With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind. First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home Grand Prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro's signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory's MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
Espargaro's contract may not be the only rider signing to be announced in Jerez. It now seems certain that Johann Zarco will be joining Espargaro in the factory KTM team, and the announcement could come as early as this weekend. Zarco also had an offer from HRC to partner Marc Marquez in the Repsol Honda team, but the Frenchman is believed to have preferred to try to beat Marquez on different machinery, rather than face him on the bike developed around him. The logical place to announce Zarco's signing would be Le Mans, but it may not be possible to sit on the news for that long, as the MotoGP grapevine cannot keep secrets for that long.
Jerez is likely to be a very busy weekend for rider managers. UK publication MCN is reporting that the deal between Suzuki and Jorge Lorenzo is as good as done, despite the financial obstacles such a deal faced. As Lorenzo also faced a drop in salary at Ducati, if he had chosen to remain there, he may have decided to jump to a bike that suits his style better, and which he may believe he will be capable of winning on straight away, without having to work so hard to adjust his riding style to.
Whether that deal gets done or not at Jerez, the Spanish circuit will be a busy weekend for Suzuki. The factory's top brass will be flying in to Jerez for talks with the Marc VDS team about becoming a Suzuki satellite team for the next three years. Marc VDS as Suzuki satellite squad would help, not just with development - it is likely that Suzuki would be providing bikes of almost identical spec to the factory bikes to the team - but also as a conduit for talent. Franco Morbidelli is a hot property in MotoGP, and having the young Italian on the Suzuki would offer the Japanese factory a way to deepen their talent pool. It would also allow Joan Mir to step up to MotoGP in 2019. A deal with Suzuki will have to be signed at Jerez, to allow Marc VDS to be able to prepare in time for next year.
Other contracts to be discussed at Jerez include Andrea Dovizioso, who is still in talks with Ducati and will sign with them again at some point, with only the details to be left out. With Lorenzo likely to leave Ducati, the second seat in the Italian factory is open. Nominally, Danilo Petrucci has an option for that seat should it become available, but the option for that lies with Ducati, rather than Petrucci. Ducati could choose to put Pecco Bagnaia straight into the factory squad alongside Dovizioso, rather than putting him into the Pramac team first. Or they could look at some of the displaced riders, such as Dani Pedrosa - who is certain to lose his Repsol Honda seat - or Andrea Iannone. Having Iannone back would be a stretch, however: the Italian was not a good fit with Dovizioso when the pair were racing together, and with Dovizioso performing as he is, Ducati may not want to risk ruining the atmosphere.
There is still a lot of ground to cover before all of the contracts are signed for 2019 and MotoGP's Silly Season is in the books. Yamaha have to find a team to run satellite Yamahas, and once again, MCN added an interesting wrinkle to this story, Simon Patterson reporting that the Sepang International Circuit is looking to collaborate with an existing team in MotoGP, to keep Malaysian rookie Hafizh Syahrin in the premier class. This tallies with what circuit boss Razlan Razali told Crash.net's Peter McLaren earlier this year, where he mentioned the possibility almost as a joke. The meeting rooms in team trucks will be fully occupied this weekend at Jerez.
The KTM press release announcing Pol Espargaro's contract extension appears below:
Pol Espargaro renews Red Bull KTM Factory Racing contract till 2020
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing are delighted to confirm that Pol Espargaro has signed a two year extension to his current contract to remain part of the works team for the 2019 and 2020 MotoGP seasons.
Pol Espargaro was one of the first recruits for KTM’s comprehensive and dedicated effort to fight with the very best teams and factories at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing. The new agreement will take the Spaniard into four years representing the Austrian brand as the company eyes considerable expansion in MotoGP from 2019 onwards.
Espargaro: “It has been really easy for me to make this decision; I did not think of another possibility for even a minute. I cannot hide how happy I am being involved in this amazing project, despite the challenges and the work we still have to go through. I love the KTM philosophy and I want to continue trying to reach our goals. I don’t know when we will be able to do it, but I’m sure that we will arrive. I have to thank my whole crew for how they push and how they support me, with the leadership of my crew chief Paul Trevathan, and for sure Mike Leitner and Pit Beirer for how they strive every day. And, of course, all the people that work at the races and back at Munderfing. We are a team with an ambitious aim. I’m enjoying my best moments in the MotoGP championship, and I’m really happy to know that I’m going to continue here at least until 2020”.
Pit Beirer (KTM Motorsports Director): “Pol has been such a strong part of our project and gave us a lot of trust and belief as well as the highlights so far with two ninth positions. I’m really happy we can continue together for another two years because we can build on the work we have already done and keep progressing with the bike; he should definitely be one of the people that should benefit from everything we have achieve and learned and how we will push on in the future.”
The 26 year old, born in Granollers and in the shadow of the Circuit Barcelona-Catalunya, is negotiating his fifth term in the premier class since claiming the Moto2 title in 2013. #44 has been the strongest performer on the KTM RC16 with four top ten finishes in MotoGP despite the project clocking only 21 events as a full-time member of the Grand Prix grid in the run-up to this weekend’s Gran Premio Red Bull de España at Jerez.