It seemed like a foregone conclusion. Since Austin, when it became apparent (if not official) that Jorge Lorenzo was off to Ducati, the idea that Maverick Viñales would take his place went from being likely to seeming almost inevitable. After all, Yamaha already have a seasoned veteran in Valentino Rossi, and as 2015 showed, a rider capable of winning a MotoGP championship when the circumstances are right. What they need is someone who can make an immediate impact, a rider who can perhaps win races, and who they can develop into a world champion. That description has Maverick Viñales all over it.
Until today, that is. On Tuesday, UK publication Motorcycle News reported that the Viñales deal could be called off entirely, after a failure to agree financial terms. Instead, in a shock revelation should it turn out to be correct, MCN is linking Dani Pedrosa to the empty seat at Yamaha, with Viñales remaining at Suzuki.
How much credence should we place in the MCN story? Journalist Simon Patterson is sure of his sources, and the details are in line with what I have heard when speaking to Yamaha sources about Viñales. Paddock gossip suggest that Yamaha offered Viñales €4 million to make the switch to the Movistar Yamaha team, but that the Hamamatsu factory upped their offer to €5 million to keep the rider they regard as their future at Suzuki. Paying over that amount for a rider who is yet to score a single podium in MotoGP may have been a little too much for Yamaha.
The truth will out in France
Where Viñales' future lies should become clear at Le Mans. Viñales has said that he would like to make a decision before Le Mans. Although Davide Brivio denied to me at Jerez that there was a deadline for the decision, Viñales has told the Spanish media that he was asked by Brivio to provide an answer by this weekend's race.
Viñales' choice is simple: stay at Suzuki and try to become a legendary part of Suzuki's history by trying to win races and a title; or make the switch to Yamaha and know for certain that he is on a competitive bike. Money may be a factor in his decision, but it will only play a limited part. Motorcycle racers at this level are driven by ambition more than anything, money often playing a symbolic role. What matters is being paid more than the riders they consider their direct rivals, rather than the absolute sum involved.
Should I stay or should I go?
After Jerez, it seemed like ambition had gained the upper hand. Speaking after the race, in which he had finished sixth, sixteen seconds behind the winner Valentino Rossi, Viñales acknowledged the result had given him plenty to think about. "For sure it makes me think," the Spaniard said, "because when you see first and second, and me and Aleix are fifth and sixth, it makes you think a little bit. But I trust in Suzuki, and I trust they can still show me results."
Later, Viñales repeated similar thoughts to Catalunya Radio. "Everyone can see that some bikes are at the front, and we are suffering. I need to think hard about this, it's a difficult moment. I have a lot of confidence in Suzuki, but I have to find my own way, and try to be world champion, which is my goal."
Could Suzuki have stepped in to prevent Viñales leaving? The Japanese factory has an option on the Spaniard for 2017, but Brivio acknowledged that exercising that option would be counterproductive. "We have an option on him," Brivio told me. "Let’s say we are negotiating normal, like if there is not an option. We’d like to find a way that he’s happy to stay, but not because of the option. We are making a normal negotiation with him. Try to find a solution, an idea for him to stay."
An ideal solution?
That solution could have come indirectly, in the form of Yamaha declining to trump Suzuki's pay offer. To an extent, Yamaha is in the luxurious position of having a choice. They have Valentino Rossi for the next two seasons, a rider who is still competitive. They have the best bike on the grid, a machine which has taken two wins and five podiums in the first four races. They have plenty of interest from up and coming riders, and have been trying to secure the services of Alex Rins for some time. If Viñales serves out his contract at Suzuki, then he will be available at the end of 2017, by which time Yamaha would have an even clearer idea of his potential.
All this means that signing a rider to a one-year deal in the Movistar team would make a huge amount of sense for Yamaha. Signing a Spanish rider would make even more sense: Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, which owns Movistar, has a new CEO, and he is reported to be skeptical of the MotoGP sponsorship deal, and wanting a Spaniard in the team to serve as the face (and voice...) of their sponsorship. With Lorenzo gone, and Márquez tied to Honda and completely unacceptable to Valentino Rossi as a teammate, Dani Pedrosa would be the best option for Yamaha should the Viñales deal fall through. Pedrosa would possibly be amenable to a one-year deal.
There are a lot of reasons Pedrosa would be a good fit at Yamaha. The Spaniard has kept well out of the mudslinging which the 2015 championship devolved into, winning plaudits for his dignity in the aftermath of Sepang. He is a relatively easy rider to work with, and would cause no friction with Valentino Rossi. He is a rider capable of winning, as his 28 victories in MotoGP will attest.
Pedrosa would also be an excellent fit with the M1. His smooth style and subtle control inputs are exactly what the Yamaha responds to best, as both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have demonstrated. At Honda, his biggest problem is a lack of rear grip, an issue which has plagued the RC213V for the past three years. Pedrosa's small frame and low weight make it hard to generate grip by moving his body around. The Yamaha M1 has fantastic mechanical grip, and solve a lot of his problems.
Small in stature, big in talent
Pedrosa on a Yamaha is one prospect which his rivals fear. Cal Crutchlow has repeatedly told reporters that Pedrosa would have won a lot more races and probably a bunch of championships if the Spaniard had been on a Yamaha. The Englishman has marveled at the way Pedrosa manages to muscle around a bike which is so incredibly physically demanding to ride. Last year, Pedrosa was one of the riders Maverick Viñales singled out for praise, when asked who had impressed him most while riding behind them.
Pedrosa on a Yamaha would present the Repsol Honda squad with a massive headache. Pedrosa's easygoing nature as a teammate has made life easy for Marc Márquez within Repsol Honda, and finding a replacement would be far from simple. Neither Alex Rins nor Maverick Viñales would be acceptable to Marc Márquez (or rather, to Marc Márquez' management), as they would both be perceived as a direct threat to his position as lead rider in the team. Rins, in particular, would not go down well, having split with Emilio Alzamora during his year in Moto3, when he lost the title to Márquez' younger brother Alex, after what many believe was direct intervention from Alzamora in the team.
There is also some question over whether Honda would even want to take a risk on one of the two youngsters. Conversations with senior HRC sources revealed they were still skeptical about both Rins and Viñales. They pointed out that Viñales is yet to score a podium, and Rins has hardly stamped his authority on Moto2 the way that Márquez did when he was in the class. Neither have truly lived up to the hype surrounding them, in the view of Honda.
Too early to start in earnest
At Jerez, Livio Suppo confirmed that their main priority was to continue with their current riders. Negotiations were underway with both Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, something Suppo reaffirmed to GPOne.com today. Suppo also bemoaned the early start of Silly Season, Jorge Lorenzo's move to Ducati making it difficult to evaluate just how well riders are doing. "Normally, we only start thinking about riders after Mugello," Suppo told me. The three overseas races which kick off the season are not representative, so teams and factories use Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello to provide a yardstick against which to measure riders.
One theory being proposed by MCN is that HRC could choose to move Cal Crutchlow into the Repsol Honda seat. As unlikely as this may seem – Crutchlow did not thrive in the factory environment at Ducati, nor has he threatened the factory Hondas aboard the LCR satellite bike – putting Crutchlow in to the Repsol seat would provide an excellent stopgap until Honda can decide on a replacement. Crutchlow's build is comparable to Márquez, and he has been working on his riding style to try to emulate Márquez. Crutchlow would make a good teammate for Márquez, getting on well with the Spaniard and not posing a threat.
Should Viñales stay at Suzuki and Pedrosa go to Yamaha, that would throw the entire rider market into turmoil (or rather, into even more turmoil than it is in currently). So far, Andrea Iannone has been linked with Suzuki, taking the place of Viñales. Iannone had been expected to be the rider most likely to stay at Ducati once Lorenzo arrived, but his overly ambitious pass at Argentina, in which he took out his teammate Andrea Dovizioso, changed minds inside of Ducati. The Italian had expected to renew his contract at Austin, but after Argentina, Ducati management told Iannone that the earliest he could expect news on his future would be Mugello.
If Ducati decide to keep Dovizioso – an understandable decision, considering the development work the Italian veteran has done for them – then Iannone would also be available to take the Repsol Honda ride. Though Iannone at Repsol would not please Márquez' entourage, it would be a lot more acceptable than most of the alternatives. Iannone's aggression would also sit well with HRC, especially departing Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto. Nakamoto turns 60 next year, and is being forced into retirement, as is the custom in Japanese factories. The last task he has set himself is handling the contracts for the future, and especially that of Márquez' at Repsol. Putting Iannone alongside Márquez would be exactly the kind of twist Nakamoto would like to leave to the man who succeeds him.
The one rider complicating matters is Alex Rins. Ideally, Yamaha would like to sign the Spaniard to a factory contract and put him in the Tech 3 garage, taking the place of Pol Espargaro. But Rins is stubbornly refusing to sign any contract which would see him in a satellite team, holding out for factory seat instead. Rins' problem is that none of the factories want to put him straight into their factory team, instead bringing him on through a satellite team. The question is how long Rins can afford to hold out: at some point, the factory seats will start to fill out, giving Rins the choice between gambling on KTM, and accepting a seat at a satellite team. The longer he waits, the fewer the satellite seats available.
Moto2 – failing as a teaching ground?
One of the issues causing the factories concern is just how well Moto2 prepares riders for MotoGP, and how well results in Moto2 foreshadow performance in MotoGP. The contrasting fates of two former Moto2 champions in their rookie years offer a salutary lesson. Marc Márquez ended on the podium in his first MotoGP race, won his second MotoGP race, and went on to become MotoGP champ at the first attempt. Tito Rabat has consistently circulated at the rear of the field, his struggle to adapt to the premier class all to obvious and public.
Clearly, there are major differences between the situations the two riders find themselves in. Márquez came in to a factory Honda ride, on an RC213V which Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner had developed to be arguably the best bike on the grid. Since then, the bike has got gradually worse, and become ever more difficult to ride. Added to that, Rabat joined MotoGP the class had just changed from Bridgestone to Michelins, and adopted spec electronics. That put private teams at a disadvantage, as several satellite riders have pointed out.
Leaving all that aside, it has been clear that Moto2 has left Tito Rabat woefully unprepared for MotoGP. He has been shocked at exactly how competitive the series is, and just how tough it is to even get anywhere near the points. It has been not just a baptism of fire, but a baptism of brimstone, hell and damnation as well.
That led one MotoGP team manager to comment to me off the record that they felt that Moto2 was not a good recruitment pool for MotoGP riders. "When I sign a rider for MotoGP," the team manager said, "I will not sign them from Moto2."
The other side of the coin
When I phoned Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal to ask him about this, the Frenchman disagreed vehemently. "Good!" Poncharal said. "This means I have more riders to choose from!" The prospect of signing an existing rider in MotoGP was simply not appealing to him, Poncharal said. "To take an old guy and do OK is not exciting for me," Poncharal told me. "Taking a young guy and teaching them is much more interesting." Given that the Tech 3 team has a role as a pathway through to the factory team, as a sort of Yamaha junior team, this answer is not surprising.
When I suggested that World Superbikes might be a better option, Poncharal was complimentary about the level of riders in the series, but pointed to the lack of viable candidates. When I gave my assessment, he agreed wholeheartedly. Jonathan Rea was clearly talented enough, but at 29 years old, a little old. Michael van der Mark shows a lot of potential, but needs to demonstrate he is clearly better than his teammate, and worthy of a gamble. Chaz Davies, like Rea, is 29, and though clearly on a level with Rea, and competitive enough for MotoGP, a little too old to be taken into consideration. Tom Sykes is 31, and being beaten by his teammate. Alex Lowes shows potential, but has struggled to make an impression on the Yamaha. None of them were under consideration for a ride in MotoGP, as far as Poncharal was concerned.
The best option was to look at Moto2, Poncharal said, though he acknowledged that the field was a little sparse at the moment. Sam Lowes, Alex Rins and Jonas Folger were the pick of the bunch, with Poncharal acknowledging he was in talks with Folger for a seat in the Tech 3 team. Johann Zarco had also proved to be fast, but Zarco already has some kind of deal with Suzuki.
The real excitement is in Moto3, according to Poncharal. "Moto3 is where the talent is," the Frenchman said. Jorge Navarro, Fabio Quartararo, Brad Binder, Nicolo Bulega, Romano Fenati, Poncharal could easily see all of them racing in MotoGP in the not too distant future. First, though, they needed to pass through Moto2, to get used to the weight and power of a Moto2 bike. "Talent levels go up and down in every championship," Poncharal told me. Talent is cyclic in nature, with barren patches punctuating more fertile patches. Moto2 is just coming out of such a barren patch, while Moto3 is currently very deep in talent indeed. There is still hope.
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