This has truly been a revolutionary year for MotoGP, in terms of the rider's market. Not only has there been more movement between factories than expected, some of the switches would have been unthinkable previously. Most people expected Johann Zarco to get a factory ride, Dani Pedrosa to be forced out at Repsol Honda, Jorge Lorenzo to leave Ducati. But nobody saw Lorenzo's move to Repsol Honda, it only being picked up by Gazzetta dello Sport Paolo Ianieri being willing to look past the preconceptions which clouded the vision of the entire MotoGP media.
There have also been some radical developments which nobody expected. At the start of the year, nobody gave a thought to the question of whether the Marc VDS team would pull out of the premier class or not. Then again, nobody expected Jonas Folger to withdraw from MotoGP for health reasons either. The odds of seeing a Malaysian rider in MotoGP for 2019 were slim, and zero for 2018.
Few people expected to see a Malaysian team contemplating entry in MotoGP either. The grid was full, the independent teams happy to hang on to their grid slots, at least until their contracts run out at the end of the 2021 season. And yet that is what will happen: in 2019, a Petronas-backed MotoGP team run by the Sepang International Circuit will be on the grid, on factory-spec Yamahas, with Franco Morbidelli and (almost certainly) Dani Pedrosa riding them.
A tale of two decisions
How did we get here? It's a complicated story, but it starts with two choices, made independently of one another. First, the Tech3 team had to decide to switch from being a Yamaha satellite team to being a KTM junior team. And secondly, when Petronas decided there was more value in MotoGP sponsorship than in F1. Inevitably, the money from Petronas – far greater than most MotoGP budgets – would find its way towards a competitive motorcycle once it became available.
It seems strange that a team like Tech3 would want to leave the safe confines of Yamaha. The Yamaha M1 has been competitive since the Masao Furusawa made revolutionary changes to the design of the bike for the 2004 season. A competitive bike made it attractive for Tech3 to be a Yamaha satellite team: from 2008 until this year, there has only been one season (2016) in which the team has not scored at least one podium.
Yet behind the scenes, there was always friction. The Yamaha M1 may have been competitive, but only enough for the occasional podium, and in a field where there were only four bikes capable of winning every week. Tech3 received next to no updates throughout the year: at the end of each season, the bikes were wheeled out of the factory Yamaha garage and into Tech3, along with some boxes of spares, and those were the tools the Tech3 riders had to take on the might of the factories.
The C Team
On the record, Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal always expressed his gratitude to Yamaha and the support he received from them. The one clue that the relationship was deteriorating was that the sentence "We are very happy with our relationship with Yamaha," was increasingly frequently followed by the word "but". At Barcelona in 2016, Poncharal made his first real public complaint about support from Yamaha, telling an improvised press conference, "Clearly we were a B team some years ago but I think now we are C teams, clearly."
Things had changed for Poncharal when he saw the extra support being given to the likes of LCR Honda and Pramac Ducati. "I always said that we were inside the Yamaha organization the junior team," Poncharal said. "But are we the junior team inside Yamaha now? I think the answer is clearly no. When was the last time there was a Tech 3 rider moving up to the factory team? I think it was 2010, Ben Spies, but he was not a real Tech 3 rider; he was a factory rider that won the World Superbike championship and that was supposed to move on to the factory team when there was some availability."
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