MotoGP Silly Season Update: Filling Factory Seats, and Satellite Speculation

In any other year, the approaching weekend at Barcelona would see speculation around MotoGP's Silly Season nearing its peak, with a spate of contracts signed in the weeks which follow. But this is not any other year. Going into the 2016 Gran Premi de Catalunya at the Montmeló circuit, eight of the twelve factory seats open for next season have already been filled, while a ninth is just a matter of days away. Of the remaining three, only the seat at Aprilia is truly up for grabs, the open seats at Suzuki and KTM already having riders penciled in. It is truly a bizarre year.

So where are we so far? The seats at the factory Ducati and Yamaha teams are all taken, with Andrea Dovizioso partnering Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati while Maverick Viñales joins Valentino Rossi at Movistar Yamaha. Repsol Honda is as good as complete: Dani Pedrosa has already signed on for two more years, while Marc Márquez acknowledged at the press launch for the Barcelona MotoGP race that he would "definitely continue with this bike." He will sign a contract with Honda again, but he wants it to be a "perfect" contract.

Suzuki, KTM and Aprilia all have one rider signed already. Sam Lowes' seat at Aprilia was settled already two years' ago, when he signed for Gresini to race in Moto2 in 2016, and MotoGP for 2017 and 2018. Bradley Smith was the next to slot into place, signing on for the first seat at KTM ahead of the first race of this year. And Andrea Iannone took over at ECSTAR Suzuki after Viñales announced he was leaving, and Ducati announced they were keeping Dovizioso.

Japan vs Italy

So what of the remaining three seats? The second seat at Suzuki appears to be the subject of a battle between the team led by Davide Brivio and the factory HQ back at Hamamatsu. The strategy put together by Brivio and Italy-based team was to have a fast young rider paired with a more experienced older rider. Maverick Viñales was their main focus, but the Spaniard could not turn down the opportunity of a factory Yamaha, a bike which is a proven winner. With Viñales gone, Brivio and co have turned their attention to Alex Rins, the Moto2 youngster having followed a similar path to Viñales, and pairing youth with talent in exactly the way in which Suzuki are looking for.

At Hamamatsu, Suzuki management are yet to be fully convinced of that strategy. They see Viñales departing, and they are keen to keep some continuity in the MotoGP project. That means keeping Aleix Espargaro, the rider signed as the more experienced development man. Brivio, however, sees Andrea Iannone in that role, despite the Italian not having experience of the Suzuki GSX-RR. Espargaro, meanwhile, points to his record, and the role he has played in developing the bike. It was Espargaro who secured the first front row start for Suzuki, and also their first pole. Though he trails his teammate by 10 points in the championship, he has also regularly beaten Viñales.

Who will win? At Mugello, it seemed a dead cert that Alex Rins would get the second seat. Since then, things have gone quiet, but there is little reason to think much has changed. Various paddock sources insist that Rins and Suzuki are still talking, but that an agreement is yet to be signed.

A surprise sort-of return?

If Rins takes the second seat at Suzuki, where does that leave Aleix Espargaro? The latest rumors place the elder of the Espargaro brothers at Aprilia, alongside Sam Lowes. Aprilia has refused to confirm such speculation, unsurprising given the delicate situation they find themselves in. But with the Montmeló circuit being just a stone's throw away from Granollers, the town from which the Espargaro brothers hail, this weekend would be a good time to announce a deal.

It might be Aleix being announced, or it might be Pol. Sources close to the younger Espargaro revealed that he had three options to choose from: a one-year extension of his deal with Yamaha, which would see him spend another year in Tech 3; a two-year deal with Avintia Ducati, which would see him ride a Desmosedici GP (aka a GP16); or joining KTM alongside his current Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith. Pol Espargaro had made his decision over the weekend, a source informed me, but the final details are still being ironed out. That should mean an announcement being made on Thursday, with KTM the hot favorite.

That would make a lot of sense for KTM. Both Smith and Espargaro are fast and hungry, and both are intelligent riders. Smith's technical insight and ability to explain things is exceptional, and Espargaro is no slouch in that area either. They are both still ambitious, though each has a slightly different reason for joining a factory team. For Smith, he wants to be involved in the development of the project, in bringing it to fruition. Espargaro believes a factory ride is his only chance of success, of having the input and options needed to build a bike capable of taking on the likes of Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.

Satellite speculation

With the factory seats filled, attention will quickly shift to the satellite teams. Of those, Jonas Folger has taken one seat at Tech 3, while Scott Redding has a contract with Ducati to stay at Pramac for next year as well. Jack Miller has one more year of his three-year HRC contract to go, and a seat at Marc VDS Racing, while Cal Crutchlow also has an option to stay with LCR Honda.

Crutchlow's seat is not certain, however. The LCR team have an option to replace Crutchlow depending on his performance, and the Englishman has held preliminary talks with other teams in the MotoGP paddock, and beyond. His position is made even more uncertain due to LCR's dalliance with Suzuki. It looks like LCR will stick with Honda for 2017, though that is very much dependent on finances, and the amount of money Honda want for their RC213V (despite a price cap being enforced, factories find ways to extract the price they want from teams). If LCR does switch to Suzuki, they may also look towards another rider.

There are still plenty of options inside the MotoGP paddock for Crutchlow, however. With Tito Rabat struggling so badly, the Spaniard may choose to look for either another option inside MotoGP, or perhaps even a return to Moto2. Crutchlow would be an obvious choice to fill any vacancy at Marc VDS, as he already has experience of the Honda and has proven he is capable of getting results on the bike, something which the other satellite Honda riders have been unable to do. Pairing Crutchlow with Jack Miller would also be logical for a team which is extremely good at extracting the maximum media coverage for their sponsors. Crutchlow and Miller did well at LCR, and could do even better at Marc VDS.

Old and new

At Pramac Ducati, the chances of Danilo Petrucci staying for another year are very high indeed. Team manager Francesco Guidotti was confident of being able to keep Petrucci when we spoke to him at Mugello, and Petrucci has performed remarkably well considering the injury to his hand.

The second seat at Tech 3 is still up in the air, though team manager Hervé Poncharal insists that he is holding the seat for Pol Espargaro until such time as the Spaniard signs for someone else. If he loses Espargaro, then the chance is high that Tech 3 will take another rookie. Given the relatively small number of Moto2 riders looking capable of making the jump to MotoGP, the chances are that Johann Zarco could end up at Tech 3. Zarco is older than the already signed Jonas Folger, and the Frenchman has a much more mature approach to racing. He also has the kind of inch-perfect smooth style which the Yamaha rewards, and being French, should be able to fit in well with the French Tech 3 team.

Despite the fact that announcements are expected at Barcelona, MotoGP's Silly Season will continue to rumble on. As factory seats fill up, attention will shift to the satellite seats, though they might take a little longer to sort out. So far, MotoGP's musical chairs have thrown up a fair few surprises. There is good reason to expect this trend to continue.

Below is the current state of signed contracts for MotoGP riders:

Movistar Yamaha
Valentino Rossi 2017-2018
Maverick Viñales 2017-2018
 
Factory Ducati
Jorge Lorenzo 2017-2018
Andrea Dovizioso 2017-2018
 
Repsol Honda
Dani Pedrosa 2017-2018
Marc Márquez*  
*Marquez has not yet signed, but will do soon
 
Ecstar Suzuki
Andrea Iannone 2017-2018
 
Gresini Aprilia
Sam Lowes 2017-2018
 
KTM Factory
Bradley Smith 2017-2018
 
Pramac Ducati
Scott Redding 2017
 
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha
Jonas Folger 2017-2018
 
Marc VDS Honda
Jack Miller* 2017
*Miller's contract is with HRC, and they will decided whether to honor the last year of his contract
 
LCR Honda
Cal Crutchlow* 2017
*The team have an option to not extend the contract

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Total votes: 110
Total votes: 105

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Comments

Any word on him David? Likely to stay with Aspar?

Total votes: 110

Zarco already has some some sort of contract with Suzuki, right? What's the status on that? Is it cancelled? I am kind of hoping that LCR will switch to Suzuki's next year, with Crutchlow and Zarco, for example. Or else that maybe Aspar will do so, with Eugene Laverty and Johann Zarco. 

Regarding the Suzuki factory team, it seems justified to keep Aleix, not just because what he did last year, but also because of his recent results, after struggling with the new chassis, tyres and electronics in the first races (as I understand, he was doing most of the testing and experimenting). Rins seems like a gamble to me, more so than Viñales was. And when Aleix does go, I would pick Zarco over Rins. But that's just judging from my couch of course.

Very interesting to see what Smith can do on the KTM next year! Exciting project!

Total votes: 110

with all the talk on this I just assumed Zarco to Suzuki had already been ironed out. A little disappointed now that it seems it's off. I'd like Aleix to stay for sure but Zarco, imo, has earned his shot in the GP

Total votes: 93

If all this speculation is true, we will lose Yony Hernandez; not that he's an alien or that I am a fan, and I fully understand who are the fastest men out there; but the championship will be more Eurepean than ever, with the only exception of Miller. We need Casey to go back racing to balance

Total votes: 102

How many GP16s will there be to go around? Pramac and Avintia on GP16s with maybe Aspar on GP15s?

Total votes: 97

... holding out for the "perfect contract".

What if HRC don't change?  Where will he go?  Yamaha factory is out.  Suzuki?  Most of the competitive rides are already allocated.

Methinks that in the game of musical chairs, Marc may have left things too late to be playing games with contracts.  I'm sure there are plenty of riders who would jump at the chance to ride the HRC bike, if Marc decides he doesn't agree to HRC's terms.

Sure, getting a rider of Marc's calibre may be very difficult, but either way, I think HRC probably hold the better hand in this poker game than Marc.

Total votes: 108

MM may have no where else to go next year but HRC screwing MM over this contract is a short trem win on HRC's part. Any feelings of getting the short end of the stick will manifest it self at the first opportunity MM gets at the next big round of musical chairs. It is in both parties interest to work to a mutual benificial agreement.

Total votes: 90

When you're talking about someone like Marquez, contract status of other teams doesn't matter. Ducati or Suzuki will happily give Marquez a ride with a full-factory seat. They'll bench one of their contracted riders or make another one-bike team if need be. Money isn't an issue either, because Marquez has his small personal army of sponsors and finding sponsors would be extremely easy when a big name like that is involved.

Of course, none of this would happen because Honda and MM will reach an agreement at some point.

Total votes: 93

Marc is the only one that can ride that POS to a podium, let alone a victory. Trust me, Marc has ALL the cards in his hands.

Total votes: 93

I salute you on yet another piece of intelligence.

Only worry; I can´t see Jack Miller continue on the Marc VDS Honda. This team has spent millions on two riders, and they are desperate. I know that HRC makes the call. But what is the atraction on Miller, apart from the money already invested? 

 

Total votes: 106

After seeing Redding improve his speed after moving to Ducati (regardless of his results), I'd like to see Miller on a Ducati next year. I don't think Honda will keep him for the 3rd year, I don't see Tech3 taking the risk, but I could see Ducati putting him at Aspar.

Total votes: 89

I don't believe the Honda is justifying his obvious talent, look at how Tito or Cal is doing. He's still very young and well deserved a change on a different bike.

Total votes: 96