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Is MotoGP’s age of high-risk manufacturer swaps over?

The early signs are that the 2021 MotoGP season is unlikely to feature a massive reshuffle of riders. Jamie Klein wonders whether, in the current climate, Jorge Lorenzo-style big-ticket manufacturer swaps are about to become much more rare.

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Is MotoGP’s age of high-risk manufacturer swaps over?

The first pieces of the 2021 MotoGP rider market puzzle have already started falling into place, with Yamaha locking down Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo amid interest in both men from other manufacturers, notably Ducati.

Given the state of play elsewhere, it appears that this year’s silly season will be decidedly less silly than the last major rider market shuffle that happened in advance of the 2019 season, or even the last-minute flurry of moves for 2020.

With Vinales and Quartararo staying at Yamaha (and Quartararo replacing Valentino Rossi, who has no interest in riding for another manufacturer), Ducati’s options to replace either Andrea Dovizioso or Danilo Petrucci – or possibly both – have narrowed considerably. The favourites to replace either of the incumbents at the Borgo Panigale firm, namely Jack Miller and Johann Zarco, are already embedded within the Ducati set-up.

Honda meanwhile is looking likely to remain the Marquez show for the foreseeable future, with Marc thought to be already close to a new deal and Alex therefore highly unlikely to be shown the door after just a single season unless he completely tanks.

Over at Suzuki, a new deal for Alex Rins seems all but a formality. Joan Mir meanwhile is known to have attracted interest from Ducati, but there’s little indication that the former Moto3 champion is seriously considering a change of scenery.

With KTM looking likely to stick with a known quantity in Pol Espargaro and pair him with one of its in-house youngsters, that leaves Aprilia as the only manufacturer that is likely to recruit a rider from a different factory, with Petrucci the most obvious candidate to join Aleix Espargaro if the Italian does indeed lose his works Ducati ride.

Danilo Petrucci, Ducati Team

Danilo Petrucci, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

All of the above marks a major contrast with the 2019 campaign, ahead of which Jorge Lorenzo swapped his Ducati for a Honda, Johann Zarco gave up his Yamaha for a KTM and Andrea Iannone pitched up at Aprilia after being unceremoniously ditched by Suzuki. That year, just one factory team – Yamaha – went into the year with the same two riders it had before. In 2021, that figure could easily be four or even five.

Surely a large part of the reason behind this is how disastrously Lorenzo and Zarco (and to a lesser extent, Iannone) fared on their new machines in 2019.

Having just about tamed the Ducati prior to the injury that essentially curtailed his ’18 campaign, Lorenzo couldn’t repeat the trick aboard the notoriously finicky Honda RC213V. His huge Assen crash, which came not long after a similarly nasty shunt at Barcelona in testing, essentially robbed him of the will to try.

Zarco’s problem was similar in one crucial respect, which was that he had convinced himself that he couldn’t do on the KTM RC16 what he had been able to do on a year-old Yamaha. The Frenchman may have avoided injury, but the negative spiral he had worked himself into psychologically was one from which he couldn’t recover. KTM even suggested this had a knock-on effect on the staff’s morale, one of the reasons behind the Austrian marque’s decision to throw him overboard with six races still to go last year.

Both riders find themselves exceptionally fortunate to have landed on their feet in 2020 – with a Yamaha test ride and the promise of a wildcard or two (and maybe, down the line, a return to front-line competition on his preferred bike) in the case of Lorenzo, and a shot at redemption within the Ducati stable in the case of Zarco.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing, Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing, Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Perhaps small wonder then that both Vinales and Quartararo, despite attracting interest from rival factories, decided to stick rather than twist.

Of course, their decision will have been partly informed by Yamaha having come good again in the latter half of last season, both riders having emerged as the most reliably consistent threats to the all-conquering Honda/Marquez package. But surely the notion of having to through the painstaking process of adapting to a very different motorcycle in the case of Ducati, especially in an era of less and less testing in which to rack up the miles away from the pressure cooker environment of a grand prix weekend, will have played its role.

Bearing in mind the struggles of almost every rider to make a smooth transition to a new bike in recent years (Vinales standing out as the main outlier, his case helped by the similarities between the Suzuki and the Yamaha), it makes you wonder whether the trend of swapping bikes is about to become a lot less commonplace than we’ve been used to.

Jack Miller, who arguably took a season-and-a-half to come good on the Ducati, reckons that in the modern age, riders need “two or three” years to fully get to grips with a new bike. That's time that most riders don’t have on their side, given that contracts are decided early in the second year of a typical two-year deal, or in several cases even before that.

“It’s different [to before],” observed Miller late last year. “I think you need two-three years, and when you’re talking getting well into your 30s, two-three years becomes a long time, unless you’re Valentino Rossi.

“It’s so hard because the biggest thing is understanding how the tyres work on each bike, how each bike works, what are its strengths - and you can’t do that in winter testing. You need racing, you need experience, and it’s kind of hard to do it.”

Jack Miller, Pramac Racing

Jack Miller, Pramac Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

On the other side of the coin, Honda and KTM getting their fingers burned with their high-profile 2019 signings could make manufacturers think twice before throwing big money at their rivals’ riders to try and lure them across, unless they are either proven winners or obvious future megastars like Quartararo.

KTM in particular has made a point of favouring its own home-grown talent by promoting Miguel Oliveira to a MotoGP seat last year and then plumping for Brad Binder and finally Iker Lecuona when Zarco’s early departure opened up another seat at Tech 3.

Its steel trellis-framed RC16 is such a peculiar machine that, as both Zarco and Hafizh Syahrin seemed to prove last year, riders with prior experience of the KTM philosophy further down the grand prix racing ladder – and preferably none of other MotoGP bikes – adapt to it best.

Looking away from the factory teams, most satellite riders likewise appear to be in no real demand from other factories. Cal Crutchlow, assuming he doesn’t retire after this year, appears set to see out his career on a Honda, and it’s likewise almost impossible to imagine Takaaki Nakagami riding for another manufacturer unless his form dramatically improves. The same could be said for Franco Morbidelli (Yamaha), Pecco Bagnaia and Tito Rabat (both Ducati) for their respective factories.

Arguably MotoGP fans have been spoiled by the number of high-profile manufacturer swaps of recent seasons. After Rossi shocked the paddock by abandoning Honda for Yamaha in 2004, fans had to wait until 2009 for any comparable move, as Nicky Hayden swapped Repsol orange for Ducati red. And again, after the double whammy of Casey Stoner joining Honda from Ducati and Rossi throwing in his lot with the Italian marque in 2011, it wasn’t until 2017 that anything of a similar magnitude occurred with Lorenzo jilting Yamaha and jumping into bed with Ducati.

Given the way the 2021 rider market is heading, there could be a similarly long wait in store before we see any of MotoGP’s lead stars take the plunge with a different manufacturer.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Fabio Quartararo, Petronas Yamaha SRT

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Fabio Quartararo, Petronas Yamaha SRT

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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Series MotoGP
Drivers Johann Zarco , Jorge Lorenzo , Andrea Iannone
Author Jamie Klein
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