The American motorcycle road racing press has been whipped up into a frenzy since news of Jonas Folger’s unexpected departure from the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 MotoGP team broke last week. Several of my colleagues in the MotoAmerica press corps., including Lance Oliver at RevZilla (https://www.revzilla.com/common-tread/will-a-us-rider-get-an-unexpected-shot-at-motogp), and Dave Swarts from Roadracing World (http://www.roadracingworld.com/news/motogp-who-will-monster-yamaha-tech-3-choose-to-replace-jonas-folger-in-2018/) have penned articles about the possibility of an American rider taking Folger’s place on a satellite MotoGP team. The possibility of having an American back in the MotoGP paddock after a two-year absence is worthy of the attention it is receiving. Despite how ripe conditions are for the stars and stripes to re-enter the MotoGP paddock, we need to look at why there have not been any American riders in MotoGP, as well as whether an American rider would get a fair opportunity to keep his or her ride.
If there was going to be a team in the MotoGP paddock where an American rider would get a shot, it would most likely be Tech 3. Over the last ten years or so, the Yamaha Tech 3 squad has represented a rebellious departure from the MotoGP satellite team norm. The Ducati and Honda satellite teams have primarily chosen either proven talent in grand prix motorcycle racing’s lower ranks, or well-funded European riders. Since 2008, Tech 3 has fielded two full-time American riders and one American wild card, as well as several former superbike riders in lieu of the talent on their own Moto2 effort. Having access to essentially last year’s Moviestar Yamaha engines, chasses, and other parts has no doubt been a major reason for Tech 3’s success as a non-factory effort. However, it is interesting to note that some of that success has come from riders who are sometimes less familiar with grand prix motorcycles than other comparable team/rider combinations. Tech 3 team principal Herve Poncharal’s leadership and decision-making seem to embody the saying, “Fortune favors the bold.”
There are also several synergies between the Tech 3 team and the American Monster Energy Graves Yamaha team that could heavily influence the situation. For one, both Yamaha-supported teams are sponsored by Monster. Given the political insanity the defines the microworld of the MotoGP paddock, common sponsorship can be a big factor in decision-making. Moreover, two of Tech 3’s sponsors over the last few seasons has been DeWalt Tools/Stanley Tools (https://motogp.teamtech3.fr/index.php/en/sponsors-en), which are brands owned by Baltimore, Maryland’s Black & Decker corporation. It would not be surprising if an American sponsor lobbied to have an American rider on a bike they sponsor.
Despite all of these forces working toward getting an American back on MotoGP machinery, we need to keep in mind the overwhelming financial and political forces that drove American riders out of top-level grand prix racing. Even though Tech 3 has not exhibited the financial struggles of some other satellite or privateer MotoGP efforts, American riders are usually backed by American sponsors. Those sponsors are often less familiar with MotoGP than European sponsors, and are disinclined to pony up significant sponsorship for a racing series that only visits the United States once per year. Even the American sponsors who are in MotoGP (like Tech 3’s DeWalt/Stanley) have remained financially involved in MotoGP despite the absence of American riders. This would appear to signal that those sponsors are confident they will get good value for money in MotoGP with or without an American rider.
Additionally, as my colleagues have already pointed out, there are question marks hanging over all of the potential Yamaha riders currently competing in the American MotoAmerica series. Out of the three, Cameron Beaubier is the most likely to move up. Beaubier has the most experience on literbike machinery, two top-class national championships, and rode admirably in his surprise World Superbike debut last season. However, Beaubier had a nasty shoulder injury near the end of last season , and MotoGP decision makers may remember what happened to Ben Spies after his shoulder injuries. JD Beach is likely the next best candidate for the Tech 3 seat. Beach does not have any experience racing literbikes and was overlooked for Josh Hayes’ vacant Superbike seat. Moreover, Beach struggled in the second half of the MotoAmerica season, in very large part due to the Supersport class’ switch to a more GP-spec rear tire. However, Beach is the least happy with his Graves seat out of the Yamaha three, and made European headlines by winning the Superprestigio in December. Beach is also the 2008 Red Bull Rookies Cup champion, and no stranger to grand prix racing. While Gerloff beat out Beach for the MotoAmerica Supersport title the last two years, his new deal with Graves and lack of experience on either a literbike or grand prix motorcycles likely hurts his chances and grabbing the Tech 3 seat.
Even if one of the American riders ended up being selected as Folger’s replacement, there is no guarantee that they would get a fair shot at keeping their ride. Barring a Spies-like performance at Tech 3, several factors could easily conspire to force an American rider out at the first sign of trouble. For one, Tech 3 has a Moto2 team. Although being a Moto2 Tech 3 rider has not historically led to a Tech 3 MotoGP ride, Moto2 riders are often expected to bring six figures of sponsorship to teams and have usually come up through the grand prix ranks. It would be very easy for Tech 3 to drop an American, superbike-oriented rider for a better known, experienced grand prix rider. Additionally, there is a more general knack on superbike riders moving up to MotoGP. A few former superbike riders (Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow) have won grads prix. Most other AMA Superbike/World Superbike riders who have moved over to grand prix racing (Colin Edwards, Nori Haga, James Toseland, and for the most part Troy Bayliss) have enjoyed far less success in MotoGP. The track record may cause a MotoGP team principal to put a former superbike rider on shorter leash than a grand prix rider.
While the opportunity to get the stars and stripes back in the MotoGP paddock is as good as it has been in the last few years, the conditions that drove American riders out of MotoGP in the first place are still firmly in place. MotoGP has shown a commitment to opening up the American market to its brand. Their first, short-term approach of increasing the number of grands prix in the U.S. did not pan out. In response, MotoGP has switched to a longer-term strategy. The centerpiece of that strategy is MotoAmerica. The hope is likely that the re-emergence of a popular, competitive national road racing series will prime the American market for MotoGP’s eventual return to multiple U.S. grands prix. However, until MotoAmerica begins to bloom, and right now it is still digging its way out of the mess that its predecessors left the sport in, American riders have much, much less to offer a MotoGP team than an Italian or Spanish Moto2 rider. Between sponsorship, nationality, riding style/experience, and internal politics, talent is only a small part of what is needed to reach and succeed in MotoGP. Until economic and internal political conditions change in the microworld that is MotoGP, American riders will continue to struggle to find top-class rides, let alone hold onto them.