It was a busy day for MotoGP rider announcements. Three riders were confirmed in teams, with a fourth confirmed as leaving. The announcements were hardly a shock, but there was room for the odd raised eyebrow or two.
At Honda, there was the expected reshuffling to make room for Pol Espargaro in the Repsol Honda squad, the Spaniard offered a two-year deal alongside Marc Marquez. This bumped Alex Márquez down to the LCR Honda team, with a two-year contract as compensation. Alex Márquez may have lost his ride in the factory team before a wheel has turned in the 2020 MotoGP season, but at least he is now assured of three seasons in the premier class to prove himself.
If there was a surprise in the announcements, it was that Cal Crutchlow was being released to make room for Alex Márquez. The Englishman has been a valuable asset in the development of the Honda RC213V, his feedback highly rated, and he is a firm favorite in the LCR squad, bringing a lot of media exposure to the satellite team.
The LCR shuffle
It had been thought that Takaaki Nakagami would lose his place, to free up a seat at LCR Honda for Alex Márquez. But Honda remains keen to keep a Japanese rider in MotoGP, and though there is a new cohort of fresh young Japanese talent rising through Moto3 and Moto2, they are still a couple of years away from breaking into the premier class. With HRC needing both a seat and a factory-spec Honda RC213V, losing Crutchlow was their best option.
The decision had not come as a shock to Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman told the MotoGP.com website that he had known for three months there would be no room for him with HRC next year. But he also said he did not believe he would be retiring. He acknowledged there was interest from Aprilia, but he also said there was still a chance for him to stay at LCR.
Lucio Cecchinello is keen to keep him, Crutchlow told MotoGP.com. the problem is that for Cecchinello, keeping Crutchlow would be expensive. The LCR team would have to pick up Crutchlow's salary, and find the funds to run that side of the garage. At the moment, HRC pays Takaaki Nakagami's salary, and picks up the tab for the Japanese rider's side of the garage, with help from Idemitsu, the Japanese oil firm which backs Nakagami.
Making a splash
The fourth rider signing concerned Franco Morbidelli, who has been signed to a further two years in the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad. Petronas boss Razlan Razali played the media on Sunday night, posting a picture of himself aboard a flight destined for Spain with the comment that "The announcement that the fans have been waiting for will be tomorrow." That led to speculation that Valentino Rossi's arrival at the Sepang squad would be announced, but instead, it was Franco Morbidelli.
In a way, this was a smart play by Razali. It paid the rider which he signed – as opposed to having a rider thrust upon the team – a compliment, and generated more media interest for Morbidelli's signing than might otherwise have been expected. Morbidelli's renewal was almost a formality, given that Petronas bosses were already expressing their hopes of retaining their 2019 rider line up beyond 2020 last year. Losing Fabio Quartararo was inevitable, given the Frenchman's meteoric ascension in the MotoGP firmament. That made keeping Morbidelli all the more important.
That Rossi's deal was not announced is mainly because it has not yet been signed. Though it is all but inevitable that the Italian will end up in Petronas, the precise details of who goes with him – mechanics, trainers, coaches, photographers, etc – are proving very tricky to hammer out. Rossi expects to be able to choose more or less whoever he wants. That might have been the case if Petronas had chosen to sign Rossi, but they are having Rossi foisted upon them by Yamaha, on the basis of promises made by Yamaha to the Italian. There are far, far worse riders to have stuck in your team, but the expectations of the two parties are still a long way apart.
The official announcements made to day bring the total of officially signed riders for 2021 to 15. The factory Yamaha, Honda, KTM, and Suzuki teams are full, while Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller have been confirmed at Aprilia and Ducati respectively. Among the satellite teams, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM squad has a full compliment of riders in Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona, while Morbidelli and Alex Márquez mean that half of the Petronas and LCR seats are filled. Tito Rabat still has one year on his contract with Avintia, meaning his seat is safe for 2021.
Despite there still being seven officially open seats left in MotoGP, all but two are already provisionally taken. Nakagami looks almost certain to keep his seat at LCR, and Johann Zarco can be sure of an offer from Ducati, though he may not be delighted that it is at Avintia. Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin look set to fill the Pramac Ducati squad, though a shuffle is not unthinkable if Zarco outperforms Bagnaia.
Which leaves only two seats open, and both are at factory teams. Cal Crutchlow looks to be the firm favorite for the Aprilia seat at the moment, though he insists that there are still other options. That is not necessarily true for Aprilia, however: it is looking less and less likely that Andrea Iannone will escape a long ban for testing positive for drostanolone, a banned steroid. The Italian is supposed to have a hearing in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS, in August. But the CAS website still lists no hearings for the case. Furthermore, Iannone finds the might of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency ranged against him, who are appealing against the leniency of the FIM's 18-month ban.
Dovi vs Duc
The most interesting seat at the moment is the slot in the Factory Ducati team. Andrea Dovizioso has still not signed a contract with Ducati for 2021, despite his long association with the Italian factory. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that he has been asked to take a pay cut, not just for 2021, but also for 2020, the current season, and a season which is covered in his current contract.
Dovizioso's manager, Simone Battistella, has even suggested that the Italian might prefer to take a year out of MotoGP, in the hope of securing a better contract on his return. This seems vanishingly unlikely. Riders who leave MotoGP rarely, if ever, return. And when they do, it is never to a better opportunity than the one they left behind.
The most recent examples that spring to mind are Max Biaggi, who was forced out of MotoGP after losing his ride at Honda. After a year off, Biaggi moved – with a great deal of success – to the World Superbike paddock, but he never got another chance in MotoGP.
Sete Gibernau left MotoGP at the end of the 2006 season, after losing his Ducati ride. He came back after two seasons away, riding for the Grupo Francisco Hernando team, a squad set up with the backing of a controversial building magnate in an attempt to persuade Teodoro Obiang, the president of Equatorial Guinea and the man widely regarded as the worst dictator in the world to sponsor the team and grant a building contract in the country. Gibernau scored 12 points from six races in an already thin field, and the team withdrew halfway through the season.
If a sabbatical is not a great option for Dovizioso, losing the Italian would not be great for Ducati either. Their options are severely limited, with nobody of Dovizioso's experience or talent readily available. Rumors continue to bubble up around Jorge Lorenzo, but the Spaniard is looking far too happy in retirement. And he has made plain that the Ducati was not the ideal bike for him.
If Lorenzo had been offered a shot on the factory Yamaha, he might have jumped at it. The M1 fits him like a glove, and he would have had a realistic shot at a title. Winning a championship on the Ducati would be very, very hard work, and much more of a long shot, the Desmosedici being some way away from Lorenzo's natural riding style. The only thing that could tempt him back would be a large pile of money, and the lack of that is precisely what is preventing Ducati from extending Dovizioso's contract.
In the end, Dovizioso and Ducati seemed doomed to spend at least one more season together. Until Ducati are certain that Jack Miller is the future for the brand, and they are ready to sign a young rider – or they finally get a shot at Marc Márquez, Maverick Viñales, or Fabio Quartararo – Dovizioso is their best bet. For Dovizioso, in turn, Ducati is his best chance of winning a title. It seems merely a matter of time before the two sides come to an agreement. But it won't be any time soon.
Pol Espargaro's move to Repsol Honda makes sense for both parties, given that Espargaro has a very similar approach to riding to Marc Márquez. "It's a bike which needs a rider who is ambitious, who gives absolutely everything, who leaves nothing on the table, and who knows how to suffer. This is what I have learned at last," Espargaro told the Spanish publication AS.com.
But it is also an implicit admission of a lack of faith in Alex Márquez. Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig told MotoGP.com that the LCR Honda team was a place where he could develop with less pressure than in the Repsol Honda team. But that didn't stop them from putting a rookie and 250cc champion directly into the Repsol Honda team in 2006, in the shape of Dani Pedrosa, or putting a Moto2 champion and rookie directly into Repsol Honda in 2013, in the shape of Marc Márquez.
In Repsol Honda, you are expected to succeed, as Marc Márquez himself pointed out at the 2019 team launch in Madrid. "Being in this team means fighting for victories, podiums and the championship. If not, it's actually failure." By first moving Alex Márquez into the Repsol Honda team, then deciding to move him out again before he has even had a chance to race and prove himself suggests that HRC don't believe that Alex Márquez will be capable of fighting for podiums. At the same time, they are making it clear that this is exactly what they expect Pol Espargaro to do.
In the short term, this might look like a sensible move by Honda, putting Alex Márquez in a lower-pressure environment where he has a chance to thrive. He showed good progression during preseason testing, and looks to be on course for solid results once racing gets underway. After the disruption of the 2020 season, he may well prove to be a formidable rider on a factory Honda RC213V inside the LCR squad next year.
But in the medium term, as I wrote previously, this looks like the first step towards the end of the Honda/Márquez relationship. Though Marc may deny it, it must be hard to see how HRC has handled the situation with brother Alex. That will grate for the next year or two, by which time, he might feel the need to move on to another manufacturer, one which hasn't shown his family a certain lack of respect.
That announcement, that press release will do more than raise an eyebrow or two, if it ever comes.
The current confirmed and expected/rumored rider line up for 2021. Riders' names in italics are expected, names in italics ending in a question mark? are still just rumors.
|Monster Energy Yamaha|
|Maverick Viñales||Yamaha M1||2022|
|Fabio Quartararo||Yamaha M1||2022|
|Marc Márquez||Honda RC213V||2024|
|Pol Espargaro||Honda RC213V||2022|
|Alex Rins||Suzuki GSX-RR||2022|
|Joan Mir||Suzuki GSX-RR||2022|
|Jack Miller||Ducati Desmosedici GP21||2021 (option for 2022)|
|Andrea Dovizioso?||Ducati Desmosedici GP21|
|Aprilia Racing Team Gresini|
|Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia RS-GP||2022|
|Cal Crutchlow?||Aprilia RS-GP|
|Red Bull KTM Factory Racing|
|Brad Binder||KTM RC16||2021|
|Miguel Oliveira||KTM RC16||2021|
|Red Bull KTM Tech3|
|Danilo Petrucci||KTM RC16||2021|
|Iker Lecuona||KTM RC16||2021|
|Petronas Yamaha SRT|
|Franco Morbidelli||Yamaha M1||2022|
|Valentino Rossi||Yamaha M1|
|Alex Márquez||Honda RC213V||2022|
|Takaaki Nakagami||Honda RC213V|
|Pecco Bagnaia?||Ducati Desmosedici GP21|
|Jorge Martin?||Ducati Desmosedici GP20?|
|Tito Rabat||Ducati GP20?||2021|
|Johann Zarco?||Ducati GP20?|
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