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.
This wave of Moto2 riders are likely to have a profound effect on the age makeup of the MotoGP grid. MotoGP is on the cusp of a revolution, of a wave of older riders retiring or moving on, while a different wave of much younger Moto2 riders is about to enter the class. There is a changing of the guard, and of the generations.
At the heart of this is, of course, Marc Márquez. Márquez is the linchpin of the MotoGP riders market, because he is currently quite obviously the best rider in the class. This has two effects: firstly, it makes him the highest paid and most desirable rider in MotoGP – his salary looks set to rise above €20 million for 2021 once he signs a new contract with HRC (and he will stay with HRC, he has no reason to leave).
It also leads other factories to go in search of an answer to Marc Márquez, to look beyond the current field to riders who might be capable of beating the now six-time MotoGP champion. With each passing year, the current crop of riders look less and less capable of beating the Spaniard. Or rather, the crop of riders who were in MotoGP when Márquez entered the class.
There is also an element of fashion here. Teams and factories are constantly looking at each other, trying to understand what works, second guessing each other's success formula. With the arrival of Fabio Quartararo, and to a lesser extent, Joan Mir, the pendulum is swinging towards younger riders, after Johann Zarco briefly pushed it back towards more riders with more experience. The young rider trend builds on the success of Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales, who have come in and won races.
All this points to there being a clear out of older riders on the cards. And depending on who stays and who goes, that could have a profound effect on the age make up of the grid. The average age is about to fall, and the children of the 1980s are about to disappear.
The youth wave has been building for some time. The 2019 grid is the result of the previous round of contract swaps at the end of 2018. That grid was in turn mostly assembled for the start of the 2017 season, with a string of two-year deals done then.
The average age of the 2017 grid taken on the 1st March that year (the 1st of the month in which the season started) was 26.87. Of the 23 full-time entries in 2017, six were in their thirties – Valentino Rossi (38), Alvaro Bautista (32), Dani Pedrosa (31), Cal Crutchlow (31), Andrea Dovizioso (30), and Hector Barbera (30).
Between 2017 and 2019, a third of the grid were replaced, and the grid reduced from 23 to 22 riders. Bautista, Pedrosa, and Barbera all left, but so did Sam Lowes, Bradley Smith, Scott Redding, Loris Baz and Jonas Folger, all of whom were 26 or younger. The average age of the leavers was 27.
In their place came a group of much younger riders. Between 2017 and 2019, Takaaki Nakagami, Hafizh Syahrin, Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira, Pecco Bagnaia, Joan Mir, and Fabio Quartararo joined MotoGP. With the exception of the 27-year-old Nakagami, all were 24 or younger, with Quartararo a precocious 19 years of age. The average age of this group was 23.
The addition of all these youngsters managed to keep the average age of the 2019 grid down. The 15 riders who stayed in the class were all 2 years older on 1st March 2019, but the average age of the entire grid, including the youngsters, grew from 26.86 to 26.95. There were just 4 riders in their thirties (or in the case of Valentino Rossi, his forties) at the start of the 2019 season: Crutchlow (33), Dovizioso (32), and Jorge Lorenzo (31), and Rossi (40).
Though we had not been expecting many rider changes for 2020, there are still two riders leaving, Hafizh Syahrin losing his ride at Tech3, while Johann Zarco has parted ways with KTM. Leaving aside the possibility of Zarco (29 on 1st March 2020) replacing Jorge Lorenzo (32), the addition of Brad Binder (24) and Iker Lecuona (20) means the average age of the 22 riders on the grid rises by just over half a year, to 27.5.
Lecuona is a prime example of the rejuvenation of the grid. When he lines up on the grid at Losail in Qatar next year, he will be the first rider born this century to compete in MotoGP. (For the pedants, yes, it is possible to argue that Lecuona, born on 6th January 2000, is not technically a child of the 21st Century – there was no year 0, after all – but convention has it that the zeroth year of a century counts as being in that century. A 20-year-old is, after all, in their twenties, not in their teens.)
Paradoxically, the 2020 MotoGP season also sees the number of riders in their thirties increase. At the beginning of next year, Rossi (41), Crutchlow (34), Dovizioso (33) and Jorge Lorenzo (32) will be joined by four riders who have passed their thirtieth birthday before 1st March 2020. Those riders are Tito Rabat, Aleix, Espargaro, Andrea Iannone and Karel Abraham, bring the total of over thirties to 8 riders.
Exit stage left
And it is this cohort which could easily disappear at the end of the 2020 season, and be replaced by much younger riders. Depending on a combination of retirement plans and how eager factories are to replace experience with young potential, there could be just three or four riders in their thirties in 2021.
Who could be leaving? Cal Crutchlow has publicly said he intends to retire at the end of the 2020 season, and there is little reason to doubt that will happen. Crutchlow needs surgery to remove the plate in his ankle which is still causing him extreme pain, but he will only have the surgery done once he has retired, as the recovery period is too long to allow him to prepare in the off season. Add to that the fact that his daughter will be of school-going age in 2021, and so less able to travel, and retirement looks a certainty.
Then there is Andrea Iannone. One of the most talented riders of his generation, the Italian has proven to be extremely difficult to manage, and has produced extremely inconsistent results throughout his career, but especially with Aprilia. At Phillip Island, Iannone finished within spitting distance of the podium. Prior to that, he had only finished inside the top ten twice, and has scored points in ten of the eighteen races held so far.
The team managers (factory and private) that I have spoken to all believe that Iannone will be gone at the end of the 2020 season. Unless a satellite team is willing to take a chance on the Italian, in the hope of a few good results, it is hard to see him still being in MotoGP in 2021. He will readily find a seat in WorldSBK, which needs a rider with Iannone's mixture of talent and character to add some spice to the championship.
If Crutchlow and Iannone are the only two riders to leave for 2021 – a possible but unlikely scenario – and two of the youngsters from Moto2 make the move up (Alex Márquez (24 on 1st March 2021) and Luca Marini (23) are two likely candidates), then the average age of the MotoGP grid will not change much, despite 20 riders getting a year older. The average age would rise from 27.5 to 27.64.
But there is too much talent in Moto2, and too many riders approaching the age where they might consider retirement. In addition to Alex Márquez and Luca Marini, there is Jorge Navarro (25 on 1st March 2021), Augusto Fernandez (23), Lorenzo Baldassarri (24), Fabio Di Giannantonio (22), Jorge Martin (23) and Remy Gardner (also 23). The average age of this group is 23.38, just over 23 years and 4 months. It seems a fair bet the vast majority – likely six or seven – of these riders will get a chance. And we can't rule out Enea Bastianini (23), Xavi Vierge (23), or even Nicolo Bulega (21) getting a shot in 2021.
So who else makes way for young talent? Jorge Lorenzo is an obvious answer. If the Spaniard does not regain his speed and recover his confidence after his most miserable season in MotoGP, and does not look competitive in 2020, there is every chance he will choose to retire.
Dealing with greatness
Valentino Rossi is going to be a key piece of the 2021 puzzle. The Italian will be 42 before the start of the 2021 season, and is still a long way from making up his mind about his future. On the one hand, he has still shown that he can be competitive: he has two podiums this season, and came up just shy of a third at Sepang.
But on the other hand, he is looking like he is falling behind the very top of the grid. Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales has won two races this season, and won a race in 2018 as well. It has been 46 races (oh irony) since Rossi last won a race, back at Assen in 2017. That is longer than the period at Ducati, between winning at Sepang in 2010 and then Assen in 2013. (Incidentally, MotoGP statistician Dr Martin Raines pointed out to me that if neither Rossi nor Lorenzo win at Valencia this year, then 2019 will be the first year in which none of the original MotoGP Aliens – Rossi, Lorenzo, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa – has won a race since Lorenzo joined MotoGP in 2008.)
Yamaha really need Valentino Rossi to make a decision. Rossi is too important to Yamaha to lose his seat in the factory team to another rider, and Yamaha is too important to Rossi for him to consider leaving for another manufacturer. So Yamaha are keeping a seat for him in 2021 unless he decides to retire.
The problem is, by keeping his seat for him, they risk losing their two biggest assets: Maverick Viñales has been doing the winning for Yamaha in the last couple of seasons, and Fabio Quartararo is too big a talent to lose to another factory. Both have offers from other factories, and will be able to name their price, more or less.
Desmo no more?
Given that he is second in the championship, it is surprising that the name of Andrea Dovizioso comes up so often when you talk to team managers of riders who might find themselves without a seat in 2021. Dovizioso has played a huge part in helping develop the Ducati Desmosedici from a no-hoper to runner up in the championship for the past three seasons. But there have been growing tensions between the Italian and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, in no small part due to Dall'Igna refusing to prioritize the Ducati's lack of corner speed, the feature which Dovizioso has been complaining is the bike's biggest weakness ever since he joined the Italian factory.
As a consequence, there is every chance that Dovizioso leaves Ducati at the end of 2020. But where would he go? Joining Marc Márquez at Honda might be an option, Márquez choosing to keep his friends close but his enemies closer, and having a rider he knows he can beat on the same bike could make him an attractive prospective teammate for the reigning world champion. Yamaha already have plenty of options, and Suzuki have a full complement of young riders.
That leaves KTM and Aprilia. Both of those are risky propositions, particularly viewed from here, November 2019. Improvement is possible, but could they be competitive in 2021? Would Dovizioso be willing to take the risk on one or both of them? And might KTM or Aprilia prefer to take a chance on a younger rider? This is especially true of KTM, who already have three young and talented riders signed for 2020.
Then there is the Avintia Reale MotoGP team. It is far from certain that Avintia will continue in MotoGP in 2021, despite having a contract to do so. Dorna have been trying to weed out the weaker teams – something they have successfully done with the Aspar/Angel Nieto team this year – and replacing them with teams with a more solid financial basis. There are persistent rumors of a Suzuki satellite team, something which could happen in 2021. And if Valentino Rossi retires at the end of 2020, there could also be a VR46 Yamaha team, Yamaha having to find the resources to field 6 MotoGP machines in 2021.
If the Avintia Reale MotoGP team do disappear, that would be the end for Karel Abraham and Tito Rabat (both 31 on 1st March 2021). Both riders are race winners, and Rabat is a Moto2 world champion, but both men have proved to be eminently replaceable in MotoGP. Neither have a premier class podium, and if teams don't need the sponsorship which the pair bring, they will choose the potential of younger riders any time.
If all of the above retirements do happen, that would radically change the shape of the 2021 MotoGP grid. It would reduce the average age from 27.5 in 2020 to 24.86 in 2021, and reduce the number of riders in their thirties to just one, Aleix Espargaro, at age 31. If Espargaro does not stay with Aprilia and is out of MotoGP, then that would mean not a single rider over the age of 29 in MotoGP in 2021.
That would be a true revolution. For as far back as I can see in history, the permanent MotoGP grid has never consisted entirely of riders under the age of 30. Indeed, after checking with Dr Martin Raines, he believes that there has never been a MotoGP grid consisting entirely of riders younger than 30.
How young would this theoretical MotoGP grid be? 14 of the 22 riders would be 25 or under. 18 of them would be younger than 27. At 28 years of age on 1st March 2021, Marc Márquez would be the fourth oldest rider on the grid. Márquez ceased to be the young upstart a couple of seasons ago, but by 2021, he will be fast approaching the status of grizzled veteran.
This changing of the guard may be refreshing, but it will bring with it a whole new set of problems for 2022 and beyond. After all, if you have a field full of riders in their early and mid twenties, where are the young riders coming up from Moto3 and Moto2 supposed to go?
The tables I created for this article are below. When looking at the 2021 line up, I have only looked at age, not at pairing riders with teams and factories (though that would give a more accurate reflection, perhaps, and a clue as to who is to stay and who will leave), so no manufacturer appears next to the names of the riders for the 2021 scenarios.
2017 MotoGP Line Up
|2017 Rider line up||Age on 01/03/17|
|30 year olds||6|
2019 MotoGP Line Up
|2019 rider line up||Age on 01/03/19|
|30 year olds||4|
2020 MotoGP Line Up
|2020 Rider line up||Age on 01/03/20|
|30 year olds||8|
2021 – Minimal Retirements
|2021 Minimal retirements||Age on 01/03/21|
|Mode||26||Mean (Without Rossi)||26.95|
|30 year olds||7|
2021 – Middle Scenario
|2021 Middle case retirements||Age on 01/03/21|
|30 year olds||5|
2021 – Maximum Retirements Of Older Riders
|2021 Maximum retirements||Age on 01/03/21|
|21||Fabio DI GIANNANTONIO||10/10/98||22||3|
|30 year olds||1|
Gathering the background information for detailed 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, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.