Silly Season's Opening Shots: Can Yamaha Sign Pol Espargaro?
The 2013 MotoGP season has only just got underway, but as is seemingly customary in MotoGP now, thoughts are already turning to next year. With eight of the twelve men on factory prototypes on two-year contracts, the most attractive seats already appear to be taken. There is no room for any movement at either the factory Yamaha or factory Honda teams, and only one seat potentially available at the factory Ducati team. Both satellite Honda seats are taken for 2014, as is Bradley Smith's seat at the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team.
Despite this, there are some intriguing possibilities being played out. The most desirable seat still left is almost certainly the second Monster Tech 3 Yamaha seat currently occupied by Cal Crutchlow. Despite the Englishman's outstanding performance since last year, Crutchlow may not be able to hold on to his seat. There have been credible reports since 2012 that Yamaha have a keen interest in Moto2 title favorite Pol Espargaro, and in the run up to the season opener at Qatar, rumors emerged that Espargaro is already in talks with Yamaha for 2014.
With both factory seats taken, however, the only place where Yamaha could place Espargaro is in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, and with Bradley Smith already on a two-year contract with the French squad, that leaves Crutchlow's seat as the only option. When asked by MotoMatters.com at Austin whether he was in talks with Espargaro for next year, Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal denied both the suggestion, and that he had any interest in the young Spaniard. "I will never sign a contract with Pol Espargaro," Poncharal replied in response to our questions. Poncharal was less certain about the option of Espargaro being placed in the Tech 3 team directly by Yamaha, as they have the right to do under their contract with Poncharal, admitting he would have no control over the matter in that case. Though Poncharal is already happy with his current line up, sources have confirmed that Yamaha and Tech 3 have already had conversations about Espargaro, though the outcome of those conversations is unknown.
Where does this leave Cal Crutchlow? The Englishman has been impressive in both pre-season testing and in the first two races of the year, and is believed to be keen to stay where he is, unless an opportunity to ride for a factory team opens up. With only Nicky Hayden on a one-year contract, that would leave only Ducati, or possibly Suzuki, when they make their long-awaited return to the series. Joining Suzuki would be a risk, given that it is not yet known just how competitive the bike will be. That will only become apparent at the first public test of the bike in Barcelona, in a month's time.
Ducati, on the other hand, could be a better bet, given the progress being made on developing the Desmosedici. Though 2013 will be a tough year for the Italian marque, 2014 looks a lot more promising. The complicating factor there is that the US is such an important market for Ducati, and they may want to retain an American rider to help promote the brand, something which Nicky Hayden does tirelessly for them. If Ben Spies' results improve over the coming year, that could satisfy Ducati North America's needs, especially if Hayden were to move to World Superbikes with Ducati and race there. That move would have the blessing of Dorna as well, as having a famous American racing in World Superbikes would help raise the profile of that series in the US as well.
The question is, just how reliable are all these rumors? Will Espargaro move to Tech 3, or Crutchlow switch to Suzuki, or Hayden go to World Superbikes? It is far too early for any real decisions to be made. One thing is for certain: the second seat in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team is currently MotoGP's hottest property, and a protracted battle between an established and successful rider like Cal Crutchlow and gambling on a young, upcoming rider like Pol Espargaro is likely to be fought out over the heads of the riders.