Secrets are hard to keep in the MotoGP paddock. When it comes to contracts, usually someone around a rider or team has let something slip to a friendly journalist – more often than not, the manager of another rider who was hoping to get a particular seat, but lost out. It is not often that real bombshells drop in MotoGP.
So the report by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that Repsol Honda were in talks to sign Jorge Lorenzo came as a huge shock. The assumptions which almost everyone in the paddock had been making – that Lorenzo would be riding a full factory Yamaha M1 in a Petronas-funded satellite team operated by the Sepang International circuit – turned out to have been nothing more than a useful smokescreen. Instead, Lorenzo has signed a two-year deal with HRC to partner Marc Márquez. The announcement was originally due at Barcelona, but the publication by La Gazzetta forced Honda to make a hasty and brief announcement..
The Petronas rumors had plenty of fire to provide the smoke. In an interview with Crash.net, Sepang International Circuit CEO Dato' Razlan Razali openly discussed the possibility of running Yamahas with Lorenzo and Franco Morbidelli. Everyone I spoke to – including other team managers, rider managers, riders, journalists – believed that Jorge Lorenzo would be riding a Yamaha in 2019.
Dropping the bomb
Lorenzo had added his own fuel to the fire by announcing his intention to continue racing, though not with Ducati. "What I just can say is that I will continue for the next two years. I will not retire. And I will be with a good bike. This is the only thing I can say. I guess in Montmeló you will have more information," the Spaniard said on Thursday. After his win on Sunday, he made it plain his future did not lie with Ducati. "For one side of my heart is sad. I’m very happy about this victory. Very, very happy, but one side of me is sad because I believe if I had this modification [the new tank unit] before I could tell you that I would continue Ducati, but I cannot tell you that."
But it appears that Lorenzo already knew that he was bound for the Repsol Honda team. Spanish sports daily Marca reports that the Mallorcan had already been in contact with HRC prior to the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, as it became increasingly clear that Ducati were not inclined to retain him. My own sources confirm this, one person with knowledge of the situation telling me that they had heard about the rumors two weeks before Mugello.
The deal was only finalized after a phone call between Jorge Lorenzo and Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig, Lorenzo's manager Albert Valera told Spanish sports daily AS.com. Lorenzo had "spoken from the heart and convinced [Puig] that he should have this bike," Valera told AS.com reporter Mela Chercoles. Lorenzo assured Puig he was in better shape than ever, and ready to take on another challenge. Puig promised to speak to HRC's Japanese bosses, who eventually gave him the go ahead to sign Lorenzo.
Stroke of genius or stroke of luck?
Viewed from one perspective, this was a last-gasp chance for both Honda and Lorenzo. Lorenzo had been in talks with Suzuki through the early part of the year, but Suzuki management back in Japan had rejected the idea of signing another star after a difficult experience with Andrea Iannone. Team boss Davide Brivio is believed to have flown to Japan after Jerez, where he was told to sign Joan Mir, which is due to be announced next week at Barcelona.
Then there was the Sepang-Petronas Yamaha, which everybody had been assuming would be Lorenzo's destination up until La Gazzetta dropped their bombshell on Tuesday morning. Lorenzo appears to have grown nervous at the political difficulties surrounding that team, as the Marc VDS team were mired in internal conflict, while the Sepang circuit rejected Dorna's push to unite them with Jorge Martinez Aspar's Angel Nieto Team.
It had long been expected that the Marc VDS team would switch to Yamaha for 2019, but the legal dispute between team owner Marc van der Straten and team manager Michael Bartholemy stopped that plan in its tracks. The Angel Nieto Team, meanwhile, has been forced into a passive waiting role. Dorna had wanted Sepang to work with the team, but the Malaysian circuit feared being associated with Jorge Martinez, who is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the Valencia F1 race.
With the Yamaha project in limbo, and the Suzuki off the table, Lorenzo appears to have decided his best option lies with Repsol Honda. But the same could be said for Honda. All of the riders HRC is rumored to have pursued have turned the ride down, or signed elsewhere. Alberto Puig is reported to have been chasing Johann Zarco, but the Frenchman had by then already signed with KTM. They had an option on Joan Mir, but Mir chose Suzuki over Repsol Honda.
Repsol Honda had also approached Danilo Petrucci, the Italian said in an interview with La Gazzetta. According to AS.com, they had also spoken to Petrucci's Pramac Ducati teammate, Jack Miller, though the Australian denied he knew anything about it. "I haven't turned down anything," he told us after the race on Sunday. "I'm happy where I am, but of course if factory teams are knocking you don’t shut the door."
With all of these riders turning him down, Alberto Puig needed a strong rider to replace Dani Pedrosa, who he was determined to get rid of. When Jorge Lorenzo offered himself to Repsol Honda, it was an opportunity too good to turn down. It is debatable whether Puig planned to have the two most successful riders of the past six years, but that is how things have turned out. If Puig had gotten rid of Pedrosa and not managed to sign a major name, as looked like being the case on Sunday night, the ex-500cc racer would have looked fairly incompetent. With Lorenzo signed, he now looks like a genius.
It is impossible to state just how dominant the combination of Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez have been in MotoGP. The pair have won every single title since 2012, the year before Márquez entered the class, with Lorenzo winning in 2012 and 2015, Márquez taking the championship in other years. Of the 96 races held since Márquez entered the class in 2013, Márquez has won 38, and Lorenzo has won 22, a grand total of 60, or 62.5%. They have also taken the same number of poles, either Márquez or Lorenzo starting from the front of the grid in 62.5% of races. If Lorenzo can adapt to the Honda RC213V quickly, Honda are almost guaranteed the team and manufacturer titles for the foreseeable future, as well as being hot favorites to take the rider title as well.
Signing for Repsol Honda will mean a rather sizable pay cut for Jorge Lorenzo. Reports from Spain suggest he will be earning €4 million a year, a third of what he is reported to have been paid at Ducati. But it was also less than he was offered by both Suzuki and Ducati, according to informed gossip. Losing the Suzuki offer may not have been his own choice, but rejecting Ducati for Repsol Honda appears to have been more a question of pride and frustration at the pace at which Ducati listened to and acted on his requests for changes to the bike to make it easier to ride.
Given the physical problems Lorenzo had riding the Ducati, it is surprising that he chose to sign for Repsol Honda. Ever since he first got on the Honda RC213V, Cal Crutchlow has insisted it is the most physically demanding motorcycle he has ever ridden. At Mugello, Jack Miller echoed this, when asked if the Ducati was a tough bike to ride. "For me I face the opposite, I feel easier, well I don’t want to say easier, it is still physical but it isn’t like I’m at home sitting on the couch. The stress of the muscles and things like it throughout the race, and also mental strength, I feel the Ducati I am able to be calmer. I don’t know if it is because of the feeling with the bike so I am riding less tense."
Miller had suffered problems with his arms riding the Honda in 2017. Last year on the Honda I had some big problems with my biceps" Miller said. "Since I’ve been in MotoGP the bicep would tear a bit off the bone, it happened quite a lot. For me I get it at the start of the year after being off the bike for so long. In Malaysia and Thailand the first day it is okay but the second day is worse but normally by the time pre-season testing is over it has gone but with the Honda I’d still have it at the start of the season."
It was problems with his arms and upper body which Lorenzo had complained about prior to receiving the tank extension at Mugello, which allowed him to use his legs to support himself under braking. "I am training harder than ever, I am stronger than ever, I'm doing whatever it takes to be better," Lorenzo said at Le Mans. "I'm much better than two years ago, three years ago, but it's a question of ergonomics. This bike in the braking has a different fuel tank, shorter, more forward, it doesn't support so much. It's more demanding in that area for the arms than last year's bike."
How Lorenzo copes with the physicality of the bike, we will only see once he climbs aboard the Honda RC213V. But the Honda demands a lot of energy to keep under control, both in terms of helping to calm wheelies out of the corners, and in supporting the upper body under the extreme braking the Honda is capable of. The Honda is much shorter than the Ducati, allowing for more weight transfer, which helps in braking, but works against the rider during acceleration.
Turning the corner
The good point of the Honda is its agility. The bike will turn, helped by its shorter wheelbase. That will help Lorenzo carry his customary corner speed, but the agility of the bike also means it is much more unstable. The bike tends to move around a lot under the rider, something which Lorenzo has always disliked in the extreme.
What may also help is the fact that the bike rewards being ridden smoothly. Though Márquez may look like a wild man on the RC213V, his inputs are extremely subtle. His subtlety in acceleration, braking and the careful transition of body movements all help not to upset the bike any more than its usual state of wild abandon. Lorenzo is arguably the smoothest rider on the grid, and if he can accept the bike moving around, he may well be able to get the best out of the Honda.
Predictions are difficult, especially about the future, as the Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, but if Lorenzo can work on his fitness, he may find the Honda easier to master than the Ducati. The bike at least does what he needs it to do, though he may not like the way it does it.
The next wave
Lorenzo's arrival at Repsol Honda triggered a wave of announcements. Ducati immediately announced that Danilo Petrucci has been promoted from the Alma Pramac Racing Team to take Lorenzo's seat in the factory Ducati Team. That leaves Pecco Bagnaia, already signed at the beginning of the year, and Jack Miller in the team. (Miller is not confirmed, but Ducati have an option on him and have promised him a GP19 for next year, and the team are determined to hang on to him).
A few hours after the Lorenzo and Repsol announcements, there came press releases from Tech3 and from KTM. As expected, Hafizh Syahrin is to stay with Tech3 for 2019, and will ride the KTM RC16 bikes the team will be using next season.
The Tech3 switch is also a reminder that everything is not going swimmingly for Monster Energy in the MotoGP paddock at the moment. The Tech3 team will be switching to Red Bull for 2019, as part of their greater integration with KTM. That has not been announced yet, and team boss Hervé Poncharal refused to confirm the move on the record, but a switch seems certain to happen.
With Jorge Lorenzo going to Repsol Honda, Monster will also be losing one of their top athletes. As the team is backed by Red Bull, it seems unthinkable that Lorenzo could retain his Monster backing. He will almost certainly switch to Red Bull, just as he dropped Rockstar for Monster when Monster became sponsors of the Yamaha MotoGP factory team. Monster are not entirely lost, of course, as they still have Valentino Rossi (still the biggest name in MotoGP) and Maverick Viñales in the Movistar Yamaha team, as well as Franco Morbidelli and Cal Crutchlow, two stars in their own right.
Though there have already been a slew of announcements, there should be more at Barcelona next week. One will be official confirmation that Joan Mir will be riding for Suzuki in MotoGP in 2019. Dani Pedrosa is another rider who will be announcing his future at his home round, according to a statement he released after HRC announced they would not be renewing his contract.
That Honda would let Pedrosa go has been on the cards for a long time, arguably since Alberto Puig took over as boss of the Repsol Honda team. I had been hearing talk that Puig was looking to replace Pedrosa since early this year. Unsubstantiated reports suggested that Puig had been disappointed when Pedrosa had sacked him as his personal manager, and that had broken the trust between the two. Puig had been extremely outspoken in his criticism of Pedrosa in his role as commentator on Spanish TV in 2017, making his decision to release Pedrosa no surprise.
What the decision to let Pedrosa go and hire Jorge Lorenzo will do to the Repsol Honda team is open to question. Marc Márquez' manager Emilio Alzamora has a lot of power in the garage, unsurprisingly given the success Márquez has had. Alzamora and Márquez were perfectly happy to have Pedrosa as a teammate, as the Spaniard was extremely fast – Pedrosa has 31 MotoGP victories, and has won at least one race every season since 2002, a record no one has come close to - but never a threat to Márquez' supremacy.
The arrival of Lorenzo changes the dynamic in the team. Pedrosa was happy to be the de facto number two, and his management was never an issue. Jorge Lorenzo comes expecting at least equal treatment, and has strong management used to making demands and having them fulfilled. Alzamora is unlikely to be happy with the arrival of Lorenzo, no matter how Márquez feels about it. How such issues are handled in the team will be worth watching.
Ride or retire?
So where does Dani Pedrosa end up? It is tempting to assume that the Spaniard will take the seat which Lorenzo was expected to fill. The Petronas-backed Sepang team is coming into MotoGP expecting success, and to do that, they need to hire a rider with a proven track record of winning. With Lorenzo off the table, Dani Pedrosa would make a solid replacement.
But reports from German-language publication Speedweek suggest that Pedrosa may have decided to retire. According to Speedweek, Pedrosa felt that with no factory rides on offer except Aprilia, he had little reason to continue. At 32 years of age, and having spent his entire career with Honda, he had no desire to switch teams. Financially, switching brands might also work against him, as Pedrosa could go on to be an ambassador for Honda once he hangs up his helmet.
If Pedrosa does retire, that would open up extra options for Andrea Iannone. At Mugello, the Italian had announced that he would be leaving Suzuki at the end of the year. "For sure I will not remain with Suzuki," he told reporters. "I will switch to another bike, factory." It has been an open secret that Aprilia have been courting Andrea Iannone, as having a fast Italian on their bike was a priority. But if Pedrosa is not taking the factory-spec Yamaha left vacant by Lorenzo's decision to join Honda, Iannone could be in the frame for that ride.
A small matter of organization
That the project will happen is almost certain, the only question is the logistics surrounding it. As I explained above, the Sepang circuit has a choice of options, and is trying to navigate between buying the grid slots from Marc VDS, or collaborating with the Angel Nieto Team.
There is an intriguing third possibility as well: that Sito Pons could move up to MotoGP, and possibly partner with Sepang. Pons is suffering badly with a lack of sponsors in Moto2, the smaller classes suffering in terms of sponsorship exposure since MotoGP moved to Movistar, a separate pay TV package. A move to MotoGP would do a lot to remedy that, as the class is much more attractive to sponsors overall.
The plan behind a Sepang / Petronas / Yamaha team is to have one proven rider, and another upcoming talent. Speaking to Crash.net's Peter McLaren, Sepang Circuit CEO Razlan Razali confirmed they were initially looking at the pairing of Jorge Lorenzo and Franco Morbidelli. Backers Petronas had two objectives in mind, he said.
"Potentially coming into MotoGP they are looking at a couple of key factors," Razali told McLaren. "Number one is to be able to develop their oil and lubricants with the engine. Number two is performance, to be able to perform to win. And then of course the branding and everything that comes with it. Given the potential with the likes of Lorenzo it would further raise their eyebrows. Again there's a lot of variables, a lot of things beyond my control. But having Lorenzo and probably Morbidelli in this new team - whether it's us or other people – I think is a strong team."
With Lorenzo out of the equation, the only proven winner left available is Andrea Iannone. But a partnership with Morbidelli is a strong possibility, given that Morbidelli comes out of the VR46 stable, which obviously has strong ties to Yamaha.
Marc VDS and Márquez
The future of the Marc VDS team also remains uncertain. The team could continue in MotoGP, now that the dispute between Marc van der Straten and Michael Bartholemy has been settled. One hypothesis is that Emilio Alzamora steps in to take a bigger role in running the team. In that case, Alzamora would want to hang on to Morbidelli, and potentially move Alex Márquez up into MotoGP.
That has been the plan for Alzamora for some time now. But it creates a couple of complications. Firstly, Alzamora's Monlau project is closely tied to Honda in every class they compete in, from Pre-Moto3 in the Spanish championship, through the FIM CEV Junior World Championship, Moto3, and at the moment with Marc VDS, MotoGP. Michael Bartholemy and Marc van der Straten were keen to move the team away from Honda, feeling let down by the level of support they had received from the Japanese factory. Alzamora would want to stay with Honda.
But there is another difficulty in bringing Alex Márquez up to MotoGP. Since winning the Moto3 title, the younger Márquez brother has been beaten by his teammate every season he has been in the Moto2 class. And not just his teammate: he was also beaten by fellow rookie and former Moto3 teammate Alex Rins in the championship.
In 2015, his first year in Moto2, Alex Márquez finished 14th, while his teammate Tito Rabat finished third, and Alex Rins (also in his rookie season) finished second. A year later, Márquez finished 13th, new teammate Franco Morbidelli finishing fourth, while Rins ended third. Last year, Márquez had a much stronger season, but he still ended up only fourth, while teammate Morbidelli went on to be champion.
After six races of 2018, Márquez is currently fourth in the standings, and one place ahead of his teammate Joan Mir. But Mir is a rookie in Moto2, and is just starting to get into the groove. Márquez must fear that he will be outshone by his teammate once again in Moto2.
Nearly done, but not quite
With Jorge Lorenzo at Repsol Honda, Joan Mir to be confirmed at Suzuki, and Danilo Petrucci in the second factory Ducati seat, many of the grid slots have now been filled. There are 17 riders either confirmed or soon to be confirmed on the grid. There are potentially 24 seats available, though it is also possible that the grid drops to just 22 bikes, if Marc VDS withdraws. Much of Silly Season is now over.
There are still big questions remaining. What becomes of Marc VDS? Who will Petronas and the Sepang International Circuit partner with? Will Dani Pedrosa retire, or continue on another manufacturer? After three days of Silly Season mayhem, these questions may take a little longer to answer.
The current state of the MotoGP grid, with signed riders and expected riders, is on this page.
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