There has been a trend over the past decade for rider contract negotiations to get earlier and earlier.
Where once, talks about new contracts would start sometime in June, and agreements finalized and signed during August, now, initial discussions start at the Valencia Grand Prix the year before a contract is due to end, and deals are signed in the first few races, or as in the past two contract cycles, before the season has even begun.
The underlying causes for this trend are numerous, but at its heart, it comes down to the glut of talent that is in MotoGP these days, both in terms of riders and in terms of bikes. The best riders have more choice of competitive machinery, and there are more talented riders for the factories to choose from.
This has forced the factories into pursuing and signing up the riders they want as early as possible.
The MotoGP Silly Season for 2019 and 2020 rider contracts has been particularly frenzied. Maverick Viñales announced his contract extension in January at the Movistar Yamaha team launch.
Talented Moto2 prospect Pecco Bagnaia was signed by Ducati to race with the Pramac team ahead of the factory Ducati team launch in January.
Marc Márquez announced he was extending with Repsol Honda before the Qatar test, and Valentino Rossi made his new two-year deal with Movistar Yamaha public on the Thursday before the Qatar race.
This frenzy of negotiations has caused the factories to push for the introduction of a “transfer window”, a practice common in other sports such as soccer. From the 2020 season, when the next round of rider contracts is due, negotiations will only be allowed to take place within a narrow window, with deals signed within that window and no talks allowed either before or after. That window will be in the week following the final race of the year at Valencia.
The factories, as represented by the MSMA, hope to achieve a number of objectives with this move.
Firstly, by not allowing any talks during the season, riders, teams, and engineers will be able to spend the season focusing on racing, rather than worrying about how a rider fits into a team after they have either decided to leave, or been pushed out to make way for someone else.
Secondly, the manufacturers hope to be able to contain the rise of rider salaries, which are being driven up in part by riders being able to shop their talents around between multiple factories.
Though the other members of the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP’s rule-making body, have agreed in principle, sources with knowledge of the situation tell us that Dorna has made the MSMA pay a very hefty price for the introduction of a transfer window.
The new rules on contracts are part of the sporting regulations, which are in principle have to be agreed among all four members of the GPC: Dorna, team representatives IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA.
The factories had pushed hard for the new rules as a cost-cutting measure, but Dorna was opposed to the move.
For Dorna, MotoGP’s Silly Season generates a bonanza of publicity for the series. Contract negotiations and rumors about rider moves keep the news cycle buzzing throughout the year, only tailing off once all the available MotoGP seats have been filled.
Contract rumors and signings in the preseason suits Dorna’s agenda even better, generating interest in the sport in a time when there is little or no on-track action to celebrate.
Dorna, with support from IRTA, had threatened to block the MSMA’s request for a transfer window, unless they got something in return.
And boy, did they get something in return. The manufacturers, believing they would be able to save millions in rider salaries with the introduction of a transfer window, acquiesced to the demands of Dorna.
To compensate for the loss of publicity in the preseason surrounding rider contracts, and to maximize interest in the season which follows, the MotoGP transfer window will be open solely during the week following the final race of the season at Valencia, ahead of the first test of the year the following weekend.
What’s more, the entire proceedings – from contract talks to the deal being signed – will be part of a special Dorna TV show called “Racing With The Stars”.
The idea behind “Racing With The Stars” is that it will be a daily, two-hour show following a set pattern, and shown from the Monday to the Friday in the week following Valencia.
It will be part reality TV show, part racing extravaganza, part panel discussion show. Contract talks will still happen behind closed doors, but Dorna will film teams and rider managers going into the talks, and then interview them after such talks have happened.
Every day, the riders will undergo a physical challenge relating to racing, and the results of those challenges will earn them bonuses from the teams they eventually sign with.
The initial idea is to have a series of physical tests on the Monday, including a VO2 Max test, reaction time testing, and balance skills.
Tuesday through Thursday will see the riders compete against one another in bike-related challenges, including a trials competition, a Supermoto race, and a flat-track race, culminating in a bicycle race around the Valencia track on Friday.
While the riders are testing their mettle on the track, their managers and the teams will be busy flexing their negotiating muscles.
As part of securing a transfer window, the factories have agreed to make public the state of contract negotiations at the end of each day. Intriguingly, that will include the latest agreed salary offers for each rider.
To add further spice to the spectacle, the week will be include some elements of a knockout competition. The entire MotoGP field from the previous season will start the week, along with hopeful prospects from Moto2 and the WorldSBK paddock.
At the end of each “Racing With The Stars” show, the riders will assemble in a line up, and the presenter will read out a list of the latest salary offers, finishing up with a list of riders who have not managed to generate any interest from factories or teams, and who will not make it through to the next day.
The climax of the week will be a prime time extravaganza to be shown live on Italian and Spanish TV.
On Friday night, the riders will find out which team or factory they will be racing for the following season. They will then be shown the bikes they will be riding for the next two days – Saturday and Sunday – at the first test of the season.
Dorna will then provide live coverage of that two-day test on the MotoGP.com website, and TV broadcasters will also have the opportunity to show the test.
It was a compromise that all parties could live with, despite the obvious downsides for all of them. The factories were prepared to give up the chance to negotiate earlier, as they believe this allow them to significantly reduce rider salaries, and keep them affordable.
Dorna was prepared to give up extra media coverage of the sport in the preseason, in exchange for a spectacle which will increase the value of their TV rights.
The teams were willing to give up some control of their negotiations with riders, as they get the chance to see and talk to more riders from a wider talent pool, and possibly sign a rider they hadn’t expected.
The riders were not consulted on the change.
Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Photo.GP – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.