As the MotoGP field prepares to spend the holiday season at home with friends and family – or in Andrea Iannone’s case, with his lawyers – the impending pressure of MotoGP Silly Season will be pushed to the back of their collective minds.
But with the contracts of the entire MotoGP grid plus the leading Moto2 riders up at the end of the 2020 season, that state of quietude will not last long. Silly Season has been temporarily suspended for holiday season, but it will soon burst forth in a frenzy of speculation, rumor, and signings.
So how will the Silly Season for the 2021 MotoGP grid play out? Given the number of changes likely, it will be a complex jigsaw puzzle indeed, with a few key players at the heart of the process.
And as a confounding factor, teams and factories will want to avoid the current tangle they find themselves in. The era of the entire grid being on two-year contracts is as good as over.
There are a number of reasons for no longer automatically offering two-year deals to everyone on the grid. Neither the team managers nor the rider managers I spoke to over the course of 2019 were thrilled at the prospect of another contract cycle like we have seen for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
And the way the year has played out has given them plenty of reasons to avoid the same mistakes for 2021.
Fear of Commitment
Two riders embody the danger of signing two-year contracts. Johann Zarco found himself tied into a two-year deal he never really wanted, on a bike he had no affinity for whatsoever. The situation was obviously doomed, but both KTM and Zarco were stuck with one another.
Zarco took the brave or foolish (depending on your perspective, and how 2020 plays out) step of breaking his contract with KTM at the end of 2019. But with everyone else tied up for 2020, KTM had no chance to tempt another experienced MotoGP rider to gamble on riding the KTM RC16 for 2020.
The situation for Repsol Honda was even worse. Jorge Lorenzo never really felt comfortable on the Honda RC213V, and when he nearly ended up paralyzed after a massive crash at Assen, he lost his appetite for racing.
But he could not bring himself to call time on his career until the end of the season. One of the most coveted seats in MotoGP was available, and no riders in a position to take it.
So the next contract cycle will see more riders offered either one-year deals, or so-called ‘one plus one’ deals, where either side can get out of the deal more easily.
Factories and teams will want the ability to move on from a rider who isn’t working with their bike, and riders will want the flexibility to take a better opportunity if it presents itself, or just get out of a bad situation more easily.
The fact that every seat on the grid is potentially available puts a lot of leverage into the hands of a few key players. The linchpin at the heart of contract negotiations is of course Marc Márquez.
The Spaniard is demonstrably the best rider in the world at the moment, and the only reason to turn down his services is not being able to afford him. Or in the case of Yamaha, feuds rooted in recent history.
Though Ducati has made no secret of their interest in trying to tempt Márquez away, the reigning world champion looks set to stay at Repsol Honda. Contract negotiations are well underway, and the power that Márquez has within HRC would not be available in other factories.
Márquez can pick and choose who he works with, and demand that engineers are kept inside of HRC, rather than rotated out to work on other projects, as is common practice for all Japanese manufacturers.
Expect Márquez to announce a new contract relatively early in 2020. Marc Márquez’ management negotiates from a position of power: Honda know that he is their best, and probably only, chance of winning championships; you only need to look at where the other Honda riders finished to see that.
So, Honda will want a two-year deal, to tie him down for the long term.
Márquez may choose to sign for just one year, however, to give himself even more leverage next time around. His only goal is to keep winning as many races and championships as possible.
And perhaps the fact that he has had surgery on both his left and right shoulders in the past two winters has given him a sense that his career is finite, and he needs to put himself on the right bike to win as much as possible. If Honda slips, he might want to be able to jump.
The seat alongside Marc Márquez is more complicated. It is probably too early for HRC to start looking for a successor to the reigning champion: he is still clearly in his prime, but he is also obviously vulnerable to injury, given how often he crashes.
The easiest solution is to keep brother Alex Márquez on the seat for 2021, as that gives Honda some leverage for the future as well. Though the younger Márquez brother has only had two tests on the bike, he has acquitted himself well.
He has not set the world on fire, but neither has he been a failure. He looks on course to be reasonably competitive in 2020, and if he can score regular top tens and be rookie of the year, then there will be no reason to replace him.
With Márquez likely to stay at Honda, the real action this Silly Season will be at Yamaha and Ducati. There is a complicated chain of dependencies that revolve around how good the 2020 Yamaha M1 is, and whether Valentino Rossi decides to retire at the end of next year.
Those two factors will determine whether Ducati is able to tempt either Maverick Viñales or Fabio Quartararo away from Yamaha.
But first, Rossi. The Italian has publicly said he will wait until the first couple of European races before making a decision on his future in MotoGP.
The overseas races – and there are four of them to kick off 2020, with Thailand added in between Qatar, Austin, and Argentina – are too different to use as a solid basis for where riders and bikes stand, with the Jerez test forming a better yardstick.
If Rossi is thinking of retiring, then Mugello would be the place he would want to make the announcement. It is the home of Italian racing, a track Rossi loves, and crammed to the rafters each year with a yellow sea of Rossi fans.
Mugello follows Jerez and Le Mans, two strong tracks for Yamaha, so the Italian should have a clear idea of whether he believes he can be competitive again in MotoGP in 2021, and whether the Yamaha is good enough to challenge for wins and a title.
As of December 2019, I would guess that the odds are starting to swing in favor of retirement. Rossi’s outing in Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car was a mere publicity stunt, but reports are that the Italian was fast. More significantly, Rossi was absent from the Monza Rally because he elected to race a GT3 car in Abu Dhabi at the Gulf 12 Hours endurance race.
Teaming up with friend Uccio Salucci and brother Luca Marini, Rossi won the Pro-Am GT3 class, and finished third overall, and spoke very positively of the experience.
The taste of winning in GT3 endurance racing may prove to be more alluring than fighting for podiums in MotoGP.
Bizarre Love Triangle
Rossi’s decision will help determine whether there is a seat in the factory Yamaha team for Fabio Quartararo to step up to.
The Frenchman has been sensational in his rookie year, putting the Petronas Yamaha on the podium six times, and coming close to winning on a couple of occasions. With a year of experience under his belt, big things are expected of him in 2020, and Yamaha is keen to keep him inside the factory.
Yamaha is not the only one. Ducati has also expressed an interest in hiring Quartararo, as they still believe that a top rider is the missing piece of the puzzle preventing them from winning a championship, despite Andrea Dovizioso’s best efforts to prove to them that they already have one under contract.
On the other hand, Ducati has also tried to tempt Maverick Viñales away from Yamaha, which if successful would open up a slot in the factory team for Quartararo. Whatever happens, it looks like the Frenchman will be on a factory seat in 2021.
How much of a blessing that is, is open to question. Johan Stigefelt, Wilco Zeelenberg, and Razlan Razli have managed to create an incredible atmosphere inside the Petronas Yamaha SRT team.
The rapport between the team members and riders is remarkable, and the Petronas hospitality is always a welcoming and fun place. So much so that it is common to spot a host of blue factory Yamaha uniforms in there in the evenings, factory staff preferring it to the more uptight factory hospitality unit.
Motorcycle racing takes place between the ears, and the Petronas team has managed to create what might appropriately be referred to as the right headspace for their riders to perform.
There is less pressure than a factory squad, and a much better atmosphere, and that gives riders the confidence to explore their own limits more freely.
Will Maverick Viñales stay at Yamaha? Much will depend on the Sepang test, and the early races. Yamaha has turned their MotoGP operation around in 2019, and the changes in the approach of Viñales’ side of the garage paid off in a very strong last part of the season.
The Spaniard has the right people around him, and confidence in his crew chief and team. What he really wants is a bike he can challenge Marc Márquez on. If he can take the fight to Márquez in the first few races, he will be more minded to stay.
If he can’t, and he can see Andrea Dovizioso fighting for wins and podiums, he may choose to jump ship and take a seat on the Ducati Desmosedici for 2021.
The question is, who jumps first? Until Valentino Rossi makes a decision on retirement, Ducati holds the upper hand. They can offer Viñales the prospect of a competitive bike, and if Viñales is not interested, they can tempt Quartararo with a factory ride and accompanying salary.
If Rossi retires, then Yamaha is in a position to offer both men a ride. If Rossi stays, then they will either have to resign themselves to losing either Viñales or Quartararo, or find a way to convince Quartararo to stay on in the Petronas team with extra support and a big chunk of cash.
What if Yamaha lose two of the three? Then things get really complicated. The obvious thing to do would be to move Franco Morbidelli up into the factory team, though the Italian has been thoroughly outclassed by his rookie teammate this year.
An alternative, if rather more far-fetched notion is for Yamaha to put Luca Marini straight into the factory team if Rossi stays. That would be a dream scenario for Dorna – two factory teams with two brothers, both great rivals – but it would require a lot of things to fall into place for it to happen.
Marini is one of the Moto2 riders likely to step up to MotoGP in 2021. If a space opens up in the Petronas Yamaha team, then he would be a prime candidate to take a seat there, given his strong ties to Yamaha through the VR46 Academy and his brother.
The Youth Have It
If a seat in the factory Yamaha team became available, then Yamaha might consider an alternative. They could try to poach one of the factory Suzuki riders, as the GSX-RR is the bike most like the Yamaha M1.
Alex Rins has shown enormous potential in the races, though his qualifying leaves much to be desired. Joan Mir had a rough year with injury, but if he continues to live up to the potential he showed at the end of the year, he will generate plenty of interest from other factories.
As for Suzuki, they look set to continue as they are. The plan of the Suzuki Ecstar team has always been to sign young talent and try to develop them and the bike together into champions.
That course was made even clearer in 2018, when a fractious relationship with Andrea Iannone caused Japanese bosses to reject the idea of signing either Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo, preferring young talent they could shape to experienced riders who came with baggage.
It is a policy which has paid off so far: Alex Rins won two races in 2019, and looked capable of more. Joan Mir made the kind of progress you would expect of a rookie, scoring a top five at Phillip Island.
If Suzuki lose either Rins or Mir, they are prime candidates to take one of the rookies coming up from Moto2, such as Jorge Martin (more about him later), Jorge Navarro, or Augusto Fernandez.
Experience or Potential?
Ducati is one of the more interesting factories for 2021, with a lot of dependencies. They look set fair for talent, with Jack Miller living up to his potential at the end of the 2019 season, and getting better as he matures. Miller is a prime candidate for a factory slot.
Ducati also have experience with Andrea Dovizioso, who has helped turn the Desmosedici from a struggling mid-pack machine into a bike capable of challenging for championships.
But Dovizioso’s relationship with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna has grown fractious, as the Italian’s request for a bike that turns keeps being ignored. That may change with the GP20, the first impressions of the new chassis being tested at Valencia and Jerez very positive.
But Ducati may decide to gamble on the future. Dovizioso will be 35-years-old at the start of the 2021 season, and with a host of youngsters entering the series, Ducati may choose to move on.
If they can sign Maverick Viñales or Fabio Quartararo, they may elect to move Jack Miller up from Pramac to take a seat alongside them. Dovizioso, like Petrucci, could be out. Even if he does stay, Dovizioso is likely to be one of the riders who signs a one-year deal, rather than a two-year contract.
What about Johann Zarco? If the Frenchman thrives on the Ducati GP19 in Avintia, he could also move up to the factory squad. A more likely slot for him would be Pramac, however, given testing duties for the factory team. But Zarco’s future is the least clear of all, given the choices he made in 2019.
Aprilia Escape Clause
Andrea Dovizioso could be a solution for Aprilia, if he is dropped by Ducati. Aprilia is always keen to have an Italian rider, and could swoop in to pick up either Dovizioso or Danilo Petrucci to put alongside Aleix Espargaro.
The elder Espargaro brother has been a stalwart for the Italian factory, and has provided valuable input in the development of the RS-GP.
The second seat at Aprilia has been a problem, however. Scott Redding and Sam Lowes only held the seat for a year, and Andrea Iannone has been suspended after failing a drug test for steroids.
Bradley Smith is likely to take over the seat for 2020 if Iannone’s B sample fails to clear him. That would open the way for Petrucci or Dovizioso to bid for the seat in 2021.
There could be a reason to keep Smith in MotoGP after 2020, however. Cal Crutchlow is set to retire at the end of next season, though he still occasionally makes noises about staying on if he is still competitive next year.
But Crutchlow’s retirement leaves Dorna with a problem: with no British riders on the grid, the extremely lucrative BT Sport TV contract loses a lot of its value.
Dorna and BT Sport will want a British rider on the grid, but there are few obvious candidates to replace Crutchlow.
John McPhee is the most competitive and deserving British rider outside of MotoGP, but the Scotsman is still in Moto3, and the jump to MotoGP is not easy, as Jack Miller showed.
Jake Dixon will have another year in Moto2, but has not shown the kind of results which would earn him a spot in MotoGP.
That could leave the door open for Bradley Smith to stay on at Aprilia. Or perhaps it could see Scott Redding make a return to MotoGP. Redding was hugely popular in MotoGP before he left, and even more so in BSB.
How he copes in WorldSBK will be crucial. And if he succeeds as Ducati hopes, then both Ducati and Dorna may want to keep him in World Superbikes to help crick up the popularity of the series.
Embarrassment of Riches
KTM finds itself in a rather luxurious position, especially considering the results they have shown in their first three seasons in MotoGP.
They have an experienced rider in Pol Espargaro, who has carried the development of the RC16 almost on his own for 2019, though having Dani Pedrosa as a test rider made a big difference in the second half of the year.
They also have the promising Portuguese rider Miguel Oliveira, who performed well despite having his season ruined by a shoulder injury caused when he was taken out by Johann Zarco at Silverstone.
They have two promising rookies: the ferocious Brad Binder, who vastly outperformed KTM’s Moto2 bike to end up running the Moto2 championship close in 2019; and Iker Lecuona, a raw rookie who has only been riding on the track for three years, and is posting some remarkable results.
KTM’s dilemma is that they also have Jorge Martin, one of the most promising Moto2 riders, who was outstanding in his rookie season on a difficult bike – a bike which broke his leg when the chatter spat him off at the Jerez test in February. Martin will be in MotoGP in 2021, and KTM’s mission will be to find a way to keep him.
Five riders, four seats. Who do KTM lose? Whatever happens, they will lose out, as all of their riders are both talented and hard working. If they can’t find a seat for one of the five, there is every chance that rider will jump ship to another factory. And that gives KTM an extra problem: another rider they have to figure out a way to beat.
Of course, much will be contingent on how good the 2020 KTM RC16 is. The new chassis tested at Valencia and Jerez was a big step forward, making the bike easier to turn.
KTM is also making progress with the engine and the electronics, gaining drive out of corners. If the bike is as competitive as the early signs show, KTM will be able to pick and choose. If it isn’t, then Jorge Martin or Miguel Oliveira may decide to try their luck elsewhere.
It is going to be a busy year for MotoGP team and rider managers in 2020. 2021 will see a lot of old faces leave, and a lot of new faces arrive, and a fair smattering of riders switching bikes.
But the problem of putting the right rider on the right bike is not going to be easy: it is a question of who manages to make their move at the right time. It promises to be a fascinating game of strategy and negotiation. But one thing is for certain: at the end, everyone will declare themselves the winner.