Where now for the Rossi protege who spurned a MotoGP seat? - The Race
MotoGP

Where now for the Rossi protege who spurned a MotoGP seat?

Feb 20 2021
By Valentin Khorounzhiy

The riders that were believed to be on Aprilia’s 2021 MotoGP shortlist – which the team had to accelerate its work on when Andrea Iannone’s doping appeal failed emphatically – fell somewhat neatly into two main categories.

There were the big names: MotoGP race-winning duo Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow, headed towards the exit door at Ducati and Honda respectively.

Dovizioso was the priority target, publicly courted by both team management and lead rider Aleix Espargaro, but never seemed anywhere near convinced and eventually settled on a sabbatical.

Crutchlow sounded more keen at first, but finally decided his time had come to step away from full-time racing, and took up a Yamaha test role.

Amid all that, there were shortlived links to three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo, too.

Then there were the curios – Ducati World Superbike outcast Chaz Davies and one-time Moto2 podium finisher Joe Roberts, both mooted with the potential of handing MotoGP a boost in a major TV market (the UK and the USA respectively) but both falling through.

And finally there was Marco Bezzecchi, sounded out by Aprilia seemingly right before the Roberts approach and apparent u-turn.

Bezzecchi doesn’t really fit either of the above categories, but pursuing him was certainly much closer to a no-brainer than a surprise decision.

Yet he also turned down the factory MotoGP seat offered to him, preferring to stick with the Valentino Rossi-owned VR46 team in Moto2 instead of punching the Aprilia ticket to the premier class.

“It doesn’t happen often that someone refuses an offer from MotoGP, but it came very late in the season and I already had my plans in mind for 2021, what I wanted to reach,” Bezzecchi said.

Marco Bezzecchi

“I wanted to stay within this team, and try to really compete for the championship.

“When this [Aprilia] offer came, it was a really nice moment for me because I didn’t expect it. But I needed to think in depth about my future.

“I hope to do very well this season so that hopefully other doors open for me in the future, maybe even next season.

Lorenzo Savadori Aprilia Valencia MotoGP 2020

“Of course Aprilia would have been very cool because it’s an Italian brand, an Italian bike, and it would have been a chance to develop a fresh bike and to build a bike to my liking.

“But at the same time, I need to be reasonable and to work well to open more doors for my future.”

It must take a lot of self-confidence to turn down a MotoGP ride, given it’s the natural end-all and be-all for anyone in the system of classes below. Yet in Bezzecchi’s case there are very few who would deem his confidence unearned.

Marco Bezzecchi

Last year was Bezzecchi’s second in Moto2, and he finished fourth in the championship. Based on precedent from the series’ recent years, that’s the kind of result that virtually guarantees you’ll get your premier-class chance sooner or later.

But for Bezzecchi the context is better still. In terms of grand prix racing starts, he was comfortably the least experienced of the top six in the intermediate class standings. And he was in outside title contention to the very end, finishing just 21 points off the title.

Considering he shunted at Aragon while leading on the penultimate lap, it is no stretch to say Bezzecchi really could’ve been the 2020 Moto2 champion. And though he wasn’t, the campaign was surely enough to cement him as the hottest young prospect outside of MotoGP.

But what does that mean for a premier-class graduation next year? What are the ‘doors’ he’s expecting to be opened?

If Bezzecchi puts together even what is a baseline respectable follow-up Moto2 season in 2021, it seems logical he should be on the MotoGP grid in 2022, but it might not be as simple as that.

Valencia MotoGP 2020

The next off-season is midway through the usual two-year factory contract cycles, so that immediately takes the likes of Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha off the board.

Ducati and KTM have seemingly left the door ajar for possible changes in ‘21, with none of their riders officially signed through ‘22, but changes seem unlikely – and in any case both marques already have pretty obvious replacement candidates with significant MotoGP experience on the books.

Then there’s Aprilia, which has Aleix Espargaro on a two-year deal but is moving forward with one of its test riders, Bradley Smith or Lorenzo Savadori, alongside him.

Given the extensive if unsuccessful effort the team made to recruit from outside during last year, the Smith/Savadori plan is clearly a stopgap – and it’d be wise to try for Bezzecchi again for ‘22.

But Bezzecchi’s comments suggest he has his eye on other opportunities, and these surely must be among the satellite rides (albeit ones that would probably come with some sort of works deal). And the complication there is that MotoGP’s post-’21 satellite team landscape is still murky.

Oct 05 : Why MotoGP is heading for a teams shake-up in 2022

What is known is that MotoGP is keen to partner each of its six manufacturers with a single satellite team, and that a full VR46 entry might be in play after its ‘toe in the water’ single-bike debut with Avintia Ducati this year.

If VR46 does arrive, that should in theory be a no-brainer for Bezzecchi, but logic dictates the team would come as a Yamaha customer – and seat availability would therefore depend on the plans of Valentino Rossi and fellow VR46 protege Franco Morbidelli.

It would also mean the Petronas SRT team moving elsewhere, probably Suzuki, which would be one special combination for a MotoGP rookie given the success both the team and the manufacturer had apart last year.

Looking from the outside, there’s also maybe some logic to a Bezzecchi Tech3 reunion, even though his debut Moto2 season with the team was made complicated by the issues KTM was having with its intermediate-class package.

That is unlikely to have soured Bezzecchi on working with a Tech3 KTM in the future, and 2020 showed it’s a team to be reckoned with. But energy drink sponsorship considerations might come into play here – VR46 is a Monster Energy joint, which would complicate any venture into the Red Bull-friendly KTM camp (unless Bezzecchi was to strike out on his own).

Remy Gardner

And anyway he’d have to make a much stronger case than Remy Gardner (pictured above), who KTM will have in its factory-supported intermediate-class team this year and who is already rumoured to have some sort of MotoGP option in place for ‘22.

All of the above is contingent on Bezzecchi having a good third year in Moto2, or at least a good start to it – as MotoGP does like to get its deals signed well in advance.

Of last year’s top five in the intermediate class, three are now MotoGP riders, leaving Bezzecchi and Sam Lowes – who already was one a few years back but hopes to be one again, and showed fantastic form in late 2020 before an injury derailed his title romp.

Marco Bezzecchi, Moto2

“For sure Lowes is very, very strong, last year he showed how much he can be fast, but I think in Moto2 many, many riders can fight for the win and for the title,” Bezzecchi said.

“I hope to be one of them but for the moment I’m waiting for the first test and just concentrating on myself.”

Bezzecchi and Lowes aside, there are the likes of Fabio Di Giannantonio, Augusto Fernandez, Tom Luthi, Lorenzo Baldassarri and Jorge Navarro – all past Moto2 frontrunners who had an off year in 2021. And then there’s of course Gardner and Roberts, and ‘20 rookie of the year Aron Canet (pictured below).

Aron Canet

But Bezzecchi probably doesn’t need to dominate all of them – he needs to be there or thereabout, and past accomplishments should take care of the rest.

The speed is already clearly there, and he says he’s working on the mental side, after feeling “nervous” during a terrible second weekend of the Aragon double-header last year.

“Emotionally I’m going to need to be more calm, and I think Pablo [Nieto, team boss] will help me on that, but our job is about making mistakes, then learning and moving forward,” Bezzecchi said.

Bezzecchi is clearly on the right track, one that will make rejecting a ‘21 Aprilia promotion a mere footnote in his CV. But he will also hopefully have made that decision knowing there are no guarantees in racing, and especially in intermediate-class racing.

While the promotion rate of Moto2 frontrunners to MotoGP is super-high, it was Navarro who Bezzecchi succeeded as the fourth-place finisher in a Moto2 championship. And Navarro followed up his breakout fourth-place season with a really bad 2020, which means he doesn’t really feature in any premier-class conversations as it stands.

Bezzecchi’s situation is different, and his VR46 Kalex package is very different to Navarro’s moody Speed Up. But timing is everything, and a second MotoGP offer may never come if his Moto2 form tails off.

The 22-year-old Italian is taking a gamble that it won’t. It looks a well-calculated gamble at that, but as with all of them it will be proven right or wrong down the line.

Marco Bezzecchi

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