Supporting superstars | 10 scene stealing MotoGP Super-subs and wildcards

Cal Crutchlow returns to MotoGP in place of now retired Andrea Dovizioso but can he perform as well as these other superstar super-subs and wildcards?

Ben Spies - Suzuki

The 2022 MotoGP World Championship continues on with this weekend's Aragon MotoGP, where the field will be rejoined by a popular and familiar face in Cal Crutchlow.

The experienced three-time MotoGP race winner makes a surprise return to the premier class this weekend at RNF Yamaha, replacing the now retired Andrea Dovizioso for the remainder of the season.

Now a Yamaha test rider after bringing his full-time racing career to a close at the end of the 2020 MotoGP season, Crutchlow remains one of wiliest racers on the grid and stands a good shot at delivering eye-catching results.

But can his super-sub efforts measure up to these guesting superstars of years gone by...

Troy Bayliss

2006 Valencia MotoGP - Ducati

Surely no wildcard in motorcycle racing will come close to matching Troy Bayliss’ remarkable race-winning MotoGP comeback during the Valencia MotoGP in 2006.

With the first of his three WorldSBK titles on Ducati machinery in his pocket, Bayliss was the ideal candidate to lead the Italian firm’s assault on MotoGP for the first time in 2003. However, despite four podiums, his results weren’t enough to convince Ducati to keep him on the bike for 2005.

A brief stint at Honda preceded a return to Ducati for 2006, albeit in WorldSBK, where Bayliss promptly swept to his second title before getting the call to deputise for the injured Loris Capirossi for the Valencia finale. 

While most eyes were on the tentative battle for the title between Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, up front a pressure-less Bayliss was swinging free and easy on the Ducati, demonstrating what could have been by romping to victory from second on the grid in what would be his final MotoGP start.

Noriyuki Haga

1998 Japanese Grand Prix - Yamaha

Having made a name for himself during a series of eye-catching WorldSBK home soil wildcard outings between 1994-1997 - which delivered one win and four podiums in eight appearances - Noriyuki Haga repeated the same feat on his 500GP debut in 1998.

Earning himself an outing with Yamaha as a reward for his successes in the Japanese domestic Superbike series, Haga’s 500GP outing at Suzuka came just a couple of weeks after he made his full-time WorldSBK debut with the manufacturer.

Though most local eyes were on factory Yamaha rider Norifumi Abe, Haga brushed aside his inexperience at GP level to out-qualify his countryman in sixth before taking the YZR500 all the way to the podium, behind the Hondas of Max Biaggi and Tadayuki Okada.

Three years later, Yamaha took the opportunity to bring the ‘Samurai of Slide’ to the premier class for a full campaign but between that and a second season with Aprilia in 2003, Haga didn’t stand on the podium again during his GP days.

John McGuinness

1998, 1999, 2000 British Grand Prix - PBM Honda

We’re so used to seeing John McGuinness powering down Bray Hill at the Isle of Man TT that it is sometimes hard to believe he also had a couple of stints jostling with the world’s best in the 500GP class.

‘McPint’ made three 500GP wildcard appearances on home soil between 1998 and 2000, his best result coming in the former aboard the Paul Bird Motorsport Vimto Honda with 12th, while he scored points in the latter with a 13th.

Jonathan Rea

2012 Aragon, San Marino MotoGP - Repsol Honda

When Jonathan Rea made his MotoGP debut in 2012 as part of a two-race stint with Repsol Honda at Misano and Aragon in place of Casey Stoner.

Finishing eighth and seventh, at the time it wasn’t a debut that many felt had particularly sparkled, a crying shame for Rea who spent many years pushing the competitive but temperamental Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade to impressive results in WorldSBK in the hope of landing a MotoGP promotion.

However, in retrospect, those were results achieved against arguably the finest era of ‘alien’ riders - such as Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi - that really should have instead propelled Rea into a much desired MotoGP seat.

Holding out with Honda perhaps longer than he should have in the hope he would receive the call to step up, when that call didn’t come, Rea jumped ship at the end of 2014 to join Kawasaki.

Sweeping to six WorldSBK titles and smashing almost every series record along the way, with Honda sliding backwards down the field without the Ulsterman propping its results up, it essentially showed the Japanese firm that it didn’t know what it had until he was gone.

Alas, by moving to Kawasaki, Rea was also closing the door on any easy MotoGP transition, an outcome he admits has been a big disappointment for him.

Chris Vermeulen

2005 Australian, Turkish MotoGP - Pons Honda

Another Honda WorldSBK rider able to get a shot at competing in MotoGP, Chris Vermeulen supplemented his charge to the runners-up spot in 2005 with a two-race outing on the Pons Honda in the premier class.

It was a solid debut for the youngster too, Vermeulen getting to make his debut on home soil at Phillip Island and then racing again in Turkey. 

Despite scoring a pair of 11th place results and comparing well with Alex Barros on the sister Pons Honda, Vermeulen’s dreams of progressing to MotoGP with Honda were scuppered when he was offered a WorldSBK extension.

As such, the Aussie severed ties with Honda and joined Suzuki in MotoGP, going on to achieve one win and seven podiums during a four-season stint.

Ben Spies

2008 British, United States, Indianapolis MotoGP - Suzuki

Few riders have generated such fevered attention prior to entering MotoGP than Ben Spies. 

The young Texan was belying his age and experience in the American domestic ranks on Suzuki machinery when he got the call from the Japanese firm to make his MotoGP debut as a wild-card at Donington Park in place of the injured Loris Capirossi.

Despite his scant mileage on the GSV-R, Spies picked up a couple of points, convincing Suzuki to give him two more outings on more familiar territory at Laguna Seca and Indianapolis. With the benefit of track knowledge, Spies was a revelation, finishing eighth in the former and sixth in the latter.

Remarkably, despite Spies being quicker than both Capirossi and Vermeulen at Indy, Suzuki passed on its option to promote him to the MotoGP squad for 2009. A missed opportunity Suzuki would go on to regret - and which caused huge ructions in the team - Spies departed the manufacturer in favour of Yamaha and a season in WorldSBK.

Romping to that title in his first season and adding to his points’ tally with a run to seventh in a wild-card outing at the 2009 MotoGP finale in Valencia, the stage was set for Spies’ belated full MotoGP debut in 2010.

Alas, while Spies was quick in MotoGP, he was also fragile and would spend three seasons dogged by injuries and confidence issues. Eventually, the injuries took their toll and Spies was forced to retire aged just 29.

Katsuyuki Nakasuga

2012 Valencia MotoGP - Yamaha Factory

Arguably the greatest Superbike rider never to make a start in the WorldSBK Championship, Katsuyuki Nakasuga might be little known outside his native Japan - where he is a ten-time JSB1000 title winner - but for one afternoon in 2012, he was a global superstar.

With his long association with Yamaha stretching right back to the start of the Millennium, Nakasuga has become a regular addition to the manufacturer’s entry for its home Japanese MotoGP at Motegi with six appearances each yielding points’ finishes.

However, when Nakasuga was chosen as a replacement for the injured Ben Spies at the 2012 MotoGP finale in Valencia, he bravely opted to start the damp race from 16th on slick tyres.

Despite a nervy first few laps, it soon became clear that Nakasuga’s gamble was paying off as rivals peeled into the pit-lane in the drying conditions, promoting him all the way to second place and a shock podium finish.

Stefan Bradl

33 GPs with Repsol Honda between 2019 and 2022

Arguably the ultimate super-sub, Stefan Bradl has been the rider on call each time Marc Marquez has been forced out for one reason or another through injury.

An experienced MotoGP rider in his own right and Moto2 World Champion in 2011 - over Marquez, ironically - Bradl has accumulated 119 MotoGP starts since 2012, but a remarkable 33 of them have come since he stepped away from full-time competition.

It hasn’t been an easy task for Bradl, who also doubles up as Honda’s development rider, to jump on and off the RC213V, not least because the package itself has hit the buffers in terms of performance in recent years.

However, Bradl has matched his team-mates - first Alex Marquez, then Pol Espargaro - when he has been on track, with five top ten finishes (peaking in Portugal in 2020 with a seventh) his reward.

Aleix Espargaro

4x rounds of 2009 MotoGP season - Pramac Ducati

Few would begrudge Aleix Espargaro a MotoGP World Championship title in 2022 given the slog it has taken for him to reach the upper echelons of the premier class.

He’s certainly not without experience having made his GP racing debut way back in 2004, though it is quite remarkable that Espargaro has cultivated a successful career with so few highlights. In fact, this season has seen the Spaniard score both his first GP win - at his 200th attempt - and increase his podium tally from two to seven in 2022 alone.

Indeed, it’s fair to say Espargaro can owe his current status to him being given a surprise call up to race with Pramac Ducati back in 2009.

Prior to that, Espargaro had been a middling 125 and 250GP racer, so much so he didn’t have a ride come the 2009 season. However, when Mika Kallio was called up to replace Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati, Pramac needed an out-of-work rider that could see out the season and subsequently erred towards Espargaro.

To his credit, Espargaro performed well with points in all four outings, earning him a full season deal in 2010. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dani Pedrosa

2021 Styrian MotoGP, 2023 Spanish GP - Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

For so long a loyal HRC rider, it was difficult to imagine Dani Pedrosa ever turning up to a GP race on anything other than a Honda.

Making his GP debut with Honda at 125GP level in 2004, Pedrosa would spend the next 18 years - and 295 GP starts - devoted to the Japanese manufacturer right up to his retirement.

And yet, in 2021 Pedrosa broke with tradition for the first time by (finally) accepting one of the many calls from his KTM bosses to make a start in the 2021 Styrian MotoGP at its home Red Bull Ring.

Credited as the driving force behind KTM’s upturn in fortunes in MotoGP after joining the Austrian firm as its development rider in 2019, while Pedrosa repeatedly turned down offers of a wild-card appearance in the years that followed, he eventually accepted a deal for a single outing.

Famously low profile off the bike, Pedrosa didn’t exactly blend in when he was out on track, qualifying a fine 14th before being involved in a dramatic incident on the opening lap when he fell at the hairpin, before his KTM was rammed so hard by Lorenzo Savadori’s Aprilia that it exploded.

Fortunately, both riders were unharmed, with Pedrosa even making the restart and going on to finish tenth.

However, it was also just too much excitement for one weekend, with Pedrosa deciding against making any more outings for the rest of the year despite the option to do so.

Come 2023, though, and Pedrosa was confirmed for a wildcard in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez even before the preseason tests were finished.

The motivations for choosing Jerez as a circuit to wildcard at were clear for Pedrosa. First, Jerez is a circuit where he finished on the podium every year in MotoGP between 2006 and 2017; second, it is a circuit at which Pedrosa was scheduled to test before the Grand Prix; and, thirdly, it is a circuit which hosts an annual in-season MotoGP test on the Monday after the Grand Prix.

With such a strong history in Jerez, Pedrosa was expected to go well in his first race for 18 months, and his second for KTM, but it was nonetheless quite the shock to see the diminutive #26 top P1 on Friday morning and end the first day of action in Jerez third-fastest overall. 

Pedrosa impressed further when it came to the races. MotoGP is arguably more ferocious now than it ever has been, in terms of wheel-to-wheel combat, because of the difficulty in overtaking. Pedrosa, having raced only once since his retirement in 2018, was therefore inexperienced in this regard going into Spain 2023, so coming away with two top-10 finishes - a sixth in the Sprint and a seventh in the Grand Prix - only served to further cement Pedrosa's 2023 Spanish GP performance among the greatest wildcard rides we have seen in MotoGP.

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