Though empty seats are limited for the 2020 MotoGP season, in recent weeks there has been some movement to fill those vacancies. The moves have mostly been unsurprising, but then with so few seats available, the chances of something unexpected happening are very slim.
Just before the Sachsenring, we saw Danilo Petrucci keeping his seat alongside Andrea Dovizioso in the factory Ducati team for the 2020 season, a fully expected move since the Italian's victory at Mugello back in early June. That leaves Jack Miller in the Pramac Ducati team for another year, though that deal is not yet signed.
A deal is close, however. "We’re fighting over pennies now," Miller said on Sunday night in Germany. Miller will have a Ducati Desmosedici GP20 at his disposal, the same as his teammate Pecco Bagnaia, but there were still a few financial details to be ironed out. "It more or less should be done, I got some information today. So hopefully we can get it done before we get back at Brno and put all that stuff behind us and just focus on riding."
Binder to KTM
On Wednesday, KTM confirmed that Brad Binder will be moving up to the MotoGP class for 2020. The South African – the first to ride in the premier class since Shane Norval in 2000 – will rejoin former teammate Miguel Oliveira in the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team, riding a KTM RC16. Like Petrucci, Binder's promotion to the MotoGP class had been widely anticipated: Binder has been far and away the best KTM rider in Moto2 this season, and as he was in the first year of a two-year deal, it made sense for him to move up for 2020.
Binder replaces Hafizh Syahrin, who has struggled to get to grips with the KTM, consistently running at the back of the field. The Malaysian rider will move back to Moto2, though not with either Tech3 or the Petronas squad. Sepang circuit boss Razlan Razali said he was willing to assist Syahrin find a seat somewhere. "I will still help him indirectly, whether to put him in other teams or not," he told me in Barcelona.
Will Binder fare better than Syahrin? The South African is a Moto3 world champion and has 3 wins and 8 podiums on a KTM in Moto2. That also includes 2 podiums this year on a bike which is widely regarded as the worst Moto2 machine on the grid. Binder is the best KTM rider in the Moto2 standings, currently eighth with 84 points, and just 13 points behind Lorenzo Baldassarri in fourth. Binder's more physical style is well-suited to the RC16, so he should be a more natural fit.
Binder's ex- and future teammate Miguel Oliveira was positive about the move when I asked him about it on Sunday night at the Sachsenring, before the news was officially confirmed. "I think Brad is an excellent rider, and an even better person," the Tech3 KTM rider told me. "He definitely deserves this ride. He has been doing a lot for KTM this year. It’s not easy to be on the bike which you know it’s not the best package. He’s still striving and going for it, so I think he deserves the chance. It’s not going to be easy life, but I think he’s in the right place and he’s in the right time to move up, so we’ll see."
Binder's signing leaves few question marks open on the grid. Contract extensions for Takaaki Nakagami at LCR is a matter of time, and Petronas will pick up the option for a second year with Franco Morbidelli, as they have already done with Fabio Quartararo. The only seats left open are with the Avintia Ducati team, with strong rumors placing Tito Rabat in WorldSBK in 2020. There are also questions over whether Karel Abraham will continue in MotoGP next season.
With so few options available, the Avintia seats are attractive propositions for riders wishing to move up. There have been reports of both Alex Márquez and Lorenzo Baldassarri being interested in the seats, though both Moto2 riders may prefer to hold on for a year and wait for 2021, when all the MotoGP seats open up.
Beyond the known signings and plausible contracts, there have also been a few more outlandish rumors circulating. The Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Jorge Lorenzo was considering retirement, after suffering what could have been a life-changing injury when he fractured a vertebra at Assen. The report has been denied by everyone in both the Honda and Lorenzo camps, with Repsol Honda boss Albert Puig, HRC Director Tetsuhiro Kuwata, and Lorenzo's manager Albert Valera all officially rejecting the idea that Lorenzo would retire.
A Lorenzo retirement would put HRC in a difficult place. There are no obvious candidates to replace the Spaniard in 2020 should he quit. Alex Márquez' name has been bandied about, but HRC has shown little interest in the current Moto2 leader, despite the encouragement of his brother and reigning MotoGP champion Marc.
Better the devil you know
There have also been rumors, similarly denied, that KTM is thinking of dumping Johann Zarco a year early, and skipping the second year of the Frenchman's contract in the factory KTM team. Zarco has struggled badly to adapt to the KTM RC16, which requires the polar opposite of his natural riding style. Zarco was fast with the Yamaha because he was able to be immensely smooth. He is slow with the KTM because he is unable to bully and dominate the bike the way that Pol Espargaro is so successfully doing.
Zarco has shown signs of frustration with KTM, memorably using extremely colorful language to describe his feelings about the bike after a big crash in Jerez. Despite occasional gleams of light, Zarco has looked like a beaten man when speaking to the media, his inability to ride the bike breaking his spirit.
There is a good reason to believe the denials that KTM is thinking of getting rid of Johann Zarco. The main reason is that finding a replacement is so incredibly difficult, with everyone locked into contracts for 2020. The only available riders would be rookies coming up from Moto2, and the signing of Brad Binder to Tech3 eliminates the most obvious candidate.
But signing a Moto2 rookie to the factory KTM team would be even more of a leap in the dark than signing Johann Zarco was in the first place. Zarco had at least proven he was capable of scoring podiums on a MotoGP bike, something none of the Moto2 rookies can lay claim to. Moving Miguel Oliveira up from the Tech3 KTM team would also be an option, but again, KTM would not gain much by doing so.
The best course of action for KTM is to hold off for another year, and hope that Zarco finds a way to ride the RC16, especially if the testing input from Dani Pedrosa is as productive as everyone expects it to be. If Zarco fails to gel with the 2020 bike, developed in conjunction with Pedrosa, then KTM will have the entire MotoGP grid, all of whom will be out of contract, and the whole 2020 season to negotiate with them.
Insanity to ensue
The 2019 MotoGP silly season has been of necessity excessively tame. This is in stark contrast to the expected insanity of 2020, when the entire grid is out of contract. Last time, so many of the current contracts were signed so early, before the 2018 season had even started, nearly a year before the new contracts came into effect. There is every reason to expect that contract negotiations with the most sought after riders will start even earlier. When MotoGP returns from the summer break, expect managers and teams start to put out their feelers for 2021.
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