Ducati’s Miller drama, a famous name at risk and a title twist: MotoGP rider market analysed

The 2022–23 MotoGP silly season already had the potential to be one of the silliest in recent years, but Suzuki’s sudden decision to withdraw from the premier class blew that all apart.

With only four riders signed up, 20 riders still uncontracted and two fewer bikes to argue over — at least for now — the rider market is set to flick into overdrive as we hurtle towards the midseason, by which time the top seats will likely be taken and anyone still standing will be forced to make some difficult decisions.

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We’re six rounds in with 15 still to go. Here’s the state of play.

Quartararo sets fastest time in return | 00:58

SAFE AND SIGNED

Marc Márquez, Brad Binder, Francesco Bagnaia and Franco Morbidelli

These are the lucky four who’ll be able to watch the freneticism from the sidelines.

Marc Márquez is in the thick of a four-year Honda deal running until the end of 2024. Brad Binder is on a three-year deal as KTM’s lead rider, also to the end of the 2024 season. Francesco Bagnaia renewed terms earlier this year after a strong 2021, likewise until 2024.

The odd one out here is Franco Morbidelli, and not simply because his two-year deal takes him to 2023, out of sync with the rest.

He‘s the only one of the three whose future is under any kind of cloud.

Morbidelli has failed to recapture his title runner-up form of 2020 since returning from knee surgery last year and is being trounced by teammate Fabio Quartararo.

He‘s admitted his long-term deal is shielding him from contract speculation, but it also sounds like patience is running out at Yamaha, and you must wonder how that relationship might cope if he can’t improve his results.

Honda Spanish rider Marc Marquez leaves the box during the first practice session of the MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)Source: AFP

THE KEY PIECE

Fabio Quartararo

All year Fabio Quartararo has threatened to walk away from Yamaha for its underpowered 2022 bike, and his manager escalated matters last month when he confirmed he was talking with other teams — although he added he wasn’t entertaining offers, only scoping options.

Rumours placed the reigning champion in a blockbuster switch to Honda, where Pol Espargaró is out of favour. It would be a fascinating partnership with Marc Márquez, especially if the Spaniard weren’t fully comfortable on the bike by next season. One wonders whether HRC could actually commit to managing it.

But passions have cooled a little since Quartararo‘s 2022 breakthrough win in Portugal — perhaps he’s remembered that the M1 has redeemable qualities and, in turn, reconsidered the risks to his career trajectory of swapping bikes given how different the riding profiles are among the manufacturers. Whatever the reason, Speedweek reported during the Spanish Grand Prix that the deal was as good as done.

Rider and team deny it, but Yamaha suddenly sounds more confident that it can get its champion’s signature by midseason — roughly in line with the second in-season test, which will give Quartararo a chance to consider how likely the Japanese marque is to hit his performance demands for next season.

Yamaha will move heaven and earth to retain him and sounds likely to succeed — but suddenly it wouldn’t be the ultimate disaster if he packed up for greener pastures. After all, there’s another world champion on the market.

Fabio Quartararo’s holding the ace. Photo by Javier Soriano / AFPSource: AFP

THE SUDDENLY FREE AGENTS

Joan Mir and Álex Rins

Joan Mir and Álex Rins are the huge wildcards of the silly season. While both were potentially in play anyway, the fact they both now need seats — and will surely get them considering their pedigree — has the potential to mix things up dramatically.

Mir is caught up in a triangular between Quartararo and Pol Espargaró, though with Fabio increasingly likely to stay put, Honda will be his priority — and he’ll be Honda’s, especially now he’d likely come cheaper with less leverage.

HRC hasn’t been convinced by Espargaró in his second year, and you can’t really blame the Japanese marque, even if its bike is underperforming. Since his season-opening podium the Spaniard’s finished in the top 10 just once, and Márquez continues to have his measure despite his ongoing fitness issues and discomfort on the bike.

Álex Rins’s situation is less clear, though he’s chosen a good season to have outgrown his crash-prone ways. He’d similarly be a good choice for a Yamaha vacancy, but in the circumstances that’ll likely lead to RNF, where Andrea Dovizioso’s superannuation tour has so far struggled badly for traction.

But considering the Italian veteran’s bike is funded by Yamaha, Rins might be a tempting enough carrot to entice Iwata to juggle Morbidelli back to the satellite team, thereby making room for the Spaniard at the factory squad.

MotoGP is as much mental as physical, and Morbidelli was at his best at what was then the Sepang Racing Team in 2020, finishing a close second in the championship standings. It may be in everyone’s best interests for him to recapture that headspace in a fresh start for 2023.

Joan Mir could break the market. Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP.Source: AFP

APRILIA’S GROWING PAINS

Aleix Espargaró, Maverick Viñales

Aprilia’s arrival as a legitimate force has shone a spotlight on its 2023 line-up, but negotiations to renew both riders — which is the team’s desire, per Massimo Rivola — have hit a snag.

Aleix Espargaró revealed last month after winning the Argentine Grand Prix that he “the first talks they have with my manager were really disappointing; I feel very sad, because we are completely far [on terms]”.

His hand has been strengthened at least a little by his two podiums since, and the Spaniard has highlighted — and fair enough — that he’s one of the few riders who didn’t turn the Noale project down when the RS-GP was pootling around at the back of the grid. It’s also not clear who else would be willing to headline for the team, so it’d be a surprise if they didn’t eventually renew.

In the other garage, Maverick Viñales chose a poor week to express his desire to consider all his options before locking in another year at Aprilia, having been confounded by his inability to match his teammate’s podium performances so far this season.

“I try different bikes; I feel myself very strong also with another bike,” he said.

“Your objective is only one (to win), and if you’re not doing it, you think, ‘It’s myself, it’s the bike, it’s the team, I don’t know, blah blah blah’.

“When I try another bike that [in theory] should not be at the same level, I’m same fast or more, so this honestly makes me very calm.”

Aprilia may decide against exercising its option on him too early and likewise play the market.

The second Espargaró brother, for example, seems likely to be a free agent at the end of the year and would bring working knowledge from Honda with him as well as the promise of less erratic performances — a speculative gamble but one worth considering.

Aleix Espargaró is a contender. Photo by Javier Soriano / AFP.Source: AFP

DUCATI’S DILEMMA

Jack Miller, Jorge Martin, Enea Bastianini and Johann Zarco

Jack Miller’s got used to speculation about his series of one-year Ducati deals, but whereas previously his trajectory was towards the factory team, it now seems to be leading him inexorably away from it.

Rumours had it that ever since he was beaten by Pecco Bagnaia last year he’s been warming the seat for Pramac’s Jorge Martin, 2021’s runaway dux rookie.

True, a little heat’s gone out of the Martin hype train after three DNFs and a non-score in six races, but four front-row starts, including two pole positions, assured Ducati the Spaniard hasn’t suddenly lost his speed, and when Borgo Panigale has its heart set on something, there tends to be little chance of change. Anyway, it’s easier to stop a quick rider from crashing that to speed up a slow one.

Miller is openly content with the prospect of a return to Pramac, with which he scored nine podiums and where he knows he’ll receive factory-spec machinery. It’d be a step down from factory status, but only a small one.

But his future is complicated by Enea Bastianini, who is Ducati’s lead rider on the championship table despite racing a year-old Gresini and is the season’s only repeat winner, and Johann Zarco, the other Pramac incumbent, whose two podiums and a pole position are mounting a strong argument for retention.

Ducati says it’s eager to keep Miller, but it’s unlikely he’d consider taking two steps down to Gresini, where he’d be in the factory’s outer orbit at best.

It’s why his management is reportedly talking to LCR about a reunion with his MotoGP alma mater.

Jack Miller’s got options. Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP.Source: AFP

RIDERS AT RISK

Takaaki Nakagami, Álex Márquez, Pol Espargaró, Andrea Dovizioso and Luca Marini

LCR seems increasingly likely to field a new rider line-up next season. Takaaki Nakagami, after five MotoGP campaigns without a podium, is all out of chances on the Idemitsu-backed bike, and his compatriot Ai Ogura is building a head of steam in his second Moto2 campaign.

The other seat is open and potentially up for grabs too, with Alex Márquez yet to fire in the premier class.

“Of course the decision to continue with Álex depends on the performance, and I don’t hide that we are under our targets,” LCR boss Lucio Cecchinello told The Race.

“If for some reason we continue to have difficulties to perform in the top 10 and making some highlights in the top five, then we will analyse the reasons and together with Honda we will take a decision.”

It remains to be seen how influential Marc Márquez might be in swaying the team in his brother’s favour, but even the famous name can earn Álex so many chances if other riders were to make themselves available.

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Pol Espargaró is the man under most pressure for the sheer number of quality riders on the market and the allure of the Honda bike, even if it’s proving troublesome this season. As mentioned, HRC doesn’t seem committed enough to fight for him in these circumstances, and it might take someone picking up the abandoned Suzuki slots for him not to be caught standing when the music stops.

Andrea Dovizioso’s MotoGP comeback is feeling more painful by the round, and though he always needed time to get back into the groove after almost a year off and after having ridden a Ducati for almost a decade, every blitzing by Quartararo surely pushes him a little closer to a permanent exit.

Finally, Luca Marini’s future depends on Moto2 VR46 stablemate Celestino Vietti. The 20-year-old Italian is leading the championship in his second year in the intermediate class, and if Valentino Rossi decides he’s ready for a premier-class promotion, it’s hard to see how he’ll manage it without squeezing out his half-brother, who hasn’t been able to follow his fellow 2021-class rookies up the grid this season.

Is this the end of the line for Andrea Dovizioso? Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP.Source: AFP

LIKELY TO STAY

Miguel Oliveira, Remy Gardner, Raúl Fernández, Marco Bezzecchi, Fabio di Giannantonio and Darryn Binder

Miguel Oliveira, one of five winners this season, has the confidence of the team despite his up-and-down form, with KTM boss Francesco Guidotti telling the MotoGP website last month that, “We trust in him, he believes in the project and I don’t think there will be any problem to go ahead together”.

It helps that both Remy Gardner and Raúl Fernández, 2021 Moto2 champion and runner-up respectively, have taken their time getting up to speed in the premier class with Tech3 KTM, limiting the pressure on the Portuguese rider.

They’ve been good enough so far to hold on though, especially with Pedro Acosta’s slow start to his Moto2 campaign. And despite Fernández’s lukewarm relationship with KTM after advances from Yamaha last year, he hasn’t exactly popped at the start of his MotoGP career in the way he did in the intermediate class, and his attitude has limited his prospects, especially with Suzuki‘s two riders on the market limiting his bargaining power.

At VR46 Marco Bezzecchi is the clear rookie of the year so far, with three pointscores in four races in another example of a young rider performing strongly on a year-old Ducati. He’s sure to have earnt himself an up-to-date bike next year as Valentino Rossi’s flagship rider.

Finally, rookie Darryn Binder is likely to hold his seat at RNF, even if he’s struggled since his superb 10th in the wet in Indonesia. His attitude is good, and given the team believed in him enough to promote him directly from Moto3, it’ll surely give him another year to consolidate himself.

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Ducati’s Miller drama, a famous name at risk and a title twist: MotoGP rider market analysed

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