Has the 2017 rider market silly season come to an end? Yes, and no.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
Blame it on Valentino Rossi. A day before the start of the 2016 MotoGP season in Qatar back in March, the nine-time world champion sent the sport into a spin by announcing that he’d stay with the factory Yamaha team for 2017-18. It was the first domino to fall in a frenzied rider market for next year that has, as we approach Sunday’s sixth Grand Prix of the season in Italy, largely overshadowed the on-track action this year. But a quartet of moves this week might finally see the dizzyingly fast game of musical chairs come to a halt.
But first, back to where it all started with ‘The Doctor’. It appeared untenable for Yamaha to keep their ‘dream team’ of Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo together after the Italian’s unexpectedly early announcement, and just before round four in Spain, the reigning world champion duly announced he’d be off to Ducati at the end of the year.
And then this week, four big players fell into place. Dani Pedrosa re-upped with the Repsol Honda team for two years, extending his stay at the only MotoGP outfit he’s ever known since his debut in 2006, while Andrea Dovizioso was re-signed by Ducati, also for the next two years. And then came the big moves. Maverick Vinales announced he’d be leaving Suzuki to join Rossi at Yamaha in place of Lorenzo from next season, with Andrea Iannone sliding across from Ducati to take his spot.
Let’s take a look at the key developments of this week, and what may be still to come.
Vinales sails from Suzuki
It’s been a big fortnight for the hottest young property in MotoGP, with the 21-year-old Spaniard taking a first career podium at Le Mans last time out, and then announcing on Thursday that he’d be partnering Rossi next season. Choosing to leave Suzuki would have caused Vinales plenty of sleepless nights; for one, he has no agent and is managing himself, using a lawyer only to wade through the legalese that is a necessary evil of any contract, and secondly because he had a chance to do something special for the manufacturer who brought him into MotoGP last season.
Rossi himself had an interesting perspective on Vinales’ conundrum when asked about the young Spaniard in France a fortnight ago. “For me, and I speak without knowing the contracts and the money, it’s an interesting decision,” Rossi said. “In the Suzuki there is something more romantic. He can remain on Suzuki on a bike with a good potential, and try and become like Kevin Schwantz. Yamaha is for sure a great bike, and that is another type of challenge. But it’s his choice what he wants to do.”
That choice – to attempt to win as soon as possible on a known commodity or be part of the development of something that may turn out to be great, but with no guarantees – was no easy one to make, and in Vinales, Yamaha has its succession plan set in stone for when Rossi eventually hangs up his leathers (which, incidentally, may not be after his 2018 deal ends if the veteran Italian keeps fighting for the title as he did last year and will this year). By that stage Vinales will be 23 years old, well accustomed to the life of being a MotoGP rider in a top team, and more than likely a multiple race-winner.
Pedrosa stays put
Times change quickly in MotoGP – just two weeks ago, reputable outlets in the Spanish press who rarely get things wrong had Pedrosa pegged as Rossi’s 2017 teammate at Yamaha, but on Monday came the news that the Spaniard would stay with the only manufacturer he’s ridden for since stepping out in the 125cc category in 2001 for another two years.
As he heads into his 250th GP start at Mugello this weekend, Pedrosa’s career is difficult to assess – he’s won 51 Grands Prix across all three classes, just three fewer than MotoGP legend Mick Doohan – and has finished second in the world championship three times and third another three times, without ever taking the ultimate prize. As impressive as his career stats are, the harsh reality is that three of his teammates – Nicky Hayden (2006), Casey Stoner (2011) and Marc Marquez (2013 and 2014) have been world champions on the sister bike.
Pedrosa is a known quantity, still quick enough to occasionally win races (he’s won multiple Grands Prix in nine of his 10 premier-class seasons), is perfect for the Spanish sponsors and adds an element of class that isn’t commonplace (his response to inadvertently taking out Dovizioso in Austin earlier this season was sportsmanship at its finest). But is anyone expecting that, at 31, he’ll be able to overcome Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo in a season-long fight? That’s open for debate, but what isn’t is Marquez’s support of his teammate. “In the end he is a good rider; also he is important inside the team, after all of these years. For me, like I already said two years ago, Dani is a good teammate,” Marquez said in France.
A tale of two Andreas
Rossi staying, Lorenzo going. Pedrosa coming back, Vinales sliding over. And Dovizioso being the chosen Andrea to partner Lorenzo next year. Iannone may have stamped his ticket out of Ducati when he took out his 30-year-old teammate on the last lap of the second race of the year in Argentina when both red bikes were in podium positions, and after Iannone’s management made it known that the 26-year-old had been offered a contract from Suzuki even before Vinales announced he was leaving, and well before Ducati announced it would stick with Dovizioso earlier this week, it was only a matter of time before both moves were confirmed.
There’s still intrigue over some riders who are already on the MotoGP grid, and some who want to be. Who will give Moto2 star Alex Rins the chance to slide into the premier-class spotlight his talent demands? And are the likes of Pol Espargaro (who has waited patiently at Yamaha’s satellite Tech 3 squad for a chance to jump to the factory team when either Rossi or Lorenzo left, and has now been leapfrogged by Vinales) and Cal Crutchlow (who has scored just five points in five races this year for LCR Honda) stuck where they are for the time being?
It seems the music is finally beginning to slow down in the 2017 game of musical chairs after a quite crazy two months. Although there is one rider you may have heard of who hasn’t signed anywhere for ’17 – yet. His name? Marc Marquez …