Five races into the 2021 MotoGP season, and with the Covid-19 pandemic abating in some places while flaring up in others, there are the first signs of movement in motorcycle racing. Teams, factories, and riders are starting to open (and in some cases, complete) negotiations for this year and beyond, and races are slowly starting to open up to fans.
Although for a variety of reasons, the moves have not been covered in separate stories, here is a quick round up of the latest news and speculation from around the paddock.
Jack Miller stays on with Ducati
As with so many other areas of life, the secret to signing MotoGP contracts lies in the timing. As a rider, you want to put pen to paper at the exact point your market value is at its highest. Coming off back-to-back race victories at Jerez and Le Mans, in the dry and in the flag-to-flag French Grand Prix, Jack Miller has timed his contract extension to perfection. Today, Ducati announced they had signed Miller up for the 2022 MotoGP season, to race in the factory Ducati Lenovo Team.
While not quite a foregone conclusion, Miller's renewal did not come as a surprise. Despite a difficult start to 2021, the Australian bounced back to win in Spain and France. Those successes were more in line with expectations coming out of winter testing than the poor results from the two Qatar races, and then the crash in the early part of the Portimão race.
It was also Ducati exercising the option they had to keep Miller for 2022. Though he had only a one-year deal for 2021, the contract came with an option for next year. But the season would have to have gone spectacularly badly for Ducati not to decide to keep the Australian. Miller, for his part, was happy with a one-year deal, feeling it kept him sharp.
Miller will line up alongside Pecco Bagnaia again in 2022, the Italian already having a contract for next season with Ducati. Given that Bagnaia is second in the championship, just a single point behind Fabio Quartararo, and Miller is fourth, Ducati's gamble on swapping out veterans Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci for the much younger Miller and Bagnaia so far looks like being a success.
Silly season shaping up
With Miller locked in to Ducati, that means four factory teams are fully signed up for 2022. Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha all have contracts for next year with their current riders, while Repsol Honda have signed Marc Márquez through 2024. The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team have both Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira on options for next year, with both riders expected to continue in the factory squad in 2022.
Honda also have their LCR satellite squad signed up for 2022 as well, with both Alex Márquez and Takaaki Nakagami set to continue next year. Pramac Ducati have Jorge Martin signed for 2022, and an option on Johann Zarco for next season. With Zarco currently third in the championship, and with three podiums to his name, the Frenchman looks set to continue for next year. At Petronas, Franco Morbidelli has been promised factory equipment for 2022, although whether that will be Yamaha or Ducati is still unsettled.
Dovizioso takes another step towards a return
Aprilia have Aleix Espargaro signed for next year in their factory team, with Gresini set to become independent from the 2022 season. It is looking increasingly likely that Andrea Dovizioso will be Espargaro's teammate for next year, with Aprilia and Dovizioso extending their collaboration.
The move was not unexpected. Dovizioso had tested at Jerez, and then scheduled a second test at Mugello, but the two-day test was almost entirely rained off, the Italian getting only limited usable track time on the RS-GP. After the test, Aprilia announced that they had agreed to a deal which will see Dovizioso test for the Noale factory for the remainder of 2021.
The next test for the Italian will come on June 23rd and 24th, Dovizioso taking to the track at Misano with the test team. From there, more tests will be planned for Dovizioso to help with the development of the bike.
Dovizioso has made no secret of his desire to return to MotoGP in 2022. It is hard to see his year of testing on the RS-GP for Aprilia as anything other than a prelude to contract with the Italian factory for next season.
Who gets what?
The next big question to be answered is which teams will be using which bikes. Central to resolving this issue is the VR46 squad, which will take over the two slots held by Esponsorama (from whom they lease Luca Marini's seat for this year) from next year. They have long been on course to continue with Ducati, but revelations over the weekend of Le Mans gave a hint that Yamaha was still an option.
According to Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Yamaha had offered the VR46 team two factory M1s at roughly half the price Petronas were being offered. That, unsurprisingly, was met with displeasure by Petronas. Since then, however, the VR46 pendulum has swung back to Ducati, with an announcement believed to be imminent, despite the protestations of Ducati team boss Davide Tardozzi.
Retirement or return?
That would leave Petronas with Yamahas, the big question in the Petronas SRT team being whether Valentino Rossi will continue. That will depend on whether Rossi believes he can still be competitive or not, and fight for podiums and victories.
The signs so far have not been good. Rossi's first four races were poor, the nine-time world champion scoring just 4 points in as many races. The Italian made a step forward with the 2021 Yamaha M1 at the Jerez test, and improved his results at Le Mans, finishing eleventh.
Rossi is still hoping that the step made at Jerez will bear more fruit in the coming races, as MotoGP visits three of his favorite tracks – Mugello, Barcelona, and Assen – before the summer break. He has told Indonesian TV that he wants to wait until after the first half of the season before making a decision on continuing, so he can review the first nine races of the year. That would mean an announcement being made at the end of the summer break, possibly at the start of first race in Austria in early August.
Fans are back
The good news for MotoGP fans is that they will soon be allowed back into circuits again. Although Mugello and the Sachsenring are to be held behind closed doors, the races at Barcelona and Assen will see fans in attendance once again, albeit in limited numbers.
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya will see VIPs and team guests return to the paddock, as well as a number of fans. Ticket holders for the 2020 race will be able to swap their tickets for tickets for the race in 10 days time.
Such ticket swaps will not be possible at Assen. Instead, tickets purchased for the 2020 edition will be rolled over once again until 2022. There will be fans at the 2021 race, but limited to 11,500 Dutch fans, with loyal fans and regular ticket buyers being given early access. Fans will have to have a (free) rapid test to prove they do not have the coronavirus before gaining admission, and fans will only be allowed in designated grandstands, with each grandstand having its own 'bubble', including dedicated parking and access routes.
Bumps on the road
Though the return of fans is a positive sign for the future, there are still obstacles on the path for MotoGP in 2021. With the number of cases of the so-called Indian variant of Covid-19 on the rise in the UK, Germany and Austria are banning travel to their countries from the UK.
That will mean that UK-based staff will not be able to return home after Barcelona if they wish to attend the Sachsenring. That adds another complication for British passport holders, as since Brexit was completed, UK citizens are only allowed to stay in the EU for 90 days in any 180 day period. If they also have to arrive in the EU early to be allowed into Austria for the double header on August 8th and 15th, that will eat into a lot of their allotted time in Europe.
There are still a significant number of Brits in the MotoGP paddock. KTM employs a large number of British mechanics, and others are spread throughout various teams, including Frankie Carchedi, Joan Mir's crew chief. IRTA is a British-based organization comprised largely of British passport holders, and as IRTA are charged with running the paddock and fulfilling a number of vital roles in the running of the races – Technical Director Danny Aldridge is British, for example – this poses a serious problem for MotoGP.
No doubt they will find a workaround. Andorra was used as a base for Japanese staff forced to stay in Europe for the 2020 season, who faced similar restrictions as non-EU citizens. The tiny mountain state is not an EU member nation, despite using the Euro as currency, and having various trade and other agreements with the EU. But getting stamped out of the EU entering Andorra, then stamped out again once they leave could be an option for British passport holders to avoid returning to the UK between races.
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