MotoGP Preview of the San Marino GP: A Yamaha in Ducati’s Den

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With seven races left in the 2022 MotoGP season, we are approaching the final stretch. There are 175 points left to play for, and Fabio Quartararo has a lead of 32 points over Aleix Espargaro.

That means that Espargaro still has his fate in his own hands: he can become 2022 MotoGP champion by the simple expedient of winning every MotoGP race left, and if Quartararo finishes second in all seven races, the Aprilia rider would take his first championship by a slim margin of 3 points.

Pecco Bagnaia has to rely on the help of others if he is to become champion. The Italian is 44 points behind Quartararo, which means he will need someone to get in between himself and Quartararo on more than one occasion.

So it’s a good job MotoGP is at Misano this weekend. For Bagnaia, this is very much his home track, the Italian riding here regularly as part of the VR46 Academy on road bikes.

And Bagnaia has help on his side: Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi are also VR46 Academy riders, and Ducati stablemates.

Franco Morbidelli, the fourth VR46 rider, will not be helping Bagnaia. But then, given his form this year, he is unlikely to be in a situation to help his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Fabio Quartararo.

Like the Back of Their Hands

It is also Ducati’s main test track, where test rider Michele Pirro – also present this weekend as a wildcard – has worn a groove in the track.

With nine Ducatis on track at Misano this weekend, they really do have a massive amount of data from here, and a lot of riders with the will to perform in front of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali.

And it is Aprilia’s test track too, Lorenzo Savadori doing his best to close in on Pirro’s lap count around the circuit.

It is the place where Maverick Viñales first swung a leg over the Aprilia RS-GP, and a place he returns to in shining form. And Aleix Espargaro has been strong all year, and with the RS-GP working the way it should, he is in with a real shout at the podium.

Is Fabio Quartararo concerned about all these Ducatis and Aprilias getting ready to gang up on him? Perhaps, but he isn’t going to let it get to him.

“My job this weekend is try to do my best. If I have Pecco, Aleix or eight Ducatis around me, for me it will be the same. I just need to finish as high as possible in the classification,” he told the press conference.

Head Down & Grind

If you wanted a window into how Quartararo is managing to hold his own against the Ducati onslaught, it is encapsulated in those words.

The Frenchman does not worry about things outside of his control – nine Ducatis on the grid, including so many riders who are very fast almost everywhere, and a couple of Aprilias thrown in for good measure.

He assesses what he can do with the Yamaha M1, changing his riding style, or working with his team to find a way to get the best out of what is fundamentally an underpowered bike.

But the Yamaha is fast around the Misano circuit. Despite some hard acceleration from relatively low speed, Misano is a track where top speed doesn’t count for too much.

The bikes hit just over 300 km/h on the way into Curvone, the furiously fast right hander at the bottom end of the circuit, not a speed which will trouble the Yamaha.

What’s more, Tramonto, which leads onto the back straight, is the sort of corner where you can carry corner speed to get better drive onto the section leading into Curvone.

Other places – Misano, the final corner, Turn 6, Quercia – where you have to open the gas hard from low speed.

That hard acceleration is heavy on fuel, meaning that the Ducatis have to turn down the power maps at Misano, another weapon removed from their armory.

What’s more, that acceleration can be compensated for with lower gearing, just as Quartararo did in Austria, to give himself a better chance to stay with the Ducatis.

At first glance, Quartararo may seem like Daniel entering the lion’s den, seemingly hopelessly outnumbered by a greater foe. In reality, he is more like David, with enough tricks up his sleeve to outwit and defeat the onslaught that awaits him.

Team orders? No thanks!

Naturally, much of the talk ahead of this weekend is of team orders, of other Ducati riders helping Pecco Bagnaia to give him the best chance of winning, or at least taking as many points as possible from Quartararo and Espargaro, his rivals in the championship.

Team orders are always brought up in these cases, but as the Moto2 race in Austria two weeks ago demonstrated, team orders are something that exist almost entirely in the minds of the media, rather than motorcycle racers.

Somkiat Chantra was shown “P2 OK” on his board as he chased Honda Team Asia teammate Ai Ogura, but interpreted that to mean “P1 BETTER”, and attacked on the final lap.

Only an outstanding piece of riding by Ogura to hold Chantra off through the final two corners settled the issue in Ogura’s favor.

The normally affable and helpful Honda Team Asia boss Hiroshi Aoyama was mysteriously hard to get hold of after the race, so the media went without an explanation.

Why does the MotoGP media always fall for the team orders canard? Mostly because they watch too much F1. That is an entirely different sport with different rules, different strategies, and very different priorities.

But the fact that hydrocarbons are burned to propel vehicles as quickly as possible around a race track lulls journalists into making the erroneous comparison between the two.

A Point or Two

When asked about team orders, Johann Zarco tried to enlighten the journalists as gently as possible. “Good question!” he replied when asked if he and other Ducati riders would hand a win to Pecco Bagnaia if he ended up ahead of the Italian.

“Gigi Dall’Igna said if you have the opportunity to get the victory, we will not take this opportunity from the rider, so go for it but be clever.”

Ducati would not expect a rider to give up a podium or victory, but they hoped that riders might be willing to give up points in the positions that didn’t really matter.

“If in case of a race with Pecco you are fighting for fourth, fifth position, maybe out of the podium, it can be clever to give him a way to get a few more points,” Zarco said.

“But talking about the victory, Gigi said if you can take it, take it, because he knows how important a victory is, and he doesn’t want to remove this feeling from all the riders.”

Team orders are hard in motorcycle racing. Thankfully, there is no ship-to-shore radio communication, so team managers cannot scream instructions at riders.

Dashboard communication is so restricted that team managers have to resort to obscure codes to try to persuade riders to move aside (cf. Mapping 8).

And riders miss the messages on pit boards often enough to give them more than enough plausible deniability of not having read what the team was trying to convey.

What’s more, motorcycle racing is a far more individual sport than car racing has become. Once the team leaves the grid for the start of the warm up lap, the riders are on their own.

Teams can ask nicely, they can beg and plead, but there is a 90% chance their pleas will go unheeded. And motorcycle racing is all the better for that.

Farewell to the Champ

What motorcycle racing is not necessarily better at is rider management. At Misano, Remy Gardner had the opportunity to discuss his reaction to finding out there was no place for him in the Tech3 team next year.

The reigning Moto2 champion – a title won with the Red Bull KTM Ajo team – was given less than a season to prove himself in MotoGP. And was unceremoniously dumped, despite having consistently finished ahead of his teammate, Raul Fernandez.

Fernandez was also on his way out, it seems, KTM having also decided to drop the 2021 Moto2 runner up from its line up for next year.

He had been told on Saturday in Austria, Gardner told the media.

    “I wasn’t expecting it to be honest. I’ve always given 100% and unfortunately I don’t think it was good enough for the standard.” The reason KTM gave to Gardner for disposing of his services? “They said I was not professional enough.”

They did not expand on this, Gardner said, leaving him very much in the dark as to the reasons.

“No idea. I don’t know. I felt like I always gave my 100% for them, you know. My intention was to stay here and give my best and honestly, yeah, they’ve broken my heart and… I felt like maybe there’s not an appreciation for the world championship I brought them as well. I mean, I was just giving my best all the time and I guess it wasn’t good enough.”

Dazed and Confused

Gardner said he was mystified by the decision. “100%,” he replied to the question of whether he was puzzled by this.

“I think it hasn’t been a disaster, if I’m honest with you. I mean if you have a look at the times and everything and how close I am to the factory guys, usually. It’s still my first year you know! It’s Miguel’s fourth year in MotoGP. So I honestly think it was not bad and honestly it was positive vibes from them. But yeah, we got to Austria and it’s basically ‘you’re out’.”

Things had looked very different two weeks previously at the British Grand Prix. “The feeling was and the impression was OK, yeah we’ll continue. At Silverstone it was like, yeah, we should continue and in Austria we’ll get it done,” Gardner said.

Being informed so late left Gardner in a very tough spot in terms of finding another ride.

“You know, they told me extremely late. They’ve really done, screwed me over here, to be honest, for finding a seat for next year. So it’s left me in a bit of a crappy position.”

Learning New Tech?

Raul Fernandez had an interesting theory as to why he hadn’t been able to get on with the KTM RC16, where Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira had adapted much better. “I tried to analyze, but the problem is that I don’t have many years experience with this bike,” Fernandez said.

By contrast, Binder and Oliveira had spent several seasons on KTM’s steel trellis chassis in Moto2 before moving up to MotoGP.

“They did the Moto2 school with KTM, in our case, we didn’t do that. Maybe for that reason they can start in another position. Maybe I didn’t have the opportunity in Moto2 to work with KTM and maybe for that, during the season it was a little bit difficult for me,” Fernandez said.

When Aleix Espargaro was asked about Remy Gardner’s situation, he replied with exasperation.

“I feel very bad for Remy. I have no explanation in his case. I don’t understand why they treat him like this. He was not that bad this year. He won the title last year. He didn’t have the best bike this year. So what do they expect from him, to win races? I don’t understand,” the Aprilia rider told the press conference.

Espargaro’s sadness was in part because he understood just how hard it is as a rookie.

“It’s very difficult to arrive in MotoGP, and to show big potential. Everybody’s really fast, there are a lot of competitive bikes, so the question mark is what were they expecting from him?”

“I mean if they were expecting from him after winning the Moto2 title to finish in top five in the world championship, they can fire him, that’s for sure. But you cannot expect this. So it’s sad, really.”

Gardner’s comment that he was told he was “not professional enough” is familiar. There have been rumors inside the paddock that KTM did not hold the Australian in particularly high regard.

His feedback was not said to be of MotoGP quality, and that he hadn’t been receptive to criticism. It is hard to get statements like this on the record, but the fact that there was a buzz about it in the gossip circles suggests there was something askew in the relationship.

Baby Out with the Bathwater

KTM are taking a risk in dumping Gardner as unceremoniously as they appear to have done, however. Gardner and Fernandez finished first and second in Moto2 in 2021, and were moved up to MotoGP for 2022.

With both riders dropped after less than a season to prove themselves, that is evidence that KTM have very limited patience with riders.

That may persuade riders, and managers of riders, to look to alternatives to KTM, not just in MotoGP, but through their entire talent chain. The Red Bull/KTM combination was seen as the ideal path to MotoGP, from Red Bull Rookies to FIM Junior championship, through Moto3 and MotoGP.

But, if KTM gives the impression that riders have less than a year to prove themselves once they get to MotoGP, top talent might prefer to look for alternative routes to MotoGP.

Currently, one of Red Bull KTM’s biggest selling points in the lower classes is the possibility of signing a contract with an option to move up to MotoGP.

But while KTM’s Moto3 and Moto2 teams, in the hands of Ajo and Tech3, are outstanding programs and a chance to win a championship, managers may try to wriggle out of the MotoGP tie-in and sign up with other, more patient manufacturers for the transition to the premier class.

Immediate Speed Is Rare

It takes time to adapt to MotoGP usually. The top three in the championship are proof that each rider has their own path to success.

Fabio Quartararo was challenging for podiums within a couple of races in MotoGP, scoring his first podium in just his seventh race, and his first win in his second year.

Pecco Bagnaia suffered through a difficult rookie season with Ducati, scoring his first podium in his second year and only truly turning into a title candidate in his third season.

Aleix Espargaro’s journey to success is even longer. His first full year in MotoGP was 2010, but it took until 2014 to score his first podium.

It took him until 2021 to bag his second podium, and his first win, and transformation into a candidate for the championship, only this year, at the age of 33.

Patience is a virtue. One that KTM, in their rush to succeed, are yet to learn. They may yet succeed despite their impatience. But in the meantime, they are probably scaring off young talent, and making their job more difficult than necessary.

Photo: MotoGP