The summer break – if an extra weekend off can be counted as an actual break – marks the end of the first half of the 2018 MotoGP season, but it also marks a significant point in the MotoGP Silly Season.
With Marc van der Straten telling the riders and crew of the Marc VDS MotoGP team that the team will not be competing in MotoGP in 2019 and beyond, the final shape of the 2019 MotoGP grid is almost clear.
There was no official announcement to mark the withdrawal of the Marc VDS squad, it was indirectly confirmed when the team sent out a press release announcing that they had extended their deal with Alex Márquez for the Spaniard, younger brother of Marc, to remain in Moto2 for another season.
Emilio Alzamora, who manages both Márquez brothers, had been pushing for Van der Straten to keep at least one grid slot in MotoGP for Alex Márquez, a move which had the strong backing of his brother Marc.
Alex Márquez remaining in Moto2 is tacit confirmation that there is no seat in MotoGP for the Spaniard.
From time to time, the media gets hoist by its own petard. A story comes along which everyone picks up and runs with, pushed to ever more dizzying heights of breathless commentary; what ifs, maybes, and wild speculation.
Professional sports are soap opera for men, as the great darts promoter Barry Hearn once said, and the logical corollary of that is that sports media extrapolate throwaway comments and a handful of facts into vast sweeping narratives.
Thus it was that what looked like the entire MotoGP media contingent packed into Honda’s hospitality unit to hear what Dani Pedrosa had to say during his media debrief. It was both genuinely impressive and actually quite frightening.
Secrets are hard to keep in the MotoGP paddock. When it comes to contracts, usually someone around a rider or team has let something slip to a friendly journalist – more often than not, the manager of another rider who was hoping to get a particular seat, but lost out. It is not often that real bombshells drop in MotoGP.
So the report by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that Repsol Honda were in talks to sign Jorge Lorenzo came as a huge shock.
The assumptions that almost everyone in the paddock had been making – that Lorenzo would be riding a full factory Yamaha M1 in a Petronas-funded satellite team operated by the Sepang International circuit – turned out to have been nothing more than a useful smokescreen.
Instead, Lorenzo has signed a two-year deal with HRC to partner Marc Márquez. The announcement was originally due at Barcelona, but the publication by La Gazzetta forced Honda to make a hasty and brief announcement..
The Petronas rumors had plenty of fire to provide the smoke. In an interview with Crash.net, Sepang International Circuit CEO Dato’ Razlan Razali openly discussed the possibility of running Yamahas with Lorenzo and Franco Morbidelli.
Everyone I spoke to – including other team managers, rider managers, riders, journalists – believed that Jorge Lorenzo would be riding a Yamaha in 2019.
In a city where no sporting event is taken seriously if it lasts any less than 24 hours – Le Mans even has a literary festival that features 24-hour readings – MotoGP feels slightly out of place.
Yet over 100,000 fans come to watch what is surely the greatest motorized show on earth, flocking to what remains a legendary racing venue, despite the fact that MotoGP runs on the much shorter, tighter Bugatti circuit rather than the full length layout used by the 24-hour car race.
The race is very much a throwback to the past. The atmosphere is different to almost every other race: there is a constant edge, a sense of danger lurking just below the surface.
Some revel in that excitement, others – myself included – grow tired at spending the evening wondering if you will make it out of the track alive if you leave after dark. If Quentin Tarantino directed a movie about MotoGP, he would set it at Le Mans.
The track may be rather tight and stop and go, but it presents a unique and fascinating challenge.
Just making it through the Dunlop Chicane after the blisteringly fast first corner at Dunlop Curve is an achievement at the start, and it remains a favorite passing place throughout the race.
The downhill right hander at La Chapelle can be treacherous, as can Musee, the long left hander which follows.
With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind.
First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home grand prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced that they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro’s signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory’s MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
The Tech3 team’s decision to switch from Yamaha to KTM is having major consequences. With the Yamaha satellite bikes available, and with Suzuki ready to step up and supply a satellite team with bikes, teams are having to make choices they have never considered before.
This luxury is indicative of the current health of the MotoGP grid: once upon a time, a satellite Yamaha or Honda team would never even consider switching to another manufacturer. Now, there are four competitive satellite-bike suppliers to choose from.
So who will end up with the satellite Yamahas for 2019 and beyond, and where does that leave Suzuki?
Speaking to some of the protagonists involved in the situation, it seems that although nothing is settled as of this moment, a decision is likely to be taken soon. Meetings are planned for Jerez which will play a crucial role in sorting out the satellite bike shuffle for next season.
The key player in all of this is the Marc VDS MotoGP team. The Belgian team has the financial resources, the staff, and the riders which allow them to pick and choose their partners.
They have made no secret of their intention to leave Honda, after disappointment over the level of support they have received. But they have been caught between Yamaha and Suzuki now for the past couple of months.
The Jerez MotoGP test provided three of the four MotoGP rookies with a chance to get familiar with their new bikes and their new teams.
The second test is often more important than the first one, as the rookies have had a chance to think about and absorb the data from the first test directly after Valencia, and approach the test with less pressure.
Expectations are mixed for Franco Morbidelli joining the Marc VDS MotoGP team. The last Moto2 champion to move up to MotoGP with Marc VDS was Tito Rabat, and Rabat endured two long and difficult years with the squad.
Morbidelli will be hoping that the Honda RC213V will be a little easier to adapt to than it was for Rabat, and that he will be able to pick up the pace more quickly.
So far, Morbidelli’s progress has been promising. The reigning Moto2 champion ended the Jerez test as eleventh overall among MotoGP riders, 1.260 behind the fastest man Andrea Dovizioso.
Best of all for Morbidelli, he was just a few hundredths behind MotoGP regulars Jack Miller and Scott Redding. There is still much room for improvement, but things are looking positive.
We spoke to Morbidelli on Thursday, his second day on the bike. Here’s what he had to say about the test.
In the week in which MotoGP marks ten years since the remarkable Norick Abe tragically died in a traffic accident (an occasion which MotoGP.com is marking by posting videoes of some of Abe’s career highlights on their Facebook page, news comes of extra Japanese presence at the Motegi round of MotoGP.
There will be at least two Japanese riders on the grid for the start of the race on Sunday, 15th October.
With Australian rider Jack Miller out through injury, the Marc VDS Honda team will be fielding Hiroshi Aoyama as a replacement at Motegi.
The choice of Aoyama should come as no real surprise: the former 250cc champion is one of HRC’s official test riders, and still heavily involved in Honda’s MotoGP effort, and especially with the development of the Honda RC213V.
The 2017 season has claimed another training victim. This time, Jack Miller is the victim of misfortune, the Australian breaking his right leg while out trials riding in Andorra.
Miller was relatively fortunate, in that he suffered the injury at very low speed, putting his foot down trying to save the front-end from washing out. However, his foot got stuck, causing the tibia to fracture just below the knee.
One more jigsaw piece has been slotted into place in the 2018 MotoGP line up. This morning, the Marc VDS team confirmed that Tom Lüthi is to take the second Honda RC213V alongside Franco Morbidelli for the 2018 season.
Lüthi was reckoned to be the outsider for the open seat at Marc VDS, with both Sam Lowes and Stefan Bradl in the running.
But the Swiss rider’s maturity and previous – albeit brief – experience aboard a MotoGP bike was what swung the deal. Having a rider of Lüthi’s experience alongside Franco Morbidelli also helps lessen the risk of running two rookies in MotoGP.
Pramac Ducati has announced that they have signed Jack Miller for the 2018 MotoGP season. The Australian will ride a Desmosedici, alongside Danilo Petrucci next year. Miller’s contract is directly with Ducati, however, rather than Pramac.
The move had been rumored for some time, and had been expected to be announced last week at Brno. But last week, Miller was still waiting for details of the package his current Marc VDS team could offer.
Marc VDS Racing, in turn, was waiting for confirmation from HRC of exactly what equipment they would be supplying, and more importantly, which personnel would be available.