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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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