Tech 3 Yamaha boss, Herve Poncharal is a man with a clear sense of direction and of his obligations to Yamaha, Monster and the rest of his sponsors. He has won the respect of everyone in motorcycle racing for the way his satellite team performs consistently above expectations and for his astute rider selection and ongoing management. However, since Jonas Folger’s mysterious last minute decision to quit the team ahead of the first winter test at Sepang, he has made no secret of the shock the team is feeling and that he has been at a loss to replace the formidable rider package that his stakeholders had signed up for in 2018.
Obvious replacement riders are all under contract, but rumours began at the Sepang winter that a deal could be made to bring Malaysia’s Hafizh Syahrin into the vacant side of the Tech 3 garage. The story took root on Saturday when Petronas Sprinta Racing Team announced that Zulfahmi Khairuddin would be taking over as their Moto2 rider for the coming season and Hafizh himself announced on social media that he would be leaving the team to “ride elsewhere”.
The 23 year old Malaysian has a decent record in the middleweight class, finished ninth and tenth in the championship in 2016 and 2017 and frequently featuring in the top six. Like many of his compatriots, who grow up racing in the rain, he stands out the most in wet conditions and claimed second at Misano and third at Motegi in wet races last season.
While series promoter, Dorna and Yamaha, together with Sepang International Circuit (SIC), as one of Hafizh’s backers, would welcome him as the first Malaysian ever to race in the premier class, one hurdle to overcome would be the 23 year old’s long relationship with oil giant, Petronas. They are known to have blocked past approaches to Hafizh, though are likely to yield on this occasion and release him to the Motul backed French team.
If a deal can be reached it will be a career defining move for Hafizh, who will join a riders’ roll of honour that includes Shinya Nakano, Olivier Jacque, Norick Abe, Carlos Checa, Alexander Barros, Marco Melandri, Colin Edwards, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovisioso and the team’s current prodigy, Johann Zarco, who picked up the MotoGP Rookie of the Year title last season and is likely to start winning races for the team in 2018.
Zulfahmi, who had been expected to race in the Asia Road Racing Championship this season, will need to rediscover his previous form as a GP rider in Moto3 and Moto2 after a lacklustre season in World Supersport. Petronas Sprinta team manager, Johan Stigefelt, appears optimistic that his new rider will find the Kalex to his liking and push the distinctive pale blue machine up towards the sharp end of the field.
If the story does add up and contractual gremlins can be overcome, it will give Malaysia representation in all three GP classes, as Adam Norrodin will once again be campaigning the Petronas Sprint Honda in Moto3. One way or the other, we should learn what the solution will be to MotoGP’s biggest mystery and Herve Poncharal’s horrible headache within the next few days and see Folger’s replacement in action next week at the second winter test in Thailand.