Does Ducati need team orders in MotoGP title race?
MotoGP prides itself on being all about individual riders. Of course, the manufacturers and teams behind them are vital in giving them the right equipment (mechanical and mental). But once the flag falls, they are on their own.
Unlike in F1, where team tactics are a vital component of race-craft, and drivers are in constant touch with their pit, MotoGP radio contact was tested and ruled out back in the 1990s. Pit messages are confined to basic information on the dashboard, where they compete with equally simple messages from Race Direction. A rider’s reminder to “switch to mapping two” jostles for attention along with “take long lap penalty”. The attitude to team orders is somewhat the same. They are generally looked down upon.
History has a famous example from the 1960s, when Yamaha’s two-strokes were rampant. The factory dictated that Phil Read should win the 125cc title, and Bill Ivy the 250. All was going to plan (Ivy famously slowing down in the 125 Isle of Man TT to let Read past); until Read divined that the factory was going to withdraw from GPs at the end of the year. No point in obeying, and he earned the late Ivy’s eternal opprobrium by taking both titles for himself.
This season has brought up a similar situation for Ducati. Factory rider Pecco Bagnaia, in a spurt of late-season form, had been closing steadily on defending champion and points leader Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha). But so too has Ducati satellite-team rider Enea Bastianini.
In only his second year, the former Moto2 champion (Bagnaia is also a former Moto2 champion) took a surprise win at the opening round, and three more since. His strength, including an ability to nurse his tyres for the final laps, has earned him promotion to the factory Ducati team alongside Bagnaia for next year.
But here’s the quirk. Bastianini still has a remote chance of becoming champion. And a less remote chance of not just beating Bagnaia, but also causing him to lose composure, and crash. Which the hapless Pecco has done five times in the first 16 races of this year, while title rival Quartararo has just two no-scores so far.
Bastianini took another win in the USA, round four; Bagnaia his first of the season two races later at Jerez. The first contretemps between the two came at the very next race at Le Mans. Bagnaia was well in the lead, until Bastianini came sneaking up in the closing stages, and nipped ahead. Bagnaia promptly fell off.
He restored his reputation with a masterful second win at Mugello, undermined it again with two more crashes in Catalunya and Germany. Then came a really strong run of form, with four wins in succession. He was now a serious title threat to Quartararo. But the last win, at Misano, came only by inches, after Bastianini had caught him and led, and all but took it again over the line. Not the way to endear himself to Ducati.
Worse followed two weeks later at Aragon, last race of the European season. This time Bastianini did beat Bagnaia, by inches. Taking away five potentially vital points. Asked if he should expect support from his future team-mate, Bagnaia huffed: “I don’t want anybody to help me. I want to win by myself.”
Then came the Japanese GP, an event made more complicated by foul weather that meant none of the title hopefuls were near the front. Again, Bastianini hunted Bagnaia down, and again he passed him. This time as the end drew near Bagnaia got back ahead, but had the situation stressed him out? On the final lap a lunge to take eighth from Quartararo went wrong, and he crashed, giving himself ironic applause as he trudged away through the gravel. It was a fifth no-score, and another error under pressure. And potentially, with only four races left, a death-blow to his title chance, with the reliable Quartararo 18 points clear. It could still go either way, but should he win Bagnaia would be the first ever to do so after five non-finishes.
But should Ducati have stepped in? Instructed the rising Bastianini to show loyalty to his future team, and concentrate on taking points away from Quartararo rather than Bagnaia? So far, the factory attitude has been hands-off: telling riders that they are liberty to try and win, as long as they do so safely. Don’t knock the other guy off. For the final races, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were to lay down the law to Bastianini. Leave Bagnaia alone!
Ducati’s strength is that is has the fastest bike. Its weakness is too many fast riders in their gang of eight, versus four each for Honda, Yamaha and KTM, and two each for Suzuki and Aprilia. The size of its army means that Ducati has already won the constructors’ championship, and (thanks to strong rides by Bagnaia’s factory team-mate Jack Miller) the factory squad looks strong for the teams’ title. But the main jewel in the triple crown is the riders’ championship, and it may be too late for team orders to secure that for Ducati, for what would be the first time since 2007.