With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully behind us, the gears of the motorcycle world are starting to grind again. Riders are training once again, and their thoughts are turning to the future.
It is also clear that riders, teams, and factories are starting to think about 2021. This summer had promised to unleash a Silly Season of unrivaled scale, with all riders bar Tito Rabat out of contract at the end of 2020. January and February threw a wet blanket over the wilder speculation, as Maverick Viñales extend his contract with the factory Yamaha squad, Fabio Quartararo was promoted to the factory Yamaha team, and Valentino Rossi was promised a factory-supported Yamaha should he decide to continue for 2021.
After the Sepang test, HRC damped down the fire even further, signing Marc Marquez to an unprecedented four-year contract, which will see him race for Repsol Honda team until the end of 2024. Then in April and May, Suzuki did their part to remove any room for speculation by signing Alex Rins and Joan Mir to two-year contracts. And with racing out of the question during the lockdown, Silly Season went quiet.
But with racing now on the horizon again, albeit distantly and with some uncertainty, Silly Season is inching back into the limelight. In an interview with the official MotoGP.com website, Pramac Ducati boss Francesco Guidotti said that the Ducati are close to a deal with Jack Miller to ride for the factory team in 2021.
Pramac has always played a role as a junior team for Ducati, and a conduit for talent - the fact that Danilo Petrucci is currently in the factory squad after stepping up from Pramac is proof of that, as is the fact that Ducati signed a contract with Pecco Bagnaia for 2019 at the start of the 2018 season, when the Italian was still in Moto2. But that relationship and role has been made more explicit recently, Guidotti explained.
They used to be free to sign whoever they felt best suited the team, the Pramac team manager explained, but under the terms of a new deal, Ducati took over the reins where finding young talent was concerned. "Now the first approach is done by Ducati because they wanted to make a plan in the medium to long term with young riders and they asked us if it was possible," Guidotti said. As part of that process, Ducati were talking to Miller about stepping up to the factory team. "As far as I know, it’s not done yet. But, of course, from both parties there is the intention to do the deal. I think it’s close," Guidotti told MotoGP.com.
If a deal with Miller is close, whose place will he be taking in the factory squad? The chances are that it is Danilo Petrucci who will have to make way for the Australian. That swap almost happened at Valencia last year, when Ducati tried to find a spot for Johann Zarco in the Pramac team, which would have seen Miller bumped up to the factory team and Petrucci demoted to Avintia. In the end, it was Zarco who went to Avintia, after promises of strong factory support from Ducati boss Gigi Dall'Igna.
Petrucci is a stronger candidate for replacement than Andrea Dovizioso. Despite a trouble relationship with Gigi Dall'Igna, Dovizioso has been instrumental to the development of the Ducati Desmosedici since arriving at the factory in 2013. In recent weeks, Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella has been carefully neutral in his comments about Dovizioso's future. He has held open the option of moving elsewhere, although the options appear to be limited. The best choice for both Dovizioso and Ducati could be to stick together for at least another season.
The question of who takes Miller's place at Pramac is open to question. Jorge Martin is the hot favorite at the moment, the Red Bull KTM Moto2 rider keen to make the jump to MotoGP, but with few options with KTM. KTM bosses have made clear they are happy with their current rider line up, and the only slot available would be at the Tech3 team, if either Miguel Oliveira or Iker Lecuona were to choose to leave at the end of 2020.
Martin is just one of a host of young riders who are also keen to make the jump from Moto2. Lorenzo Baldassarri, Remy Gardner, Jorge Navarro, Xavi Vierge, Luca Marini; perhaps even Enea Bastianini, Joe Roberts, Fabio Di Giannantonio and Tetsuta Nagashima. But with no racing since the Qatar season opener for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, team bosses will have little data on which to base a choice.
Beyond Ducati, the situation surrounding Valentino Rossi and the Petronas Yamaha team remains delicate. Rossi and Petronas team boss Razlan Razali are engaged in a careful courtship dance in what seems like an inevitable relationship for 2021. As Razali told Tammy Gorali in an interview for MotoMatters.com, the goal of Petronas is to invest in young talent for the longer term. In response, Rossi told the MotoGP.com website that if he joined them, it would not be for a farewell tour, but to race to win a title.
At the moment, talks are happening through the intermediary of Yamaha. Both Rossi and Petronas are discussing options with Yamaha, and as Yamaha will have a major role to play in putting together any team for Rossi, they are the first port of call for clearing away obstacles.
The link up feels inevitable, however. Rossi looks determined to continue for 2021, and Yamaha have promised him a bike, and in the cash-strapped post-COVID-19 era, having Yamaha bear some of the financial burden should be attractive, even to a well-funded team like Petronas. Speaking to MotoGP.com, Rossi admitted his options were either race with Petronas next year or retire. Right now, Rossi does not look anywhere near ready to retire.