Despite the fact that almost the entire MotoGP grid started the year without a contract for 2023 and beyond, it has been extremely quiet on the contract front so far this year.
The only new contract announced was the unsurprising news that Pecco Bagnaia is to stay in the factory Ducati team for the next two seasons, with that contract announced between the Mandalika test and the season opener at Qatar.
The general feeling seems to be one of wanting to wait and see. An informal poll of team managers at the Sepang test suggest that they expected to wait until Mugello at the earliest to start thinking about next year.
At the moment, it seems likely that major moves will not be made until after the summer break.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any major moves made, however. There are growing rumors of talks having started behind the scenes among several key players.
If these talks play out as expected, the grid could see look rather different in 2023.
The key figure in contract talks for next year and beyond is Fabio Quartararo. Unsurprisingly, the reigning world champion is in high demand.
Reports continue to circulate that there are multiple factories interested in procuring the Frenchman’s services, with the Repsol Honda team at the head of that list.
Why would Quartararo consider leaving the factory with which he has just won a championship?
Yamaha appear to have underestimated just how much work their rivals have done during the two-year engine homologation freeze imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ducati is accelerating better, Suzuki is much more powerful, the Aprilia is a massively better bike than it was before the pandemic, as Aleix Espargaro’s first win for Aprilia in Argentina demonstrated.
By contrast, Yamaha does not appear to have made much progress since last year. The M1 made a big step from 2020 to 2021, creating a more adaptable bike that worked at a much wider range of tracks and had a wider performance window.
But progress from 2021 to 2022 appears to have been minor, with rear grip problems a prominent concern.
Top speed is a particular concern, though this is partially a result of the aero package Yamaha have selected to use for the first part of the season. The Japanese factory has gone with a high-downforce configuration of its front aero package, which is aimed at reducing wheelie.
That sacrifices top speed for acceleration, and with three of the first four races featuring high-speed straights, the M1 has suffered.
Yamaha are hoping to benefit from the flip side of that compromise once the series returns to Europe, and they race at tracks like Jerez, Le Mans, and Misano.
Fabio Quartararo has been less than enthusiastic about this compromise since the start of the season, however.
“To be honest, when we are at these kinds of tracks, we are not ready to fight for the podium,” the Frenchman said after the race in Austin. “But now we are going to Europe, better tracks for us I think, and I’m just going to do my best to fight for the championship.”
He may be ready to fight for the championship, but he was deliberately vague about whether the Yamaha M1 is the tool he needs.
“Whether the bike is ready, I have my opinion, but what is true is I give all the time my 100%. For 6th position, 7th, it doesn’t matter. I give my 100% all the time.” When asked for his opinion, his reply was ominous. “I will keep it for myself.”
On Friday, Quartararo’s manager Eric Mahé told the MotoGP.com broadcast that there were already talks with other teams, but that their priority was to stay with Yamaha.
Quartararo brushed away questions about his future, saying he was focused first and foremost on 2022.
One Day at a Time
“To be honest, right now I feel like I’m focused on the present,” the Frenchman told us on Friday night in Austin.
“Because it’s not that we are looking at options that I want to leave, because it’s completely not like that. But right now I feel that my priority is to fight for the championship this year, and I have not so much time to think about other things.”
Quartararo needs all his attention for his championship battle on race weekends, but in the period between races, he would start to investigate his options, he said.
“When I’m on the race weekend, I have all my attention on doing my best all the weekend, but it’s true that at the end, we also have to look at my future, and we will have a look during this month or next month.”
Yamaha have a lot to lose if Quartararo departs. Currently, the Frenchman is the only rider capable of being consistently fast with the M1. Franco Morbidelli shows flashes of pace with the 2022 bike, but with the exception of the wet and weird Mandalika race, his results have been disappointing.
Andrea Dovizioso’s pace of adaptation to the Yamaha is slow, though he too has made progress. But Dovizioso and Morbidelli finished nearly 30 seconds behind the winner and 23 seconds behind Quartararo at the Grand Prix of The Americas in Austin. Rookie Darryn Binder is on the 2021 Yamaha, and so is of little use as a reference.
There has been talk of Yamaha still having an interest in Raul Fernandez, after missing out on the Spanish rookie in the summer last year.
KTM CEO Stefan Pierer forced Fernandez’ hand by announcing KTM were holding him to his contract to race for them in MotoGP in Austria last year, and Fernandez has resented that ever since. Rumors suggest Fernandez is looking to leave KTM at the first opportunity.
The opportunity may have already passed, however. Fernandez is yet to score a point in MotoGP, and is currently behind his teammate Remy Gardner in the championship, and fourth among the five 2022 rookies.
He has not made any impression whatsoever so far this season, with Marco Bezzecchi being the cream of the crop so far. He is a far less appealing prospect than he was in the middle of 2021, when he was being chased by all and sundry.
As of the Austin round of MotoGP, he is looking rather ordinary, and not the slam dunk that we all though he would be last year.
The Grass Is Not Always Greener
There is of course Toprak Razgatlioglu, but sources in the WorldSBK paddock insist that the Turkish rider is entirely indifferent to the idea of a swap to MotoGP.
Razgatlioglu is very happy in WorldSBK, and was competitive at the first round of the World Superbike championship, despite losing out to Alvaro Bautista and Jonathan Rea.
A seat in the factory team may be enough to tempt him, but the thought of 21 or 22 races in MotoGP, as compared to 13 or 14 rounds of WorldSBK is definitely unappealing.
Add to that, an environment in WorldSBK where he is very happy and surrounded by friends, and a manager, Kenan Sofuoglu, who has unhappy memories of the MotoGP paddock, and a switch to MotoGP is a very, very long way from being a given.
Meanwhile over at Honda, Pol Espargaro has to deal with the general perception that HRC are shopping around for an alternative to him for next year.
On Thursday in Austin, the Spaniard brusquely dismissed talk of being replaced. “I saw a lot of rumors and names going on, but at the moment I am happy where I am. Honda is happy with me. At the moment I am faster than the guys they are talking about to take my bike! So I am not super-worried about it,” Espargaro joked.
He expected talks with Honda to get underway in the coming weeks, Espargaro told us. “This is something that will come in the next races. It is still too early. We have only done three races and it looks like this year everything is going smoothly than last years.”
Changing manufacturers came with a great deal of risk now, Espargaro warned in a pointed reference to the fact that Fabio Quartararo is being so strongly linked to his seat at Repsol Honda.
“At the end of the day I don’t see many potential changes in the category with different bikes. The category has arrived to a moment where there is a super peculiar way of riding, and the riders have their way of riding the bike to match each other.”
“It is risky to change because the level is so high and a change of the bike, even if it seems better, can be risky and can finish your career. The level is so high that you really need to check deeply where to go and what you want to do.”
Quartararo was visibly irritated when these comments were brought up, and asked if he was worried about switching manufacturers. “I do whatever I think is right,” he snapped. “Because if everybody thinks like that, nobody will change teams and everybody will stay in the same.”
What mattered was not how a particular bike needed to be ridden, but whether it was competitive or not, Quartararo insisted.
“At the end, you need to not think about these things, about if you get used to this bike or not. If you think that the bike has potential, it will take time for sure, because when you make so much time with one brand. But at the end, you need to not think about getting used to one bike. So this is one thing that is totally out of my mind.”
It was about the potential of the bike and having confidence in your own ability to adapt, the Frenchman told us.
“For me it’s about the project. That’s the most important thing. Then on riding style, you need to adapt yourself, whatever. And even with our bike sometimes, we made a massive change in Mandalika, of course it’s different, but you get used to it. You feel different, you adapt,” he said.
Having access to data made this a great deal easier, Quartararo said. “At the end it’s great to see that with the data now, I think it’s more easy now to adapt yourself because you can compare with many riders, I remember my first two years, we compared a lot with Valentino, with Maverick, with Frankie and at the end you can see where you need to improve compared to the others. So this is the important thing.”
It is not entirely surprising that Honda are considering an alternative for Pol Espargaro, despite the fact that the Spaniard is looking much more competitive than he did in 2021. Marc Marquez’ astonishing charge through the field in Austin was impressive, and demonstrated just how much better he is than anyone else on the grid.
But the fact that a good result was even in question is a testament to how Marquez’ situation has changed. The past four years have started to tell something of the toll Marquez is paying for his appetite for risk and willingness to poke his toes, and sometimes a large part of his feet, well over the edge of the precipice.
Shoulder surgery to fix dislocation problems at the end of 2018 and 2019, then the massive crash at Jerez, followed by a premature return which would end in a bone infection and Marquez missing the entire 2020 season and the first part of 2021.
A training crash at the end of last year which saw a recurrence of the double vision problems which nearly ended his career in 2011, then the huge highside at Mandalika which caused the diplopia to come back again if much more mildly.
It is clear that Marc Marquez will not be racing for another decade at this rate. Another blow to the head in a bad crash would probably instantly end his career.
That could come at any time, either the next race, next year, or in five or six years. But his willingness to take risks in pursuit of glory, his desire to win everything, all the time, regardless of the potential cost, means that Honda know they cannot rely on having Marquez long term. HRC need insurance, and are shopping around for that.
One surprising rumor which emerged in Austin was that Aprilia was starting to look beyond Aleix Espargaro. The older of the Espargaro brothers has been linked to an unnamed Japanese manufacturer, in part because talks with Aprilia about his future had gotten off to a rocky start.
This had come as a surprise to Espargaro, whose main focus was on staying with Aprilia. “Sincerely my desire, my head wants to stay in Aprilia two more years. I feel super strong, super fast. I want to stay,” the Spaniard said.
So far, Aprilia had not made him feel indispensable, Espargaro told us. “I did not have any offer yet. The first talks they have with my manager were really disappointing, really disappointing. I feel very sad because we are completely super far (apart). But there is still time.”
Espargaro made oblique reference to the fact that he had won the previous race in Argentina, the first for the Italian manufacturer in MotoGP.
“I hope they value my work here during these years. My desire is to stay. But obviously I’ve proved I’m fast and I have experience developing the bikes. So the paddock will move and we will have other opportunities. But once again, I want to stay in Aprilia.”
If Aleix Espargaro could be on the move, Miguel Oliveira is looking increasingly likely to stay. After Brad Binder signed up for two more years at Mugello last year, very early into his first year of a two-year deal, committing to KTM through the 2024 season, the future of Oliveira was far from settled.
But, talks are rumored to be close to a conclusion. And with his home grand prix coming up at Portimão, that would be an ideal place for KTM to announced they have reached a deal with the Portuguese rider.
The second seat at Ducati, on the other hand, is up in the air. Despite scoring his first podium of the year in Austin, and leading his teammate in the championship, Jack Miller is far from certain to stay in the factory Ducati Lenovo team.
Ducati have an abundance of talent to choose from, with Enea Bastianini having won two of the first four races, and currently leading the championship, while the hotly tipped Jorge Martin has two poles and two second place starts, along with a podium in his second year in the category.
Ducati has a lot of options to replace Miller in the factory team should they so decide.
Acutely conscious of the way the winds at Ducati are blowing, Miller said that having a seat in the factory team was not his highest priority.
A seat back at Pramac, where he spent three seasons from 2018 to 2020, would not be an insurmountable obstacle for him, the Australian said. “I wouldn’t care. As you can tell, the bikes are all good. They’re fantastic. I know for a fact that they’re on the same equipment.”
What mattered to Miller was having a competitive bike and a chance to keep competing. “It doesn’t bother me. As long as I’m in MotoGP getting to live my dream, then that’s the main thing for me. Getting the opportunity to fight for podiums and be here with all the fans, that’s the main part,” the Australian said.
The fact that he made these statements in the post-race podium press conference, after finishing third and his best result of the 2022 season, may have made him feel more comfortable. Miller is now the second Ducati rider in the championship behind Enea Bastianini, ahead of both Pramac riders and his teammate Pecco Bagnaia.
He may not be Ducati’s favorite son – no non-Italian rider ever truly is, though being Australian is the next best thing, given the history of Troy Bayliss and Casey Stoner with the Bologna factory – but if he is to be moved out of the factory team, he starts his negotiations from a position of strength.
From the Unknown to the Known
The weird start to the 2022 season, with Mandalika and Argentina taking place under exceptional conditions, and Qatar and the Circuit of The Americas being such outliers, makes it hard to truly assess who is having a strong season, and which manufacturers are working well.
With MotoGP heading back to Europe, and familiar ground, negotiations should start to hot up. But even then, there is no hurry.
The next four or five races at tracks which the riders and teams know like the back of their hands should give everyone a chance to demonstrate their worth.
And it will also give the teams and factories to assess the talent available in Moto2, to see how Pedro Acosta is developing, for example, to confirm that Fermin Aldeguer really is as good as everyone thinks, to figure out what to make of Celestino Vietti, of Ai Ogura, of Somkiat Chantra, Tony Arbolino, Aron Canet, Augusto Fernandez.
Silly Season may be about to enter a more active phase, but the pace of progress will still be slow. There will be talks, but contracts are likely to wait until closer to the summer break.
It makes a nice change from previous years, where everything seemed to get done before the season even started.