MotoGP

The silliest of seasons: Where MotoGP teams stand on 2021 deals

How has the break in MotoGP action impacted the narrative for the future as teams weigh up their rider line-ups for the 2021 MotoGP season?

Had things gone to plan this year we’d be two rounds into the 2020 MotoGP World Championship season and most likely be looking at a 2021 grid that was almost completed.

Every year the fabled ‘silly season’ – when media get hyped up over the prospect new contracts and big moves – gets earlier and earlier, with the opening rounds seemingly the new deadline date for several teams so they can simply focus on the year directly ahead of them on track.

In fact, we’ve already had a handful of confirmations this pre-season, partly to stop other teams licking their lips at the prospect of nabbing high-profile riders and striking an early psychological blow at their opponents. However, this has all come to an abrupt halt with the spread of the coronavirus.

Compared with 2020, the chances of a grid shake-up in 2021 are higher because most riders are coming to the end of their current two-year contract cycle. However, with racing on pause, it could well serve to change the narrative when action does eventually get underway…

Here is where the manufacturers stand right now and what is in the pipeline going forward…

Honda

While no team has ever really made a realistic play to get the six-time MotoGP World Champion on their side, Marc Marquez nonetheless shoved questions about his future firmly into the distant future by signing a four-year deal.

A fairly unprecedented move, not least because Honda wasn’t exactly fending off any competition for his signature, one could say this gives Marquez the chance to become the most decorated MotoGP rider of all-time with the team that gave him his break. Beyond that – and we’re talking the end of 2024 here – he may well attempt to assure his reputation by taking a punt on another team…

Elsewhere, Alex Marquez is one of the big question marks but unless he proves to be completely out of his depth on the admittedly tricky RC213V, it’s hard to see Honda trading him unless it’s a big name willing to be #2 to Marc. Even then they tried that with Jorge Lorenzo and it didn’t work out, while Honda is lacking some depth in its youth programmes at the moment to provide a serious alternative.

On the satellite side, LCR’s Cal Crutchlow has intimated he will hang up his helmet at the end of his contract and seems more likely to do so than sign another two-year deal. Moreover, by then team-mate Takaaki Nakagami should be more than capable of shifting over to his current-spec 2021 RC213V – which would appease the Japanese bosses – leaving a spot open for another youngster to move up (see Moto2 below) or maybe even a return for Alvaro Bautista if he stars in WorldSBK on the new CBR1000RR-R.

Yamaha

Though it is the most organised manufacturer having secured the signatures of Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Vinales for its 2021 Factory team, Yamaha still garners a lot of attention on it as Valentino Rossi ponders the next move for his career – either continue with Petronas SRT or retire.

Many expected an announcement Mugello but that seems unlikely now, leaving Rossi with the prospect of rushing to make a call much later than originally planned.

From a Dorna point of view, it will likely hope Rossi continues into 2021 in what could be billed as a ‘farewell tour’ to stimulate ticket sales, while one can imagine sprinting to the end of his career in what will be a race laden second-half of the year might be an unfittingly intense conclusion to his time in MotoGP.

Meanwhile, on the other side of his would-be garage, Franco Morbidelli faces his own big decision. The Italian joined Petronas SRT no doubt expecting to be first in line for a factory seat, but while he had a decent 2020 campaign in isolation, his trouncing by Quartararo means it’s hard to see where he fits into Yamaha’s plans in the short to mid-term.

While staying put means he’ll have a competitive current-spec machine under him regardless, should Rossi join him he’d just be bumped further down the priority list. Could an opportunistic factory team – maybe Aprilia – come knocking with a more tempting future prospect?

Ducati

Given how many good quality riders it currently has on its books, it’s bizarre that Ducati looks in some disarray when it comes to deciding its future rider line-up. 

Having taken a punt at issuing four current-spec machines for its factory and Pramac satellite teams (a method Yamaha has mirrored, together with KTM), Ducati is effectively placing him head-to-head for the two 2021 ‘red’ seats.

Danilo Petrucci is already under pressure after his Mugello win last year was mitigated by his alarmingly slide in form during the second half of the year. He heads into 2020 needing to make an immediate impression and certainly isn’t being helped by the current break.

Indeed, Ducati’s big problem could be how to handle Jack Miller. The Australian has made no secret of the fact he wants a factory ride in 2021 and based on the latter half of 2020, he appears to be on the trajectory with Ducati – provided he continues that relative to Petrucci when racing starts, it’ll be his seat to lose.

However, he too may not want to wait for racing to begin to seal his future if another factory team approaches him in the meantime, especially if the decision is based on whether Petrucci rediscovers his form. Moreover, he still has to see off Pecco Bagnaia in the Pramac team to seal the deal.

Their dilemma could, however, be solved by Andrea Dovizioso, who is by no means certain to stay at Ducati beyond 2020. Ducati’s rather embarrassingly public attempts to approach at least Vinales and Quartararo – and possibly also Alex Rins and Joan Mir – over the winter doesn’t exactly sound a ringing endorsement for Dovi despite being its only MotoGP title contender since Casey Stoner.

As such, Dovizioso may take this as a sign to glance at his other options with Aprilia speculated as a possible alternative. The experienced Italian’s superior ability to develop a MotoGP bike and be almost metronomically consistency raises his stock among teams that could really use his input, such as Aprilia. It doesn’t hurt that he’s Italy’s quickest MotoGP rider today either…

Then of course there Johann Zarco on the Avintia bike, who has made it clear he is eyeing a factory bike in 2021, though it seems – unless he pulls a blinder out of the bag this year - he sits at the back of a fairly long queue right now…

Suzuki

Alex Rins is already held in high regard among other teams, but the Spaniard is unlikely to walk away from a Suzuki team on the ascent at the moment. Moreover, given he holds number one status in a competitive factory team as it stands, it’s hard to see whether he’d receive a similar level of priority if he went anywhere else.

Similarly, Joan Mir showed enough evidence in 2019 that he is a rider to watch for the future, but while some teams might also be looking at the Spaniard with interest, it’s hard to see where he’d get a better bike or say in development outside Suzuki.

Aprilia

Aprilia’s strong showing in pre-season testing and an evident step forward with its new generation RS-GP makes it something of a wild-card in the rider market.

Aleix Espargaro has endured so many trials and tribulations on the uncompetitive and unreliable Aprilia RS-GP in the time he’s been there, it would almost seem unfair to drop him at the moment when the bike becomes quick again.

However, Andrea Iannone’s position is under scrutiny after a disappointing first season with the team in 2019, even before the controversy surrounding his provisional drugs ban. A decision on his future is coming soon where a formal suspension would rule him out of the equation, but even if he is cleared to race he still has a lot to prove on track.

Provided Aprilia can show a sustained upturn in form in the season, some of the more disillusioned riders might see the benefit of their interest. As we’ve mentioned, riders like Andrea Dovizioso and Franco Morbidelli tick several boxes, while someone like Jack Miller might see worth in finally getting his hands on his first factory bike six years after making his MotoGP debut if Ducati doesn’t follow through.

Looking beyond 2021, Aprilia is set to expand to four bikes in 2022 when it takes its factory effort in-house, swapping Gresini to official satellite effort.

KTM

Johann Zarco’s decision to cut his losses and quit KTM six months into his two-year deal left the Austrian firm with a headache, but it’s opted to play the long game by investing in the future with its line-up.

As such, do not expect to see Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira going anywhere, except perhaps swapping with one another if the former – a rookie – doesn’t quite live up to high expectations on the factory bike.

That said, Oliveira made it clear he wasn’t happy about being overlooked for Zarco’s available factory ride for 2020 so could be one to look elsewhere if another team comes knocking with a better offer. However, in theory Tech 3 should be running almost identical machinery to the Factory team this year – as per their contract - after supply issues often left the French team playing catch up in 2019.

Elsewhere, having seen off Zarco, Pol Espargaro is now the trusted experienced hand at KTM and is thus unlikely to be going anywhere, while Iker Lecuona – a somewhat surprising call up for the MotoGP seat – will likely be given time to prove himself in the circumstances.

Who could step up from Moto2? 

While there aren’t many obvious riders under threat from falling off the grid, as Marquez and Binder show, teams are still eyeing up the talent in Moto2 to get a jump on their rivals for the future.

Though the season opener – the one race we have seen this year – doesn’t quite offer all the clues as to who will prevail in 2020, there are definitely some names to watch.

Augusto Fernandez seemingly came from nowhere to turn in several race winning performances last year, earning him a plum ride at Marc VDS and automatic title favourite status, while the likes of Lorenzo Baldassarri, Jorge Navarro, Jorge Martin and Fabio Di Giannantonio are highly rated too.

Then there is the Rossi-backed Luca Marini and top Moto3 graduate Aron Canet, while beyond the Europeans Joe Roberts and Remy Gardner impressed in Qatar. Finally, Tetsuta Nagashima showed the long tradition of strong Japanese talent remains in evidence based on his victory at Losail.

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