While late rider switches dominated the MotoGP headlines towards the end of 2019, it means focus on the 2021 silly season has sharpened and could erupt earlier than ever.

With next year’s grid now officially complete, following the formal announcement on Johann Zarco replacing Karel Abraham at Avintia Ducati, attention has already been turning towards 2021 when every rider on the MotoGP is out of contract next year (with the unusual exception of Tito Rabat).

Key to triggering rider market movements will be the two biggest names on grid, albeit with different factors surrounding them: Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi.

Marquez is the hottest property out there with every team, with the exception of Yamaha, willing to offer the world to the eight-time world champion. But given Honda has taken to crafting its MotoGP machine to his needs, often at the expense of its other riders, and his allegiance to the Japanese manufacturer it seems unlikely the 26-year-old would jump ship at this stage of his career.

What should sweeten the situation is welcoming younger brother Alex Marquez to the Repsol Honda fold as Jorge Lorenzo’s replacement, demonstrating the team’s commitment to their star rider by building the team and his team-mate to his requests.

After utterly dominating MotoGP in 2019 the onus is on his rivals to catch Marquez equipped with a Honda and if he is to stay put it remains a win-win with minimal risk involved for all parties.

On the other side of the big-hitters situation is what the future holds for Rossi. The iconic Italian will be 41 at the start of the upcoming season and if retirement talk became unwanted background chatter before he put pen to paper on his last contract the noise will be deafening at the start of next year.

Two years ago Rossi signed his 2019-2020 Yamaha deal before the 2018 campaign had even started and the nine-time world champion has already said he wants to use testing and the opening rounds to gauge Yamaha’s competitiveness before making a call on his future.

The longer it takes Rossi to make a firm decision the greater the anxiety will grow at Yamaha, if purely from a marketing point of view, but the Iwata team’s advantage is its relative strength in depth in rider stock.

If Fabio Quartararo continues his rapid rise in 2020 a factory spot will beckon and with Maverick Vinales still in the picture Yamaha should have clear options even if one of its star riders stepped away.

Regardless of Rossi’s future there is a clear sense the VR46 brand won’t be leaving the paddock anytime soon with many expecting Rossi to front up a team when he retires from MotoGP.

Given the axing of Marc VDS and Aspar from the premier class last year, a grid slot is available for a new team in the future and while expanding to six bikes could pose a challenge Yamaha may prefer to bring Rossi and the VR46 brand directly within the factory team.

Ducati’s dilemma

Another manufacturer with plenty of options will be Ducati. The contrasting form and fortunes between Jack Miller and Danilo Petrucci over the second half of 2019 saw speculation grown that the pair might be switched for 2020 and such rumours are only likely to increase next year.

All four of Ducati’s front-line riders – the factory pair and the Pramac duo – have equal machinery racing GP20s next year so direct comparisons will be unavoidable. While Andrea Dovizioso has been rightly credited with helping transform Ducati from strugglers to title contenders, finding that next step to beat Marquez consistently over a season has proven elusive for three consecutive years.

In a young man’s game, time isn’t on Dovizioso’s side either as he turns 34 early into the 2020 season. Yes, there is a certain Rossi who is still on the MotoGP grid and eight years his senior but few would expect anyone to match Rossi’s longevity.

Dovizioso has also grown frustrated at the relative lack of progress in Ducati’s key weaknesses (turning and corner speed) which has revealed small cracks between its most experienced rider and technical team headed up by Gigi Dall’Igna.

But away from Ducati, Dovizioso’s options appear limited and risky; namely KTM or Aprilia. While retirement shouldn’t be assumed if the Italian comes to a crossroads with Ducati in 2020, it’s an option which could creep into view.

In the other half of the factory Ducati garage, pressure remains firmly on Petrucci given his shocking drop in performances since the summer break this year. If either Italian rider were to leave the factory Ducati fold a promotion for Miller would become the logical step – unless Francesco Bagnaia pulls off a blinding start to 2020 and leapfrogs the Australian.

Given Zarco’s official confirmation as a factory-contracted Ducati rider for 2020 came in so late, coupled with an ankle injury sustained in Valencia, few can confidently predict how the French rider will perform next year with the GP19. But if a standout year is to follow then Zarco’s name couldn’t be discounted from the Ducati rider configuration.

The pack continues to shuffle

Cal Crutchlow has made no secret he’s weighing up his own future in the sport beyond 2020 and while still competitive and on a strong package at LCR Honda his body has taken a battering while reasons to stay at home are growing stronger.

The 34-year-old rider may eventually need surgery to remove a plate in his ankle which is caused him extensive pain, a result of his nasty crash at Phillip Island in 2018, while a young family and a longer and travel-intensive season isn’t a suitable match.

If a spot is to open up at LCR Honda, it’ll be an attractive option for a rider capable of taming the RC213V.

Another rider whose days appear numbered within the MotoGP is Andrea Iannone who enters a second season at Aprilia in 2020. Results have been hard to come by, while the Noale factory is undergoing its own rigorous changes overseen by CEO Massimo Rivola, with a cheaper, younger and hungrier rider likely to be fancied over Iannone.

Given Iannone’s age and record he isn’t set to be a hot property to the rest of the MotoGP grid given he’s ‘been there and done that’ at Ducati and Suzuki already in his career.

Suzuki’s commitment to youth has paid off in recent seasons and unless a major rival came sniffing for Alex Rins or Joan Mir both would be expected to stay put given the lack of stronger alternatives.

KTM’s investment in youth

Given the average rider age at KTM in 2020 will be 24 and with two rookies in Brad Binder and Iker Lecuona there’s a relative unknown package to come from the Austrian brand next year.

Having built up its young rider programme, promoting Binder and Oliveira from its Moto2 squad in consecutive years, if one of its rookie riders seriously fails to deliver Jorge Martin will be waiting in the wings in 2021.

Given the recent rise of MotoGP youngsters finding instant success – Quartararo, Rins and Mir as prime examples – team managers will have early candidates in mind from the Moto2 ranks.

The bulk of the Moto2 grid has committed to one-year deals for 2020 with MotoGP opportunities in mind. Remy Gardner turned down a KTM offer knowing more options would be open trying to secure his future in 2020.

The intermediate class hosts a wealth of up-and-coming talents desperate to impress next season but predicting who will breakthrough and then succeed is one of the tougher tasks facing the talent-scouting MotoGP teams.

But given the eruption of moves triggered by Lorenzo’s retirement just days before the season finale it shows (almost) anything is possible and the true picture for 2021 won’t be nailed down until they all line-up on the grid for round one.

 

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