The MotoGP grid is set to expand to 24 riders once again in 2017. The current teams are expected to retain the 21 grid slots already allotted, while KTM's factory team will take two more when the Austrian manufacturer enters MotoGP next year. This will take the grand total up to 23 seats, leaving one more grid slot to be filled.
Who will fill that final grid slot has been the subject of much speculation. Rumors that the Sky VR46 team were to take the slot were immediately quashed by team manager Pablo Nieto, saying they were only interested in Moto3 and Moto2. Sources indicate that there are two firm candidates, with three more having expressed an interest. The two candidates include one MotoGP team, and one Moto2 team.
The MotoGP team interested in expanding is LCR. The Monaco-based team ran two bikes in 2015, but sponsorship woes had forced them to cut back to just a single bike for the 2016 season. When asked if he was interested the final grid slot, team boss Lucio Cecchinello acknowledged that he was, and that he was working towards securing sufficient budget to meet the submission deadline on 29th April. "Honestly speaking, at the moment we do not have the budget, but we are talking with our existing sponsors and with some new potential sponsors," Cecchinello told MotoMatters.com. "Realistically, it's very hard that I will be able to put it all together. But until the last day and the last hour, I will not give up."
The lessons of last year, when LCR was left with unpaid bills by scandal-hit financial services company CWM, had been well learned, Cecchinello saying that he was taking a slightly different approach to sponsorship for 2017. "Let's say that the companies that we are talking with are multinational companies, not private companies," Cecchinello said. "When you work with private companies, most of the time, everything is going well. We had some small accidents... But when you talk with a multinational company, it is very, very rare that they are not going to pay you."
Expanding to two bikes would probably require LCR to reexamine its current sponsorship model, where different sponsors each serve as title sponsors at different races. Cecchinello was talking to companies about taking on a role as a single title sponsor for the entire team, though that was far from settled. It was also possible that some form of hybrid arrangement could be reached, with one bike continuing with the current model, and a second carrying a single title sponsor for a full season.
"At this moment, we are still considering both options, because at this moment, what we do and the set up we have in place is something, it doesn't really give me a lot of company risk, because we spread the risk over many companies," Cecchinello said. "But realistically, it's not the best scenario, because you have to put a lot of effort into changing all the time. A lot more work, you cannot imagine."
"On the other side, to give all the team in the hands of a unique title sponsor is quite risky. So I'm still considering both options. Or rather, three options: First option is to continue like we are, with one rider. Second option is to continue like this with one rider, and having a title sponsor dedicated on a second machine. And the third option is to have the title sponsor dedicated on both machines, and to eventually reduce the collaboration with the existing sponsors. Which they would not be very happy with, to be pushed out, but I will find a way, and I will take the decision together with them, because at the very end, we want absolutely to respect the companies and the people and every single individual that made a lot of effort through the years with us."
As for the question of who he would like to put on the bike, Cecchinello was clear. "This is something that we do have our own ideas about some good riders coming from Moto2, and I'm sure that Dorna or Honda or any sponsor would support the program to have a good rider coming from Moto2." Cecchinello did not name names, but he did reject the idea of signing a second MotoGP rider alongside Cal Crutchlow. "Realistically, to have an experienced MotoGP rider as a second rider in my team, I am afraid I would not be able to pay his salary. "
In 2017, the financial basis for the teams is also set to change, with bikes supplied by factories subject to a price cap, and Dorna increasing the funding for all of the teams. Would this make a difference to Cecchinello's plans? The Italian was skeptical. "What is not clear at the moment is the kind of package that will be provided from Honda. Because at the very end, the new rules or the price cap, it is not clear what kind of bike level you will get with this price cap, what will be included. So I am still waiting information from HRC, but they are still considering several options. It would be nice to have the factory bike like we have now for a price cap, for 30% less than this year. Honestly, I don't believe it will happen, because since I have been working with Honda, every year there was a little increase..."
LCR would not be looking elsewhere for bikes, however. "Honestly, we have a very good relationship with Honda, and we want to continue with Honda," Cecchinello said. "We are not really interested in changing manufacturers. We have a very good connection, and a lot of experience. And I know that eventually if you have a good program with a competitive rider, they are more keen to give you some help."
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.