They may not have turned a wheel this year, but half of the MotoGP seats have already been filled for 2021. More than anybody else though, the 2021 season is likely to change the course of action for the biggest names in motorcycle racing - Marc Marquez & Honda, Ducati & Andrea Dovizioso, and Valentino Rossi.
With more than half of the teams signing riders for the 2021 season already, it seems we're in a for a big shake-up next year. Not to mention, it also tells you how cutthroat the competition is off the track, even when no racing has taken place this year! So, let's stop beating around the bush and see how things are looking for some of the biggest names in MotoGP at the moment...
Playing with fire
Marc Marquez and Honda will remain committed to each other until 2024. That’s understood because both know that they need each other to win championships. However, things will change on the other side of the garage as Honda is reportedly going to replace Alex Marquez with KTM’s current rider Pol Espargaro in 2021. If true, that’ll be a bit surprising because Alex hasn’t raced with Repsol Honda as yet – he was signed for the 2020 season after Jorge Lorenzo announced an early retirement from MotoGP in 2019, leaving the factory Honda with an empty seat.
Honda decided to give the younger Marquez Lorenzo’s vacant seat alongside his eight-time world champion brother Marc in 2020. At that time, everybody talked about elder Marquez’s influence within Honda, and how he must have 'forced' Honda to take this decision. However, Honda justified their decision by saying that Alex, being a two-time world champion in lower classes, was the best option for the team then. Now, it seems Honda was actually telling the truth as they're looking all set to replace Alex Marquez!
It's been widely reported that Honda is planning to move Alex from the factory team to satellite squad (LCR Honda), and will replace him with Pol Espargaro. At the moment, these may just be rumours to your ears, but they aren't flying without reason. You see, KTM has officially announced its 2021 rider line-up, and there are some big changes, as the team will field Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder in the factory team, while Danilo Petrucci, who has been ousted from Ducati in 2021, has made a surprise entry into the Tech 3 KTM (satellite team).
Now the missing link here is Pol. As soon as KTM announced their 2021 ride line-up, it became clear that he is out of the Austrian team and has been roped in by a big player - in all likelihood, Repsol Honda. It seems like the deal is done and an official announcement will be made soon. However, with Pol replacing Alex, that will definitely leave a sour taste in elder Marquez's mouth. You see, it's quite unfair on Honda's part to be replacing a rider without giving him a single opportunity to prove his worth. And more importantly, the rider in question happens to be the younger brother of Marc Marquez - the man who has won six world titles for Honda, and someone who masks the bike's shortcomings by his sheer talent. So, it's kind of unfathomable as to why Honda would upset their star rider like that, especially when he's signed with the team until 2024.
Another unlikely place where Pol might land could be Ducati. However, these are pure speculations. Moreover, Ducati has already confirmed Jack Miller as Petrucci’s replacement from next year, and the team is trying their best to reach an agreement with its current lead rider Andrea Dovizioso. However, it seems the two parties have hit a roadblock over Dovizioso’s salary. As per some reports, Ducati wants to reduce the annual salary of Dovizioso by more than half (his current income is believed to be around $8m euros/year) due to the financial impact of COVID-19. But, of course, this isn't going to go down well with Dovizioso, and hence the talks of contract renewal hang in balance at the moment.
However, in the middle of all of this, there’s more bad news for Ducati as Dovizioso recently crashed in a motocross event and suffered a collarbone fracture. He’s undergoing surgery so that he's fit for the opening round of MotoGP 2020, which kicks off in three weeks’ time at Jerez, Spain, on July 19. All said, this will have a bearing on Ducati and Dovizioso's partnership as the team won't be particularly kicked about Dovizioso's injury, weeks before the start of the season.
Yamaha has retained Maverick Vinales in the factory team for 2021, but instead of Valentino Rossi, it’ll be Petronas Yamaha’s 2019 rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo who will take Rossi’s seat at factory Yamaha next year. Now this decision was taken months before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the world to its knees, and, as a result, it’s left Rossi in a bit of a spot. You see, Rossi’s original plan was to gauge his performance in the first part of the 2020 season before making a call on his future. However, thanks to the pandemic, everything went for a toss and the racing action, which was supposed to start in March this year, will only begin in July now. This has obviously created problems for Rossi – and it’s two-fold. In a normal year, Rossi would have had already competed in half of the races by this time, and that would have given him a fair idea if he’d be competitive next year or not. But since there has been no racing thus far, that's made Rossi's life more difficult. At the same time, all seats for next years are being filled up fast, and if Rossi wishes to continue racing next year, he’s no other option but to join Petronas Yamaha. This will be a direct exchange of riders between Yamaha’s factory team and satellite team.
The question is, how comfortable will Rossi be to join a satellite team? Of course, Yamaha is offering to provide full factory-support in case he opts to go to Petronas Yamaha, but even then, Rossi will have to be 100% sure if he can be competitive on a satellite bike. He won't be there just for the sake of it - Rossi wants to win, that's very, very clear!
On top of that, don’t forget that we’re talking about the Doctor here – arguably, the most popular and one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time. So, given his glorious past, we don’t think he’d want to be side-lined in a satellite team during his final year/-s of racing.
With the 2020 season about to kick off, Rossi is expected to make his decision very soon. Whether he continues to race in 2021 or not, only time will tell. But if he decides to hang up his boots this year, 2020 will be his last season, and for that reason alone, it’ll be a very special one…