The dramatic news that Maverick Vinales will depart Yamaha at the end of 2021 has thrown the team’s MotoGP rider plans into chaos.
With the breakdown of the Vinales relationship coming only weeks before the expected confirmation of Valentino Rossi’s retirement at the end of the year, Yamaha has suddenly been left scrabbling to fill seats.
The biggest winner from all this is satellite rider Franco Morbidelli, who is fully expected to step up to the factory ranks alongside former Petronas SRT Yamaha team-mate Fabio Quartararo.
That’s well deserved after an impressive second place in the championship last year, but it means that the Malaysian team now has not one but two seats to fill.
Fortunately for Petronas, it had the prime chance to interview a candidate for the job last weekend, as World Superbike rider Garrett Gerloff replaced Morbidelli following knee surgery.
Given that the chaos about to publicly erupt around Vinales was no doubt known to the team’s management before the decision was taken to stick Gerloff on the bike, it’s hard to see his ride as anything other than an audition – especially given the fact we now believe it was a one-off, with factory test rider Cal Crutchlow expected to take over for the remainder of Morbidelli’s recuperation.
It was a decent weekend for 25-year-old American Gerloff, too.
Not a complete stranger to the M1 after riding in free practice at a wet Valencia last year in lieu of Rossi, then awaiting a negative COVID test, Gerloff was nonetheless very much thrown in at the deep end at Assen.
A newcomer to the track, with grand prix bike experience limited to that day at Valencia and up against a grid who were going into their fourth race in five weeks, the odds were stacked against him, but it’s fair to say that he didn’t really embarrass himself.
Though he qualified in last place, being nearly two seconds off the pole time of fellow Yamaha rider Vinales was not unreasonable given the skills and experience it takes to push for a single flying lap on Michelin’s super impressive MotoGP tyres; quite simply, that’s not something you learn in a day and a half.
In the race itself, he showed potential if not outright speed, making it to the finish line, not coming home in last, and doing it in less than a minute from race winner Quartararo – a gap to the front that only a few years ago would have been perfectly acceptable even for some of the most experienced riders.
However, in the grand scheme of things, results from one weekend where he was thrown into the deep end at Petronas Yamaha might not be the make or break decision maker when it comes to finding a spot for Gerloff on the 2022 MotoGP grid.
He’s currently believed by The Race’s sources to be one of three names potentially in contention for the two Petronas vacancies – and with one of those names in theory being taken off the market this week by his management, things are looking favourable for the American.
The prime candidate to join the team was supposedly fellow Yamaha WSB rider Toprak Razgatlioglu, the Turkish racer who currently sits second in that championship. However, his manager, five-time Supersport world champion Kenan Sofuoglu, has poured cold water on that by taking what can only be described as the latest in a series of irregular decisions he’s made regarding the riders he looks after.
“We’re talking to some MotoGP teams who are interested,” he confirmed to German website Speedweek this week. “I told them that we weren’t very interested in going to the MotoGP World Championship now. Our goal is to stay in the Superbike World Championship. I will probably make the decision this week.
“What I can already say: We are not going to the MotoGP World Championship, Toprak will compete in the Superbike World Championship for the next two years.”
Regardless of Razgatlioglu’s situation, Gerloff has the full backing of MotoGP promoter Dorna. It’s desperately keen to see a US rider back on the MotoGP grid on a full time basis for the first time since Nicky Hayden went to WSB in 2015, and the Texan brings the correct passport to help unlock a crucially important market for the sport.
There’s a reason why there were persistent rumours linking American Moto2 rider Joe Roberts to the second seat at Aprilia until Vinales stole it out from under him.
But, with Gerloff already having Yamaha links, having experience with the team and the bike, and with Roberts having a tough start to the Moto2 season, he could well be left regretting turning Aprilia down at the end of 2020.
The same nationality consideration arguably applies to the other side of the Petronas box too, with Dorna also keen for a Brit on the grid after Crutchlow’s retirement from full-time racing.
British rider Jake Dixon has been tipped for quite some time as the departing Rossi’s replacement.
Already a part of the Petronas team in its Moto2 ranks, his own tough start to the year in the middleweight class initially prompted doubts about a move up – but with the Vinales news, Dixon has once again come to the fore.