MotoGP has entered into an age where hiring/firing a rider before they have even raced is the norm.
The most famous recent example of hiring a rider way before it was even thought of lies in Repsol Honda with both of their 2021 riders of Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro. We will start with Marc Marquez, on the 20th February 2020 before the season had even begun, Honda announced they had signed a 4-year contract with reigning champion Marc Marquez which would see him through to 31/12/2024 and he is estimated to earn €100m in these 4 years with Honda.
The problem here is that he had signed with the team before the season even started, and for 4 years?! Normally contracts run for 2 years, or more recently, 1 year with a +1 year written into the contract based on performance, giving teams an exit strategy if a rider was to underperform. However to sign for 4 years is unheard of, especially as it was announced before the 2020 season had even begun, meaning Marquez had not raced a single race on his 2020 2 year deal which was signed for 2019 and 2020, yet was signing for 4 more years.
A lot can happen in 4 years, Honda could build the worst bike possible (oh wait, they have) and Marquez could hypothetically be running in P20 for the entire 2022 season, but instead of exiting stage left at the end of 2022 which is what would normally happen, he is tied into two more seasons, yes, it is more than likely there are contract clauses in place based on the performance of Marquez and also of Honda, meaning either party can end the deal prematurely, but still, this is a crazy deal.
Looking over to the other side of the garage to Pol Espargaro, this is an even crazier story, Pol Espargaro was also hired by Honda before current rider Alex Marquez had even raced the Repsol Honda, demoting him to LCR Honda before he’d even raced the Repsol ‘thing’. There is an element of truth to the matter that Alex Marquez was signed to replace Jorge Lorenzo for 2020, who was originally intended to race, but following the retirement of Lorenzo, the current Moto2 champion Alex Marquez was hired.
Hiring Pol Espargaro before Alex had raced the bike was crazy, yes Alex has an LCR contract so is still on the Honda books, but what if Espargaro was to have the worst season possible in 2020 on the KTM whilst Alex Marquez took the championship? Honda would have well and truly stabbed themselves in the foot, yes in hindsight it seems like the right move, but there is always that risk.
This risk is being very obviously shown to us by Maverick Vinales who has signed his previous two contracts with Yamaha for the 2019/2020 seasons and now the 2021/2022 seasons before the seasons have started, usually being announced on the day Yamaha present their bike. 2020 is different for Vinales though who despite his race win at Misano 2, is struggling with the Yamaha, performing on Friday and Saturday but disappearing on Sunday, something he has not previously experienced in his career.
Vinales said no to Suzuki and Ducati to sign his 2021/22 contract which in hindsight could have been a mistake, especially given that with Fabio Quartararo’s performances on the Yamaha, the Frenchman could be about to give Vinales a run for his money next season as his teammate, whereas at his first love Suzuki, a bike which suits his style a little bit more, he would’ve been able to re-adjust and likely win on the machine once again. The same with Ducati, Vinales is struggling with power at Yamaha, so Ducati with their Bologna bullet would have been a great choice, but he does not get this choice as he signed too early.
One rider who has done it the ‘right’ way is Valentino Rossi with his ‘old school’ method, racing 7/8 races in the season before signing the deal with Petronas to gauge whether he wanted to race and would be competitive, if he felt he didn’t want to race, no harm done as no-deal signed, but if he wanted to race, he could. The problem is that this method was also his downfall, he wanted to wait 7/8 races in 2020 before signing a new deal, however, COVID-19 delaying things and Yamaha wanting a signature meant that Fabio Quartararo was hired by the team and not Valentino, leaving him without a ride. Rossi was quoted as saying that MotoGP contracts are signed too early, earlier than F1.
It seems that more and more factories are pushing riders into signing deals to make sure of their services for the next season without opposition sniffing around, it is true that Ducati spoke with numerous riders about signing for them such as Alex Rins, Maverick Vinales, Marc Marquez and likely many more, therefore their respective teams had to act fast and sign them up as quick as possible. This method works well for teams currently but is slowly but surely backfiring.
Featured image – www.motogp.com