At the beginning of the year, I predicted that MotoGP's Silly Season this year would change the face of the MotoGP grid beyond recognition. The revolution I predicted looks like it is coming to pass, but as with every prediction, the changes happening are beyond even what I had expected. Young talent is coming into the series - Joan Mir, Miguel Oliveira - big names are changing bikes - Johann Zarco, Andrea Iannone - and a couple of major names face being left without a ride altogether.
A lot has happened in the past couple of weeks. Contracts have been signed with Andrea Dovizioso, Johann Zarco, Aleix Espargaro, Alex Rins, Miguel Oliveira, and Pol Espargaro, adding to the contracts signed earlier in the year with Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Marc Marquez, and Pecco Bagnaia. With Cal Crutchlow, Franco Morbidelli, and Xavier Simeon already having a contract, there are thirteen seats officially taken for next year. Ducati have an option on Jack Miller - and look certain to exercise it - making it fourteen riders in a strong position. And Taka Nakagami looks very likely to keep his seat at LCR Honda.
But the big news is what happens at Suzuki, Ducati, and Repsol Honda. Rumors that Joan Mir would sign for Suzuki grew very strong at Le Mans, as I wrote on Friday, and now appear to be taking shape. The reliable Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles is reporting in sports daily AS that Joan Mir has signed a two-year deal with Suzuki, which will see him line up alongside Alex Rins for the next two years.
The choice of Mir over either Jorge Lorenzo or Andrea Iannone is the decision of Suzuki bosses in Japan, rather than the team manager Davide Brivio. After a difficult year with Iannone, where both results and PR efforts had disappointed, Japanese bosses decided to choose youth over experience. The pairing of the 22-year-old Rins with the 20-year-old Mir will make them the youngest factory team on the grid, though 2019 will be Rins' third year in the championship, which should be sufficient experience to build a development program on. Mir is exceptionally highly regarded by MotoGP teams, and had interest from both Honda and Ducati. The arrival of Mir means Iannone will be pushed out to Aprilia.
Mir signing with Suzuki leaves Jorge Lorenzo in a very difficult spot. The paddock had been treating Lorenzo's switch to Suzuki as a done deal, as several sources were indicating that a deal was close throughout testing and the early season. But Suzuki's Japanese bosses decided otherwise, and now Lorenzo's only realistic option is Ducati.
The problem for Lorenzo is that Ducati's patience with the Spaniard is wearing very thin indeed. Lorenzo was brought in to Ducati as a three-time MotoGP champion, and a rider ready to take Ducati to wins and a world championship, and he was paid accordingly. Yet it has been Dovizioso who did what Lorenzo was expected to do, while Lorenzo has struggled to adapt to the Desmosedici, much as Valentino Rossi did before him (though it bears pointing out that the current Ducati is a far better bike than the one Rossi rode in 2011 and 2012).
The language being used by Ducati management is much more negative about Lorenzo than it has been previously. "If this chemistry doesn’t start to work at the level we expect, which is fighting for winning races, fighting for podiums, then I don’t think it’s a good idea to continue," Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti told Neil Morrison for Crash.net. And at a presentation of the Ducati Scrambler Food Factory in Bologna, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali echoed that sentiment, adding that Andrea Dovizioso was the rider Ducati regarded as leading the factory effort, and his teammate would be a rider "we are currently talking to and who will come into the team to work in a measured and balanced way."
Where does this leave Jorge Lorenzo? It is looking increasingly like the Spaniard will find himself without a ride for 2019. Lorenzo has offers, but they are financially at a much lower level, with a very large element of reward via bonuses. That is not how Lorenzo regards himself, believing his MotoGP titles mean he has already proven his value. But the racing maxim that you are only ever as good as your last race seems to be holding true at this point.
Could Dorna step in to aid Lorenzo? Possibly. It is not unknown. Dorna commonly helps out riders it wants to keep in the championship, and is believed to have played a role in mediating a place for Valentino Rossi at Yamaha after his time at Ducati. But again, this will only be possible if Lorenzo is willing to take a step down financially, and in terms of status. An entirely hypothetical option is for Lorenzo to take one ride at Marc VDS once they switch to Yamaha next year, as they are expected to do.
If Lorenzo is out at Ducati, the Bologna factory is expected to promote either Danilo Petrucci or Jack Miller. The two Pramac Ducati riders have both been impressive this year, and in an echo of 2016, are engaged in a battle over supremacy in the Pramac team, which would offer promotion to the factory team.
The signing of Joan Mir marks some relief for Dani Pedrosa. Alberto Puig had been keen to get rid of Pedrosa and replace him with a younger rider. But first KTM signed Johann Zarco, and then Suzuki snatched Joan Mir from under his nose. Puig may want to take a risk on Franco Morbidelli, but so far the Italian has struggled with the Honda, as all rookies of recent vintage have done. So keeping Pedrosa for a year may be Honda's best option.
The moves so far bode ill for a number of MotoGP regulars. Scott Redding and Bradley Smith look to be out of MotoGP as of this moment, and Alvaro Bautista may also lose his ride at the Angel Nieto Team unless his results improve, and especially if another young rider comes up from Moto2.
There is one more wildcard which could be added to the Silly Season puzzle, and that is Jonathan Rea. According to the estimable Mat Oxley, his manager Chuck Aksland was present in Le Mans. Rea would very much like to make the jump across to MotoGP, but the man who is dominating in WorldSBK will only do so if the conditions are right. That means a ride on a competitive bike with a factory or factory-backed team, and of those, only the seats at Repsol Honda and Factory Ducati are available, with a possibility at Pramac Ducati if Miller wins the factory seat. Rea's problem is that no matter how much he deserves such a shot, the team bosses do not seem inclined to give him one. That is a tragedy for both MotoGP and WorldSBK.
The list of signings and rumors in MotoGP for 2019 and beyond is below:
|Valentino Rossi||Yamaha M1||2020|
|Maverick Viñales||Yamaha M1||2020|
|Marc Márquez||Honda RC213V||2020|
|Dani Pedrosa?||Honda RC213V||2019?|
|Alex Rins||Suzuki GSX-RR||2020|
|Joan Mir?||Suzuki GSX-RR||2020?|
|Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia RS-GP||2020|
|Andrea Iannone?||Aprilia RS-GP||2020?|
|Johann Zarco||KTM RC16||2020|
|Pol Espargaro||KTM RC16||2020|
|Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati GP19||2020|
|Danilo Petrucci/Jack Miller?||Ducati GP19|
|Pecco Bagnaia||Ducati GP19?||2020|
|Jack Miller?||Ducati GP19||2019?|
|Cal Crutchlow||Honda RC213V||2019|
|Takaaki Nakagami?||Honda RC213V|
|Miguel Oliveira||KTM RC16||2019|
|Hafizh Syahrin?||KTM RC16|
|Franco Morbidelli||Yamaha M1?||2019|
|Angel Nieto Team|
|Xavier Simeon||Ducati GP17?||2019|
Riders / bikes in italics are rumored, but not officially confirmed yet. Seats marked with question marks are still completely open and unknown at this time.
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