There were signs that the MotoGP Silly Season could be wrapped up early last week in Bologna, at the launch Ducati's MotoGP team. Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said he expected to sign the riders for the factory team 'quite early'. "Quite early probably means the second half of February or the first half of March," he clarified. So before the lights have gone out for the first race of the 2018 MotoGP season, Ducati hope to have two factory riders wrapped up, and they are unlikely to be the only factory to have done so.
It is apparent that the riders have taken note of this, and are adjusting their strategy accordingly. After Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran a story suggesting that Ducati were about to sign Pecco Bagnaia to the Pramac team, Danilo Petrucci has told the same paper that 2018 will be his last year with Pramac. "[Team boss] Paolo Campinoti and I both know this. He pulled me out of the gutter, but we know this is our last year together. The cycle is complete."
Poetry aside, Petrucci's announcement is significant. The Italian has a contract with Ducati which promises him a seat in the factory team if one becomes available, in much the same way that Andrea Iannone did previously. But the question is, will there be a seat there for Petrucci to take?
The importance of testing
Much will depend on the results of the first two tests. If Andrea Dovizioso can maintain his pace, Jorge Lorenzo can continue his improvement, and Gigi Dall'Igna can make the bike turn a little (or a lot) better, then Ducati are likely to move to sign their two current riders. Should that happen, then that leaves Petrucci a free man: his contract with Ducati states that if they haven't offered him a seat in the factory team by June, then he is free to pursue other offers. But if both seats are taken, June would come early for Petrucci.
Where could Petrucci go? Both Aprilia and KTM are said to be interested in the Italian, who has dropped four kilos in weight in his pursuit of even better results in 2018. Petrucci could have signed for Aprilia for this season, but he wanted to complete the contract he had signed with Ducati. He would be a desirable signing for Aprilia – Italian factories love having Italian riders – and the bike might suit his riding style.
Petrucci's interview is a symptom of the feverish atmosphere descending upon the paddock. If Ducati are keen to sign riders early, you can be certain the other factories do as well. With Yamaha due to launch the Movistar MotoGP team on Wednesday, there seems a good chance of news coming out of that event, whether that be a signing or Yamaha management announcing their intentions to wrap their riders up early.
Is Yamaha next?
Last time around, Yamaha offered both riders – Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo – new contracts before the start of the season. Only Rossi took them up on their offer, signing on qualifying day for the first race of 2016 in Qatar. Rossi has consistently said he would like to wait for a few races before making up his mind about continuing, but he said the same thing at the end of 2015, and still ended up signing before the 2016 season had even officially begun.
Where does that leave the rest of the field? All we have at the moment is rumor and speculation, some of it based on public statements of some of the players, some of it on wishful thinking. Two riders will be key: if Marc Márquez stays at Honda – and there are no indications he plans to leave – then that blocks one seat at Repsol Honda. If Valentino Rossi decides to keep racing – and he has given every indication of both wanting to continue and remaining competitive – then that locks the factory Yamaha team up.
Rossi's seat at Yamaha is the only one about which there are any real question marks. Maverick Viñales came to Yamaha to win a MotoGP title, and showed during the opening of the 2017 season that he was capable of doing just that, before demonstrating from Jerez onwards that he needed the bike from Yamaha to be able to do it. Though he was often frustrated with Yamaha last year, there are no signs that he intends to leave.
The other Repsol
At Repsol Honda, Dani Pedrosa's time may be coming to an end. There is a spate of young talent available, with Franco Morbidelli moving into the Marc VDS team with Honda, and Joan Mir making his debut in Moto2. Pedrosa has consistently been the third or fourth best rider in the world, winning races when Marc Márquez has not been able to, though he has never been able to wrap up a title. For a long time, there were no better options for Honda to replace Pedrosa with, but the coming wave of talent could persuade HRC to take a gamble on someone else.
For Suzuki, much will depend on the 2018 season. The Japanese factory has worked hard on the bike, and it should be a great deal more competitive this year. But they will also expect Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins to step up, and compete for podiums. Rins is viewed as the long-term solution for Suzuki, but Iannone is expected to be competitive immediately. The Italian's attitude improved in the last few races of 2017, as Suzuki bosses Ken Kawauchi and Shinichi Sahara told Akira Nishimura for MotoMatters.com, so they have high hopes that will continue for 2018 and beyond.
Seats at the other factories are all up in the air. Johann Zarco remains a major target for most factories, though his name has been linked to KTM for 2019 already. If Petrucci goes to Aprilia, as seems likely, the question is whether he displaces Aleix Espargaro or Scott Redding. Espargaro has had an outstanding year on the RS-GP, and sets a very high bar for Redding to aim at.
Monster Mystery Tour
Complicating matters even further is the question of Jonas Folger's empty seat in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. The team and the riders were extremely competitive in 2017, with both Folger and Zarco scoring podiums, and Zarco looking like a consistent candidate for victory. But Folger's withdrawal from the 2018 season leaves Tech 3 with a massive problem, finding a rider who is both fast enough and available for the coming year. The list of candidates who are both is almost zero.
Tech 3 has yet to make an announcement on a rider for next year (nor, it seems likely, have they even made a decision, or even a start on cutting down the shortlist of candidates), but that seat will also factor into Silly Season for next year. If one of the most desirable satellite seats in MotoGP has been filled by what is perceived to be a temporary candidate (as most of the available riders will be regarded), then Hervé Poncharal will have his pick of riders for 2019.
At the moment, much of this is just conjecture. But with the Yamaha launch on Wednesday, and then the Sepang MotoGP test from Sunday, negotiations are likely to start in earnest. At Sepang, most of the paddock – riders and team bosses, at least – all stay in the same hotel, the Sama Sama at the airport. Very convenient for private meetings and informal discussions.
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