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.
There are a couple of question marks too: the second seat at Aprilia is complicated, depending on the outcome of Andrea Iannone's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against his doping ban. If the CAS upholds his suspension, Aprilia will need a replacement for the Italian. If the CAS lifts the ban, then Aprilia have stated their intent to keep him. If Aprilia don't take Iannone, then Crutchlow could go there. If he doesn't, and stays at LCR, then Takaaki Nakagami could be forced to head off to WorldSBK, and race for the Honda WorldSBK team.
But all of this is subsidiary to the two biggest logjams in MotoGP: Andrea Dovizioso in the factory Ducati team, and Valentino Rossi at Petronas Yamaha. For both of these riders – and both of these teams – their contracts should be a mere formality. But for a bunch of complex reasons, neither of them are. Indeed, both seats and riders are surrounded by far more uncertainty than anyone ever could have expected.
Andrea Dovizioso's dispute with Ducati revolves around money. His last contract, negotiated in 2018 after a surprisingly strong 2017 challenging Marc Márquez for the title, and in the middle of doing the same the following year, was generous: according to GPOne.com's Paolo Scalera, some €8 million a year. But now Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella finds himself negotiating in the middle of a pandemic, with Ducati taking a financial hit due to the economic impact of the crisis, and after a season in which Dovizioso managed just two wins rather than the four he scored in 2018.
Ducati, for their part, are demanding that Dovizioso take a pay cut, and a hefty one at that, down to €3 million a year. Perhaps worse than that, Ducati also want Dovizioso to take a pay cut on his existing contract for 2020, citing the shortened season and the pandemic. Battistella counters this by pointing to the fact that in the past three years, Dovizioso has finished second in the championship, and been the only rider to consistently threaten Marc Márquez' hegemony in the MotoGP class.
Then there is the fractious relationship between Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, as was so clear in the Red Bull-backed movie Undaunted, about Dovizioso's 2019 MotoGP season. Dovizioso blames Dall'Igna for not fixing the character of the Desmosedici to make it turn better, and help him be more competitive against Márquez. Dall'Igna, in turn, blames Dovizioso for not using the strengths of the bike to beat the Honda. The two have barely exchanged a word for the best part of two years now.
And yet the two parties looked to be condemned to find an agreement, and a way forward. For Dovizioso, the alternatives are few and far between. He is nearing retirement, and wants another season or two to attempt to win the title before hanging up his helmet. The only other factory seat open is at Aprilia, and though the brand new 2020 version of the RS-GP appears to have made huge steps forward in competitiveness, it is still very much an unknown quantity.
At the moment, a rider of Dovizioso's quality jumping on the Aprilia might hope for a podium or two, and perhaps a win. But the bike won't be ready to challenge for the title in 2021, and whether it will be in 2022 is very much open to question. And this is leaving aside whether there will actually be a vacant seat at Aprilia.
So if Dovizioso has any notion of winning a championship before he retires, Ducati is by far his best bet. Though that doesn't mean he should simply accept the pay cut being proposed by the Bologna factory. As a manager, Simone Battistella told me, his priority was always to try to negotiate the best package possible for his riders. That is much more than just salary; it also means the best bike, the best support, and the best prospect of winning. If Ducati has to cut costs by slashing rider salaries, what does that mean for bike R&D? Will they also be spending less on developing the bike? And does that mean the Desmosedici will be less competitive?
If not Dovi, who?
Likewise, Ducati's options appear to be limited. They already have Jack Miller in the factory squad, and though the Australian has shown a huge amount of progress in the past couple of years, it is a risk to put the full weight of both expectation in terms of a championship and development for the future on his shoulders. Ducati may believe he will be up to the task. But the question is, whether they believe he will be ready to do that as soon as he steps into the factory team.
There is Johann Zarco, but right now, he is still an unproven quantity on a Ducati, and his time at KTM did not leave a favorable impression of the Frenchman at all. Pecco Bagnaia has not made the progress hoped for in his rookie season, and there is no one in Moto2 who looks capable of stepping straight into a factory seat at Ducati.
There is, of course, the very public flirtation between Jorge Lorenzo and Ducati. But the signals from both parties are very mixed. Lorenzo's social media are filled with high fashion and fast cars, not the training and fitness videos you might expect from a rider who still has the burning desire to compete. The three-time world champion told the MotoGP.com website recently that he did miss the feeling of winning races, and that "if the call to try to win the championship came, I would listen and study it." But that presupposes that the call would come in the first place.
For Ducati's part, though some respected journalists claim that Ducati are very interested in Lorenzo, there have been few concrete signs of action. "It is difficult to have a clear idea of his motivations," Dall'Igna told GPOne.com recently. The public messages of Dall'Igna and sporting director Paolo Ciabatti have been vague, and passive. They have not been the sounds of a factory actively pursuing a rider, or expecting to get them to sign.
So at some point, Dovizioso and Ducati will have to come to some kind of accommodation, unless Dovizioso decides to retire. And if he does, that would force Ducati into some hard choices on how to replace him.
The same, but different
Valentino Rossi's delay in announcing a deal with Petronas are a little more complex. There is a financial element to it, but it is far more about structural issues, and the status which Rossi is used to. As I understand it from a variety of sources, the problem is that Rossi wants to bring a very sizable entourage with him to Petronas, and Petronas are not inclined to take them.
There are two parts to this. Firstly, the mechanical side: Rossi has been with his crew, or most of them, since he first stepped up to the premier class. The newest addition is David Muñoz, who takes over as crew chief for 2020. Rossi has taken his crew with him every time he swapped manufacturers: they came to Yamaha from Honda with him, they went to Ducati with him, and most came back again with him. He expects to take them with him when he moves to the Petronas Yamaha squad.
The problem is that one of the lessons of Rossi's switch to Ducati is that taking your entire crew with you is not necessarily a good thing. Ducati felt that the team operated as an independent unit, and lacked the in-depth knowledge of the Desmosedici which might have helped Rossi be a little more competitive on the bike. At the time, Ducati were in no position to refuse Rossi, though if you ask factory teams now, they are not at all keen on riders bringing in an entire crew. They are happy to accept a crew chief, and perhaps a trusted mechanic and a data engineer, but they want those people working closely with long-time experienced factory staff.
Losing a team
There are serious downsides for Petronas too. As Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal explained to me many years ago, when the Rookie Rule was scrapped to allow Marc Márquez to go straight to the factory Repsol Honda team. Having a big-name rider bring their crew into a satellite squad for a short-term project means sacrificing half of the garage, and saying goodbye to mechanics and engineers who they may have been working with for years.
In the case of Petronas, the squad will only have been together for two seasons by the start of 2021, but team managers Johan Stigefelt and Wilco Zeelenberg were very methodical in assembling a team of mechanics for Petronas, picking some of the most experienced and highly rated people in the paddock. If they take Rossi's crew, they would have to fire one half of the garage, and lose them for the foreseeable future. For there is no guarantee that Rossi's crew will stay on at Petronas once the Italian retires. Several are in their fifties and sixties, and have done well enough financially to consider retiring themselves.
Rossi wants to bring more than just mechanics to Petronas, however, the numbers involved reportedly in the low double figures. That is a major burden on a satellite team, even one as successful and well-financed as Petronas. Even if Yamaha were to bear some or even all of the costs, there would still be a large organizational burden on Petronas. Flights have to be booked, hotels found, rental cars arranged, insurance provided. A large influx of new faces makes that more complicated.
In the driving seat no longer
There is also a more subtle side to this, of ego and status. Throughout his career, Valentino Rossi has been able to ask for pretty much whatever he wants. Deservedly so, both due to his track record of success, and his unparalleled media profile. But now, his status has declined far enough that Yamaha felt comfortable signing Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo to the factory team, leaving Rossi with just the promise of a Yamaha ride with full factory support. The fact that they were able to do this without triggering a massive backlash from the fans speaks volumes. Rossi is still revered, but not even his most devoted fans seem him as the future of Yamaha.
That declining status also means that Rossi is in a weaker position to make demands. Once upon a time, any factory wanting to sign Rossi to a contract had no option but to accept the conditions the Italian demanded, including bringing as many mechanics, assistants, and other hangers on as he wanted. Now, Rossi is being moved from the factory team to a satellite team, at Yamaha's behest, rather than the request of Petronas. He is not in a position to make demands, but only requests.
Resolving this situation is not easy, as the lack of an announcement on his future clearly demonstrates. Valentino Rossi is going to Petronas or retirement, that much is clear. But he is going to Petronas because there is no room for him in the factory Yamaha team, and because Yamaha don't have the budget (or the inclination) to set up a separate squad for him to finish his career in.
Petronas did not ask Yamaha if they could sign Rossi, Yamaha asked Petronas to make room for the Italian. That is a very different power dynamic, no matter how keen Petronas are to have Rossi in their team. The fact that negotiations are running through Yamaha rather than Petronas illuminates the situation they find themselves in very clearly.
Like Dovizioso and Ducati, the Rossi/Petronas situation will take some time to resolve. There are major stumbling blocks, and no easy solutions to the problems they face. If you are waiting for an announcement, don't hold your breath.
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