The rumors had been doing the rounds for some time, but last night, things came to a head. Multiple media outlets were reporting that Pol Espargaro has signed a deal to ride for Repsol Honda in 2021. The most interesting facet of this was that several outlets had independent sourcing, making this look highly credible. Information I have seen also confirms this.
Though an agreement seems to have been reached, there are still some hoops to jump through. Speaking to Spanish daily AS.com, Espargaro's manager Homer Bosch said negotiations with Honda, KTM, and Ducati were still going on. "It's not true that Pol has a verbal agreement to go and race for the Repsol Honda team next year," he told AS.
Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig issued a similar statement denying an agreement had been reached. "HRC is always thinking about the present and the future of its structure, from the lower categories to MotoGP. Due to the circumstances that we are in, this season is not developing through the usual channels, but that does not mean that Honda stops continuing to plan the best possible future for all their riders. We do not have any contracts signed with anyone that have not already been announced," he said.
Puig's statement is interesting because of how carefully worded it is. "We do not have any contracts signed with anyone that have not already been announced" is not the same as "we do not intend to sign Rider X", whether that be Pol Espargaro or Alex Márquez. The rest of the statement is a couple of vague but sweeping sentences which boil down to the fact that Honda are always thinking about their current rider line up, and where riders might come from in the future, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this much more difficult than usual. Taken as a whole, it is not much of a denial.
There are good reasons to believe that Pol Espargaro to Repsol Honda is a fait accompli, if not necessarily already signed, sealed, and delivered. Espargaro said in an interview with Spanish magazine Motociclismo recently that he would only consider leaving KTM if he could get a ride with either the factory Ducati or Repsol Honda teams, the only two teams that he believes would give him a chance of winning a championship.
From Honda's side, the KTM requires a very similar style to master to the Honda RC213V. Espargaro loves to push the bike, to override it, as his crew chief Paul Trevathan described to me in an interview last year. The Honda is an extremely physical bike that needs to be pushed to tame it, and that is exactly what Espargaro can do and wants to do. Espargaro never gelled with the Yamaha at Tech3 precisely because it needed to be ridden smoothly: when he tried to push the bike, he would go slower. That was something he found intensely frustrating.
A competitive teammate?
Pol Espargaro could also be the key for Honda in unlocking the potential of the bike, and booking more consistent results in the factory team. Dani Pedrosa's results on the Repsol Honda went slowly backwards during his partnership with Marc Márquez, in part due to the Michelins suiting him less well than the Bridgestones, requiring more force to put heat into them and get the best out of them. But also in part because Honda were developing a bike in the direction that Márquez demanded: a sound choice, given that he has won them titles in six of the past seven seasons.
A sign of just how difficult the bike had become was the abysmal performance of Jorge Lorenzo in 2019. The three-time world champion had arrived from Ducati, where he had finally mastered the Desmosedici to win three races in 2018, and could have won more if it hadn't been for injury. But he struggled just to score points on the Honda, ending with a total of just 28 points, before deciding to retire.
Having a rider on the RC213V capable of being consistently competitive would be a huge boost to the factory Honda squad. If Pol Espargaro could fight for wins and podiums, he could help make Marc Márquez' job a little easier by taking points away from his rivals. Espargaro has a proven record in MotoGP – though it is hard to judge by results, given that he has spent the last three years on a KTM – and at 29 years of age, has the maturity to handle a seat in a factory team.
Oh brother, where art thou?
There is, however, the small matter of Alex Márquez. The younger Márquez brother was signed for the 2020 season, with a year to prove himself. Coming off his second championship – adding the 2019 Moto2 title to his 2014 Moto3 crown – Alex Márquez had earned the seat suddenly vacated by Jorge Lorenzo, HRC had said. Honda's choice had admittedly been limited: Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco were the only serious alternatives, and both riders came with serious drawbacks.
When Alex Márquez first started to look at moving up to MotoGP, brother and reigning champion tried to keep him out of Honda. Approaches to Petronas Yamaha were rebuffed at the last moment, stopped at the upper levels. There were talks with Pramac Ducati, but that was for the 2021 season. But as it became clear that Jorge Lorenzo was about to retire, the thought of having his brother Alex with him in the Repsol Honda team became ever more attractive to Marc. The younger Márquez was bought out of his Marc VDS contract, which would have seen him racing another season in Moto2 in 2020, and Alex joined brother Marc in Repsol Honda.
How long was this pairing destined to last? We don't know. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all plans into disarray. Under normal circumstances, Alex Márquez would by now have seven MotoGP races under his belt, and be preparing for his eighth. We, and more importantly, Honda, would have had a much clearer idea of exactly what Alex Márquez is capable of. If the younger Márquez had shown progress, and been running consistently inside the top ten, he would have been given an almost automatic contract extension. Had he struggled, then even brother Marc would have understood that HRC needed to explore the market.
But the pandemic happened, and upset any idea of a sensible approach to rider signings. Teams are having to think about their rider signings without having seen them turn a wheel in anger in 2020. That is making decisions that more complex.
From HRC to LCR?
So while it is understandable that Repsol Honda should plump for the proven candidate in Pol Espargaro, it will surely leave a bad taste in Marc Márquez' mouth. His brother, Alex, has not been given a chance to earn the right to defend his seat. He has been hired and fired, without turning a wheel in anger.
The chances of Alex Márquez being dropped by Honda are almost zero. There are still two bikes in the LCR garage, and Alex could easily be put on one of those. Last year, Cal Crutchlow had talked openly about retiring, but having missed so much of this season, he seems to have changed his mind, telling several people who interviewed him that he intends to race in 2021. Interviewed by MotoGP.com, eponymous LCR team boss Lucio Cecchinello said he hoped to sign a contract with Crutchlow soon.
Cecchinello was a little less effusive about retaining Takaaki Nakagami. "I believe that until we see some room for improvement of Nakagami, Honda will continue to give him the opportunity, but of course it will also depend on the concrete results of the first races of 2020," he told MotoGP.com. The onus was on HRC, the Italian team boss seemed to be implying.
And Nakagami's bike, the second bike in the LCR garage, is very much Honda's to dispose of. That machine is largely funded and run by Honda, with a small financial contribution from Japanese oil sponsor Idemitsu. Although Honda are keen to have a Japanese rider in MotoGP, they could make room in LCR for Alex Márquez, move Nakagami to WorldSBK, and wait for Crutchlow to retire at the end of 2021, opening up the way to a rider such as Tetsuta Nagashima, or perhaps even one of the Moto3 riders such as Ai Ogura or Tatsuki Suzuki. At LCR, could also more easily move in more of the crew Alex Márquez had around him in Moto2.
Why riders leave
But the crux of the matter remains this: how will Marc Márquez take the fact that his brother has not been given a chance to earn the right to stay in the Repsol Honda squad? Will he accept Alex Márquez being given factory support in the LCR Honda squad? Will he accept his beloved brother – the two are very close and supportive – being ousted from Repsol, and one of his greatest rivals from his Moto2 career being put in his place? There is little love lost between Pol Espargaro and Marc Márquez, and though Márquez has nothing to fear from Espargaro, it is a very different kettle of fish to having your brother as a teammate.
This is precisely the sort of move that ends in riders leaving. Great champions are happy to stay in a team where they feel they can win for as long as they like, until the moment they feel that they are not being treated with the respect they feel they deserve.
Just look back at the last 20 years: Valentino Rossi came to MotoGP on a Honda, won on a 500cc machine and the first MotoGP bike, and could have gone on to smash every record imaginable. But he felt that HRC gave themselves too much of the credit for building a great bike, and gave him too little credit for winning on it. So he decamped to Yamaha, and proved them it really was the rider, not the bike.
Five years later, and he has a new teammate at Yamaha, challenging him for supremacy. Rossi had explicitly told Yamaha he did not want them to sign Jorge Lorenzo, but Yamaha went ahead and did it anyway. In 2010, Rossi decided he was not getting the treatment from Yamaha a number one rider, who had won four MotoGP titles for them, deserved. And so off he went to Ducati.
The vacancy at Ducati was only available because Casey Stoner had signed for Honda. Stoner was furious about how top brass at Ducati and Phillip Morris refused to believe he was ill during the period he was struggling with sudden onset lactose intolerance. He felt Ducati weren't listening to him, so he left.
Five years later, and after a hard-fought and contentious 2015 season, Yamaha cancels the championship celebrations for Jorge Lorenzo, who clinched the title at Valencia amid a category 5 hurricane of controversy, with teammate Valentino Rossi accusing Honda's Marc Márquez of helping Lorenzo take the title. Lorenzo, already feeling slightly underappreciated that season, takes that choice badly, and signs for Ducati a few months later, making the switch for the 2017 season.
What do all these examples have in common? The riders weren't leaving their current teams because they wanted to prove to fans they could win on another bike, or to cement their legacy, or anything else. They left because they took real or perceived slights very badly, felt they were not being treated with the respect they deserved, their wishes being ignored, not being listened to. They left because their egos had been dented.
Better in the short term, worse in the long?
Which is precisely what HRC are doing by not giving Alex Márquez a chance to prove himself. Marc worked to get his brother as a teammate, then has to watch as Honda move him out to make room for a rider he has no love for. In the short term, this might look like a good move to HRC. In the long term, it is exactly the kind of move that causes a star rider to up sticks and go ride for someone else.
Honda do have one trump up their sleeve: earlier this year, Marc Márquez and HRC signed a four-year deal, which should see him riding in Honda's factory team from 2021 through 2024. So does that mean that Honda has Márquez the Elder over a barrel?
Not necessarily. Contracts always have escape clauses. It is common practice for Moto2 riders to have a clause in their contracts which releases them from their obligations if they are offered a ride in MotoGP. Some satellite riders have a similar clause, allowing them to get out of the second year of a two-year deal if a factory offers them a ride. There are options, performance clauses, all sorts of conditions placed in contracts.
Usually, these escape clauses favor the teams, especially when the team is a factory. Riders can get out of them too, though the penalty for doing so tends to be higher than the factory or team would face. The reason these clauses favor the factories is simple: in any negotiation, the more powerful party has the upper hand, and gets to write the rules.
In the case of Marc Márquez and HRC, however, things are different. Honda are all too aware of their dependency on Márquez, as witnessed by some of the changes they have already made. At the start of his career, Márquez was allowed to bring his entire squad from Moto2 into the Repsol team, though it took a season to persuade HRC. Since then, he has exerted more and more control over Honda, to the point where he has been able to prevent engineers being rotated out of HRC, as is Honda's normal practice. The enormity of that should not be underestimated.
Why have they done this? Marc Márquez has won the championship in six of the seven seasons he has competed in the MotoGP class. He has won 56 of the 127 races he has started, or just over 44%. He has been on the podium in nearly 75% of the races he has competed in. In 2019, he almost singlehandedly delivered Honda the riders', teams', and manufacturers' crowns. Marc Márquez is the nearest thing a manufacturer has to a guarantee of a title. And they are all in it to win it.
So it can be safely assumed that when Emilio Alzamora, as manager to the Márquez brothers, sat down with HRC, he had a big say in the things that got put into the contract. He will have ensured that there is always a way out for Márquez, though equally, Honda will have ensured that getting out will not be cheap. Especially as keeping him was very expensive, with rumors of a base salary north of €20 million, unheard of territory for a MotoGP rider.
Money fixes problems
The difficulty for Honda is that there is no price they could place on Marc Márquez which could prevent him from leaving if he so desired. In his seven years in MotoGP, Márquez is probably closing in on total earnings of €100 million. He does not have extravagant vices, and for much of his life, still lived with his mother. Indeed, he is so rich that he hasn't fled to Andorra to avoid paying taxes, like so many other riders. He is rich enough to afford to pay tax. Which means he is easily rich enough to buy his way out of a HRC contract.
And any rival manufacturer would be more than happy to help him. Given that Ducati threw €20+ million at Valentino Rossi, then another €25 million at Jorge Lorenzo in pursuit of a MotoGP title, they would be delighted to pay Márquez whatever he wanted, as well as pay off any penalty clauses to get out of a contract. KTM, too, with the backing of Red Bull, would have more than enough funds to put Marc Márquez on the bike, and give themselves the best shot at winning a MotoGP title.
Given that, I would be surprised if Marc Márquez serves all four years of his HRC contract. In any other year, had Alex been given a chance to earn his seat at Repsol, Marc Márquez would have had no reason to leave HRC. But with Alex pushed aside to make way for Pol Espargaro before Alex has even competed in his first MotoGP race, there are plenty of reasons to look elsewhere.
Leaving would mean making sacrifices, however. Taking his full crew would be almost impossible, given Ducati's experience with Valentino Rossi, when they brought in his entire crew and the crew found themselves with an entirely new bike to learn. The situation would be similar for KTM, and in both cases, neither KTM nor Ducati would be likely to give Márquez the control over the development process and the engineering staff which he has at HRC.
But if Marc Márquez feels the slight is bad enough, the insult severe enough, he will give all that up, just to teach Honda a lesson. As so many before him have done.
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