When it comes to MotoGP, or any other form of motorsport, we at The Race are on the record as being fond of rider transfers. There’s always a real buzz to seeing how an established star adapts to a new environment, how new team-mate pairings come off and how each rider gels with an unfamiliar bike. Even something as simple as seeing a familiar face in new overalls tends to leave a mark.
But with racing being a team sport, just as movement between teams is an indelible part of the show, so too does loyalty become noteworthy. There’s a certain romance to football’s “one-club man”, your Jamie Carragher or Francesco Totti, coming up with a team and choosing to stick with it through the entirety of an accomplished career that would’ve attracted plenty of rival suitors.
However, a football team has a starting 11 and lots more places on the subs bench. A MotoGP manufacturer, on the other hand, tends to have a pair of works bikes and a smattering of factory-supported satellite entries or a roster of privateers. So if a rider manages to stick it out with a single marque for the duration of their career, either the career wasn’t very long nor successful or the bond between the two sides was pretty remarkable.
All of which takes us to Dani Pedrosa. The 35-year-old is joint-fourth in premier-class starts, tied with his late former team-mate Nicky Hayden. But Hayden, and the three riders who have more starts, all raced for more than a single manufacturer.
But that will change on August 8, when he is set to start the Styrian GP on a KTM RC16 he helped develop. Though his career will forever remain intrinsically linked with Honda, in that moment he will cease to be a “one-club man” – and in that same moment his other former team-mate Marc Marquez will suddenly edge much closer to being the most experienced rider who fits under the definition of a manufacturer mainstay.
But first, let’s ruminate further on Pedrosa. It is by itself extraordinary for the Spaniard to have made 217 starts for the same team, over the course of 13 seasons, from the moment he came in as Max Biaggi’s replacement to the end of his full-time MotoGP career. It would not be accurate to say that Pedrosa’s entire MotoGP career was spent in that familiar Repsol colour scheme, for there were a couple of quite memorable one-off liveries, but the familiar image is so deeply embedded that is still jarring, three years on, to see Pedrosa in a different team’s overalls.
Yet consider also that in that time Pedrosa, though a steady source of silverware, was never champion – something that would generally be conducive to prolonging a rider’s stint with a manufacturer – while three of his team-mates were. And consider the freakish amount of injuries that helped keep Pedrosa without a title, and that got so bad that he pondered retirement as early as 2011.
In addition, recall that there were many people – Pedrosa himself included – that were openly curious about how Pedrosa would’ve fared on a Yamaha that seemed better-tailored for his specific style than the Marquez-honed Honda of the latter years. In 2016, Pedrosa was widely understood to be one of Yamaha’s two options to replace Jorge Lorenzo, before Maverick Vinales ultimately got the nod.
If that was a big sliding doors moment for MotoGP, so too was 2018 when Pedrosa had a Petronas Yamaha gig lined up but decided to step away, opening the door to Moto2 longshot Fabio Quartararo.
“The opportunity I had was a great chance,” Pedrosa said when asked why he didn’t take up the offer. “It’s just my feeling, my way of approaching life and racing, and being honest with myself, this [retirement] was the decision.”
By that point, racing on with Honda was no longer an option. That Pedrosa would be replaced was announced as a “mutual” decision before he announced retirement, with then-new team boss Alberto Puig – formerly a manager of Pedrosa’s but clearly no longer retaining the same faith in him – seen as a key figure behind the exit. In any case, Pedrosa’s form on the Honda for most of 2018 warranted no extension.
But though he didn’t choose to race on elsewhere in the moment, Pedrosa’s KTM wildcard will only officially formalise in the record books what was already true – that he was no longer a ‘one-club man’. He was said to have had a Honda test rider offer, but chose to work with KTM instead, a company that was a MotoGP upstart at that point but has never been shy of seeing Honda as its arch rival. It’s like if goalkeeper Iker Casillas passed up the role of back-up goalie for Real Madrid to do the same job not quite for Barcelona, but something like Atletico Madrid.
When Pedrosa takes to the start at the Red Bull Ring, another Honda man – Alex Criville – will become the most experienced rider to spend their whole premier-class career riding for a single manufacturer.
But though all of his 139 starts indeed came on a Honda – first with the customer Pons team and then with the factory outfit – the way his tenure with the Japanese marque ended is not that different to Pedrosa’s.
If Pedrosa’s tenure ended with him signing for KTM and then issuing a pretty stern social media response to some fairly critical comments from team manager Puig to Spanish media, it was still all pretty mild compared to Criville’s exit.
The 1999 500cc champion said Honda threw him “a big farewell party, and then said I should quit racing”, and that it “wouldn’t provide me with a bike – not even in a private team if I was paying – and I think this is ungrateful”.
So Criville went ahead and signed with a Yamaha privateer instead in d’Antin, but was soon sidelined due to fainting spells – and ultimately returned before he could take the Yamaha into battle.
By then he’d at least notched up two starts more than fellow Honda-only premier-class rider and former team-mate Mick Doohan, who’d likewise had to end his career abruptly two years prior.
Doohan – originally picked up by Honda after starring as a Yamaha Superbike rider – was fresh off his fifth title when he suffered leg, shoulder and wrist fractures in a crash. It was the second crash of his 500cc career to cause massive injuries – following on from the near-amputation horror of 1992 – and it was one too many for him to continue.
As it stands, Marquez will jump ahead of Doohan on premier-class starts at Silverstone, and will overtake Criville at Misano. At that point, with Pedrosa having already raced for KTM, he will become the most tenured ‘one-club man’ in MotoGP.
His original arrival to Honda, despite rumblings of a now-unthinkable Yamaha interest, was facilitated by having a common sponsor in Repsol. Because Casey Stoner suddenly elected to retire and MotoGP swiftly dropped the ‘no rookies on factory bikes’ rule, Marquez got to don works colours right away.
It’s very easy to see him keeping those colours until his retirement. There have always been theories about Ducati interest or a Red Bull-encouraged KTM link-up, but Marquez himself has always strongly refuted the suggestion that he needs to win for more than one manufacturer to make sure of his legacy. And last year he put his money – or, well, Honda’s money – where his mouth is by signing through 2024.
“[MotoGP] had many many legends in the past that stayed on the same manufacturer and nothing happened,” Marquez told MotoGP.com after signing that deal, having reiterated that he “doesn’t care” if people feel he needs to leave Honda to add to his legacy.
“I just try to follow my instinct and what I feel, and just to achieve my goals the best manufacturer is Honda HRC, because on the technical side I think they have the best performance and the best power.”
That would be a much harder claim to make in 2021 given Honda’s form – but perhaps that’ll only add to Marquez’s motivation for staying put. And even by 2025 Marquez/Honda will still have a way to go to become the rider/marque MotoGP pairing with the most starts – as, even despite his debut with Honda and dalliance with Ducati, Valentino Rossi has done more races with Yamaha alone than any other rider has in their whole premier-class career.
Pedrosa’s Styrian GP outing, meanwhile, will put him in a similar statistical category to the late Norick Abe, who starred on his debut as a Honda wildcard but spent the remaining 143 premier-class races of his career as a Yamaha rider.
He was a Yamaha-contracted rider still, albeit in Japanese Superbikes, when he perished in a road accident in 2007. By then he had become an indelible part of the marque’s racing history, and helped inspire a young Rossi, this alone surely making Abe worthy of a place in Yamaha’s theoretical hall of fame
Pedrosa, with 31 wins and a hand in seven teams’ titles and eight manufacturers’ titles, is front and centre of Honda’s equivalent, and will remain there even if he suddenly opts for another five years’ worth of KTM races.