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.
Japan vs. Italy
So what of the remaining three seats? The second seat at Suzuki appears to be the subject of a battle between the team led by Davide Brivio and the factory HQ back at Hamamatsu.
The strategy put together by Brivio and Italy-based team was to have a fast young rider paired with a more experienced older rider. Maverick Viñales was their main focus, but the Spaniard could not turn down the opportunity of a factory Yamaha, a bike which is a proven winner.
With Viñales gone, Brivio and Co. have turned their attention to Alex Rins, the Moto2 youngster having followed a similar path to Viñales, and pairing youth with talent in exactly the way in which Suzuki are looking for.
At Hamamatsu, Suzuki management are yet to be fully convinced of that strategy. They see Viñales departing, and they are keen to keep some continuity in the MotoGP project. That means keeping Aleix Espargaro, the rider signed as the more experienced development man.
Brivio, however, sees Andrea Iannone in that role, despite the Italian not having experience of the Suzuki GSX-RR. Espargaro, meanwhile, points to his record, and the role he has played in developing the bike.
It was Espargaro who secured the first front row start for Suzuki, and also their first pole. Though he trails his teammate by 10 points in the championship, he has also regularly beaten Viñales.
Who will win? At Mugello, it seemed a dead cert that Alex Rins would get the second seat. Since then, things have gone quiet, but there is little reason to think much has changed. Various paddock sources insist that Rins and Suzuki are still talking, but that an agreement is yet to be signed.
A Surprise Sort-Of Return?
If Rins takes the second seat at Suzuki, where does that leave Aleix Espargaro? The latest rumors place the elder of the Espargaro brothers at Aprilia, alongside Sam Lowes.
Aprilia has refused to confirm such speculation, unsurprising given the delicate situation they find themselves in. But with the Montmeló circuit being just a stone’s throw away from Granollers, the town from which the Espargaro brothers hail, this weekend would be a good time to announce a deal.
It might be Aleix being announced, or it might be Pol. Sources close to the younger Espargaro revealed that he had three options to choose from: a one-year extension of his deal with Yamaha, which would see him spend another year in Tech 3; a two-year deal with Avintia Ducati, which would see him ride a Desmosedici GP (aka a GP16); or joining KTM alongside his current Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith.
Pol Espargaro had made his decision over the weekend, a source informed me, but the final details are still being ironed out. That should mean an announcement being made on Thursday, with KTM the hot favorite.
That would make a lot of sense for KTM. Both Smith and Espargaro are fast and hungry, and both are intelligent riders. Smith’s technical insight and ability to explain things is exceptional, and Espargaro is no slouch in that area either.
They are both still ambitious, though each has a slightly different reason for joining a factory team. For Smith, he wants to be involved in the development of the project, in bringing it to fruition.
Espargaro believes a factory ride is his only chance of success, of having the input and options needed to build a bike capable of taking on the likes of Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, and Jorge Lorenzo.
With the factory seats filled, attention will quickly shift to the satellite teams. Of those, Jonas Folger has taken one seat at Tech 3, while Scott Redding has a contract with Ducati to stay at Pramac for next year as well.
Jack Miller has one more year of his three-year HRC contract to go, and a seat at Marc VDS Racing, while Cal Crutchlow also has an option to stay with LCR Honda.
Crutchlow’s seat is not certain, however. The LCR team have an option to replace Crutchlow depending on his performance, and the Englishman has held preliminary talks with other teams in the MotoGP paddock, and beyond.
His position is made even more uncertain due to LCR’s dalliance with Suzuki. It looks like LCR will stick with Honda for 2017, though that is very much dependent on finances, and the amount of money Honda want for their RC213V (despite a price cap being enforced, factories find ways to extract the price they want from teams).
If LCR does switch to Suzuki, they may also look towards another rider.
There are still plenty of options inside the MotoGP paddock for Crutchlow, however. With Tito Rabat struggling so badly, the Spaniard may choose to look for either another option inside MotoGP, or perhaps even a return to Moto2.
Crutchlow would be an obvious choice to fill any vacancy at Marc VDS, as he already has experience of the Honda and has proven he is capable of getting results on the bike, something which the other satellite Honda riders have been unable to do.
Pairing Crutchlow with Jack Miller would also be logical for a team that is extremely good at extracting the maximum media coverage for their sponsors. Crutchlow and Miller did well at LCR, and could do even better at Marc VDS.
Old and New
At Pramac Ducati, the chances of Danilo Petrucci staying for another year are very high indeed. Team manager Francesco Guidotti was confident of being able to keep Petrucci when we spoke to him at Mugello, and Petrucci has performed remarkably well considering the injury to his hand.
The second seat at Tech 3 is still up in the air, though team manager Hervé Poncharal insists that he is holding the seat for Pol Espargaro until such time as the Spaniard signs for someone else.
If he loses Espargaro, then the chance is high that Tech 3 will take another rookie. Given the relatively small number of Moto2 riders looking capable of making the jump to MotoGP, the chances are that Johann Zarco could end up at Tech 3.
Zarco is older than the already signed Jonas Folger, and the Frenchman has a much more mature approach to racing. He also has the kind of inch-perfect smooth style which the Yamaha rewards, and being French, should be able to fit in well with the French Tech 3 team.
Despite the fact that announcements are expected at Barcelona, MotoGP’s Silly Season will continue to rumble on. As factory seats fill up, attention will shift to the satellite seats, though they might take a little longer to sort out.
So far, MotoGP’s musical chairs have thrown up a fair few surprises. There is good reason to expect this trend to continue.
Photo: © 2016 Tony Goldsmith / www.tonygoldsmith.net – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.