The 2018 season starts off with a nasty surprise for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. Today, the team announced that Jonas Folger will not be racing in 2018, leaving them without a second rider for the coming season.
The reason Folger gave for pulling out of racing is to focus on recovery from the health issues he suffered at the end of 2017. The German was forced to pull out of the three Asian flyaways, after health problems later diagnosed as Gilbert's Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the liver which causes chronic fatigue. Folger still does not feel at 100% fitness, and decided to take a year out of racing to focus fully on his recovery.
Folger's decision leaves the Tech 3 team in a very difficult position. The terms of the team's contract with Dorna, and their contracts with sponsors, state that they must field two riders for 2018. But with just 11 days until the start of the Sepang test, the first official test of the 2018 season, just about every candidate worth considering is already tied up with contracts for the coming year. Finding a replacement will involve either buying a rider out of his existing contract, or trying to find a rider without a contract who is still fast enough to compete.
Normally, the first avenue Tech 3 would explore would be their ties with Yamaha. That would involve talking to Yamaha about the availability of riders already under contract to the Japanese factory. The first port of call might be the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK team, but with the start of the 2018 WorldSBK season so close, losing either Alex Lowes or Michael van der Mark to the Tech 3 team would be a major blow for the Pata Yamaha squad. Enquiries indicate that there is no talk currently of either rider making the move.
Another alternative might be one of the riders currently racing for Yamaha in the All Japan Superbike championship, as both Katsuyuki Nakasuga and Kohta Nozane are under contract to Yamaha, and have experience racing the Yamaha MotoGP bike. Nakasuga would almost certainly rule out a move to MotoGP, if offered the chance, as the 36-year-old has no desire to leave his young family to travel around the world. Nozane is a more likely candidate, as the 22-year-old has already subbed for Folger at Motegi.
The more likely replacement for Folger will come from experienced riders who are currently only testing. The most obvious name would be Sylvain Guintoli, though his contract with Suzuki as a MotoGP test rider could cause an issue. Guintoli raced the Suzuki GSX-RR as a replacement for Alex Rins in 2017, and has a history with Tech 3, having ridden for them in 2007.
Former MotoGP rider Stefan Bradl is also without a contract to race for 2018, though he has signed up to be a test rider for Honda. Bradl's long history with Honda may be an objection, though the German also has brief experience with Yamaha, having ridden the Forward Yamaha CRT bike for the first half of the 2015 season, before replacing Marco Melandri at Aprilia.
If neither a Yamaha rider nor a rider out of contract can be found, Poncharal and Tech 3 could be left to try and buy an existing rider out of their contract. For a competitive rider, that could be an expensive affair, especially if they are signed up with other factories. Tech 3 could look to Moto2 for a replacement, but that too is fraught with complications. A rider such as Pecco Bagnaia could be brought up into MotoGP early, as Bagnaia's strong ties to the VR46 Riders Academy would make him a natural fit for Yamaha, and keep him in the family. Alternatively, Tech 3 could decided to move Remy Gardner up to MotoGP, a cheap option, as finding a replacement in Moto2 is a much easier exercise than finding a MotoGP rider. If Xavi Vierge had not left the team at the end of this year, this would have been a solid bet, as Poncharal was very impressed with the performance of the Spaniard.
At the moment, though, it is absolutely not clear who will replace Folger. Even Hervé Poncharal won't know yet, as it is so hard to find a replacement so quickly.
What the future holds for Folger after this year is similarly unclear. The German may have burned his bridges at Tech 3, despite the confidence Poncharal had in him - Tech 3 had tried to sign Folger for two years previously, before finally getting him to sign in MotoGP. The tone of Poncharal's statement in the press release is one of suppressed anger, reading between the lines. Given the enormous problems Folger has lumped Poncharal with, that is hardly surprising.
The press release from Tech 3 appears below:
Jonas Folger will not race in 2018
One week before the start of the first Official MotoGP test this year, Jonas Folger has decided not to race in the 2018 MotoGP season with Monster Yamaha Tech3 team, as he doesn’t feel completely ready, physically and mentally, at the moment. However, to be honest with himself and his Monster Yamaha Tech3 team, he made the hard decision to skip the 2018 racing season in order to finally be able to fully recover with less pressure.
“I’m incredibly sad to be saying this, but I will not be racing MotoGP in 2018. I wasn’t able to make the improvements I was hoping for, and at this stage I don’t feel able to ride a MotoGP machine at 100 percent. I’d like to thank everyone involved, but especially the Monster Yamaha Tech3 team, Yamaha Factory Japan, Monster Energy, HJC, IXON, Forma Boots and Rudy Project. I hope to be back one day and want to thank you all for your ongoing support.”
“Last night (Tuesday) I received a call from Bob Moore, Jonas Folger’s personal manager. I couldn’t believe what Bob was telling me on the phone, that Jonas Folger has decided not to race the 2018 MotoGP season, because he doesn’t feel 100 percent mentally and physically recovered. It is still very difficult for me to believe, that he’s not going to race with us in 2018, especially because he has been somebody I had lot of faith in and I was sure we would reach top level together this year. I completely respect his decision, although it’s hard to swallow. Yet, I will try to find a solution for a replacement rider, which is a very difficult mission, as all of the fast riders are already contracted. But as always in racing we need to be proactive, inventive and hopefully we can make someone very happy. We will keep all of you informed about the evolution of the situation.”