Andrea Dovizioso's future is becoming increasingly clear, and his choices are going to have a knock on effect for the test rider market. According to a report from Motorsport.com's Oriol Puigdemont, Dovizioso has decided to take a sabbatical and spend a year racing motocross, in the hope of making a return to MotoGP in 2022.
Dovizioso had been in talks with KTM, Yamaha, and Honda for a role as a test rider, and at one point had looked very close to signing with HRC, to work as a test rider, and as a competitive replacement rider in the worst-case scenario of Marc Marquez not being fit enough to start the 2021 season. He was also a long way into negotiations with Yamaha to replace Jorge Lorenzo as test rider, but both those options fell at the last hurdle.
There are a number of reasons for negotiations to have failed. Firstly, there was Dovizioso's insistence that he wanted to race motocross at the national level in Italy. Manufacturers are believed not to have been thrilled by the thought of signing Dovizioso as a test rider, and him being unable to fulfil his duties if he were to pick up an injury in an MX race.
Secondly, Dovizioso made no secret of his desire to return to racing in 2022. That meant that factories knew that they would only have him as a test rider for one year, and risked losing him - and the knowledge of their bikes he would have acquired - to a rival the following season. That placed Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella in a weaker negotiating position, and factories appear to have been unwilling to accede to his demands.
According to the story by Puigdemont, Dovizioso will announce his intention to take a sabbatical some time this week. Whether that sabbatical will turn into permanent retirement is a good question. With several contracts up for grabs in 2022, as well as two extra bikes on the grid from Gresini and Aprilia splitting into two separate teams, and the VR46 operation expected to take over from Avintia, there are options open. But there will also be another batch of young talent coming through from Moto2, and at 36 years of age, Dovizioso may not be at the top of most team's candidate lists.
With Dovizioso out of the equation, that opens the door for a reshuffle in the test rider market. Yamaha have dispensed with Jorge Lorenzo's services after a disappointing performance at Portimao, and because Lorenzo did not keep himself in the kind of shape needed to ride a MotoGP bike at a competitive pace.
That opens doors for Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman lost his ride at LCR Honda earlier this year, and had been linked to the second seat at Aprilia. However, Aprilia's insistence on waiting for the outcome of Andrea Iannone's appeal to the CAS against his suspension for doping violations has not sat well with any of the potential candidates for the role, and especially not with Crutchlow, who has been very outspoken against doping.
At 35 years of age, and with a daughter approaching school age, a role as a test rider would suit Crutchlow much better. Those who have worked with him through the years have praised his feedback, and he played a key role in driving development of the Honda RC213V.
All this puts Crutchlow at the front of the line for the Yamaha test rider role. Well-informed Italian journalist Giovanni Zamagni, writing for Moto.it, is reporting that the deal is almost done, with Crutchlow set to sign a two-year deal with Yamaha as a test rider. This reporting confirms information from my own sources in the paddock, which put Crutchlow in extended talks with Yamaha for the role.
With Dovizioso out of the picture and Crutchlow heading to Yamaha, this leaves one big open question. Who will take the second seat at Aprilia for next year if Iannone's suspension is either upheld or extended, which appears to be the most likely outcome. Aprilia may find themselves forced to either sign Lorenzo Savadori, current test rider, to a full-time role, after parting ways with Bradley Smith, or look outside the MotoGP paddock for a replacement.