Last year, at Jerez or thereabouts, I had a chat with Livio Suppo about the insanely early start to MotoGP's Silly Season that year. Suppo bemoaned the fact that so many riders were switching factories so early, with contracts signed as early as Qatar (in the case of Bradley Smith and Valentino Rossi), and the ensuing hullabaloo surrounding Jorge Lorenzo, and whence he was bound. "Normally, we start talking after a few races, in Mugello or so," Suppo said. "You want a few races to see how strong a rider is."
While last year's Silly Season was nearing its close at Mugello last year, it seems that 2017 is taking a slightly more normal trajectory. This year, Mugello may have seen the early conversations which kick off the period where riders discuss their future options. And Barcelona was the first race where they started to discuss – or more accurately, hint at – those options publicly.
Why is this year's Silly Season so much later (or so much more normal) than last year's? Put simply, it's because last year, every single factory rider was out of contract, and every factory seat was up for grabs. This year, all the factory seats are still taken for 2018 (or at least, unless a factory boss decides that one of their riders is grossly underperforming), and there are only the satellite bikes at stake. Fewer seats are available, and those which are available have less money attached, and less chance of competing for podiums and victories. All that combined leads to a lower sense of urgency when it comes to negotiations.
So which seats are available? Best first to run through those which are not. The Repsol Honda seats are both set, neither Marc Márquez nor Dani Pedrosa at risk at the moment. The same is true for the Movistar Yamaha team, with the proviso that there is a 0.0001% chance that Valentino Rossi may consider retiring early. It is not impossible, but it is so vanishingly unlikely as to be discounted. At KTM, they are only six races into a two-year project, and it makes little sense to replace either of their riders unless a particularly strong rider were to become available.
Of the other three factories, Andrea Dovizioso has a firm grip on his seat at Ducati, and you would expect Jorge Lorenzo to have the same. Six races in would be very early for Ducati to give up on Lorenzo, but given the money they are paying him, the pressure to perform is that much higher. At Suzuki, we have no idea how good Alex Rins is because he keeps injuring himself, and Davide Brivio and co. seem unlikely to want to give up on him so early.
Andrea Iannone, on the other hand, is in a much more precarious situation. His best result so far has been seventh place in Texas. By this time last year, on the same bike, Aleix Espargaro had secured two fifth places and a sixth. And Espargaro was the weaker of the two Suzuki riders last year. Iannone has not helped himself with his behavior either. He has been discourteous to fans, and erratic with the media. He spent one media debrief talking into his phone, before walking off without saying anything to the waiting press. If the job of a rider is to represent their manufacturer and help them sell motorcycles, Iannone has been coming up well short of that recently.
At Aprilia, Aleix Espargaro has shown lots of promise and plenty of pace, but the bike has let him down on several occasions. Engines have let go, and gearboxes have locked up, and riding has been hard. On the other hand, Espargaro himself has thrown it away twice, he admitted. His effort and his dedication is not in doubt, and it is unthinkable that Aprilia would do anything but keep him.
Sam Lowes has had a much tougher start to his season, taking a long time to adapt to the demands of riding a MotoGP bike, and changing his style. Lowes is clearly being treated as a second rider: while Aleix Espargaro has two of the new, more powerful engines at Barcelona, Lowes is left with last year's motor. He has nearly caught up in terms of chassis upgrades, but it is Espargaro who is getting first dibs on new kit.
Yet Lowes was relatively content with the progress he has made so far, he said. "Honestly, the results are not there yet, but the last few races have been better. Mugello, especially the first 10 laps, were a lot, lot stronger. I managed to come forward, pass five or six guys and actually be in a race for the first time really this year." Lowes also believes he has an important role to play in the development of the bike. "My feedback's quite good. When we came here testing I had three A4 pages of things to test and [Aleix] had a tiny page worth."
So it is conceivable that there is at least one factory seat up for grabs, though factory bosses will not be pushed on the subject for a while. But the real action is among the satellite riders, where only the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha men are already signed up for 2018. Beyond that, Pramac, Aspar, LCR, Marc VDS, and Avintia are all potential landing spots.
Who could end up going where? The chances of Franco Morbidelli taking Tito Rabat's seat in the Marc VDS team seem very high indeed. That would probably leave Rabat either looking for a ride in Moto2, or trying to take a seat at Aspar or Avintia, and covering the cost of doing so. Alvaro Bautista is almost certain to stay where he is, after a very strong start to the season. Hector Barbera's performance is well short of expectations generated by last year, and is trailing teammate Loris Baz in the championship. Jack Miller is doing enough to keep his seat, though whether he also keeps an HRC contract is a different matter.
Petrucci - hold
Danilo Petrucci is doing exactly what is expected of him at Pramac, though he is not entirely happy with that. Petrucci is basically acting as test rider for the factory Ducatis at each race, trying parts and set ups the factory men don't want to. If they work, they get passed on to Lorenzo and Dovizioso. But all this leaves Petrucci little time to concentrate on finding the perfect setup for his own bike and riding style, and working towards results. When he can, such as at Mugello, he can perform well.
Cal Crutchlow is the most intriguing candidate. Crutchlow is making a lot of noise about having offers outside of LCR Honda, even though he can pretty much choose to stay there if he wants to. He openly admitted to entertaining offers from elsewhere, though. Asked if he had been talking to other teams, he told us, "Yep. I have, and I haven’t made a decision. I’ve got some stuff on the table and will surely have to start to think about it very soon. How soon, I don’t know." Those options included factory contracts, he said, though he did not specify which factories that might be. Suzuki looks like one possible option, especially as Crutchlow was in talks with the Japanese factory last year. But there are also reports of the Englishman being spotted talking to Ducati bosses as well.
Will Crutchlow stay at LCR Honda? There is a very good chance that he will. And there is also a very good chance that Crutchlow is discussing his options elsewhere to ratchet up the pressure on Lucio Cecchinello, or more likely, on HRC. Getting Jack Miller's HRC contract (or something along those lines) would be a bonus for Crutchlow. Of course, this doesn't mean that the talks Crutchlow is having with other teams and factories are not real. Far from it. But Crutchlow is a canny enough negotiator to know how to use leverage, when he has it.
It's tough in the middle
Scott Redding was the most concerned about his seat, even though he has so far had decent enough results. "First of all I’d like to at least stay in the paddock, that’s a start," he said. But talks on staying at Pramac had not even started, though that was more down to the typically Italian way of handling these things. "When they say tomorrow, they mean next week. When they next week they mean next month. So it’s hard to really say a time. Maybe the more time the better because there’s more time to show myself. But it’s kind of a bit rubbish that you have to be in a position to show yourself."
Redding, like other riders in his situation, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Above him, the riders in factory seats have a firm grasp on their positions, and show no signs of relinquishing them. Below him, there is a host of young talent on the verge of breaking through, and team managers keen to give them a chance. Pecco Bagnaia is the hot ticket at the moment, the Italian youngster in the crosshairs of Ducati, and especially of Aspar, who he rode for last year.
That leaves riders like Redding trying to prove their worth on slightly inferior machinery, and bikes on which development has stopped. "I don’t know what it is lately, but they just keep wanting to get these guys coming up from Moto3 directly or from Moto2," Redding said in exasperation. "Like they’re one year in Moto2 and then they want to bring them straight up to MotoGP. Give the guys time to build, let them build in the steps of the ladder what used to be!"
The focus on fresh young talent was squeezing out riders who had not yet been in the situation to show what they were made of, Redding insisted. "The thing when they’re doing stuff like that is not giving the people that are in GP a chance to actually show themselves. You know you have like maybe 2-3 years, and OK, that’s it. There’s someone else coming up. And the experienced guys are still showing results, they’re getting older and older but they’re so experienced they can still show themselves. So the ones that kind of miss out a bit are myself, if I want to try and find a competitive bike it’s going to be difficult."
If the situation for riders already in MotoGP is difficult, just think how it must be for riders in WorldSBK wanting to make the transition to the premier class. First, there is the outright domination of Kawasaki and (to a lesser extent) Ducati to break, made all the more unbearable by having clearly the best riders in the series on clearly the best bikes. Then there is the fact that they are not riding in front of the MotoGP teams every weekend, in the same way that the Moto2 and Moto3 riders are. And last but not least, the WorldSBK riders are woefully underrated by MotoGP team managers, and it would have to take a minor miracle – e.g. beating Jonathan Rea by 20 seconds on a 600 – to catch their eyes.
Part of the problem is that MotoGP is now incredibly close. Aspar team boss Gino Borsoi illustrated that in a conversation at Mugello. On Sunday morning, they had been disappointed with Karel Abraham, who had finished warm up in fifteenth position. Then they looked at his time, and realized he was just one and a quarter seconds off the pace of Maverick Viñales, who had set a blistering time. Indeed, if you compare 2017 with 2008, in 2008, there were nine riders within a second during warm up. In 2017, Cal Crutchlow was still within a second of Viñales, and he finished in fourteenth place. As the front gets closer, it gets more difficult to make an impression.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.