Who are the candidates for Maverick Vinales' vacant Yamaha MotoGP 2022 seat?

Maverick Vinales has confirmed he will leave Yamaha at the end of the 2021 MotoGP season... so who is in line to join Yamaha in his place for MotoGP 2022?

Maverick Vinales, Franco Morbidelli - German MotoGP, Yamaha, MotoGP 2021

The MotoGP silly season is up there with one of our favourite times of the year, not that it has a particularly predetermined time frame.

We define the ‘silly season’ as the time when teams are busy deciding their rider line-ups for the following season, a time for snoops to pick up the odd tip from sources, report on ‘secret’ meetings and use a bit of educated guessing to help form a grid for the next year.

Some silly seasons are sillier than others, usually every two years when the usual contract cycles begin coming to an end. This is not one of those years though and it seemed the 2021-2022 ‘silly season’ was destined to be defined by the equivalent of the odd prank or jape. 

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That was until Maverick Vinales announced he will exit Yamaha a year earlier than planned, thus throwing the door open to all manner of possibilities, not only as to his whereabouts but also who will replace him on a bike that - in Fabio Quartararo’s hands - is currently leading the MotoGP standings.

The (very) smart money right now is on Franco Morbidelli being promoted from Petronas SRT Yamaha to the Factory team, leaving at least one seat free in the Malaysian-bankrolled outfit. 

However, one could become two depending on the movements of Valentino Rossi, who is deliberating over trying to negotiate a new deal with Yamaha (not thought to be preferred by PSRT itself), joining his own VR46 Racing team (not preferred by Rossi himself) or retiring (not preferred by his legion of fans).

So which (two?) rider(s) could be in line to assume a seat in a multiple race-winning team? Here are the current candidates…

Raul Fernandez

The rider many at Yamaha will be hoping makes the step into MotoGP next season, Raul Fernandez’s reputation has soared on the back of a hugely impressive rookie campaign in Moto2.

The latest product of KTM and Ajo Motorsport’s immensely successful Moto2 partnership, which has already brought on Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira - as well as a forge a route to MotoGP for Remy Gardner in 2022 - Fernandez was already expected to be on the grid for 2023 in KTM colours.

As it stands he has a Moto2 contract in his pocket for 2022 but three wins in 2021 have put him front and centre of Yamaha’s scouts and he is apparently being chased hard for a signature. 

He wouldn’t come cheap though with a reported €500,000 being quoted to release him from his contract. And even if Fernandez is tempted by the Yamaha prospect, there is talk KTM might repel the Yamaha advance by bringing his planned MotoGP promotion forward to 2022 on the Tech 3 bike alongside team-mate and title rival Gardner.

If Yamaha can prise him from his contract then it will be getting one of the GP paddock’s most foremost tips. However, as Miguel Oliveira (see below) points out, while Yamaha might be a storied manufacturer, would a rider like Fernandez - who has been nurtured by KTM - be willing to deviate from a track that has him heading towards a seat with an advancing MotoGP power anyway?

Garrett Gerloff

The amiable American has become increasingly spoken about in a MotoGP context following his timely race debut with Petronas SRT Yamaha at the Dutch TT. A tough initiation for the Texan on an unfamiliar bike around an unfamiliar circuit, he nonetheless kept his nose clean and was running pace with those around him by the end of the weekend.

It’s the latest milestone for Gerloff, who in little more than a year has risen from a relative unknown plying his trade in the MotoAmerica series to a regular WorldSBK front runner and podium winner, who now has a cap in MotoGP.

When we spoke to him over the Donington Park weekend Gerloff’s media training kicked in, speaking positively about his debut but insisting he remains focused on the WorldSBK job in hand.

In reality, Gerloff’s chances have received an exponential boost upon the news Toprak Razgatlioglu won’t be assuming the Petronas SRT seat and he is certainly well-regarded within Yamaha circles. It won’t have escaped Dorna’s notice that having an American on the grid will do no harm, meaning of all the riders on the list it is Gerloff it will be most keen to see step up.

A good shot at a Petronas SRT Yamaha seat already, if there so happens to be two berths available, expect Gerloff to definitely be on the grid in 2022.

Andrea Dovizioso

There would be a point earlier in the year that the prospect of a Yamaha seat would have had Andrea Dovizioso on speed dial. So far the prospective ‘super sub’ hasn’t been needed since he severed ties with Ducati and he has instead busied his sabbatical year with stints testing for Aprilia.

Aprilia made it clear it wanted Dovizioso for 2022, but the Italian’s reluctance to sign on the dotted line - for whatever reason - means he has probably lost out to free agent Vinales. Having participated in a game of ‘call my bluff’ with Ducati (he won…  but then so did Ducati looking at its results in 2021), one has to wonder who is advising Dovizioso right now...

Indeed, it’s unclear whether Dovizioso even wants to return to racing in 2022 amid talk he is nearing a Pedrosa-like development role with Aprilia. However, the prospect of a return to Yamaha next season might well be the tonic that inspires a return.

Dovizioso’s exit from Ducati was motivated by a disagreement over value, while it’s notable he didn’t sign for Aprilia for 2021 because it couldn’t offer him enough salary or guarantee competitiveness. It remains to be seen whether a year out of action would have affected his value but he would at least get a competitive machine underneath him with Yamaha.

It would likely suit him too. While Dovizioso is best remembered as a Ducati and Honda rider, there is one season on the Tech 3 Yamaha in there too during which he notched up six podiums on year-old machinery - demolishing Cal Crutchlow - en route to fourth overall.

And based on the feedback from Yamaha riders right now, it could probably do with his keen development input right now…

Xavi Vierge

If there happens to be two seats available at Petronas SRT Yamaha in 2022 then Xavi Vierge stands a good chance of progressing from Moto2.

Racing for Petronas Sprinta Racing in the intermediate class, Vierge has been namechecked a couple of times by team manager Razlan Razali, who has attempted to position his MotoGP team as a rung on the ladder to greater things, much like it has achieved to great effect by Fabio Quartararo.

While the aforementioned Fernandez would fit this criteria, there is a sense Razali wants his own development programme - which features a Moto3 and MotoE team too - to bear fruit, with Vierge next in line to be promoted. 

However, Vierge risks being regarded as something of a journeyman in Moto2 terms having made his debut way back in 2015 with only modest improvements since. He is yet to win a race and currently has a relatively meagre four podiums to his name, even if his experience belies his youthful 24-years of age. 

Much could depend on the state of Petronas SRT and Yamaha’s relationship, which is reportedly a little strained as a result of having taken an uncompetitive Rossi on board, plus a disagreement on whether it can afford to run two or one current-spec M1’s 2022.

If Petronas SRT is able to choose one of its riders for 2022 - like it did with Quartararo - then Vierge stands a good chance, but if it comes down to Yamaha then it seems more unlikely.

Danilo Petrucci

Definitely an outside bet for Yamaha, Danilo Petrucci is currently at risk of being dumped out of MotoGP, ironically as a consequence of Yamaha’s interest in his KTM stablemate Fernandez.

The Italian is already fighting with Iker Lecuona over the last remaining Tech 3 KTM seat alongside Gardner for 2022, but if KTM’s only carrot to entice Fernandez to remain on board and not sign for Yamaha is a guaranteed route to MotoGP next season then the fight is over and Petrucci (and Lecuona) have lost.

No-one was unhappy to see Petrucci’s hard work pay off for a factory Ducati ride in 2019 and there were few dry eyes in the house when he scored his maiden win in spectacular circumstances at Mugello.

However, while he went on to add a second against-form win at Le Mans in 2020, these were interspersed with curious lulls in form that saw the Ducati relationship sour quickly. His move to KTM hasn’t delivered much renewed success, though he probably has the edge over the more crash-happy Lecuona if there is a seat up for grabs in 2022.

Experienced and likeable, it might be a case of him being the only one standing when the music stops for Yamaha to take the plunge.

If Dorna was choosing…

As mentioned previously, Dorna has a vested interest in which riders do progress to MotoGP as it looks to promote the sport to a global audience. 

With this in mind, there are a few absent nationalities on the grid right now (unlike the nine Spaniards and six Italians currently filling 15 of the 22 grid slots), a situation Dorna may want to rectify.

Having mentioned Gerloff above, there is another American in Joe Roberts that has been tipped for great things following his impressive turn with the patriotic American Racing team in 2020. Switching to Italtrans for 2021 - champions last year with Enea Bastianini - Roberts could have been a shoo-in were he battling for the title but he’s currently ninth overall and yet to score a podium.

Similarly, had Jake Dixon been having a good season he’d be in with a very good chance of a MotoGP ride in 2022. With no British rider on the grid, Dixon’s Petronas Racing affiliation coupled with his third season in Moto2 looked to be stars aligning, but he’s only scored twice in 2021.

Finally, Marcel Schrotter could be an outside bet as one of the few German racers coming through the ranks. Germany hasn’t had a full-time representative since Jonas Folger - though Stefan Bradl got a full season in 2020 with Honda in the end - but Schrotter has earmarked himself as a regular front runner in Moto2 now.

It’s worth noting Folger wasn’t an obvious candidate for MotoGP when he was selected by Tech 3 Yamaha, but proved a competitive podium winner before being struck down with illness.

Those that said ‘NO’

It’s a little hard to believe that any rider would be willing to turn down a factory-backed seat on a machine currently leading the standings with five wins from nine races, but here we are…

He won’t confirm it himself, but it is common knowledge now that Toprak Razgatlioglu turned down the Petronas SRT Yamaha ride because he has his heart set on winning the WorldSBK Championship first, a series he just happens to now be leading after three wins from four races.

Regardless of whether we or anyone else thinks it is the right decision, Razgatlioglu has a career plan in mind and the fact he wants to stick to it commands respect. That said, we’re personally sad we won’t get to see his famed ‘stoppie’ on a MotoGP bike, just yet.

Another rider to have turned down an advance is Miguel Oliveira, who is fast becoming one of MotoGP’s most sought after riders following a sharp upturn in form over the last 12 months.

Joining the KTM Factory team for 2021, though the length of his new deal hadn’t been communicated, the Portuguese rider has since confirmed he is locked in for 2022, adding he wouldn’t switch anyway because he is committed to becoming champion with the KTM set up he has raced with for several years now.