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.
The relaxed nature that Van der Mark brings to proceedings was always seen as a key for this. He’s hard to fluster but he does know what he wants. His manager, Laurens Klein Koerkamp, also knows what he wants and typically that’s been a high number.
Why do riders leave teams?
There are a lot of reasons that go into the decision to switch teams. Money is a factor, performance is another, but so is ego.
The coronavirus has hit lots of companies hard and motorcycle manufacturers are no different. With Razgatlioglu under contract for this year and next, it’s likely that his salary is unaffected. For a free-agent like Van der Mark that wouldn’t be the case, and he could have been looking at a drop in wages at a time in his career when he would be unwilling to take one.
Having finished third in the Superbike World Championship, won races and been successful at Suzuka, Van der Mark will certainly feel that he’s proven himself to Yamaha. He would want to be paid. In the past his Yamaha contract included the Suzuka 8 Hours, rather than having a separate Suzuka contract, and with Yamaha not racing as a factory outfit in Suzuka this year the budgets for Van der Mark’s contract might have had to come from a shallower pool than normal. With budgets getting tighter and tighter it would have been difficult to give Van der Mark what he wanted. BMW certainly won’t be afraid to splash the cash if it leads to signing Van der Mark.
In addition to money, always a good indicator of a rider’s worth to a manufacturer, ego shouldn’t be discounted. It isn’t always the ego of riders though that is the determining factor. Sometimes, like Valentino Rossi leaving Honda, it can be the pride of a manufacturer that causes the rift.
The internal struggles at Yamaha haven’t been far from the surface in recent years. The meeting offices for the Japanese manufacturer have been a battle ground, and that battle has centred on control.
Who runs the show? Is it Paul Denning? Or is it Andrea Dosoli? Denning, the Team Principal, had been used to running his own operation for years. That power has been eroded throughout the partnership between Crescent Racing and Yamaha, with Dosoli, Yamaha’s project leader, making more and more decisions. It can’t have been easy for Denning to see his decision making powers given less and less muscle.
Performance is certainly one factor that can be discounted from the decision making process for Van der Mark. The Yamaha R1 is a race winning package that should be even stronger this year with the upgrades from the new model.
When all factors are taken into account that they’ll split at the end of 2020 is a surprise but not a shock. During the winter one old hand of the paddock told me, “Riders are competitive. They hate when their teammate is being treated differently to them. Even if it’s for stuff they don’t like doing, they can’t stand it if their teammate is getting the attention.”
That was something that rang in my ears from that moment onwards. When the team had a victory celebration ready for Razgatlioglu winning in Australia it didn’t go unnoticed by numerous riders and they commented on how it would have made them feel.
If Van der Mark felt a balance shifting at times within the garage he wouldn’t be the first rider to have that sense at Yamaha. It would be out of character for Van der Mark to put much stock in that, but it wouldn’t be out of the question either... especially if that was paired with the Turkish rider earning more money in the future.
When Yamaha signed Razgatlioglu last year he was the hot hand in WorldSBK. They opted for him rather than retaining Alex Lowes despite the Englishman eventually finishing third in the standings. It was a brave move, but wasn’t a bad decision because when Toprak is on form he’s a force. Pairing him with Van der Mark gave Yamaha a fantastic balance of youth and experience. There was a genuine hope that it would be a team set for the long term. Now, they need to find a replacement.
That list will centre on established names such as Loris Baz as well as Grand Prix riders looking for a switch of paddocks. There’ll also be an opportunity for the GRT Yamaha riders to step up with Garrett Gerloff an appealing prospect. The opportunity is too soon for the American as he is completely unproven on the world stage but Yamaha will look at the big picture for this ride.
Gerloff’s former MotoAmerica teammate, Cameron Beaubier, will be a name linked with the ride. He has spurned the chance of moving to WorldSBK in the past but is still very highly rated by Yamaha. Ironically, the biggest detraction for Beaubier is his domination of the early rounds of the American series this year. Winning races by ten seconds, opening gaps at over a second a lap shows his talent but also leads to questions about the depth of the MotoAmerica field. Beaubier could finish his career as the most successful rider in American history but have only a couple of WorldSBK starts to his name. It would be a shame if that was the case.
What about the other wheels that will spin as a result of the Van der Mark news? If he signs for BMW that will inevitably lead to the team making a choice between their current riders, Tom Sykes and Eugene Laverty. Throughout the winter the biggest talking point about BMW was that both of these riders were potentially in the last chance saloon. If either was outperformed by their teammate it would surely signal the end of the WorldSBK careers. The lock-down will delay that but it’s still likely that Shaun Muir will have a decision on his hands.
Elsewhere in the rider market the picture will develop over the coming weeks and months. Similar to BMW there are a host of decisions that teams will have to put on the long finger. Leon Camier’s continuing recovery from injury, and his litany of injuries in recent years, is sure to make the Barni Ducati have second thoughts about their future together. The factory Ducati and Honda squads both looked into the possibility of tempting Jonathan Rea from Kawasaki, so that means Chaz Davies and Leon Haslam are certain to feature in the next round of rumours.
With MotoGP getting underway soon and most seats now filling up fast, the up-and-coming Moto2 riders may be forced to look at WorldSBK as a stepping stone to the premier class. The next month will be a very interesting time.
This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.
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