It’s a dream being Ducati in MotoGP, right? The Bologna marque is ruling the class of kings like Honda once did with its NSR500 and RC211V – five of the top ten riders in the championship ride Desmosedicis, including the leader, who, barring disasters, will win Ducati’s first riders’ title in 15 years at Valencia two weeks from now and 50 years since Ducati first entered MotoGP.
The race should’ve been a pushover for Ducati – from the beginninglea it had points leader Pecco Bagnaia nestled comfortably in second between fellow Desmosedici riders Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini. Surely, this would be an easy cruise to the prosecco party between friends.
Erm, not quite.
When you try to go away you are risking more. Maybe the grip wasn’t good. Maybe I was too confident”
The upsides of having so many fast riders on your bikes are obvious: more data, more rider feedback, more tyre testing and, of course, more chances to win, so no surprise that Ducati won its third consecutive MotoGP constructors’ world title at Aragon last month, with five of 20 races still to go.
The downsides of having so many fast riders on your bikes is that trying to control those riders is like trying to herd cats.
Thus an embarrassment of riches can so easily become just an embarrassment.
Bagnaia was once again stunning yesterday, making amends for his qualifying crash in the first few hundred metres of the race. He made the perfect start, “It was the best I ever did and I took some risks at the first brake point”, which took him past Marc Márquez and others into Turn 1 to slot into second behind pole-sitter Martin.
Within a few laps it was Ducati’s race: Martin, Bagnaia and Bastianini roaring away from the pack.
Martin’s answer to any possible factory orders was straightforward: blast off into the distance. Ducati management has always said it won’t tell a potential race winner to slow down for its title hopeful.
“Pecco and Enea were zero-eight, zero-nine behind, then it was 1.2, so I said OK, now is maybe the moment I can go away,” said the super-fast Spaniard, still chasing his first win of the year. “So it was time to push a bit more, I changed the [power] map… and then I crashed. When you try to go away you are risking more and maybe the grip wasn’t that good – maybe I was too confident into that corner.”
He wasn’t wrong. There were 26 MotoGP crashes over the weekend at steamy Sepang, even more than Le Mans, usually MotoGP’s crashing capital, so everyone spent the weekend spinning the rear tyre everywhere and teetering on the brink, trying not to fall victim to the hot, greasy asphalt.
Bagnaia crashed twice on Saturday, after losing his cool following a couple of incidents with rivals. “I’m human and I’m feeling a bit of pressure,” he said.
Martin’s tumble put Bagnaia in the lead, with Bastianini breathing down in his neck, while Bagnaia’s main championship rival Fabio Quartararo was back to his usual magic, riding the outer limits aboard his under-powered Yamaha to fight his way through from 12th on the grid to third, never mind that he was riding with a broken middle finger on his left hand, the legacy of an FP4 crash.
And then, spurred by Bagnaia’s VR46 brother Marco Bezzecchi catching him, the reigning champion was closing on the leaders, from 3.2 seconds behind at half-distance to 1.6 seconds at three-quarters. In other words, Bagnaia needed all the points he could get.
And Quartararo could see exactly what was happening in front – Bastianini skidding past Bagnaia to take the lead on lap ten of 20 and staying there for three laps.
“Of course I was cheering for Enea,” laughed the Frenchman later. “I wasn’t calculating too much in this race. In the last laps I was really on the limit everywhere with the front and rear.”
Remarkably this was Quartararo’s first podium in six races, since the high-speed Red Bull Ring, where he also shouldn’t have been in the hunt. “It’s a long time since I’ve enjoyed a race,” he added.
When Bastianini took the lead things got really interesting. Could Ducati trust Bastianini – already signed up as Bagnaia’s factory team-mate for 2023 – to dutifully shadow his countryman for the remaining two thirds of the race and gift him the full 25 points for victory?
No, of course they couldn’t!