The Suzuki exit bombshell has suddenly left two top MotoGP riders needing to make a 2023 change that they hadn’t planned on – but the quality of those two means that when the music stops, it’ll be almost certainly someone else left without a chair to sit in.
And there’s one name that sticks out. Just as Joan Mir’s apparent intent to re-sign with Suzuki before the shock news would’ve significantly shored up Pol Espargaro’s chances of remaining with Honda beyond 2022, so too will Suzuki’s impending withdrawal inevitably hurt his negotiating position.
Mir’s manager Paco Sanchez has made it as clear as possible that Mir-to-Honda was far from a sure thing, but it’s at the very least an option, the link made stronger by the fact Honda had a big-time interest in giving Mir his premier-class debut a few years back before Suzuki swooped in.
Alex Rins being on the market is also notable, but he’s a much less natural fit for Honda for a variety of reasons – historical and otherwise – whereas Mir’s availability is a shockwave, given he was almost better in his 2021 run to third place in the standings than in his 2020 title-winning campaign.
And a pure battle of credentials between Mir and Espargaro is not one the latter can win, especially given that his first season with Honda was effectively a wash and that his current results on the revised RC213V aren’t living up to expectation – even if the same can be said for each of his fellow three Honda full-timers.
But while on the Yamaha side of the fence some frustration with Franco Morbidelli – who does have a 2023 contract – has recently been made public, Espargaro hasn’t really come under fire at Honda.
“Pol Espargaro made a good start, but he could not manage to get a good position in the opening laps after a big moment at Turn 5, so finally it was not so easy. He had the speed this weekend, but unfortunately, we could not find a good setting and it was not possible to get a good result,” is how Honda team manager Alberto Puig was quoted as describing his rider’s low-key Jerez outing in a regular feature with title sponsor Repsol.
It’s hardly effusive praise, and maybe you wouldn’t exactly expect any excoriation from a team-arranged Q&A – but there’s still reason to believe Puig remains at least partly in Espargaro’s corner. Because, as per Espargaro himself, that is how Puig operates – despite a stern, almost ruthless outward aura.
“You know, Alberto is one of the best guys I’ve ever met here in MotoGP,” Espargaro told MotoGP.com a month ago.
“You see him and it’s difficult to, from the outside, know how he is. He is much different than what you can see from the outside, much much different.
“He’s a guy that supports you till the end and till the limit, you cannot imagine how much. He’s pushing with you. It’s difficult [to get him] on your side, but as soon as he stays in your side and you know he’s in your side, he’s going to defend you at the maximum level. And it’s good to have a guy like this in the pitbox.
“This shows you that you are protected. This gives you confidence to go beyond the limit. Because you know that if you fail, you know this guy is going to pick you up and say ‘OK, let’s go again, and again, and again’. You know he’s not a guy who’s going to put the blame on you because you crashed.
“If he needs to tell you the things, he will tell you the things, in the most strong and direct way, which I am grateful for. But after that, he’s going to put it again on the line [for you].
“So, it’s very nice to have a guy like that in the pitbox – especially also he’s Spanish, so we understand each other very good.”
Espargaro’s description indeed paints a very different picture to not only 500cc race winner Puig’s trademark media demeanour – blunt and often defensive-seeming – but also to his record of having already had two Honda works riders replaced in first his long-time protege Dani Pedrosa and then Alex Marquez.
Yet it is also accurate to say that Puig has relentlessly championed his lead rider Marc Marquez, even as Marquez entered his current injury-strewn career patch, and it’s also true that during this off-season he sternly dismissed the suggestion of Honda pursuing Mir, describing speculation to this effect as a “lack of respect” for Espargaro.
Those are certainly in line with Espargaro’s assertion that Puig “respects us [Honda factory riders] so much” and “defends us so much because he knows how hard this is”.
Does any of this mean that, if Mir signals his willingness to come to Honda, he’ll be overlooked in favour of Espargaro? No. Of course not. It’s hard to imagine that any amount of personal affinity towards the latter, from anyone in the Honda decision-making process, can overrule Mir’s obvious mixture of youth and general excellence.
But if Puig remains a steadfast believer in Espargaro, it will boost whatever other arguments there are for keeping him – whether financial arguments or those on the basis of team harmony.
And if Mir proves inevitable, there’s also the potential prospect of the LCR Honda ride currently occupied by Alex Marquez and potentially earmarked for Jack Miller. Since Honda definitely has a say in that seat, could Puig make the case for Espargaro being a better fit than either Miller or the younger Marquez?
We’ll have to wait and see, but we won’t have to wait long. And beyond the obvious interest in seeing how the 2023 grid shakes out, the outcome for Espargaro will prove informative in how “one of the best guys I’ve ever met here” tackles constructing a MotoGP roster.