The long-awaited news of Johann Zarco’s MotoGP contract has been announced. The Frenchman is to join Jonas Folger in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team for 2017. Zarco’s contract is for one year, with the team holding an option on the Frenchman for a second year.
The first half of 2016 has seen a long and intense period of speculation, gossip and conjecture over which rider ends up where in MotoGP.
Big names have jumped from one factory to another, the entry of KTM has opened up opportunities for established satellite riders, and there has been much talk of the rookies entering MotoGP from Moto2 – Sam Lowes to Aprilia, Alex Rins to Suzuki, and Johann Zarco to Tech 3 (though the latter is still to be announced).
What there has been much less talk of is who is to fill their seats. Traditionally, Silly Season for Moto2 and Moto3 starts much later than for MotoGP, speculation and negotiations commencing in the run up to the flyaways, and often only being finalized at Valencia.
But with three of the strongest teams in Moto2 having seats to fill, team managers are looking ahead a little earlier than usual.
MotoGP Silly Season is nearly at an end. With the confirmation that both Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow will be staying in their seats for 2017, the list of possibly vacant grid slots grew much shorter.
Those that remain empty are growing ever closer to being filled, leaving only three seats open, and one seat still completely free. So, it is time to take a look at the current state of play.
With the announcement that Aleix Espargaro would be joining Aprilia for two years, the last of the factory seats was filled. The factory rides filled up quickly in 2016, starting with Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith at Qatar, and culminating eight races later at Assen with the signing of Espargaro.
The timing of the Aleix Espargaro/Aprilia announcement was peculiar to say the least. Making a major announcement that a rider had been signed to a factory rider – a signing everyone already knew about – on the Sunday night after one of the most remarkable MotoGP races in recent memory was guaranteed to achieve the absolute minimum of media coverage.
The next piece in the puzzle which is the 2017 MotoGP grid has fallen into place. As had been widely expected, Alex Rins has signed a two-year deal to race with the factory Ecstar Suzuki team from next year. Rins will line up alongside Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki GSX-RR next season.
Rins had long been favorite to take the second seat at Suzuki, as his profile best suited the Ecstar Suzuki team’s strategy of having young rider with potential alongside a fast, more experienced rider to help lead development.
When Maverick Viñales left for the Movistar Yamaha team, Rins was the name most touted to take his place.
While Johann Zarco is out in Japan, testing the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, the 2017 MotoGP rider line up is starting to solidify further. Ironically, it is looking like Johann Zarco will not be the rider that Suzuki selects to pilot its factory MotoGP bike alongside Andrea Iannone.
Team boss Davide Brivio is in Japan, along with the test team, to finalize their plans for 2017. At Barcelona, Brivio admitted to us that he would be going to discuss Suzuki’s choice of rider for next year.
The Italian acknowledged that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins were under discussion, and though he declined to state a preference, he did say “It’s clear what our choice is.”
The announcement that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins will be in the pre-event press conference in Assen is a further sign that an announcement is imminent.
“I am not a very happy man,” Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro.
Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal’s problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat.
Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki’s GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract.
Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.
On Friday, a young man died in a freak crash at the Circuit de Catalunya, and we mourned him. On Saturday, we went through the motions, picking up the rhythm of a normal race weekend, but in a state of mild shock.
On Sunday morning, we remembered Luis Salom, the whole paddock and a circuit full of fans standing in silence, united both in the memory of a bright young talent who take took from us, and in the knowledge that it can happen again.
On Sunday afternoon, we raced, and reminded ourselves of why young men and women risk their lives with the frankly rather futile objective of demonstrating that they can ride in circles on a motorbike faster than anyone else.
“It was difficult to not cry when we were in the minute of silence,” Maverick Viñales reflected on Sunday afternoon. “It was a really difficult race, but I think the best way to remember Luis is racing, and trying to make the best result. I know he will be always with us.”
Marc Márquez felt much the same. “In the end also this Sunday, I liked it was again the atmosphere of the family, the MotoGP family. Because when we were there together on the grid, when we were racing, everybody was racing for Luis. Everybody dedicated the race to Luis.” And what races to dedicate to Luis Salom.
The Moto3 race saw a tense battle go down to the line, and a thrilling finale and a win that had been a long time coming. The Moto2 race became a brawl between two of Salom’s recent rivals, with a masterful display to take victory. And MotoGP produced one of the fiercest duels we have seen in a while, a popular victory, and a shake up in the championship.
What does the MotoGP paddock do the day after a rider dies? Carry on as normal. Or nearly normal: bikes circulate, riders compete, but conversations are more hushed, the mood muted. The whole paddock is a quieter place, bar the bellowing of racing four-stroke engines.
Heartless? That is putting it a little strongly. It is in part a coping mechanism, immersing yourself in your work to avoid dwelling on tragedy, and thinking too much about danger.
But it is also a response to the request of Luis Salom’s family and team. When Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta asked them what they wanted to do, they said they wanted the race to go ahead.
Their wishes would be respected, but it was not the first choice of everyone in the paddock. Danilo Petrucci told the Italian press he would have preferred to have packed up and gone home, and he was not alone.
“Yesterday I was crying together with my brother because [Luis Salom] was really young,” Aleix Espargaro told us. “This is a disaster. With Pol we were thinking that the best thing was to not race because actually now I feel empty inside.” We all felt empty inside, and still do.
In any other year, the approaching weekend at Barcelona would see speculation around MotoGP’s Silly Season nearing its peak, with a spate of contracts signed in the weeks which follow. But this is not any other year.
Going into the 2016 Gran Premi de Catalunya at the Montmeló circuit, eight of the twelve factory seats open for next season have already been filled, while a ninth is just a matter of days away.
Of the remaining three, only the seat at Aprilia is truly up for grabs, the open seats at Suzuki and KTM already having riders penciled in. It is truly a bizarre year.
So where are we so far? The seats at the factory Ducati and Yamaha teams are all taken, with Andrea Dovizioso partnering Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati while Maverick Viñales joins Valentino Rossi at Movistar Yamaha.
Repsol Honda is as good as complete: Dani Pedrosa has already signed on for two more years, while Marc Márquez acknowledged at the press launch for the Barcelona MotoGP race that he would “definitely continue with this bike.” He will sign a contract with Honda again, but he wants it to be a “perfect” contract.
Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia all have one rider signed already. Sam Lowes’ seat at Aprilia was settled already two years ago, when he signed for Gresini to race in Moto2 in 2016, and MotoGP for 2017 and 2018.
Bradley Smith was the next to slot into place, signing on for the first seat at KTM ahead of the first race of this year. And Andrea Iannone took over at ECSTAR Suzuki after Viñales announced he was leaving, and Ducati announced they were keeping Dovizioso.
After the drama and speculation at Le Mans, it will be Maverick Viñales who will join Valentino Rossi in the Movistar Yamaha team in 2017.
The reports pegging Dani Pedrosa for the seat alongside Rossi turn out to have been wrong, despite coming from highly credible sources.
On Friday, Spanish magazine website Solomoto reported that Viñales flew to Milan to sign the contract at Yamaha Motor Racing headquarters in Gerno di Lesmo, a stone’s throw from the Monza circuit.
Solomoto’s report was followed by a deluge of other Spanish news sites reporting the same facts, though citing different sources. This makes it more likely that the news really is true this time, and that Viñales has indeed signed with Yamaha (after the time of this writing, this deal has since been confirmed to Asphalt & Rubber -JB).
The deal will see Viñales sign for two years alongside Rossi, with the announcement to be made on Thursday at Mugello.