Why Repsol Honda Signing Pol Espargaro Could Cause Marc Marquez To Leave

The rumors had been doing the rounds for some time, but last night, things came to a head. Multiple media outlets were reporting that Pol Espargaro has signed a deal to ride for Repsol Honda in 2021. The most interesting facet of this was that several outlets had independent sourcing, making this look highly credible. Information I have seen also confirms this.

Though an agreement seems to have been reached, there are still some hoops to jump through. Speaking to Spanish daily AS.com, Espargaro's manager Homer Bosch said negotiations with Honda, KTM, and Ducati were still going on. "It's not true that Pol has a verbal agreement to go and race for the Repsol Honda team next year," he told AS.

Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig issued a similar statement denying an agreement had been reached. "HRC is always thinking about the present and the future of its structure, from the lower categories to MotoGP. Due to the circumstances that we are in, this season is not developing through the usual channels, but that does not mean that Honda stops continuing to plan the best possible future for all their riders. We do not have any contracts signed with anyone that have not already been announced," he said.

Puig's statement is interesting because of how carefully worded it is. "We do not have any contracts signed with anyone that have not already been announced" is not the same as "we do not intend to sign Rider X", whether that be Pol Espargaro or Alex Márquez. The rest of the statement is a couple of vague but sweeping sentences which boil down to the fact that Honda are always thinking about their current rider line up, and where riders might come from in the future, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this much more difficult than usual. Taken as a whole, it is not much of a denial.

Dead cert

There are good reasons to believe that Pol Espargaro to Repsol Honda is a fait accompli, if not necessarily already signed, sealed, and delivered. Espargaro said in an interview with Spanish magazine Motociclismo recently that he would only consider leaving KTM if he could get a ride with either the factory Ducati or Repsol Honda teams, the only two teams that he believes would give him a chance of winning a championship.

From Honda's side, the KTM requires a very similar style to master to the Honda RC213V. Espargaro loves to push the bike, to override it, as his crew chief Paul Trevathan described to me in an interview last year. The Honda is an extremely physical bike that needs to be pushed to tame it, and that is exactly what Espargaro can do and wants to do. Espargaro never gelled with the Yamaha at Tech3 precisely because it needed to be ridden smoothly: when he tried to push the bike, he would go slower. That was something he found intensely frustrating.

A competitive teammate?

Pol Espargaro could also be the key for Honda in unlocking the potential of the bike, and booking more consistent results in the factory team. Dani Pedrosa's results on the Repsol Honda went slowly backwards during his partnership with Marc Márquez, in part due to the Michelins suiting him less well than the Bridgestones, requiring more force to put heat into them and get the best out of them. But also in part because Honda were developing a bike in the direction that Márquez demanded: a sound choice, given that he has won them titles in six of the past seven seasons.

A sign of just how difficult the bike had become was the abysmal performance of Jorge Lorenzo in 2019. The three-time world champion had arrived from Ducati, where he had finally mastered the Desmosedici to win three races in 2018, and could have won more if it hadn't been for injury. But he struggled just to score points on the Honda, ending with a total of just 28 points, before deciding to retire.

Having a rider on the RC213V capable of being consistently competitive would be a huge boost to the factory Honda squad. If Pol Espargaro could fight for wins and podiums, he could help make Marc Márquez' job a little easier by taking points away from his rivals. Espargaro has a proven record in MotoGP – though it is hard to judge by results, given that he has spent the last three years on a KTM – and at 29 years of age, has the maturity to handle a seat in a factory team.

Oh brother, where art thou?

There is, however, the small matter of Alex Márquez. The younger Márquez brother was signed for the 2020 season, with a year to prove himself. Coming off his second championship – adding the 2019 Moto2 title to his 2014 Moto3 crown – Alex Márquez had earned the seat suddenly vacated by Jorge Lorenzo, HRC had said. Honda's choice had admittedly been limited: Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco were the only serious alternatives, and both riders came with serious drawbacks.

When Alex Márquez first started to look at moving up to MotoGP, brother and reigning champion tried to keep him out of Honda. Approaches to Petronas Yamaha were rebuffed at the last moment, stopped at the upper levels. There were talks with Pramac Ducati, but that was for the 2021 season. But as it became clear that Jorge Lorenzo was about to retire, the thought of having his brother Alex with him in the Repsol Honda team became ever more attractive to Marc. The younger Márquez was bought out of his Marc VDS contract, which would have seen him racing another season in Moto2 in 2020, and Alex joined brother Marc in Repsol Honda.

How long was this pairing destined to last? We don't know. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all plans into disarray. Under normal circumstances, Alex Márquez would by now have seven MotoGP races under his belt, and be preparing for his eighth. We, and more importantly, Honda, would have had a much clearer idea of exactly what Alex Márquez is capable of. If the younger Márquez had shown progress, and been running consistently inside the top ten, he would have been given an almost automatic contract extension. Had he struggled, then even brother Marc would have understood that HRC needed to explore the market.

But the pandemic happened, and upset any idea of a sensible approach to rider signings. Teams are having to think about their rider signings without having seen them turn a wheel in anger in 2020. That is making decisions that more complex.

From HRC to LCR?

So while it is understandable that Repsol Honda should plump for the proven candidate in Pol Espargaro, it will surely leave a bad taste in Marc Márquez' mouth. His brother, Alex, has not been given a chance to earn the right to defend his seat. He has been hired and fired, without turning a wheel in anger.

The chances of Alex Márquez being dropped by Honda are almost zero. There are still two bikes in the LCR garage, and Alex could easily be put on one of those. Last year, Cal Crutchlow had talked openly about retiring, but having missed so much of this season, he seems to have changed his mind, telling several people who interviewed him that he intends to race in 2021. Interviewed by MotoGP.com, eponymous LCR team boss Lucio Cecchinello said he hoped to sign a contract with Crutchlow soon.

Cecchinello was a little less effusive about retaining Takaaki Nakagami. "I believe that until we see some room for improvement of Nakagami, Honda will continue to give him the opportunity, but of course it will also depend on the concrete results of the first races of 2020," he told MotoGP.com. The onus was on HRC, the Italian team boss seemed to be implying.

And Nakagami's bike, the second bike in the LCR garage, is very much Honda's to dispose of. That machine is largely funded and run by Honda, with a small financial contribution from Japanese oil sponsor Idemitsu. Although Honda are keen to have a Japanese rider in MotoGP, they could make room in LCR for Alex Márquez, move Nakagami to WorldSBK, and wait for Crutchlow to retire at the end of 2021, opening up the way to a rider such as Tetsuta Nagashima, or perhaps even one of the Moto3 riders such as Ai Ogura or Tatsuki Suzuki. At LCR, could also more easily move in more of the crew Alex Márquez had around him in Moto2.

Why riders leave

But the crux of the matter remains this: how will Marc Márquez take the fact that his brother has not been given a chance to earn the right to stay in the Repsol Honda squad? Will he accept Alex Márquez being given factory support in the LCR Honda squad? Will he accept his beloved brother – the two are very close and supportive – being ousted from Repsol, and one of his greatest rivals from his Moto2 career being put in his place? There is little love lost between Pol Espargaro and Marc Márquez, and though Márquez has nothing to fear from Espargaro, it is a very different kettle of fish to having your brother as a teammate.

This is precisely the sort of move that ends in riders leaving. Great champions are happy to stay in a team where they feel they can win for as long as they like, until the moment they feel that they are not being treated with the respect they feel they deserve.

Just look back at the last 20 years: Valentino Rossi came to MotoGP on a Honda, won on a 500cc machine and the first MotoGP bike, and could have gone on to smash every record imaginable. But he felt that HRC gave themselves too much of the credit for building a great bike, and gave him too little credit for winning on it. So he decamped to Yamaha, and proved them it really was the rider, not the bike.

Five years later, and he has a new teammate at Yamaha, challenging him for supremacy. Rossi had explicitly told Yamaha he did not want them to sign Jorge Lorenzo, but Yamaha went ahead and did it anyway. In 2010, Rossi decided he was not getting the treatment from Yamaha a number one rider, who had won four MotoGP titles for them, deserved. And so off he went to Ducati.

No respect

The vacancy at Ducati was only available because Casey Stoner had signed for Honda. Stoner was furious about how top brass at Ducati and Phillip Morris refused to believe he was ill during the period he was struggling with sudden onset lactose intolerance. He felt Ducati weren't listening to him, so he left.

Five years later, and after a hard-fought and contentious 2015 season, Yamaha cancels the championship celebrations for Jorge Lorenzo, who clinched the title at Valencia amid a category 5 hurricane of controversy, with teammate Valentino Rossi accusing Honda's Marc Márquez of helping Lorenzo take the title. Lorenzo, already feeling slightly underappreciated that season, takes that choice badly, and signs for Ducati a few months later, making the switch for the 2017 season.

What do all these examples have in common? The riders weren't leaving their current teams because they wanted to prove to fans they could win on another bike, or to cement their legacy, or anything else. They left because they took real or perceived slights very badly, felt they were not being treated with the respect they deserved, their wishes being ignored, not being listened to. They left because their egos had been dented.

Better in the short term, worse in the long?

Which is precisely what HRC are doing by not giving Alex Márquez a chance to prove himself. Marc worked to get his brother as a teammate, then has to watch as Honda move him out to make room for a rider he has no love for. In the short term, this might look like a good move to HRC. In the long term, it is exactly the kind of move that causes a star rider to up sticks and go ride for someone else.

Honda do have one trump up their sleeve: earlier this year, Marc Márquez and HRC signed a four-year deal, which should see him riding in Honda's factory team from 2021 through 2024. So does that mean that Honda has Márquez the Elder over a barrel?

Not necessarily. Contracts always have escape clauses. It is common practice for Moto2 riders to have a clause in their contracts which releases them from their obligations if they are offered a ride in MotoGP. Some satellite riders have a similar clause, allowing them to get out of the second year of a two-year deal if a factory offers them a ride. There are options, performance clauses, all sorts of conditions placed in contracts.

Usually, these escape clauses favor the teams, especially when the team is a factory. Riders can get out of them too, though the penalty for doing so tends to be higher than the factory or team would face. The reason these clauses favor the factories is simple: in any negotiation, the more powerful party has the upper hand, and gets to write the rules.

Golden goose

In the case of Marc Márquez and HRC, however, things are different. Honda are all too aware of their dependency on Márquez, as witnessed by some of the changes they have already made. At the start of his career, Márquez was allowed to bring his entire squad from Moto2 into the Repsol team, though it took a season to persuade HRC. Since then, he has exerted more and more control over Honda, to the point where he has been able to prevent engineers being rotated out of HRC, as is Honda's normal practice. The enormity of that should not be underestimated.

Why have they done this? Marc Márquez has won the championship in six of the seven seasons he has competed in the MotoGP class. He has won 56 of the 127 races he has started, or just over 44%. He has been on the podium in nearly 75% of the races he has competed in. In 2019, he almost singlehandedly delivered Honda the riders', teams', and manufacturers' crowns. Marc Márquez is the nearest thing a manufacturer has to a guarantee of a title. And they are all in it to win it.

So it can be safely assumed that when Emilio Alzamora, as manager to the Márquez brothers, sat down with HRC, he had a big say in the things that got put into the contract. He will have ensured that there is always a way out for Márquez, though equally, Honda will have ensured that getting out will not be cheap. Especially as keeping him was very expensive, with rumors of a base salary north of €20 million, unheard of territory for a MotoGP rider.

Money fixes problems

The difficulty for Honda is that there is no price they could place on Marc Márquez which could prevent him from leaving if he so desired. In his seven years in MotoGP, Márquez is probably closing in on total earnings of €100 million. He does not have extravagant vices, and for much of his life, still lived with his mother. Indeed, he is so rich that he hasn't fled to Andorra to avoid paying taxes, like so many other riders. He is rich enough to afford to pay tax. Which means he is easily rich enough to buy his way out of a HRC contract.

And any rival manufacturer would be more than happy to help him. Given that Ducati threw €20+ million at Valentino Rossi, then another €25 million at Jorge Lorenzo in pursuit of a MotoGP title, they would be delighted to pay Márquez whatever he wanted, as well as pay off any penalty clauses to get out of a contract. KTM, too, with the backing of Red Bull, would have more than enough funds to put Marc Márquez on the bike, and give themselves the best shot at winning a MotoGP title.

Given that, I would be surprised if Marc Márquez serves all four years of his HRC contract. In any other year, had Alex been given a chance to earn his seat at Repsol, Marc Márquez would have had no reason to leave HRC. But with Alex pushed aside to make way for Pol Espargaro before Alex has even competed in his first MotoGP race, there are plenty of reasons to look elsewhere.

Leaving would mean making sacrifices, however. Taking his full crew would be almost impossible, given Ducati's experience with Valentino Rossi, when they brought in his entire crew and the crew found themselves with an entirely new bike to learn. The situation would be similar for KTM, and in both cases, neither KTM nor Ducati would be likely to give Márquez the control over the development process and the engineering staff which he has at HRC.

But if Marc Márquez feels the slight is bad enough, the insult severe enough, he will give all that up, just to teach Honda a lesson. As so many before him have done.


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Comments

They are either waiting on Iannone's case or are about to confirm the return of Cal Crutchlow.  <fingers crossed>

Wow! Pol may move. This will create some big waves in the small pond that is MotoGp!

Definitely Alex Marquez won't be happy to loose his factory ride.

Marc and Pol Espargaro go back a long way, Moto2 interactions that kept race direction busy, penalties, appeals etc.

Is it still the silly season? Pol & Marc sharing a garage? I'd like to be a spy in that box.

Can't help but think this is a slow news period story. I'll be very surprised if Pol goes to Repsol, 73 is bumped to LCR or worse, and if 93 leaves over any of this. More likely: Pol to LCR on a full factory bike.

I disagree that Marc would leave Honda for moving Alex to LCR with a Honda contract and factory bike. Mad, yes. Leave? No.

It would have to entail much more. He is convivial, and measured. Mind you there IS more in that the bike is unruly ay best. But, it is HIS unruly bike. He can have it be much how he wants. His garage is like his family at Honda.

It was a lucky and unusual boon to have Alex go straight to the Factory seat. It is reasonable for a new kid to be on the 2nd team.

Marc doesn't stay mad long. And he is smart.

I disagree that Marc would leave Honda for moving Alex to LCR with a Honda contract and factory bike. Mad, yes. Leave? No.

It would have to entail much more. He is convivial, and measured. Mind you there IS more in that the bike is unruly ay best. But, it is HIS unruly bike. He can have it be much how he wants. His garage is like his family at Honda.

It was a lucky and unusual boon to have Alex go straight to the Factory seat. It is reasonable for a new kid to be on the 2nd team.

Marc doesn't stay mad long. And he is smart.

In most of those scenarios, it didn't turn out well for the rider either. Salted wounds. Marquez and the Honda now suit each other. If Marquez wants to dominate the history books, he needs to stay with HRC. Legacy vs family...

HRC needs Marc way more than he needs them

He could win on most other bikes on the grid, and he's rich enough that he doesn't need to race for money. HRC without Marquez is Aprilia

In most of those scenarios, it didn't turn out well for the rider either. Salted wounds. Marquez and the Honda now suit each other. If Marquez wants to dominate the history books, he needs to stay with HRC. Legacy vs family...

This is an interesting development for the offseason that 2020 has become. But what's dearly needed is 22 prototype motorcycles launching from the starting grid and rocketing down the main straight with the front wheels just skimming the surface in a screaming cacaphony. Very loud, very fast and barely under control. That will bring some normalcy to this so-called "reality".

Honestly- I thought it was a huge coup when initially Marc was advocating for Alex to not be placed with HRC. Acknowledgment that Alex probably wasn't capable of following Marc's way. And Alex's preseason didn't do much to dispel that notion.

As a layperson, Marc's ego/confidence/hubris seems an order of magnitude larger than VR/JL/CS of yesteryear. He's outperformed every teammate he's ever had, including total legends, and when JL joined he signaled that he welcomed being challenged. In some sense it seems below him to feel threatened by the arrival of a peer who has been far less successful than he has. Although I personally think Pol may be the only gritty enough rider to match what Marc does on the Honda, hardened by years of experience getting creative on the uncompetitive (so far) KTM. I desperately want to see Marc challenged by a teammate  at his level and idk that there's any better choice than Pol.

Kudos to Puig (if Pol signing is TRUE) for not coddling their star and making him up his game, even if the JL experiment was a bust.

Personally, my reading of the situation is that Pol is merely fishing for a pay rise at KTM. It wouldn't surprise me if Marc has a veto on his team-mate written into his contract, but we are unlikely to find this out for many years. I just can't believe that Honda would be so stupid as to do anything to upset Marc.

...they've done it before. Not Ducati's level of blundering but their arrogance sometimes backfires on them. Someone earlier on said with MM the Honda is the Aprilia, not quite, but I clearly remember Neil Hodgson making the point last year that Pol had made the KTM a solid 10th place bike, the Honda conversely without Mark was, guess what, a 10th place bike; actual results backed this up in the second half of the season. Doohan, Stoner and less so Rossi have all unintentionally stunted or misled the Honda's development but their man management has on occasion also been suspect: remember the 3 works bikes when they had to accommodate Dovi after he enforced THEIR contract clause?!

...that rider x or rider y would suit bike z. but for sure, looking at Pol on the 18/19 KTM it seems logical. Do i think Pol is a challenge to Marc...very doubtful but you never know, maybe occasionally.

Now here's a question...If Marc was able to dominate the championship on the '19 Honda, how would Pol have done in his place ?

Take a percentage reduction of Marcs total if you choose to. Rough guess Pol could afford to lose a 1/3rd of the points tally of Marc and still have more points than Dovi. Of course it doesn't work out like that, as Pol loses points, inevitably others gain but is it possible that if Pol was competitive of the Hona in 2019 and Marc was not racing that Pol would be capable of becoming champion ?

Or to look at it from a more realistic point of view, if Marc did as he did in '19 and Pol was on the second bike how would the championship look ?

If the narative that the Honda is a beast that can only be tamed by the exceptional Marc Marquez is to be believed, it does not reflect very well on Honda. Honda hasn't won a race since Valencia 2017 but Marc has won many. The best they can achieve in those circumstances is to dominate the 'next guy' race and Marc's '19 points tally shows the potential of the Honda with the right rider is huge...then...maybe Pol is the best choice. Then Honda can show that it's not just Marc, look at the number 2, the difference is the Honda. They cannot get a word in edge ways on that subject when it's Marc doing all the winning, he was just too far ahead overall of everything last year.

The other obvious and looming issue here is Yamaha, Top Gun and El Diablo, not to mention Suzuki and Rins etc. The competition is making a comeback it is important to have a team mate who can actually run at the front. Honda and Marc may actually need that in 2021. As for Alex, is it not possible that a few years in the LCR squad, with less of the pressure and spotlight, would be of benefit to him ?

 

I have really come to dislike perfection, because perfection can be admired and liked for so long but it becomes perfectly boring were it not for the human factor.

We use to have the machine part of excitement when engineers were putting overpowered engines in frames and on tires that were not at the same development.

Thankfully it’s the human part of the racing that still brings excitement on the track and behind the scenes. Riders team managers owners and CEOs are all trying the second guess each other.

 

So yes to Pol going to Honda, mix it up with Marc then Marc off to Ducati or KTM in year or two.

Alex to LCR then proofs himself and goes to Suzuki.

Thanks for keeping it interesting during the lockdown David

As long as boys can be boys unrestricted from pitwall, they'll burn tyres too soon, or fuel or something and then have to ride around what's left. Kinda like the old days, but with more of everything. Even being head Prefect ala Dovi only works occasionally.

Dorna have to be congratulated. HRC can't just buy the championship now, they need MM.

I completely agree with you about perfection being boring, think Doohan in the 1990s or Schumacher at Ferrari in his prime. However, the thing that keeps me enjoying watching Marc ride the Honda is that the bike is anything but perfect, in fact some years it looks borderline unrideable. Throughout his entire career Marc has dominated Pol, sometimes on inferior machinery; Pol at Honda would just see this continue.

if it's true maybe Honda are gambling on MM's desire to break records and the probability that he will be injured in the next 4 years.  As such they are thinking he stays (mad as hell) and continues to win for them until he bangs himself up.  Let's face it, he can't keep coming off without big injuries and those shoulders are not getting any younger and odds are that he will have some big offs over the next 4 years.

Why not put Pol in the LCR seat with full support on a latest edition bike?  Alex deserves a chance to prove himself, Marc deserves to be respected at HRC and Pol can get factory support as requested.  

 

Alex hasn't earned anything at Honda yet, and obviously that's not his fault. But he was only signed on for one year, because Honda (and everyone else) knew that lots of rider's contracts were up at the end of 2020. Stoner and Marc were immediately fast as soon as they jumped on the Honda. Alex wasn't. So if this move does happen no one really has any reason to get upset. If Lorenzo hadn't ended his contract early we wouldn't even be having this dicussion and it's unlikely Alex would've ended up on the factory Honda for 2021 even if Lorenzo had left Honda after his contract ended (IMO obviously). I reckon the smart move by Honda, now that these rumours have come out, is to wait until a few races have been. Pol needs Honda more than Honda needs Pol. With these rumours out there, other riders who are undecided will likely wait to see what happens with that Honda seat before committing to a contract for 2021.

IF the rumors are true, the speculation should not be about Alex, Pol, or Marc.

Who is winning championships for Honda? Over the last five seasons, who has been the top-finishing Honda rider after Marc Márquez?

  • 2019  9th  Cal Crutchlow (LCR)
  • 2018  7th  Cal Crutchlow (LCR)
    Puig begins management of Repsol Honda in 2018
  • 2017  4th  Dani Pedrosa
  • 2016  6th  Dani Pedrosa
  • 2015  4th  Dani Pedrosa

... and we know why and how Pedrosa left. What does this say about Puig's management skills? I too would like to see a different world champion once in a while. So, Alex joining the Respol team may not have been the shrewdest decision. But IF the rumors are true and Puig sends Alex to LCR without even seeing him compete, what does it say to every other rider about a future at HRC? If I were Marc, I would be at HRC headquarters right now explaining what it says about who makes the team successful, and what is says about Honda Corp. keeping on a manager like this to be their public face. In Japanese culture, an honorable reputation is the most valuable asset a person or an organization can possess. Success is a close second. What exactly is Puig's contribution?

I can hardly believe a word of this. Pol in his age is hardly the future for Honda. If a scenario like this becomes reality though, I am inclined to believe it would be because of other unknown, or unmentioned, factors. It could also be, as pointed out, an elaborate plan of Pol to demand more from  KTM,  but then I find it hard to believe either he or his manager has this kind of reach with the international Press. Can it be that for some obscure reason Alex wants out?  Or that Marc has already his sights trained elsewhere? Or both?

For sure none of those things. He wanted out of KTM very much to get a go on Honda, and against Marc.

Honda is looking at a best rider line up for now, and this is a good move. He will be good, but not Marc good.

It is simple. And Marc will get ok with it. We can spare some oxygen and brain bandwidth for more important and interesting things.

Btw, Petrux definitely to Aprilia. Rossi, Aqua. Dovi stays for now. The compelling stuff is two steps further.