In The Paddock
It’s summertime, and the contracts are squeezy. It’s proof, if it were needed, that it takes more than lockdown to stop the inevitable, whether there is any racing or not. Instead, and in advance of the paddock assembling in a couple of weeks at Jerez, the “who-goes-where” silly season kicked off with a vengeance over the summer solstice.
Who indeed, and where indeed, when the only indications of 2020 rider form can be found in the equally unreal worlds of PlayStation play-racing, or in the imagination?
Nonetheless, contracts have to be contracted and deals must be dealt.
Most of the major players were already settled.
Marc Marquez was early done with Honda, all the way until the end of 2024 forsooth; Vinales and Quartararo were also signed pre-season with factory Yamaha; Rossi firmly earmarked to swap seats with the Frenchman, to join his own protégé Franco Morbidelli at the satellite squad.
Suzuki announced extensions for Alex Rins and Joan Mir during the lockdown.
And the well-deserving Jack Miller is Ducati bound.
And so on, all the way to Aleix Espargaro, who will have to dig deeper into his already well-plundered larder of hope that next year Aprilia really will step up their tech.
Yet Aprilia, the least-favored factory team, seem to be quickening the interest elsewhere. In the absence of racing to test out the Italian mob’s repeated promises of improvement, it must be down to a combination of wishful thinking and simple availability. The former fuels many a dream of grand prix glory, the latter comes courtesy of the 18-month suspension of alleged drug cheat Andrea Iannone. His claim of “contaminated food” had been accepted by the FIM, but he was banned anyway.
In fact, Iannone’s current Aprilia contract expires at the end of 2020, before his license suspension actually ends. He is pursuing an appeal through the Court of Arbitration for Sport, while Aprilia has said all the right things about supporting the ill-used waif. But it remains doubtful whether the Noale factory would actually take him back next year, after his mainly underwhelming debut season—sixth place at Phillip Island a welcome exception.
Doubtful enough to add weight to rumors that Cal Crutchlow is interested in the seat. All the more so now, after his other option—to replace Pol Espargaro at KTM—closed off.
We’ll come back to that. But why is triple GP winner Crutchlow looking for a job?
The answer may not be simple, and it changed several times during the past week.
It would originally have seemed obvious that the triple GP winner and experienced and valued tester would stay where he is, contracted directly to HRC, in place with the satellite LCR team. But Honda’s surprise acquisition of Pol Espargaro for the factory Repsol team displaced current number-two rider Alex Marquez, before he had even turned a wheel in anger. To mollify disgruntled elder brother Marc, Alex is to be shuttled across to LCR, where the other seat is already occupied by Honda factory favorite (and important Japanese sponsor draw-card) Taka Nakagami. Team owner Lucio Cecchinello may have no option but to cut Crutchlow loose.
An interesting option for Cal to move to KTM was closed off over last weekend, after a successful Austrian visit by dumped Ducati race-winner Danilo Petrucci—although it then emerged that the Italian will not directly replace Espargaro. Instead Miguel Oliveira is promoted from the Red Bull satellite squad and will head the factory team alongside rookie Brad Binder, whose own MotoGP debut (like that of Alex Marquez) has been so cruelly truncated. Petrucci will lend his experience to the Tech 3 off-shoot KTM squad, alongside another time-delayed rookie, Iker Lecuona.
This left Cal looking at the last factory option—Aprilia, which carries an extra piquancy. The absent Iannone’s place is to be taken, for the first rounds anyway, by the factory test rider Bradley Smith, who as a fellow Englishman has always been a special yardstick for Cal. He would relish a direct comparison.
Then another factor emerged, the chance that Nakagami might be shifted across to World Superbikes in the revived factory Honda team.
Across on the other side of the paddock, there is the Dovizioso question. His continuation at Ducati is far from certain, after a combination of his own dwindling win rate and his personal disillusionment at the Italian squad’s lack of appreciation for his efforts. Although with KTM gone, there won’t be much else to tempt The Professor.
And what about Lorenzo? Jorge retired dramatically from Honda at the end of last year, but didn’t stay retired for long, when a test ride with Yamaha came up. If Dovi falters, he might even go back to Ducati. All forgiven, for the right price.
Are you dizzy yet? Just be glad you’re not a rider looking for work.CN