The Tech3 team's decision to switch from Yamaha to KTM is having major consequences. With the Yamaha satellite bikes available, and with Suzuki ready to step up and supply a satellite team with bikes, teams are having to make choices they have never considered before. This luxury is indicative of the current health of the MotoGP grid: once upon a time, a satellite Yamaha or Honda team would never even consider switching to another manufacturer. Now, there are four competitive satellite bike suppliers to choose from.
So who will end up with the satellite Yamahas for 2019 and beyond, and where does that leave Suzuki? Speaking to some of the protagonists involved in the situation, it seems that although nothing is settled as of this moment, a decision is likely to be taken soon. Meetings are planned for Jerez which will play a crucial role in sorting out the satellite bike shuffle for next season.
The key player in all of this is the Marc VDS MotoGP team. The Belgian team has the financial resources, the staff, and the riders which allow them to pick and choose their partners. They have made no secret of their intention to leave Honda, after disappointment over the level of support they have received. But they have been caught between Yamaha and Suzuki now for the past couple of months.
In the week before the MotoGP race in Austin, German-language website Speedweek published a story stating that the Marc VDS team would announce a three-year deal with Suzuki at the race in Texas. That did not happen, and it appears that a decision has still not been made. Sources with knowledge of the situation suggested that the complexity of balancing the competing offers from Suzuki and Yamaha were making it very difficult for team boss Michael Bartholemy to come to a decision.
Though the decision seems simple from the outside, there are a lot of factors complicating the choice. Obviously, there is the level of equipment each manufacturer is willing to supply, just as there is the question of how much support Yamaha and Suzuki are prepared to provide to help run the bikes.
But there are also secondary questions to consider. Signing on with a manufacturer as a satellite team involves more then just exchanging cash for motorcycles and engineers. Each manufacturer has their own supply chain and sponsorship partners, and those partners have to be a fit with the new team. Reconciling the sponsorship demands of a manufacturer with existing sponsors can be very difficult. As a visible example, the factory Suzuki team is sponsored by Ecstar, Suzuki's own proprietary oil brand, while Marc VDS has a long-standing relationship with Total as lubricant sponsor.
What level of bikes are Suzuki and Yamaha willing to supply? The advantage of a deal with Suzuki is that as a factory with a smaller racing department, they lack the resources to manage the tooling and supply for two different specs of bike. A team partnering with Suzuki as a satellite squad will likely have bikes which are very close to the spec of the factory team. Given the fact that Suzuki has just had their first back-to-back podiums since 2008, there can be no doubt that the bike is competitive.
Yamaha has traditionally had a policy of supplying its satellite team (Tech3) with bikes from the previous years. But in Austin, Yamaha Motor Racing managing director Lin Jarvis told me that Yamaha would be willing to reconsider that policy.
Would Yamaha consider a policy similar to HRC or Ducati, who have factory-supported riders on near factory-spec bikes in satellite teams, with Cal Crutchlow at LCR Honda and Danilo Petrucci in Alma Pramac Ducati? "Sure," Jarvis said, and pointed to the level of support Johann Zarco was receiving in the Tech3 team this year. "If you look at Johann's bike, it's not an ordinary satellite bike."
Viewed from the outside, Zarco has a bike very similar to the factory Movistar Yamaha machines of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi. Zarco uses the same aero package, and a 2018 engine with fewer restrictions on revs than are normally placed on a satellite squad.
What spec of machine Marc VDS or any other team get from Yamaha will depend on the team involved and the budget they have, Jarvis told me. A strong team with good riders and a healthy bank balance will have access to better bikes than a team with fewer financial and staff resources.
To satellite or not to satellite?
Yamaha are known to be talking to other teams as well as Marc VDS. Jarvis said that Yamaha could field just the two bikes in the factory squad. "It's not our preference, however," Jarvis told me. "Having data from four riders is helpful for Yamaha and for all of our riders." It was also a matter of pride and of image, Jarvis explained. Yamaha prided itself on always having supplied satellite bikes, and it would not be worthy of Yamaha's status to race without a satellite team. If they could not find the right team to partner with, however, they would race just the two bikes in the factory team.
Suzuki has been banking on the partnership with Marc VDS, however. "We are only talking to Marc VDS," Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio replied when I asked him if Suzuki were also in talks with other teams. "If we don't have an agreement with Marc VDS, then we will start the whole process again."
Suzuki are expecting to finalize any potential deal with Marc VDS at Jerez, Brivio said. "We expect to make a decision at Jerez," the Suzuki boss told me. "[Team Director Shinichi] Sahara-san is coming from Japan, so we will have meetings there."
Yamaha has a slightly longer time frame to deal with. The Japanese factory would need to have a contract in place "before the end of June at the latest," Lin Jarvis told me. That was the time frame Yamaha would need to set up production and tooling issues for the following season.
Up in the air
At the moment, it is hard to say which way the decision will go. My best guess from talking to those involved is that Marc VDS will eventually go with Suzuki, though as I understand it, the decision is balanced on knife edge, and could fall either way.
Ultimately, the decision will be based on being able to give the young riders the team wants to bring into MotoGP the best bike to enter the class on. Franco Morbidelli has a two-year deal with Marc VDS, and so will be staying with the team for 2019, while Joan Mir has made no secret of his desire to move up to MotoGP as soon as possible, and spend only one year in Moto2. The Yamaha is known to be very easy for a rookie to ride in MotoGP, but given the speed at which both Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins progressed on the Suzuki, the GSX-RR is a good bike for a rookie as well.
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