An Unexpected MotoGP Silly Season - Who Goes Where In 2018?

With all twelve factory riders on two-year contracts, there wasn't supposed to be a MotoGP Silly Season in 2017, or at least, not much of one. That impression was further reinforced when the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad quickly tied up both Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger for an extra year, until the end of 2018.

As usual, reality intervened, of course. Though the factory seats were supposedly taken, there was plenty of interest in the satellite seats once the season got underway. All eyes turned to the Moto2 class, and especially to the remarkable performances by Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia. Alex Márquez, too, raised eyebrows. And so speculation started.

Then there were those factory seats. Yes, all twelve factory riders have two-year contracts, but all contracts have clauses that allow for either side to make an early escape. Great managers make sure the escape clause benefits their rider. Great factory lawyers make sure the contract is in their favor. The measure of a rider manager is where they end up on that side of the equation.

Trouble in paradise?

And so already, there are rumblings at two factories. The stories of Andrea Iannone and Sam Lowes are very different, but possibly related. It is an open secret that both riders have fallen far short of expectations. Iannone has struggled to get his head around the way the Suzuki needs to be ridden, especially the way braking needs to be done. The bike is built to carry corner speed, which means braking as hard as possible in a straight line, then releasing the brakes and carrying corner speed. On the Ducati, Iannone learned to brake later, and keep the brakes on into the corner all the way to the apex. His failure to adapt has seen a string of poor results and growing frustration.

That frustration is rumored to be having an effect in the garage. Despite denials from Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio, who told reporters at Barcelona, "I don’t think the atmosphere is strange at all", sources close to Suzuki suggest otherwise. There are unconfirmed rumors that Iannone and his entourage are souring the atmosphere in the team, and that the atmosphere in the garage is not constructive or positive. Iannone has blown off media debriefs (spending one debrief talking into his phone, before walking off without speaking to journalists), been difficult in TV interviews and been short-tempered with fans. Iannone and Suzuki are not the match made in heaven which the Japanese factory had hoped it would be.

And so Iannone is said to be looking for a way out of Suzuki. Again, Davide Brivio denies this: "We have two years’ agreement with Andrea Iannone," Brivio said. "Maybe somebody might think that being a difficult moment, maybe something strange can happen. It’s not the case. We have a contract and we are thinking on how to fix the problem. It’s simple like that."

Italian style

Yet informed rumor places Andrea Iannone close to a deal with Aprilia. This would suit both Iannone, who in the RS-GP gets a bike which is far better suited to his braking style, and Aprilia, who get an Italian rider to place on their Italian bike.

It also creates a problem. To accommodate Iannone, Aprilia would have to lose one of its two current riders. But both Aleix Espargaro and Sam Lowes have a contract for 2017 and 2018. Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano confirmed at Barcelona that Aprilia was already considering their options, specifically where Lowes was concerned. "We made a big investment in Sam," Albesiano said. We are his first supporters, we really hope that he can quickly show some improvement. But at the same time, we have to prepare next season in case this will not happen. We are talking with some other riders."

Albesiano deftly sidestepped questions about signing an Italian rider. "The difference between a dream and a possibility is on the paper about the definition of this. For us what really matter is the performance of the rider. If he’s Italian it’s okay, but if he’s from Singapore it’s good anyway," he said. But he did reiterate that it was imperative for Lowes to show solid progress.

If Iannone were to leave Suzuki for Aprilia, that would create a cascade of problems and opportunities. At Aprilia, Aleix Espargaro has been performing extremely well until mechanical issues have set in. Albesiano let slip that the issue is related to the operation of the pneumatic valve, necessitating a redesign of some of the smaller parts of the mechanism.

Having a strong Italian rider like Iannone alongside Espargaro would be good for Aprilia, but could cause internal friction inside the team. Italian factories like Italian riders, and Aprilia's resources are limited, as has been shown by the fact that the factory has given new parts to its two riders at a different pace.

The Replacements

Should Iannone leave Suzuki, it would leave the Japanese factory in a huge quandary. Suzuki has a very clear rider strategy, of pairing a youngster with potential with a more experienced rider who bears the brunt of developing the bike. Iannone was signed to be the experienced rider, and there are very few candidates capable of filling that role. At least, there are few who are both available and affordable. So far, the paddock gossip circuit has produced nothing more solid than guesswork.

One rider whose name had been linked to both Suzuki and Aprilia is Cal Crutchlow. For Crutchlow, however, it seems that his talks with those factories was merely a way of putting pressure on HRC. Crutchlow repeatedly told reporters that he had other options, including from factory teams, but he is now close to signing a new two-year deal with HRC, which would see him staying on in the LCR Honda team, according to a report on Motorsport.com. That deal, the report states, would mean increased factory support for Crutchlow in his current team.

This is pretty much the best possible outcome for the Englishman: Crutchlow stays with his current team, and with the group he has formed an excellent working relationship with, while getting more support in the areas he needs, particularly in electronics. The deal has benefits for HRC as well, as Crutchlow has proven to be a very good benchmark for Honda to test against. The mercurial talent of Marc Márquez means he is able to ride around problems, and Dani Pedrosa's small stature means he places very different demands on the bike, but Crutchlow is a relatively normal-sized rider capable of communicating the limitations of the RC213V.

Taka time

Crutchlow's deal with HRC, if it is signed, would free up budget from the LCR Honda team which they will be able to use to run a second rider. Takaaki Nakagami has been linked to a second bike in the LCR team, using the grid slot held open by IRTA for the Italian squad. The budget for a second bike would be covered in large part by Idemitsu, who currently back Nakagami in Moto2, but not having to cover Crutchlow's salary would also free up funds to help.

Originally, Nakagami was only promised a seat in MotoGP if he finished inside the top three in Moto2 this season, but that requirement appears to have been quietly dropped. Both Honda and Dorna are keen to have a Japanese rider in MotoGP, and Nakagami is the best candidate at the moment, until riders start coming through from the Asia Talent Cup and Moto3.

Nakagami is not the only rider to be moving up from Moto2. Franco Morbidelli is as good as signed in MotoGP, though where he lands is yet to be settled. Morbidelli has a deal with Marc VDS to ride their Honda RC213V next year, but the offer contains a get-clause. If the Italian is offered a factory contract, he is free to accept that and leave the Marc VDS stable.

More Moto2 Men

Which factory might that be? Paddock rumor has Morbidelli linked to Pramac, where he would be offered a ride on a factory contract with Ducati, much as Danilo Petrucci has. The question is whether Morbidelli's recent slump of form – after winning four of the first five races, Morbidelli has finished fourth and sixth – is permanent or just temporary. The team has been trying to keep the pressure off the Italian, but with growing speculation about his future, that is proving hard to do. How Morbidelli handles that pressure will help decide where he ends up.

Alex Márquez is also starting to generate some buzz, finally starting to realize the promise he showed in Moto3. When Márquez moved up to Moto2, the long-term plan for the younger Márquez brother was to conquer Moto2 and then move up to MotoGP, either in the Marc VDS squad or alongside his brother Marc in the factory Repsol team. That plan has been shelved, however, after Alex took so long to adapt to Moto2.

Alex Márquez' ascending to MotoGP is further complicated by Jack Miller's position. The gamble on moving the Australian up to MotoGP directly from Moto3 was bold, but is hard to judge. It has been neither a terrible failure, nor an overwhelming success, despite the brilliant ride to victory at a soaking wet Assen last year. Miller has also been hampered by having to ride first a woefully underpowered Open class Honda RCV1000R, and then a woefully overpowered RC213V. He is still struggling with acceleration, as the bike is hard to control out of corners.

Yet Miller looks set to remain in MotoGP. The Australian will likely lose his HRC contract at the end of this year, but he could remain in the Marc VDS team. His manager, Aki Ajo, is talking to Marc VDS, but Miller insisted he had other options as well. In all likelihood, his best option is to stay where he is, and hope for improvement.

One more possible rider who could move up from Moto2 is Pecco Bagnaia. The young Italian is very highly rated in the paddock, one MotoGP team manager giving an audible sigh and looking longingly when I mentioned Bagnaia's name to them. Though Bagnaia is currently inside the VR46 stable, and would therefore presumably be on the fast track to MotoGP once Valentino Rossi retires and takes over the running of the MotoGP team he is rumored to be starting, there are plenty of managers who would gladly take Bagnaia next year. Among them is the Aspar team, who were impressed with the Italian youngster when he rode for them in Moto3, and who allowed him to test their Ducati GP14.2 at Valencia last year.

Holding on

What does all this mean for the existing riders in MotoGP? It is still too early to say. Danilo Petrucci looks set to continue at Pramac, especially after his podium at Mugello. Alvaro Bautista has been very strong on board the Aspar Ducati GP16, and Aspar would like to keep the Spanish veteran for 2018. However, if Iannone does leave Suzuki, then Bautista's stock would rise, as a rider who has a lot of experience with many different machines. Bautista also has history with Suzuki, having originally moved into MotoGP with the factory, and remaining with them until they withdrew at the end of 2011.

Scott Redding hopes to stay where he is for 2018, though his plans are still very much dependent on what Pramac want to do. "My priority would be to stay here, because I think the Ducati suits me," he said at Barcelona. "It’s quite a competitive bike but it depends if they want to keep me or maybe not want to keep me. That’s kind of what it comes down to, and we have to see from there really. I mean if they don’t I need to look for something else, if they do, great."

If Redding does lose his ride at Pramac, then he will likely become one of the many riders queuing up for a shot at the Avintia bikes. There are a string of names being linked to the Ducati satellite squad, including Tito Rabat, who will not get another year with Marc VDS. Current riders Hector Barbera and Loris Baz look likely to lose their rides. After a good season in 2016, Barbera has failed to adapt to the Desmosedici GP16, and has struggled to score points. He sits behind his teammate Loris Baz, who has outperformed him this year.

That may not help Baz, however, as the Frenchman has lost the benefit of his nationality. With Johann Zarco coming in to MotoGP and immediately competing for podiums, Dorna no longer need a Frenchman to help sell the series to French Eurosport. That would be unfair on Baz, who has exceeded expectations on the Ducati, performing well on old machinery.

Chasing unicorns

The problem Baz has, and so many other MotoGP riders have, is that just performing well is not enough. There are plenty of riders who are capable of being more or less competitive in MotoGP, and regularly scoring points. But the number capable of being consistently in the top ten is very small, and those capable of battling for the podium or the win can be counted on the fingers of one hand, just about. MotoGP is full of supremely talented riders. But team managers are on the lookout for the exceptionally talented.


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Total votes: 150
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Comments

Suzuki racing brass must be screaming like hyenas at the thought of trading Aleix for Iannone. Has there ever been such a boneheaded move made by a factory team?

Total votes: 119

Letting Zarco go, and signing Rins?

Total votes: 114

Don't think that is very fair on Rins, the lad has been injured for most of the year.

I still think he is remarkably talented and has the opportunity to do well, although agree that Zarco's debut has been remarkable.

Total votes: 89

They also had a preliminary agreement with Zarco but decided to go with Rins. That doesn't look so smart looking back, doest it?

Total votes: 95

One wonders why they ever signed Lowes in the first place. It took him years to beat Sofuoglu in Supersport and then only just. Besides a few wins here and there in Moto2 (which is not a bad feat for sure) I never understood why Aprilia signed him so early. The MotoGP paddock has some kind of obsession with overrated British riders (Smith, Redding, Kent, Lowes and even though he's Australian I would count Miller too).

 

Total votes: 130

Firstly, he beat Sofuoglu (the most successful WSS of all time) on a bike and team that was reputedly underfunded compared to that of the Turkish rider. In Moto2 he won a race on the Speed-Up chassis, mounting a serious championship challenge and doing something that no-one else has managed to do other than Ianonne, and no-one has come close to matching since. He had some bad fortune after switching to the Kalex (the off and then knock-down by a crashing Zarco has become a popular Internet GIF) but was still a championship contender until halfway through the season. 

I completely understand why they would want such a rider who can risk riding to the limit on a developing bike, especially as Sam had the reputation of making the Speed-Up work. I think the problems he is experiencing now say more about Aprillia and how they are struggling to provide Sam with anything like similar machinery to his team-mate (apparently they are not), and the fault has been in management that if Sam is meant to be riding as a development rider, letting him know that this is the case and not talking about his ride being up for the taking at the end of the year.

Also, Australia hasn't been under the protecterate of the British crown for some time now, you need to update you knowledge of world events before classing Miller as a Brit! :)

 

Total votes: 107

I think Firefly lost all credibility when he labelled 2 World Champions (Sam Lowes & Danny Kent) as overrated. Dread to think what he'd call the other 99% of riders who aren't World Champions.

Back to Sam Lowes... there appears to be an issue in that Aprilia garage, why wasn't his second bike even ready to ride in qualifying at Barcelona? Let alone not being on the same package as Aleix... it stinks. But I suppose it's OK to still take a pop at him because he's British.

 

Total votes: 105

keep a ride in MotoGP or go back to Moto2 if the rumors are true that he and A. Lowes do not want to be in the same series together (which is understandable as competition can ruin a good relationship).

Total votes: 98

I know it's already been mentioned but just a reminder that brits n aussies are very different peoples. Don't know how many poms would hasten to remind you of that, but I know where there's about 22 million aussies who will. 

As to overated riders in general...unless they're all on the same gear with same backing who the hell knows who is actually performing to what level? Like life, motogp is not about equality so the above will never happen and thus we are left to speculate. 

Total votes: 103

I wouldn't say the Aus and British are very different people at all, from wherever in the Isles.  The cultures are pretty similar, certainly compared to anywhere else (excepting NZ).  I always feel quite at home over there and half of my riding mates here are ex poms - though that also says something about those that decide to stay and that they're riders.  I'd say there's a much bigger difference within each culture than there is between them.

Total votes: 96

Considering Baz' past performances in WSBK, am I the only one seeing him being sought after by an upper tier WSBK team?  I am unaware of the current contract status of WSBK's riders, but considering his history with KRT (and the fits he caused Sykes to throw) I am sure there should be a good offer for him to return to the series. 

Total votes: 97

He was my favorite rider in WSBK and I was bummed when he left for MGP. Sefishly so in that I knew being on second (or third) tier machinery, he would never show his true worth unless the skies opened up. I would love to see him back in superbike... specifically on a Ducati. Don't get me wrong, in Loris' absence, I've been rooting for Chaz (I always liked the guy) but he really seems like a broken record at this point as he's his own worst enemy. He could have, should have, won so many more races if he could only stop outbraking himself.

Total votes: 95

i dont see any problems with factories' logic of giving rookies subsubpar machines and expect them to fight for top ten

Total votes: 97

Suzuki and Pirelli should swap Iannone and Aleix. But with a 50% raise for Aleix on top of what they offered to Iannone (even he supports Barça surprise )

Actually, nothing to add to what CTK said. Just wanted to start my "Supporter" Role with a comment smiley

Total votes: 110

Hello, is this Johnny Rea? Yes, this is Suzuki. How would you like to come to MotoGP?

Total votes: 125

Jonny: Oh Hi Davide. Umm Nah. Been there, done that, got shafted by Honda n you've got form too so I think I'll keep my loyalties green.

Ciao. click brrrr

Total votes: 102

After the way Suzuki uncerimoniously dumped Aleix, despite his good performance, I don't think he's too eager to run back to them. They goofed several times over.

Total votes: 94

Aleix will not go back to Suzuki. Not so much because of the way he was let go, but because he specifically has been describing how last year's Suzuki did not suit his riding style, and how much the character of the Aprilia does suit him. Which is showing in his speed this year, which has been pretty good to excellent at just about all tracks except Austin. That he didn't score many points yet, has more to do with all things having to click into place yet, and lack of a bit of luck so far. The potential for good results is there, and that did not seem to be the case with the development direction of the Suzuki, for him at least. It would have been VERY interesting to see what Lorenzo could have done on that Suzuki instead of Iannone. They are both on the wrong bikes for their riding style now.

Total votes: 96

I think Aleix could get podiums with Suzuki, if not wins.  Aprilia seems a longer project with less resources.   If Suzuki came hat in hand, 'hey, we made a big mistake.  We need you!', would Aleix say no?    Imagine a straight swap of Aleix & Iannone, I think that Aprilia loses.  Maniac Joe doesn't seem to be good at development.   Rea -> Suzuki?  don't know, intriguing ..

Total votes: 91

Miller - I don't even count that first year on the Production POS as his first year in MotoGP. Honda wasted a year by putting him on that bike. Yes, it helped him ease into the power difference, but it was completely different to the bike he jumped on - and won on (+ 4 other top 10s) - in 2016. He was doing good in the 1st 3 races this year, but need to get back to that form.

Rins - it's hard to gauge him. He did finish in the top 10 in his 1st race, even after being hurt at Valencia and missing some tests. And he's been hurt since the 2ns race. Would Zarco have the same results he's had on the M1 if he were on the GSX-RR? It's tough to say, because the M1 is so sorted, and the GSX-RR is having issues this year.

Lowes - Also hard to gauge since he's not on the same level of equipment as Aleix. But even so, he should be closer than he is since he did get a few tests on the old bike last year.

Rea - I don't think he's walking away from WSBK for a (right now) uncompetitive Suzuki. He's on his way to becoming the winningest World Superbike Rider (only 13 down from Fogarty, so he could pass that next year at his current pace), and possibly equalling or surpassing Fogarty's 4 championships. And he's on his way to winning a record 3rd championship in a row. He has no incentive to leave.

I would also guess the WSBK teams are frothing at the mouth in hopes of some of the possibly bounced riders (barbara, Baz especially) coming over to race.

 

Total votes: 102

Congratulations to Cal Crutchlow. I hope he is highly valued & very well paid as a Gp winner, world champion & all round top guy.

No  Maniac Joe doesn't seem to be very happy with the Suzuki. I am tempted to think A.I. 29 would be good on the Priller. But is not the Aprilia RS-GP more like the Suzi, high corner speed rather than Ducati give away a tenth in the corner & make up half a second on the straight, stop for the next corner then fire it out again at warp factor eleven.

Total votes: 96

I'll start this off by saying I'm a huge Sam Lowes fan, so maybe just ignore this entire post. I just think it's unreal that going into JUST the 8th round they are ready to reneg on a 2 year deal for a MotoGP rookie. What exactly were they expecting for results?! On THAT bike?! Aliex's allegedly has all the current parts while Sam is "getting used" to the virtually un-upgraded bike! And Aliex's bike keeps giving up the ghost! It seems obvious this is a BIKE issue and not a RIDER issue.

Lowes isn't on a Tech3, he's not on a Suzuki, and he's not on a MVDS Honda - he's typically beating the KTMs and sometimes getting in front of other riders. I'm not saying put him on the Tech3 and he'd be beating Folger (though I really don't think that would be that far out of the realm of possibility), but for Aprilia to just give up on him like this - and for whom???? Iannone??? Good luck with that! I hear they been talking with Bautista after they let him go last year, so hey maybe they sign Iannone this year and next year they'll realize they're mistake and call back Lowes or Bautista again.

Why not try some continuity??? Why not give a guy more than 7-8 races on a brand new bike and brand new formula?

Total votes: 106