One of the many good things about being a MotoGP rider is that you get offered a lot of free stuff. Take a careful look at the social media feed of any rider and you will see stickers and logos on display, discretely or blatantly, on all sorts of items: caps, sunglasses, t-shirts, jeans, jackets, bicycles, underwear, motorcycles, leathers, MX gear, helmets. You name it, and some brand or other will have given it to a rider to show off on their social media.
The WorldSBK rumour mill spun into action by the news that Michael van der Mark would leave Yamaha at the end of this season. The Dutchman has enjoyed a very successful three seasons with the Crescent Racing-run operation, and there’s little to suggest that he won’t be winning races this year.
The news was first broken by Speedweek, with Ivo Schutzbach reporting that Van der Mark would switch to BMW. The website has always had their finger on the pulse of what’s happening at BMW, so it would be little surprise if this rumour turns into fact very soon. The news, though, is still a surprise.
How did it all come to this?
Van der Mark and Yamaha had seemed like a perfect match for much of their time together. The 2014 Supersport World Champion arrived and formed one of the strongest line-ups in WorldSBK when he was paired with Alex Lowes. There was little friction between the two, and their relationship grew into one of great respect and, as much as is possible in racing, friendship.
With three weeks to go to the official start of the 2020 season for the MotoGP class (Moto2 and Moto3 have already raced at Qatar back in March, lest we forget), the 2021 grid is starting to fill up. Of the 22 seats available next year, 12 have already been filled: Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo in the factory Yamaha team, Alex Rins and Joan Mir at Suzuki, Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, and Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona in the factory and Tech3 KTM teams respectively, Marc Márquez at Repsol Honda, Jack Miller in the factory Ducati team, Aleix Espargaro with Aprilia, and Tito Rabat, who already had a contract before the start of the season.
There are a few more seats we can pencil in as near certainties: Pol Espargaro at Repsol Honda, Franco Morbidelli at Petronas, Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin in Pramac Ducati, Alex Márquez at LCR Honda. Cal Crutchlow is almost certain to be back, whether that be with LCR Honda or Aprilia – the Englishman appears to be giving serious consideration to what might be an attractive payday before he retires. Johann Zarco is likely to be on a Ducati again in 2021, the odds being that he is forced to accept another season at Avintia.
That Danilo Petrucci was heading to KTM was an open secret, after the Italian and his manager, Alberto Vergani, visited the Austrian factory's race department in Mattighofen. That he would not be replacing Pol Espargaro in the factory Red Bull KTM team is a huge surprise. Instead, Petrucci is to switch to the Tech3 satellite team, and take the place of Miguel Oliveira, who is to be moved up to the factory squad.
According to Italian media, the reasons Petrucci is headed to the Tech3 team are twofold: firstly, as the KTM press release makes clear, because all four KTM RC16s will be full-factory spec, and with full factory support. And secondly, because Brad Binder had a clause in his contract stating he would be in the factory team in his second year.
Though racing has stopped, necessity is forcing teams and factories into making choices. With almost everyone in MotoGP out of contract at the end of 2020, and only a few riders already signed up, seats have to be filled for next year and beyond, racing or no racing.
After the early spate of more or less expected signings, the latest round of deals are more of a surprise. None more than the expected deal for Pol Espargaro to join Repsol Honda in 2021, displacing Alex Márquez as brother Marc's teammate before the younger Márquez has had a chance to prove his worth. That, as I wrote previously, will inevitably lead to a parting of the ways between Marc Márquez and HRC, I believe.
It has been two weeks since news of that deal emerged, and yet there is still no confirmation. Despite protestations to the opposite, the deal is very much on. But there is something of a hiccup along the way, in the form of a contractual stipulation that forbids Espargaro from discussing a deal with another factory before September 15th. No announcement will be made before then.
Actions speak louder than words
The news that Jonathan Rea had re-signed with Kawasaki was met with almost universal ambivalence. There are lots of pros and cons to Rea staying put. From a racing perspective, why would he leave? He has a team centred around him with a proven track record of success. What could motivate him to move? A new challenge is the reason most cited.
In 2014 there was a general feeling in the WorldSBK paddock that Rea was a rider waiting for the right opportunity to show his true ability. Years on a Honda had seen him at the sharp end of the field, despite racing with a blunt weapon. Switching to the all-conquering Kawasaki gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Five world titles, 74 race wins, and 128 podiums later, and Rea is regarded as the greatest Superbike rider of all-time. There’s nothing left for Rea to prove in WorldSBK so why would he leave? A loyal team, a good bike, a hefty pay cheque and an ambassadorial role with the manufacturer when he retires would certainly make it very difficult to walk away from Team Green.
Picture the scene. The sun is setting over the hills that surround the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The day has been fierce and the weekend is only going to get hotter. Keeping a cool head, keeping your eyes on the prize will be crucial but all you can hear is talk of chatter.
Chatter is a paddock keyword. You hear about it all the time. You hear it a lot more in June because this isn’t chatter on the bike. It’s chatter inside the paddock.
Rumours become fact very quickly in the MotoGP and WorldSBK paddocks. All it takes is a chance photograph for a story to suddenly have legs and suddenly half the paddock is running around and chasing their tails looking for quotes and concrete information.
The rider market. The silly season. The rumour mill. The fools errand. Trying to keep abreast of the market is an important part of paddock life. Rumours are currency and having good sources gives you a lot of information to trade with people. Trying to report it? If you’re hitting more than you're missing it’s a very good batting average, and people remember the wild swings more than the home runs.
The rumors had been doing the rounds for some time, but last night, things came to a head. Multiple media outlets were reporting that Pol Espargaro has signed a deal to ride for Repsol Honda in 2021. The most interesting facet of this was that several outlets had independent sourcing, making this look highly credible. Information I have seen also confirms this.
Though an agreement seems to have been reached, there are still some hoops to jump through. Speaking to Spanish daily AS.com, Espargaro's manager Homer Bosch said negotiations with Honda, KTM, and Ducati were still going on. "It's not true that Pol has a verbal agreement to go and race for the Repsol Honda team next year," he told AS.
Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig issued a similar statement denying an agreement had been reached. "HRC is always thinking about the present and the future of its structure, from the lower categories to MotoGP. Due to the circumstances that we are in, this season is not developing through the usual channels, but that does not mean that Honda stops continuing to plan the best possible future for all their riders. We do not have any contracts signed with anyone that have not already been announced," he said.
While the motorcycle racing world awaits the return of real racing, contract time is heaving into view. Though the methods are different – Skype calls and WhatsApp messages, rather than private conversations at the backs of garages or between trucks – the objective is the same: to find the best match of bike and rider, giving the most hope of success.
Having to work remotely is the least of both managers' and teams' problems. The bigger issue is that there is next to no data to go on. Teams and factories are having to make a guess at who they think will be strong in 2021 based on who was fast in 2019, and who showed promise in the winter tests. Riders have no idea which bikes have made progress over the winter, and which have stagnated. Is it worth taking a gamble on KTM? Has the Honda gotten any easier to ride?
For the Moto2 riders in with a chance at moving up to MotoGP, they have had just a single race in 2020 to show their worth. What's more, it was very far from an ordinary race: the last-minuted decision to make it a night race instead of a day race complicated tire choice, which some got right and some got wrong. Jorge Martin was widely regarded as the hot ticket for promotion to MotoGP in 2021, yet he had a miserable race at Qatar, finishing 20th. Tetsuta Nagashima won the race, while Joe Roberts dominated practice and qualifying. Nobody was mentioning their names as possible promotion candidates in late 2019.
A race team is forged on the principle of working together to find solutions. No-one can work i isolation and even though once the lights go out and a rider is out there alone the result will come on the basis of the days building up to that point. Motorcycle is a team sport. It’s the ultimate team sport. We delve into Ten Kate’s garage to see how they all work towards the ultimate goal.
How many times in all walks of life has it been said communication is key? In almost every task undertaken, having a clear plan of attack is the basis of getting the job done well. From childhood to adulthood the tasks change but the process stays the same. A checklist is key to ensuring any job is done correctly and for a race team the goal is to minimise mistakes and maximise efficiency.