Satellite teams: From 'filling the grid' to title dreams

Herve Poncharal charts the rising importance of satellite teams in the MotoGP world championship.
Herve Poncharal, Lucio Cecchinello, Razlan Razali, Carlo Merlini, Paolo Campinoti, Pablo Nieto, Emilia-Romagna MotoGP, 22 October 2021
Herve Poncharal, Lucio Cecchinello, Razlan Razali, Carlo Merlini, Paolo…
© Gold and Goose

After a nine-year drought, seven satellite riders have won 13 MotoGP races over the past six seasons.

While the switch from 990cc to fickle, electronic-dependent 800cc machines had killed-off the Independent victories in 2007, the losing streak then continued long after the change back to 1000cc engines for 2012.

It took until the introduction of a single ECU system in 2016, combined with the gradual upgrading of satellite spec machinery by the factories (a push/pull mix of pressure from Dorna and IRTA, plus the benefit of acquiring extra track data) to return satellite riders to the top.

Assen 2016 saw Jack Miller become the first non-factory winner since Toni Elias at Estoril 2006, but the soaking wet conditions meant it wasn't until fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow claimed a pair of victories later that season that the satellites were considered a true race-winning force once again.

The highpoint was reached last season, when satellites won more than half of the races (8/14), led the standings with Fabio Quartararo and eventually finished second in the world championship with his SRT team-mate Franco Morbidelli.

It was also the first season since the start of the four-stroke MotoGP era in 2002 where more than one brand of satellite bike took victory, with Miguel Oliveira also winning two races for KTM.

This season wasn't so successful for the Independents, but Johann Zarco led the world championship standings for Pramac Ducati and rookie team-mate Jorge Martin made history with Ducati's first non-factory victory.

Ducati thus joined Honda, Yamaha and KTM in celebrating a MotoGP-era satellite win.

Herve Poncharal's Tech3 squad entered the premier-class as the reigning 250cc world champions in 2001 and went on to spearhead the Independent challenge during the barren 2007-2015 satellite seasons, using Yamaha M1s.

Despite having the highest-ranked satellite rider eight times, more than any other team since 2002, it took until 2020 for Tech3 to finally achieve premier-class victories with Oliveira and KTM.

The Frenchman said the perception of satellite teams by the factories has steadily changed over the last ten years and they are no longer seen as 'a weight' on the manufacturer's shoulders, while paying for bikes that would otherwise be sent to the 'scrapyard'.

"The level of the satellite, Independent operations has been increasing a lot," Poncharal said. "I would say a decade ago we were here to 'fill the grid' and the manufacturers were seeing us like a weight on their shoulders.

"They had to do it to have a proper grid but [the attitude of the manufacturers] was mainly, 'Okay, you've got the [older bikes] that were supposed to go to the scrapyard, give us some money for it. But you do your job and we are fighting for the championship'.

"Now, we've been winning races last year. Razlan [Razali, SRT] did it. This year Paolo [Campinoti, Pramac]. In the past, Lucio {Cecchinelli, LCR]. We can see that the work we’ve done, together with Dorna and IRTA, pushing MSMA [manufacturers' association] has been very, very productive.

"You don’t have satellite riders or factory riders now; everybody is on the same level. Most of the satellite riders are contracted by the factories. It says 'factory racing' on my jacket.

"All that we've been working for over the past ten years has been maturing and we've reached where we wanted to reach. I would like to thank everybody for this. It's a different scenario now and it's not crazy to think a satellite rider could win the championship."

Sete Gibernau remains the most successful satellite rider of the MotoGP era, winning eight races and finishing title runner-up twice for Gresini Honda in 2003 and 2004.

Gibernau (2004) has been followed by Crutchlow (2018), Quartararo (2020) and Zarco (2021) in leading the world championship as a satellite rider…

Satellite MotoGP race wins per season 
YearRace WinsWinning RidersTop satellite Championship pos.
20211Martin5th (Zarco, Pramac Ducati)
20208Quartararo, Morbidelli, Oliveira2nd (Morbidelli, SRT Yamaha)
2019005th (Quartararo, SRT Yamaha)
20181Crutchlow6th (Zarco, Tech3 Yamaha)
2017006th (Zarco, Tech3 Yamaha)
20163Crutchlow, Miller7th (Crutchlow, LCR Honda)
2015006th (Smith, Tech3 Yamaha)
2014006th (P. Espargaro, Tech3 Yamaha)
2013005th (Crutchlow, Tech3 Yamaha)
2012004th (Dovizioso, Tech3 Yamaha)
2011006th (Simoncelli, LCR Honda)
2010006th (Spies, Tech3 Yamaha)
2009005th (Edwards, Tech3 Yamaha)
2008005th (Dovizioso, JiR/Scot Honda)
2007005th (Melandri, Gresini Honda)
20064Melandri, Elias4th (Melandri, Gresini Honda)
20053Melandri, Barros2nd (Melandri, Gresini Honda)
20047Gibernau, Biaggi, Tamada2nd (Gibernau, Gresini Honda)
20036Gibernau, Biaggi2nd (Gibernau, Gresini Honda)
20022Barros4th (Barros, Pons Honda)

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