Though racing has stopped, necessity is forcing teams and factories into making choices. With almost everyone in MotoGP out of contract at the end of 2020, and only a few riders already signed up, seats have to be filled for next year and beyond, racing or no racing.
After the early spate of more or less expected signings, the latest round of deals are more of a surprise. None more than the expected deal for Pol Espargaro to join Repsol Honda in 2021, displacing Alex Márquez as brother Marc's teammate before the younger Márquez has had a chance to prove his worth. That, as I wrote previously, will inevitably lead to a parting of the ways between Marc Márquez and HRC, I believe.
It has been two weeks since news of that deal emerged, and yet there is still no confirmation. Despite protestations to the opposite, the deal is very much on. But there is something of a hiccup along the way, in the form of a contractual stipulation that forbids Espargaro from discussing a deal with another factory before September 15th. No announcement will be made before then.
Actions speak louder than words
Necessity is no respecter of contractual obligations, however. KTM boss Stefan Pierer may claim that the Austrian factory still has hopes of keeping Espargaro, but the fact that Danilo Petrucci has flown to Austria to visit the KTM factory in Mattighofen, and come away making very positive noises about his visit, is something of a giveaway.
Petrucci's manager Alberto Vergani told GPOne.com that there had only been exploratory talks so far, but the fact that the pair were invited to visit the racing department is itself telling. Racing departments are very much off limits to outside parties, for fear of what might leak out. Only the privileged, or those with a contract, are allowed a peek inside.
Hanging on to talent
There may not yet be an official announcement from KTM, but the facts on the ground speak volumes. It is all very well getting riders to sign contracts forbidding them from speaking about new deals before a certain date, but shopping around for their replacement is something of a giveaway.
In theory, of course, Petrucci could be a replacement for Brad Binder, who is also still without a contract for 2021. But replacing Binder with Petrucci would be a spectacular failure of management on many different grounds. Firstly, dumping Binder before he has had a chance to even race in MotoGP would be throwing away the years of investment KTM have made in the South African. Secondly, it would also upset Miguel Oliveira – another long-term KTM investment – to be passed over for the factory team for a second time in two seasons. And the Austrian factory has already lost rising star Jorge Martin to Pramac Ducati. KTM's management is way too savvy to do anything so stupid as to risk losing both Binder and Oliveira.
KTM is just one of Petrucci's options, though arguably the best one. Ducati have offered him a seat in the Aruba.it WorldSBK team, but Petrucci seems keen to remain in MotoGP. Aprilia are another option, but that is somewhat uncertain, as the Italian factory is still waiting for a verdict from the CAS on Andrea Iannone's suspension for doping. Until the outcome of that appeal is known, Aprilia is offering a show of loyalty to its rider. For the remainder of 2020, test rider Bradley Smith will step into Iannone's shoes.
Desmo Dovi lives on
Petrucci replacing Pol Espargaro at KTM rules out the chance of Andrea Dovizioso taking that seat. But in reality, Dovizioso was never likely to leave the Bologna factory. At 34, Dovizioso is in the closing stages of his career, and has shown no signs of wanting to continue into his 40s, following in the footsteps of Valentino Rossi. That doesn't leave him much time to get up to speed on a different manufacturer.
"At this time in MotoGP history it's kind of hard to be swapping machinery like that and jumping from manufacturer to manufacturer," Jack Miller said at Valencia last year, commenting on Jorge Lorenzo's retirement. "I think you need two to three years, and well into your thirties, two to three years becomes a long time. It's so hard because the biggest thing is understanding how the tyres work on each bike, how each bike works, what is it's strengths? And you can't do that in winter testing. You need racing, you need experience and it's hard to do."
If Dovizioso has any thoughts of retiring in the near future, he faces a choice. He can stay with Ducati, and hope that Gigi Dall'Igna and the engineers in Borgo Panigale finally give him the last few missing pieces that will help him solve the puzzle of winning a MotoGP title, then retire in a year or two. Or he can switch manufacturers, sacrifice a year or two to get up to speed, and hope his new employer has built a more competitive bike.
Dovizioso has shown no real appetite to continue racing for another three or four years. Ducati remains his best and most realistic shot at winning a MotoGP crown.
Viewed from the other side of that transaction, it also makes sense for Ducati to do whatever it takes to retain Dovizioso. Despite the fractious relationship between Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, the Italian rider has been an absolutely key part in the revival of the Borgo Panigale manufacturer. Since his arrival in 2013, Dovizioso has provided a lot of the input which has helped get the Ducati to where it is. He has the experience and the detailed understanding of the Desmosedici and its DNA to make it go faster.
Ducati's prospective 2021 line up needs Dovizioso to stay. Jack Miller's move up to the factory squad is deserved and timely, and his experience at Pramac as the tester for the holeshot device and "shapeshifter" rear squatting device serves him well. But he hasn't had the responsibility for leading the direction of development in a factory team yet, and is an unknown quantity. For 2021, Pramac will have Pecco Bagnaia and the (as yet to be confirmed) Jorge Martin. Bagnaia was a disappointment in 2019, after an outstanding career in Moto2, and Martin will be a rookie. They are not yet material that you can build a development effort on.
So it seems like only a matter of time before Ducati announce a contract extension with Andrea Dovizioso. But both parties will negotiate hard before agreeing a deal.
Thwarted by RNA
Where does this leave Johann Zarco? The Frenchman has perhaps been one of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thrown a lifeline by Ducati after a disastrous year at KTM – the living embodiment of how difficult it can be to switch manufacturers – Zarco took a spot in the Avintia squad after being persuaded by Gigi Dall'Igna that he would get strong factory backing. He did so in the hope that he could earn a factory ride with the squad in 2021, by proving he could be quick on the bike in the early races.
Then COVID-19 happened, and all racing has been put on hold, until the middle of July. By that time, the seats at Ducati – both factory and Pramac – will be filled. The chances of the Frenchman finding a better seat than Avintia for 2021 are pretty close to zero, no matter how well he does this season. And given that he will be on a 2019 bike, a Desmosedici GP19, making a real impression at the front will be doubly hard.
So Zarco faces at least another year with Avintia, with support from Ducati. The best he can hope for is an upgrade to a GP21 for next year, but given the financial impact of the pandemic, finding the budget to fund an extra GP21 will be difficult for Ducati. His saving grace will be the fact that development on engines and aero has been halted until the 2021 season, meaning that whatever he races in 2021 will be much closer to the factory machines than the GP19 he has for this year.
The devil is in the detail
The one piece of news we are all patiently waiting for is the official confirmation that Valentino Rossi will be racing for Petronas Yamaha next year. The simple fact of Rossi on a Petronas bike seems like a foregone conclusion, but the mechanics of making it actually happen are vastly complicated.
Talks are taking place through Yamaha, rather than directly, and there is the question of Rossi's crew. He will want to end his career with the mechanics who have (for the most part) been with him throughout his 21 years in the premier class. But Petronas will not want to have to lose one entire side of the garage to make room for his crew, some of whom may also decide to retire at the same time that Rossi does.
Then there are the little details. At the moment, Rossi's PR duties are limited, one of the stipulations of his contract. Petronas will want more from him than Yamaha did, however. The counterweight to the upheaval which having Rossi as a rider brings is the PR and advertising exposure. Petronas will want to milk that for all it is worth, especially in a region in which the Italian veteran is so wildly popular. Finding a balance between the diametrically opposite PR demands of Petronas and Rossi will not be simple at all.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.