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By Matt Birt

Everything to play for: 2018 leaves a lot to be decided

Matt Birt explores 'silly season' and what the grid could look like next year

Matt’s passion for motorcycle sport began back in 1980 when he started attending speedway events as a seven-year-old. He started in journalism aged 17, joining the editorial team of a local newspaper near his home in the UK. He became Sports Editor before joining UK-based Motor Cycle News in 1996 as Off-Road reporter. He was then quickly promoted to the role of Road Race Reporter after just three months. Matt attended his first Grand Prix at Jerez in 1996 and spent 19 years at Motor Cycle News before joining Dorna’s MotoGP™ commentary team for the 2015 World Championship season.

A wheel hasn’t been turned in anger in 2018, but how next year’s MotoGP™ grid will form has already dominated headlines.

Maverick Viñales blinked first, with a new two-year deal with Movistar Yamaha inked in January. Given his frustration at a troubled pre-season, some may argue Viñales was too hasty. But his decision is entirely understandable. Letting talks drag on unnecessarily would expose Viñales to a barrage of questions about his future in the early races and he didn’t want anything to become a distraction.

The same can be said for Marc Marquez, who completed another huge piece of the 2019 puzzle when he signed a two-year extension with HRC last month.

So, where’s the market at now?

It’s a case of when and not if Valentino Rossi agrees to race on past his 40th birthday. He’s going nowhere.

Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha era

Dani Pedrosa could be vulnerable at Repsol Honda unless he has a barnstorming start. He’ll be 33 by the end of the campaign and HRC may feel it’s time to bring in fresh blood if Pedrosa’s early challenge stutters. There, Alex Marquez and Joan Mir are two names to crop up. But I’ve a suspicion HRC might still make a big play for Johann Zarco. If Pedrosa is to keep his seat, he may have to swallow a one-year deal.

Silly season got silly when bombshell news of the split between Tech 3 and Yamaha was announced recently. We now know Tech 3 will align with KTM running full factory machinery in 2019. The big question of the Tech 3 KTM collaboration is what happens now to Zarco, who is MotoGP’s hottest property?

The assurance that Tech 3 will have the same spec machinery as KTM’s factory team may persuade Zarco to remain with the French squad. That way he has the factory bike with full technical support he craves and deserves and he can stay in a team he loves. Red Bull certainly have the spending power to tempt Zarco into its factory team, but I get the impression he’s more worried about his crew and team than the size of his bank balance. Should Zarco move to Red Bull KTM, then I can see the two Tech 3 seats being taken by Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder or Hafizh Syahrin.

The Tech 3 split from Yamaha leaves two very competitive bikes vacant. Rossi’s imminent renewal puts plans to run his own squad on the backburner until 2021 at the earliest. Alma Pramac has a long-standing relationship with Ducati, as does LCR with Honda.

The outstanding candidate of those left is Marc VDS Racing. It’s no secret that team boss Michael Bartholemy has been in long discussions with Suzuki about running a new independent team for the Japanese brand in 2019, and an outstanding pre-season by Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone makes the GSX-RR option look even more enticing. But I’m sure Rossi would not be upset to see Franco Morbidelli, VR46 Academy’s first World Champion, on a YZR-M1 in 2019.

Is there a long-term future though for a current independent team with Yamaha? Yamaha has never expressed interest in running more than four bikes. And Tech 3 were always told that Rossi will have priority when he wants to move into MotoGP team ownership.

New deals at Ducati for Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo seem a formality. The latter may be looking at a significant pay cut though unless he can find a way to get more confident on the GP18. But whatever money Ducati saves on Lorenzo can be filtered to Dovizioso, who justifies a big pay hike after his surprise title challenge last season. I can’t see either of them making way for Danilo Petrucci. He put himself in the shop window before anybody else in January with a declaration that 2018 will be his last in Alma Pramac.

Petrucci and Bagnaia: Ciabatti on the future

Ducati can take up an option on Petrucci for its factory team for 2019 by the end of June, but a more likely destination for him could well be Aprilia. He talked with them at length last summer before repaying the loyalty Ducati has shown him. Suzuki are also understood to be closely monitoring his situation.

With testing over and Qatar looming large, it’s time for less talk and more action in 2018. As for 2019, there’s still plenty of talking to be done.

The 2018 MotoGP™ season starts soon, when we'll begin getting some anwers to these questions...So make sure you catch all the action, from all the angles, on the MotoGP™ VideoPass.