Yamaha's 2018 MotoGP season hasn't got off to the best of starts in testing, and the news that it is splitting with Tech 3 for 2019 only adds to the feeling of a manufacturer in decline, says Jamie Klein.
Thursday’s shock announcement that Tech 3 is to part ways with Yamaha at the end of the year, after 18 seasons together at the highest level, throws up some interesting questions for both parties.
Firstly, there’s the question of what bikes Herve Poncharal’s squad will be running in 2019 and beyond, and the language used in the press release issued by both Yamaha and Tech 3 suggests a deal is either done already or extremely close to completion.
Yamaha general manager Kouichi Tsuji said it was “clear that he [Poncharal] has chosen to align with a new partner for the future, while Poncharal himself stated: “We’ve been offered a deal, that includes something we’ve been waiting for almost since we started with Tech 3, and I couldn’t say no.”
While there are theoretically five alternative manufacturers to choose from for Tech 3, there are only two realistic candidates: Suzuki and KTM.
Of these, KTM has to be regarded by far the more likely suitor, with a budget that dwarves that of Suzuki and a clearly-stated desire to expand to a four-bike presence in MotoGP sooner rather than later.
Marc VDS was touted as a potential candidate to buddy up with the Austrian manufacturer late last year, the Belgian team seemingly disillusioned with the state of its relationship with Honda – especially in the wake of Jack Miller defecting to Ducati’s Pramac squad.
But, you only have to look at last year’s championship standings to see that Tech 3 is by far the better bet in terms of establishing a competitive second team that will help push forward the works squad.
Then there’s the Johann Zarco factor. It’s been well documented that KTM has been eyeing up the talented Frenchman for a 2019 seat, probably to partner Pol Espargaro, and any deal with Tech 3 is likely to have the added sweetener of laying the groundwork for that move to happen.
From Tech 3’s perspective, it’s a sound move as well, and not purely in terms of finances. The thing that Poncharal has been “waiting for almost since the start” is likely to be some form of factory assistance from KTM, or perhaps even parity with the works machines.
The team has simply inherited Yamaha’s discarded bikes at the end of each year (although Zarco has chosen to stuck with the ’16 bike he excelled with last year for this season), with its only factory-contracted employees having been the riders it has employed with formal Yamaha links.
A collaboration with KTM, on the other hand, would be much more comprehensive, making Tech 3 a true satellite operation in the mould of Pramac Ducati or LCR Honda rather than a mere customer.
It remains to be seen who Tech 3’s two riders would be, but it would probably be safe to assume that Moto2 standout Miguel Oliveira would be one of them, given the fuss KTM has made of wanting to guide its young talents all the way from the Rookies Cup to the premier class.
What of Yamaha? Already, two of Ducati's satellite squads, Angel Nieto (nee Aspar) and Avintia, have indicated that they could take Tech 3’s place.
But, there’s one major obstacle when it comes to signing a new partner, and that’s the looming arrival of Valentino Rossi’s VR46 team in MotoGP.
Poncharal himself revealed last year that Yamaha had already informed him that, when it came to the crunch, VR46 would be favoured over his team whenever it wished to graduate to the premier class, and that Yamaha had no desire to supply two customer outfits.
No doubt, that revelation prompted Poncharal to begin casting around for more solid long-term solutions, and it also means that whichever team should do a deal with Yamaha in the interim would face being dropped as soon as VR46 makes the step up, whenever that might be.
After all, given Rossi's ties with Yamaha, it’s hard to see how his team could enter the premier class with any other manufacturer.
For a team like Angel Nieto or Avintia, the short-term boost in competitiveness might outweigh that downside. But make no mistake: they would be mere placeholders, unless Yamaha reverses its long-standing policy of supplying more than one satellite team.
Equally, it shouldn't be forgotten that, while Zarco was certainly a thorn in the side of works Yamaha duo Rossi and Maverick Vinales last year, he had his uses too.
While Rossi and Vinales were busy sampling new engines, Zarco was able to focus on comparing the 2016 and 2017 chassis at Valencia in post-season testing, and joined Yamaha's private Sepang test to help establish the '16 frame as the basis for the squad’s 2018 challenger.
Next winter, Yamaha will have no such luxury to call upon should it again find itself struggling for competitiveness with a recalcitrant bike this year. And the signs weren’t exactly encouraging in Buriram testing, where the two factory riders were well and truly shown up by Zarco and his old M1.
Those woes mean it’s beginning to look as if Yamaha’s 2017 slump may actually be the start of a worrying longer-term trend, particularly against the backdrop of Honda’s continued might, Ducati’s return to prominence and the seemingly inexorable rise of KTM.
Yamaha’s split with the most loyal satellite operation on the MotoGP grid only adds to the feeling that it could be on the brink of a major decline that will be difficult to arrest.