It has been three years in the making. Ducati have been chasing Jorge Lorenzo for a very long time, almost since the moment Gigi Dall’Igna took over as head of Ducati Corse.
Dall’Igna came to Ducati with a master plan. “Ducati had a plan when we started with Gigi at the end of 2013, which was to develop a competitive bike and – once the bike was competitive – to attract one of the top riders,” Ducati MotoGP boss Paolo Ciabatti told a specially convened press conference on Thursday.
The candidates who qualified as “top riders” (for the linguists, this is the English phrase the Italians use where English speakers would use the term “alien”) are few and far between. Ciabatti made it perfectly clear what he meant.
“With all due to respect to all the other riders, including the two Andreas, there are a few riders who have been showing their potential. They are able to win championships. Obviously if you look at history in the last six years three times Lorenzo, twice Marquez and once Stoner. So obviously to be sure to be in a position to fight for a world title we needed to aim for one of the two riders which are Lorenzo and Marquez.”
Picking an alien
One interesting detail: before talking to Lorenzo, Ducati had first asked Casey Stoner if he would like to make a full-time return to racing. “No,” Stoner replied. “I am fine like this.” He is happy as a test rider. That opened the door for Lorenzo.
But not for Marc Márquez. Though Ducati talked to Márquez, it was clear that the Spaniard was closely aligned with Repsol Honda, and tempting him away from HRC would be a lengthy and difficult task. That left Jorge Lorenzo as Ducati’s main priority.
Talking to GPOne, in one of their GPOneCar videos, Paolo Ciabatti revealed some of the details of how the deal came about.
Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna had kept in contact with Jorge Lorenzo, having spent a lot of time with him when the Spaniard was in 125s and 250s, riding Derbis and Aprilias.
They had been speaking for some time, but a couple of weeks before Qatar, Ducati had started to believe it would be possible to secure Lorenzo’s services.
Yamaha’s decision to offer both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo new contracts before the Qatar race – ironically, a move made at the behest of Lorenzo, who had said publicly that he wanted his future sorted before the season opener – forced Lorenzo’s hand.
When Rossi signed, all attention shifted to Lorenzo. Ducati made Lorenzo an offer, and an agreement reached during the two American rounds. Sources told us that agreement had been reached before the race in Argentina. Ciabatti told GPOne that the contract was signed between Argentina and Austin.
Why Oh Why?
Why did Lorenzo go? “I think there were probably three factors that helped him make that decision,” Lin Jarvis told the pre-event press conference in a refreshingly frank performance.
“He probably got an extremely good proposal, probably better than ours. I think the Ducati is currently a very competitive bike, so it’s less daunting to make a change. In addition to that, probably to be the number one in the future team was probably something that was attractive,” Jarvis said.
Number one status was not something Yamaha was able to offer. With two “top dogs”, the only option Yamaha had was to treat both riders perfectly equally.
Valentino Rossi explained it best, when he spoke to a packed Yamaha press conference. “For me, the very good thing about Yamaha management and all the guys that decide for the team is that they are able to manage two top riders, especially because they keep us always at the same level,” Rossi said.
When Lorenzo had joined Yamaha in 2008, he was treated exactly the same as Rossi, despite the fact that Rossi had already won two titles for the Japanese factory and had been with them since 2004. But the same held true when Rossi returned to Yamaha in 2013.
“When I came back in 2013, also if Lorenzo was the world champion, Yamaha put me in exactly the same level. So always in Yamaha in all these seasons, it was 50/50. This is the key to making the team work, so I don’t think it’s for this reason.”
The Malaysian Thing
Though Yamaha tried to treat both Rossi and Lorenzo equally, the unfortunate events at Sepang took their toll, and played a role in Lorenzo’s decision. In the press conference, Jarvis acknowledged that Sepang had had a major influence on the atmosphere in the team.
“It definitely influenced the end of the last championship and it certainly influenced the mood inside the garage,” the Yamaha boss said.
“Prior to Sepang, we’d had Jorge and Vale back together for three and a half seasons at that stage, and honestly, the relationship had been going very well. Of course, they always competitors, but the team coexisted very well and we interacted very freely with each other. After Sepang that changed. This is an absolute fact.”
That did not mean that Jarvis felt he had any choice in the way he handled the situation. “Would I change the way I handled or Yamaha managed the situation? No. We believe that the way we managed a very difficult situation was the very best that we could do under those circumstances.”
Ultimately, though, whether Jarvis or Yamaha believed they handled the situation correctly is not important. What matters is how Lorenzo felt they handled the situation.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the aftermath of Sepang was a factor in his decision. Whether Lorenzo is justified in feeling wronged is a different question, of course.
I Am Legend
Having observed Jorge Lorenzo over many years, and having covered MotoGP professionally since his second year in MotoGP, it seems to me that one Lorenzo’s prime motivations is a desire for recognition. He wants his achievements to be acknowledged and respected.
That, more than anything, is what may have affected his decision to leave Yamaha. Whether Yamaha showed enough appreciation for his title is a matter for interpretation.
But what is certain is that Lorenzo feels that a certain section of the fans, and a certain section of the media, have denigrated his third world title. That championship was the hardest of his career, and he feels he deserves respect for the way he secured it.
To me, the situation was best summed up by Paolo Ciabatti. “Ducati is a special company,” he said. “We are quite small in size but we are very much focused on performance and racing and passion. All the people at Ducati, including the workers on the production line, share the same passion. I think that this feeling of passion all surrounding what Ducati does will be one of the factors that Jorge will appreciate very much.”
“Obviously the Ducati fans are really cheering for the brand more than the riders in principle, but the riders that were able to achieve exceptional results for Ducati then they become also heroes for our customers, who are fans. So if I can say, among all the riders the heroes for the Ducati fans are Fogarty, Bayliss and Stoner.”
“So I think that the opportunity for a rider like Jorge to become a hero or a symbol for a company like Ducati is maybe also one of the reasons that made him think that it was the right time to make a change in his career.”
Ducatisti are passionate people indeed. The brand really is bigger than the riders. When Valentino Rossi joined Ducati, there was a very strong core of Ducati fans who vehemently opposed his coming to the factory. They feared that Rossi would eclipse the brand, that he was bigger than Ducati.
If Rossi had been successful at Ducati, Rossi would have taken the credit. When he proved to be unsuccessful, it was Ducati who were given the blame. Rightly so, as it turned out.
That would be very different for Lorenzo if he succeeds at Ducati. Yes, Lorenzo would be hailed as a hero by the fans, both MotoGP fans and Ducatisti alike. But he would be hailed as a hero together with Ducati, not given the glory, while ignoring the bike which got him there.
If Lorenzo wins on the Ducati – and that is still an if, and not a when – then he will be another Fogarty, another Bayliss, another Stoner. That status is precisely the recognition he craves.
Out of the Shadow
It is also not a status he can achieve at Yamaha. As long as Valentino Rossi is at Yamaha, Rossi will always be the main draw. Rightly so: Rossi has had a massive global impact, and played a huge role in making the sport as big as it is today.
His record is second only to Giacomo Agostini, and it was achieved against much stiffer competition. At Yamaha, Lorenzo is very much Valentino Rossi’s teammate, even when Lorenzo is world champion.
At Yamaha, he is also just one of a long chain of champions. Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Valentino Rossi, and of course Jorge Lorenzo himself.
All names to conjure with, but none of which make Lorenzo unique. Riding a factory Yamaha is a major advantage in pursuit of a title: seven of the last twelve MotoGP titles have been won on by a rider on an M1.
Winning on a Ducati is very different: 2010 was the last time a Ducati won a race, and 2007 since a rider other than Casey Stoner won on the Ducati. Should Lorenzo win a race on the Ducati, he would receive massive acclaim. Win a title, and he would enter the realm of legend.
The Power of Organization
Can he win? Gigi Dall’Igna believes he can. Dall’Igna believes he has built a racing motorcycle capable of winning a MotoGP race. Or rather, he believes he has assembled a team around him which has helped create a motorcycle capable of winning.
When told Lorenzo called him a genius, Dall’Igna rejected that label. “For sure I don’t think I’m a genius,” he said. “I’m convinced that I’m able to help all the people that work with me to give the best from his job. Probably I’m surrounded by genius because I’m convinced all the Ducati people have a very, very high level.”
“So I think that the job that we did in the last two, three years is not only me, but because we are a real group that works together, with a target to achieve, and this is the main reason why we are able to evolve the bike in the right direction.”
This is indeed Dall’Igna’s strength. When he became boss of Ducati Corse, Dall’Igna worked first on improving communication, rotating engineers between internal departments, test team and race team. He got the engine department talking to the chassis department, who talked to the electronics guys.
Together, they built a bike that is obviously competitive. Whether the decisive engineering breakthroughs actually came from the brain of Dall’Igna or not, we may never know. But we can be certain that Dall’Igna made it possible for those engineering breakthroughs to happen.
How was Lorenzo’s move viewed? Overwhelmingly positively, almost unanimously so. Cal Crutchlow summed the general feeling up perfectly.
“At the end of the day, I think its fantastic for the sport. I think it’s good for the fans, I think it’s good for MotoGP. It’s good for people to see something different. Maybe he’ll run away with the championship, maybe he’ll finish 10th I have no idea. And that’s the good thing about it.”
It also blows MotoGP’s Silly Season wide open. Despite the fact that we are just three races into the 2016 season, all the talk is of next year, and who will be going where.
There are far, far more questions than answers at the moment, and although it is tempting to start slotting riders into empty seats, like a gigantic form of musical chairs, at the moment, we know very little beyond some wild speculation.
Every rider I asked about their future told me they had multiple options, most of which were good. Most managers I have spoken to recently have told me they are considering multiple riders.
So as tempting as it is to say Maverick Viñales to Yamaha, Andrea Iannone to Suzuki, Pol Espargaro to Marc VDS, Dani Pedrosa to KTM, it is nothing more than speculation.
Pick a Card, Any Card
Lin Jarvis may have acknowledged Yamaha’s interest in Viñales, but Davide Brivio today told me that their first priority was keeping Viñales at Suzuki.
The argument for Viñales remaining is remarkably similar to that for Lorenzo going to Ducati: Yamaha may be Viñales’ best chance of a MotoGP title, but if he were to achieve the same at Suzuki, he would join an elite list of names.
Barry Sheene, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts Jr., and Maverick Viñales. That is quite the list.
But it is far from settled, and fevered negotiations will continue for at least the next month, and probably longer. The time frame for making a decision is roughly the next three to four races.
After Barcelona, Ducati will likely be in a position to decide which of the two Andreas will stay (Dovizioso appears to be the current favorite, but do not write Iannone off); Yamaha will be closer to signing a replacement for Lorenzo; Suzuki will have a better idea of whether they will be able to hang on to Viñales; and who they will place alongside him.
Between then and now, be prepared to hear a lot of wild speculation, and inaccurate guesswork.
But first, Jerez. An intense and mighty track, and worthy of more attention than this piece has granted it. Back in Europe, racing feels a lot more real, somehow. It all starts on Friday. That will prove a necessary and entertaining distraction.
Photo: © 2016 Tony Goldsmith / www.tonygoldsmith.net – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.