After the drama and speculation at Le Mans, it will be Maverick Viñales who will join Valentino Rossi in the Movistar Yamaha team in 2017. The reports pegging Dani Pedrosa for the seat alongside Rossi turn out to have been wrong, despite coming from highly credible sources. On Friday, Spanish magazine website Solomoto reported that Viñales flew to Milan to sign the contract at Yamaha Motor Racing headquarters in Gerno di Lesmo, a stone's throw from the Monza circuit.
Solomoto's report was followed by a deluge of other Spanish news sites reporting the same facts, though citing different sources. This makes it more likely that the news really is true this time, and that Viñales has indeed signed with Yamaha. The deal will see Viñales sign for two years alongside Rossi, with the announcement to be made on Thursday at Mugello.
The fact that Viñales is to be in Thursday's pre-event press conference at Mugello could have tipped us off to the news, but the Suzuki rider's podium at Le Mans – his first in MotoGP, and the first for a Suzuki since 2009 – was a legitimate reason to have Viñales in the room. Dorna's rule of thumb for putting together the press conference line up is to have the championship leader, the winner of the previous race, a rider relevant to the event (e.g. a local rider, or someone with ties to the event through their team, etc.), and other riders who are in the news for one reason or another. Getting a first podium in MotoGP is a good reason to be invited onto the press conference panel. Then again, so is signing a factory contract.
Who is Deep Throat?
So what happened to all the talk of Dani Pedrosa to Yamaha? That is an intriguing tale, but one which we have yet to get to the bottom of. Both MCN and El Pais are reputable publications, not given to baseless speculation, and so they must have had their sources. Who those sources were would reveal a lot about the forces involved in the deal.
The most logical explanation is that sources inside Yamaha leaked the link up with Pedrosa, as a way to force Viñales into making a decision. When the prettiest girl in the room asks you to dance, it is unwise to dillydally, and a public flirtation with Pedrosa may have been Yamaha's way of forcing Viñales to make up his mind.
But it could also have been a ploy by Suzuki, to try to persuade Viñales to stay with them for next year, by giving the Spaniard the impression that he was not necessarily Yamaha's first choice. It could have been a bargaining chip by people close to Dani Pedrosa, to make HRC more aware of the Spanish veteran's value to the Repsol Honda team. It could even have been Dorna getting involved, wanting either Viñales to stay at Suzuki to fulfill the fairytale, or Suzuki to go to Yamaha to add a fifth potential winner to the line up of MotoGP victors.
All that is speculation, however, which we fill in to suit our own beliefs and logic. In reality, only a few people will ever know the truth. Journalists do not reveal their sources, even when those sources have not proven to be reliable.
Viñales' move to Yamaha leaves Dani Pedrosa stuck at Honda. Today, the Repsol Honda team announced that Pedrosa will stay with the Repsol Honda team for another two years, almost certainly alongside Marc Márquez. Pedrosa has been with Honda since he entered Grand Prix racing in 2001. He is a proven winner, and capable of challenging for a title, though so far, he has been unable to win one, coming closest in 2012, when he finished just 18 points short of Jorge Lorenzo. He is, quite simply, the best option Repsol Honda have, though given the intensely physical nature of riding the RC213V, you have to question whether the reverse is also true.
Viñales' departure leaves a vacancy at the ECSTAR Suzuki team. Ideally, Suzuki would have liked to keep Viñales, and contractually, they could have done so, as they had an option on him for a third season. However, team boss Davide Brivio realizes that keeping a rider against his will is pointless. It only breeds resentment in the team, and leaves the rider looking for a way out at the earliest opportunity. That detracts from his focus on the racing, and that is bad for everyone.
Viñales' role in Suzuki was as the up and coming young rider capable of taking the storied marque to race wins, and perhaps even to championships. He was to be the new Kevin Schwantz (a role he has now forfeited). Ideally, Suzuki would want to replace him with a similar rider, but the list of candidates capable of doing just that is alarmingly short.
Youth vs experience
The two most obvious candidates to take the empty Suzuki seat are Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. Iannone's manager Carlo Pernat has already hinted at an offer from the Japanese factory, though it is hard to tell whether that is a bargaining chip to be used for the spot left open at Ducati, or whether Iannone would take on a ride on currently less competitive bike (though the gap to Yamaha and Ducati has diminished greatly this year).
Iannone and Rins offer two very different prospects. Iannone is in his fourth season in MotoGP, and has had experience of developing a factory MotoGP machine. He is a proven podium candidate on a competitive bike, and the rider currently looking on the verge of a win. Rins is a rider in the mold of Viñales, a rising young Moto2 star who looks capable of being competitive when he moves up to MotoGP. Yamaha are trying to tie Rins down to a contract, but the Spaniard does not want to spend time in the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite team, preferring to wait for a factory ride. That would leave him to choose between Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia, with Suzuki clearly the most competitive of the three.
Suzuki could contemplate signing both Rins and Iannone, but that would leave Aleix Espargaro out in the cold. Espargaro has a wealth of experience on MotoGP machinery, and has been the driving force behind developing the Suzuki GSX-RR. Replacing Espargaro would leave Suzuki with two – or possibly three – new riders on their bike.
The most likely scenario is that Suzuki will choose one of Rins and Iannone to ride for them next year. Which one is yet to be seen.
That also raises the question of Johann Zarco. The Frenchman already has a contract with Suzuki, but the details of it are still vague. Zarco is to race in the Suzuka 8 Hours race for the Japanese factory, and he is to test the MotoGP bike. Whether that means he will be racing a Suzuki in MotoGP in 2017 is still unclear.
The one place where Zarco could end up is on a satellite Suzuki. There are credible reports that Lucio Cecchinello is talking to Suzuki about dropping Honda and becoming a satellite Suzuki team. The crippling fees Honda are still asking for the RC213V remains an issue for LCR, and Suzuki could be a better deal. That would be a tough decision for Cecchinello, however, as the LCR Honda team boss has remained loyal to HRC since he first entered MotoGP with Casey Stoner back in 2006.
There is a good chance that LCR Honda will remain just that. Cal Crutchlow is said to be close to extending his deal with LCR, which would mean remaining with Honda.
For the moment, much of this is speculation, as the more serious part of Silly Season is starting to get underway. Negotiations will start in earnest at Mugello, with several more contracts likely to be tied up at Barcelona, which will include Ducati's choice of which Andrea will stay with the Bologna factory. Then, the focus will switch to the satellite teams. The silliest of Silly Seasons is set to run for a while.
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