unless Alex De Angelis starts booking some radically different results, unlikely on a washed up ART machine. The loss of four bikes will not be mourned. Dorna and IRTA believe the correct grid size in 22 bikes, though one factory boss said he would rather see 20 bikes on the grid, and a greater focus on quality.
What of the current riders on the grid? Not much is clear of where they will end up. Nicky Hayden seems destined for World Superbikes, to finally chase the unique position of being the only rider ever to have won both a MotoGP and a WSBK title. Hayden is being linked to a ride with Aprilia, though with the ongoing wrangling over the rules, it is not clear whether Aprilia will have a factory presence. Despite having a MotoGP contract with Aspar for 2016, Eugene Laverty has been hedging his bets and talking to World Superbike teams, and is another rider linked with Aprilia. Loris Baz is unlikely to find a home in MotoGP, and is said to be talking to BSB teams. And Karel Abraham is being linked with both WSBK and a possible role as test rider for KTM.
The big question mark is over Stefan Bradl. The German has had a truly appalling run of luck since losing his ride at LCR Honda, struggling with the Forward Yamaha, breaking his scaphoid, then losing his Forward ride when Cuzari was arrested. He found a home with Aprilia for the rest of the season, where he has performed exceptionally well, matching the performance of Alvaro Bautista and providing valuable input into the development process. There has been speculation that Aprilia could decide to keep Bradl over Sam Lowes, but the chances of that are slim. All the signs at Brno were that Lowes was the rider Aprilia were looking to for the future, while Bautista serves out the second year of his contract with the Italian factory.
It looks more likely that Bradl's future lies elsewhere. BMW are said to be interested in the German for their World Superbike effort, though a more likely result is that Bradl will return to Moto2. There is talk of a German "superteam" in the class, with Bradl taking a seat alongside Sandro Cortese in the Intact GP team. That would make sense for Bradl and for Intact GP, as it would give Cortese some help with set up and a fast target to aim at. Cortese has floundered since his switch to Moto2, with extremely inconsistent results, and a strong teammate could help remedy that.
Elsewhere in Moto2, a few moves are expected. Efren Vazquez is too old for Moto3 in 2016, and is set to move up to Moto2 with the QMMF team. Romano Fenati will also make the jump to Moto2, taking the place of Sam Lowes at Speed Up. Fenati's abysmal qualifying performances have not endeared him to the Sky VR46 team, and are something he will need to improve if he is to succeed in the middle class. The hottest seat available in Moto2 will be the vacant seat at Marc VDS when Tito Rabat moves up to MotoGP. Michael Bartholémy told us he had already signed a rider, but could only reveal his name at the Misano round of MotoGP. He would not be drawn on who that rider was, joking only that "when you hear the name, you will think I am a very clever manager!"
Hot favorite for the seat is Franco Morbidelli. The Italian has been impressive in Moto2 this year, finally getting on the podium at Indianapolis, after getting very close on a number of occasions. Morbidelli is highly rated, and on a strong Moto2 team could be expected to excel.
Misano is a likely round for Morbidelli to be announced, as well as a number of other Italian riders and teams. The next two rounds, at Silverstone and Misano, are likely to see a flurry of announcements, with Aragon the official deadline for submitting entries for Moto2 and Moto3. At that point, teams must supply the names of their riders, though that line up is likely to change before the teams turn up to the grid at Qatar. Much is still to be settled.
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