With MotoGP testing becoming ever more restricted for full-time MotoGP riders, the so-called contracted riders, the importance of test teams has grown. Where in previous seasons most Japanese manufacturers have used Japanese riders based in Japan to push the development of their MotoGP bikes, in recent years, they have all switched to using teams based in Europe with ex-MotoGP riders as test riders. Suzuki have Sylvain Guintoli, Honda have Stefan Bradl, and Yamaha had Jonas Folger for 2019.
But not for 2020, it seems. In an interview with German-language publication Speedweek, Folger announced that Yamaha have decided not to continue with the German for next season. "This bad news came as a surprise to me," the German told Speedweek. "They gave me a verbal assurance that Yamaha wanted to continue with me. We were already discussing what the test plan and other events might look like. But then they canceled, despite saying I would get the contract." Folger said that he had been told Yamaha would continue with Japanese test riders.
That seems a curious suggestion. When Valentino Rossi announced he would be changing crew chiefs for 2020, bringing in David Muñoz to replace Silvano Galbusera, Yamaha team boss Maio Meregalli told multiple media outlets that Galbusera would be going to lead the test team, so that he would have to travel less.
Reversing the policy of having a European test team would also surely meet with resistance from Yamaha's factory riders. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales pushed hard for the establishment of a test team based in Europe, using a more competitive rider than their trusty Japanese riders Katsuyuki Nakasuga and Kohta Nozane. The progress made with the bike this year is at least in part due to Folger's work with the test team.
Yamaha has denied any verbal agreement with Folger, but they have also denied that they are looking at scrapping their European test team. "Our MotoGP test program will be continuing in Japan and Europe as planned," Yamaha Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis told Speedweek. "As far as contracting a test rider from outside of Japan, we are keeping all our options open."
Those options are limited. Most competitive ex-MotoGP riders have already found other options for 2020. Stefan Bradl and Sylvain Guintoli will be staying with Honda and Suzuki respectively, Michele Pirro remains Ducati's main test rider, Dani Pedrosa and Mika Kallio will continue their work developing the KTM RC16.
Bradley Smith could have been a possibility, having had four years of experience on the M1, as well as two years with KTM. But Smith is close to a renewal with Aprilia, putting him out of the question. Yamaha has also rejected a number of offers from other riders, including from the likes of Dominique Aegerter.
The obvious answer
Who is left? There is one ex-Yamaha MotoGP rider who is currently out of contract for 2020. After asking for his contract with KTM to be terminated at the end of 2019, then finding himself out of a job after KTM decided to push him out of the team before Aragon, Johann Zarco has been left without a job for next year. Zarco has already been in talks with Yamaha over a role as test rider, but Yamaha broke off those talks when Zarco accepted the offer as substitute for LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami, while the Japanese rider recovers from shoulder surgery.
That ride was widely seen as a way for Honda to take a look at what Zarco is capable of, to assess him as a possible replacement for Jorge Lorenzo, after the Spaniard's miserable season in the Repsol Honda team. But talk of Lorenzo being dropped by HRC has gone quiet, after Honda bosses spoke with Lorenzo at Motegi. Publicly, Lorenzo was given assurances that he would remain with the Repsol Honda team for 2020, and Honda bosses stated their aim was to build a bike that Lorenzo could be competitive on.
The public pronouncements of Johann Zarco appear to back that up. At Phillip Island, Zarco said he was looking at all options, including a ride in Moto2. Notably, the Ajo team is yet to officially announce its second Moto2 rider, after losing Iker Lecuona to the Tech3 KTM MotoGP team for 2020. Zarco won his two Moto2 world titles with Ajo, and it is believed he has a place there if he wants it. At Sepang, Zarco had gone silent on his future, nor was he asked about it.
Nothing decided yet
At the EICMA motorcycle show in Milan, Zarco spoke to Italian website GPOne.com. He told them that his future was still open, and that he was still available to take the place of Lorenzo should Honda and Lorenzo decide to go their separate ways.
Zarco would appear to be the ideal fit for Yamaha. The Frenchman was extremely fast on the M1, and on a bike which he understood, his feedback was highly rated. At Honda, his comments have also been praised, though at KTM, he was such a bad fit on the RC16 that he didn't know where to start, and his feedback was little help in improving the bike.
At the moment, Yamaha's Japanese test riders are preparing the 2020 prototypes ready for the Valencia and Jerez tests. It would be useful for Yamaha to have a test rider at those tests to work on the new bikes. But with Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli also showing strong pace on the bikes, the need is less pressing, as the two Petronas Yamaha riders can also provide input.
But Yamaha will need a good test rider for the 2020 season if they are to continue the strong progress they made in 2019. Various sources around the paddock indicate that Johann Zarco could well be where Yamaha end up.
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