Dovisioso and Petrucci’s squabbles are handing Marquez a championship
Summer break over, and part two of trying not to be overshadowed by Marquez begins. Ten high-intensity races to decide a championship that everyone thinks is already a foregone conclusion.
The young Spaniard’s strength and the refinement of the latest V4 Honda have been marvellous. Both were already so, but 2019 has brought a devastating level of maturity to each. Marquez hasn’t won every race – “only” five of the first nine – but hasn’t finished lower than third, with only one non-finish… a crash from a huge lead at COTA, triggered by an electronic glitch.
Marquez has had some rather surprising and definitely unintentional help in his dominance… from Honda’s main rival: Ducati.
While Marquez has been effectively racing alone, with new team-mate Jorge Lorenzo flummoxed by unfamiliarity and injury. But he’s needed no help.
Over at Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso has been Marquez’s strongest challenger for the past two seasons, and the same has remained true in 2019. Although slightly less so, for various reasons.
The most troublesome has been from within the team. While Honda had lined up two of the best riders, only for one of them to be fall short, Ducati had teamed Dovi with a relatively junior rider, Danilo Petrucci. But instead of the expected support, “Petrux” has been stealing points off Ducati’s top man.
The 28-year-old’s route to the top differs from the gilded path followed by the likes of Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo. He cut his teeth not as a well-sponsored rider in the junior classes but in the knockabout world of production-based racing. He made his MotoGP debut in 2012 for an ill-favoured private team in the now almost-forgotten CRT era, when bikes with hotted-up street bike engines were ritually humiliated by full factory prototypes.
A certain flair, combined with a wry humour and the right passport, got him a seat in the independent Pramac Ducati team, effectively a factory feeder team, in 2015. A single first podium came in a sodden British GP, where to the surprise of all he was threatening winner Rossi.
There were no more podiums until 2017, and no wins. He led a few races, only to be denied in the closing laps. His prowess was enough to replace Lorenzo on the factory Ducati this year; but not to convince him he really deserved it. Unusually, even uniquely, he would only agree to a single-year contract, requiring to prove to himself and others that he was worth it.
Dovizioso, himself unusually thoughtful and modest in a big-ego environment, reacted in an unexpected way, given the usual enmity between team-mates. He welcomed his compatriot, invited him to his home town to share his training regime – both physical and psychological – and shared all his secrets about getting the best out of the Desmosedici. For Petrucci, “he has been like my brother”, he said at the start of the year.
Next Petrucci found himself in a battle for next year’s second factory Ducati. Young Australian Jack Miller had taken over at Pramac, and was going gang-busters, and better than Petrucci. Ducati revealed that the choice was between the two of them.
Then came the Italian GP, round six, at fast and beautiful Mugello, Ducati’s test circuit. The Italian bikes were on fine form, with the possibility of a top-three podium lock-out until Miller slipped off.
It came down to a last-lap shootout between the factory pair and Marquez. Dovizioso led over the line, but they were within hundredths. Marquez took a slingshot lead into the crucial first corner, but ran wide. Canny Dovizioso slipped inside to lead again. Then came, as he said later, “the bad point of the race”.
Petrucci, desperate not to lose yet another last-lap battle, dived inside both of them. “It wasn’t an open door, but it was a window, and I jumped into it,” he explained. The move forced his team-mate to lift the bike and close the throttle. Petrucci went on to win, Marquez was second.
It cost Dovi nine points. Petrucci, mixing exultation with apology, said: “From now, it is about Dovizioso and the championship”.
But the promise had worn thin just three races later, in Germany, the last round before the summer break. At a tight track where the fast Ducatis struggle, Petrucci ceded fourth to Dovizioso with three laps to go… then could not resist taking it back again, crossing the line less than a tenth ahead.
Another two points gone. If Dovi had those 11 points back, he’d be 47 instead of 58 points behind Marquez. Still a lot, but less than a two-race cushion, and last year, in the second half on faster tracks, he did score more points than Marquez.
Dovizioso might by now be regretting his open-handed welcome. Not only is your team-mate the first person you must beat, but also the last you should help to beat you.