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The more I listen to Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) and those closest to him, the more I’m convinced he will be in orange livery in the 2021 MotoGP™ World Championship. And not that of KTM, but the famous orange of Repsol Honda. Pol moving to HRC would easily make it my shock transfer of the silly season. If you predicted that back in January, then please pick my lottery numbers this weekend!
It has the shock factor because Pol has been blissfully happy at KTM. And he is genuinely optimistic of consistently fighting in the top six on the fast-improving RC16 when the 2020 MotoGP™ season finally kicks off in Jerez on July 19. Perhaps the biggest shock is the move displaces Alex Marquez without the current Moto2™ World Champion even completing a race lap for HRC.
It might seem extremely harsh on the untried youngest Marquez, but in racing there is little room for sentiment. If hearts ruled heads, Valentino Rossi would not be replaced by Fabio Quartararo in Yamaha’s factory squad next season and Danilo Petrucci would not be job hunting after losing his factory Ducati seat to Jack Miller. I was convinced that Pol was going to HRC the moment I read a short statement from Repsol Honda Team Manager Alberto Puig on motogp.com when the rumour started to gain traction. Alberto is the definition of a no-nonsense character who never hesitates to dismiss idle gossip. It was telling when he didn’t deny the Pol speculation.
Pol Espargaro: "It's the dream bike to fight for a title"
The more you scrutinise an Espargaro/Honda collaboration the more it makes sense. His all-action and aggressive riding style seem a perfect match to the DNA of the Honda RC213V. Pol spoke recently how much his style mirrors Marquez in a DAZN interview in Spain in which he said: “I think Marc and I ride in a similar way, with the weight really off the bike. That helps the bike, even if the steering moves or closes, you can save those falls.”
And he should know. The pair know each other better than they know the back of their own hands. They’ve crossed swords for nearly 20 years and gone from dodging traffic cones, used tyres and hay bales on makeshift car park tracks in Spain to fighting each other for world titles in 125s and Moto2. Will history repeat itself in MotoGP™?
The allure of Repsol Honda is clearly too tempting for Pol. Every rider is enchanted with that team. The name is a byword for success and rouses memories of Doohan, Criville, Rossi, Hayden, Stoner and current MotoGP™ maestro Marquez. In recent days, Pol has only spoken in glowing terms about Repsol Honda and it seems in mind at least he’s already on an RC213V next season.
Let’s be honest. KTM is not a winning bike right now. They’ve made huge strides since 2017 but it’s not yet the package Pol needs to be at the front every week. Pol has just turned 29, so he’s arguably in his prime both physically and mentally and now is the time in his career when he needs to be on a bike capable of winning. It’s now or never. His older brother Aleix said rejecting Honda would be like an F1 driver saying no to Ferrari. In other words, it doesn’t happen. Pol has expressed no desire to quit KTM but there might not be another opportunity like this, so he has to seize it with both hands.
He’s talked recently about a lifelong obsession to fight for the MotoGP™ crown and how riding for Honda or Ducati would be a dream. Saying no would haunt him for the rest of his career and be like a footballer turning down the chance to play alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona. I don’t think Jorge Lorenzo’s chastening experience in 2019 will cloud Pol’s judgement. Lorenzo’s smooth as silk style and inch-perfect precision that made him a modern-day great at Yamaha simply didn’t work on the Honda.
Pol has experienced the flip side of that coin. He moved to MotoGP™ in 2014 onboard the Tech 3 Yamaha but didn’t podium like Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Edwards, Spies, Smith, Folger and Zarco did. Despite a concerted effort, he couldn’t lose his natural instinct to ride ragged and that lack of finesse meant he was always at odds with the YZR-M1.
The KTM RC16 has always had a reputation for being a physically and mentally demanding bike to manhandle. Red Bull by name, rodeo bull by nature. So, the RC213V won’t be a daunting prospect for Pol. The most daunting aspect of the whole deal is pitching his talent against his career long rival in the same team on the same bike. Beating Marquez is not just one of the most difficult tasks in MotoGP™ but in world sport. Consider this astonishing statistic. Marquez amassed a record 420-points in 2019. That was more in 19 races than Dani Pedrosa and Lorenzo collected together in 51 races in the whole of 2017, 2018 and 2019!
Alberto Puig on Honda's Marquez contract decision
Marc fears no man, so he certainly won’t fear Pol. He scored more podiums in two weeks in November last year than Pol has managed in 104 MotoGP™ races over six seasons. A big question is would Marc have been so eager to commit to an unprecedented four-year contract in February had he known then what he does now? It’s certainly a brave move by Puig and senior HRC management to potentially ruffle the feathers of the goose that’s laying the golden egg.
It could be a controversial but canny decision by Honda. MotoGP™ is a results driven business and looking at it purely from a sporting side, HRC needs a strong companion for the first-born Marquez. Marc has become a one-man winning machine, and he makes the tough job of being Honda’s number one rider look as easy as taking candy from a baby. History has shown that Honda need somebody else to come in and shoulder the burden of taking team and constructor glory as well as securing individual success. Four times since Marquez joined HRC in 2013, the points gap between himself and his teammate has been over 100-points. And in his record-breaking 2019, Marc scored 169 points more than all other Honda riders combined.
Pol’s arrival may also take Alex out of the firing line. As teammate to Marc in the most successful team in history, he’d be under unbearable scrutiny. The pressure and expectation will be reduced in LCR and that may enable Alex to flourish faster. Alex won his Moto3™ title at the third attempt and Moto2™ crown last year at the fifth time of asking, which shows he’s a slow burner and needs time to find his feet in new surroundings. That’s time he may not have had as an official factory rider. Had he not delivered results he may have been moved out at the end of 2021. He’s sure to get a two-year contract with LCR, which means he’s at least one more season to prove himself in the premier class.
I’m intrigued to see what happens now to Cal Crutchlow and Taka Nakagami. Honda will soften the blow to Alex by offering him a full factory-spec RC213V in LCR. Crutchlow will only stay on the same technical terms and won’t swallow racing inferior equipment to a relatively inexperienced teammate. But will HRC commit to running four factory bikes in troubled economic times caused by Covid-19? Crutchlow has been linked to both KTM and Aprilia and I’d imagine there are those way above my pay grade who are anxious to keep some British involvement in MotoGP™.
I don’t think Pol is suddenly going to turn into a Marquez-beater and become a Repsol Honda icon. But I’ve seen him fight with blood, sweat and tears to get this opportunity and for that he deserves the chance to live his boyhood dream.
Whatever happens, the future’s bright, the future’s orange for Pol.
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