Hungarian journalist, photographer, and ex-racer Niki Kovács is conducting a series of interviews with people involved in motorcycle racing on how they are dealing with the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the first of these (English-language) videos, Kovacs talks to Simone Battistella, manager of Andrea Dovizioso, Lorenzo Baldassarri, and Alvaro Bautista, on how he is helping his riders through this period of enforced idleness.
On Sunday, at 6pm, the desert night will erupt in a cacophony of sound, as Grand Prix motorcycle racing gets underway for the start of the 2020 season. But it won't be the vicious bellow of MotoGP machines which will shatter the desert silence; instead, the more modest howl (118 dB compared to 130 dB of the MotoGP bikes) of the Triumph triple-engined Moto2 machines will scream away from the lights and around the floodlit track.
It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. The Moto2 machines were supposed to race an hour and forty minutes earlier, their original start time planned for 4:20pm local time. Now, it will be the Moto3 riders starting their race at that time, and not the 3pm slot originally scheduled. The MotoGP machines will be sitting in packing crates, waiting to be shipped to the next race.
As I write this, it is not entirely clear where that will be. It might be Austin, Texas, unless the US authorities impose further restrictions. It might be Termas De Rio Honda, in Argentina, unless the Argentinian government changes its mind about allowing entry from Italy, or Japan, or anywhere else. It might even be Jerez, if international air travel is subject to sudden and extreme restrictions.
The current field of MotoGP riders may only be less than a season into the first year of their contracts, but the opening salvos of the 2021 season are already being fired. That is a direct consequence of almost the entire grid being on two-year deals, which run through the 2020 season. Every seat on the grid will currently be up for grabs in 2021. And because of that, teams, factories and riders are already starting to explore their options for the next season but one.
This is not something teams are particularly happy about. Team managers will grumble both on and off the record that it is a big gamble choosing riders basically on the basis of their performance two seasons before they are due to ride for you. Fear of missing out on a top rider forces their hand, however, and so teams are already making preliminary approaches about 2021.
The extreme and unusual situation of every single seat being up for grabs means that Moto2 riders are also delaying their plans. Most have only signed 1-year deals for 2020, knowing that so many options are opening up in 2021. Remy Gardner even turned down a chance to move up to MotoGP with KTM for 2020, preferring to wait for 2021 and hope for many more options then.
The Pons racing team today issued the following press release, announcing that Hector Barbera and Lorenzo Baldassarri will be racing for them in Moto2 in 2018:
With four of the top seven from last year's Moto2 championship moving up to MotoGP, the intermediate class is wide open for 2017. There are riders like Lorenzo Baldassarri, Tom Luthi, Franco Morbidelli, and Taka Nakagami who start the season hotly tipped for success. There are dark horses like Miguel Oliveira on the KTM, Domi Aegerter and Danny Kent on the Suters, Alex Márquez on the Kalex. And to top it all, there is an exciting crop of rookies entering the class, headed by reigning Moto3 champion Brad Binder, with Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia to watch as well.
What surprises is the depth of Italian talent in the class, a product of leading Italian teams in Moto2, and the conveyor belt of talent emanating from the VR46 Academy backed by Valentino Rossi's mighty commercial empire. The combination of those two forces was present at the launch of Forward Racing's Moto2 campaign for 2017 in Milan. The team, owned by Giovanni Cuzari and now run by Milena Koerner, sees their two riders from last year return, with Lorenzo Baldassarri expected to challenge for the title, and Luca Marini aiming to regularly challenge the top five, and start knocking on the door of the podium.
But Lorenzo Baldassarri is clearly the main focus for Forward in 2017. During the presentation, both team owner Cuzari and VR46 principal Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci anointed the 20-year-old Italian as the favorite for the title. A small group of journalists attending the launch gave Baldassarri a grilling on how he felt about the upcoming season. Starting with whether he felt any pressure after hearing Cuzari and Uccio tell the crowd they expected him to win the title this year.
With the first tests of 2017 fast approaching - track action gets underway next week, with the WorldSBK teams testing at Jerez, followed by MotoGP the week after - teams are presenting their new liveries, new sponsors and new teams for 2017.
This week sees two MotoGP factory teams unveil their new liveries and their new bikes for the 2017 season. The Movistar Yamaha team kick off proceedings on Thursday, 19th January, with the presentation of the 2017 Yamaha YZR-M1, with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales as their riders. The following day, Friday, 20th January, Ducati follow suit, presenting Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso. Both events will be streamed live, for fans all over the world to see.
The New Year has officially started, the real world of contracts finally lining up with the world of motorcycle racing. Riders who swapped factories are now free of their old contracts, their new contracts having commenced as the world greeted 2017. That also leaves them free to post about the new season on social media again. Aleix Espargaro was so keen to do so that he posted right on the stroke of midnight.
If the riders are excited, that gives fans reason to be excited too. Here are 10 reasons to look forward to 2017.
1. Six factories
For the first time since 2004, MotoGP has six different manufacturers* competing again. Unlike 2004, however, the level at which those manufacturers are competing is much more equal. In 2004, only Yamaha and Honda won races, though Ducati were regular visitors to the podium, and would win more consistently in 2005 and 2006. In 2016, four different manufacturers won races in the dry – Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Ducati – and all four were consistent podium threats.
There are few more intimidating atmospheres in motorcycle racing than the MotoGP race at Misano. Unless, of course, you are from what the regional government refer to as Motor Valley, the area which stretches from the Adriatic coast and the up the Po valley towards Milan. The fans are fiery, passionate, and vocal. If you are not a local, to come here and race is to enter the lion's den.
The irony is that since 2010, Spaniards have won every MotoGP race held in Italy, with the exception of the 2014 race at Misano, which was won by Valentino Rossi. The enemy has come into the heart of Italy, and left victorious. It is a grave wound to Italian pride.
For the second time this year, it looked for a long time that Valentino Rossi would heal that wound. At Mugello, it was Yamaha who broke the hearts of Italian fans, after turning up the revs on the Yamaha M1 just a little too far, and causing the engine to detonate, leaving Rossi dejected at the side of the track. At Misano, Rossi took the lead with a firm pass, exploiting a minor mistake by Lorenzo and diving through the barn-door sized opening Lorenzo had left on the inside of Turn 14. There would be fall out from that pass, but not until the press conference.
While the eyes of the world will be on Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati as far as MotoGP's Silly Season is concerned, the three remaining manufacturers in MotoGP will play an integral part in how this all plays out. What happens at Suzuki and KTM is crucial to how things play out at Honda and Ducati, especially, while Aprilia will also have a role to play, albeit a lesser one. As I wrote in part one of this Silly Season primer, this year's set of contract negotiations look a lot more like musical chairs than anything else.
Suzuki is at the heart of Silly Season this year. Or rather, Maverick Viñales is. Viñales is the talent Honda, Ducati, and to a lesser extent Yamaha are keeping an eye on. Viñales has two more years on his contract with the Suzuki ECSTAR team, but an option to leave at the end of this season. The Spaniard faces two choices: stay with Suzuki and build a long-term relationship, becoming the new Schwantz – a rider Viñales has identified as his hero – or switch to another factory in pursuit of instant success.