Although it feels like a facet of a completely different MotoGP era compared to what we have today, not so long ago the Ducati was a relatively inflexible bike that could only really compete at a few tracks.
But on one of those circuits, the Red Bull Ring, the rocket ship Desmosedicis was in a league of its own.
At that time, like today, there were many Ducatis at the start. In 2016, eight of them competed full-time – and with Michele Pirro coming on as a Red Bull Ring wildcard, LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow felt the nine Ducatis should all have been ahead of the other works and chastised his rider fleet for doing so 1-9 sweep cannot be achieved.
For 2022, the MotoGP will again have eight Ducatis – but the Desmosedici is no longer an obvious dominant at the Red Bull Ring. The trade-off, however, was that it became an ever-present threat to victory everywhere – and while half the 2016 fleet was made up of two-year-old bikes, this year Ducati will run more factory-spec machines than older ones.
MotoGP promoter Dorna’s preferred scenario would have been four bikes for each make, but Suzuki failed to capitalize on VR46’s interest and Gresini opted for Ducati over Aprilia, creating the unbalanced grid where a third Desmosedicis will be.
For the daily show, though, this will be undeniably better than it was when Ducati had an eight-bike fleet in the past. The relative parity of the machines – older-spec Ducatis Desmosedicis are widely expected to remain competitive – means the additional Ducatis will add to the fierceness of the competition rather than drag its way back.
If you’re well versed in auto racing, you’ll find that it’s hovering close to DTM formula (especially the previous generation), where a manufacturer’s expansive presence offers a shortcut that almost automatically makes for intense competition. Watching Pramac, VR46 and Gresini mix it up with all sorts of factory teams – including Ducatis – will be a delight.
Within MotoGP there is a clear awareness, bordering on concern, that this will make the challenge of Ducati’s rivals even tougher. Take Joan Mir’s alarmed reaction when he was blown away by the Ducatis in the Valencia final, or KTM rider Miguel Oliveira’s description of the Desmosedici as “quite a complete bike” even on “tracks where you would have expected them not to be.” would work fine”.
“The feeling is that they have new tires and we have used tires and they can now use the acceleration phases, turning phases, braking much more efficiently,” said Oliveira, also after the final in Valencia.
“It’s hard to assert yourself. We are talking about six bikes that are in the top 10. It leaves very little room for others, it’s definitely tough competition.”
The Ducatis generally come off the line well, are fast on the straights, don’t chew their tires as dramatically anymore and, crucially, are a great bike for Q2.
Average Q2 attendance in 2021
Ducati – 3.9 bikes
Jamaica – 2.3 bicycles
Honda – 2.2 bicycles
Suzuki – 1.7 bikes
KTM – 1.3 bicycles
Aprilia – 1.1 Bicycles
The fact that it topped manufacturers in terms of average Q2 places isn’t too surprising as it had the most bikes, but the seasonal trend paints a more interesting picture – Ducati scored in Q2 for the last 10 races of the season on average a rather ominous 4.6 bikes.
Part of that had to do with Yamaha’s depth issue – the retirement of Maverick Vinales and Franco Morbidelli’s long-running injury battle – but it’s also pretty clear that the improved performance of his two rookies on two-year-old machines played a part.
So it’s not so much the expansion of Ducati to eight riders that worries us, as the two newcomers are exactly that – although Fabio Di Giannantonio had a pretty convincing Jerez test for Gresini.
The bigger factor is that both Enea Bastianini and Luca Marini at VR46 now have better gear and more knowledge on how to get more out of it.
Take Marina. He will be the fifth rider on a factory-spec Ducati this year and although his rookie season has been quiet, he scored a first front row start. His glaring problem has been a lack of longevity in races, which he admitted was partly due to physical preparation – but even if he doesn’t crack it fully, it will be easier.
Although the work, which focuses on the race simulation, will only come at the Sepang Test, Marini was already aware when testing a Desmosedici GP21 at Jerez that the bike – which will obviously be closer to what he rides this year than Riding on his old GP19 – “a little lighter”, offers “more momentum and more edge grip”.
When asked by The Race if that would help to cure his race pace weakness, he said: “Yes, yes, I agree, sure it will.”
Marini was surpassed overall by Bastianini in 2021, but his starting position average of 14.3 compared favorably to Bastianini’s 15.8.
But while Bastianini admits his 21st qualifying form was “a disaster”, his relentless rise in the rankings on Sunday means that “expectations are high” – which Ducati Tech boss Gigi Dall’Igna said during the Gresini MotoGP launch confirmed by suggesting that Bastianini was expected to be “a protagonist” of the upcoming season.
And, well, obviously! Bastianini will only have one GP21 available, but this is still an excellent bike that will receive some more developments this year. And as far as qualifying is concerned, Bastianini is already convinced that “this bike will make it easier for me to do the fastest lap”.
“When you’re pushing you can make some mistakes and end up not losing a lot of time and that’s important,” he said.
“But even when I tried that, I also saw more power under the brakes, I was able to brake later and with less movement, and that’s key for qualifying.”
All of this suggests that both Marini and Bastianini will evolve into much more regular Q2 threats this year. And that’s theoretically bad news for those who’ve spent much of the last year just sneaking into the pole shootout.
To find out who those drivers were, I counted every occasion where a driver was either ninth or tenth in the top 10 of the combined practice score that determines automatic Q2 places, or either one of the two drivers moving up from Q1.
Mostly you sneak into the second quarter of 2021
Pol Espargaro (Honda) – 6th
Joan Mir (Suzuki) – 5
Brad Binder (KTM) – 5
Markus Marquez (Honda) – 5
Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha) – 4th
Jack Miller (Ducati) – 4th
Johann Zarco (Pramac Ducati) – 4th
Jorg Martin (Pramac Ducati) – 4th
Alex Rins (Suzuki) – 4th
Miguel Oliveira (KTM) – 4th
Takaaki Nakagami (LCR-Honda) – 4th
Luca Marini (VR46 Ducati) – 4th
Aside from the predictable presence of both factory KTMs and both Suzukis, it’s worth noting that Honda’s Pol Espargaro leads the order. Espargaro seems very pleased with the revamped bike Honda is bringing for 2022, but it’s probably no coincidence that he recently unsolicited raised the threat of Ducati’s expansion.
“We’ve seen over the past year that the Ducatis are super strong on the straights, they’re the key to overtaking to fight in the races,” Espargaro said earlier this month.
“If we want to have a good season there will be more Ducatis on the grid, so that means we have to be quicker on the straights to fight with them, win back positions or defend them.”
But ultimately, tougher competition isn’t a problem – and as good as the Ducatis, particularly Francesco Bagnaia, were late last year, there’s no sign yet that they have the potential to dominate in the way Honda did in the late 1990s. In fact, it almost seems self-evident that a season like 1997 (when Honda won all 15 races and took 39 of the 45 available podiums) is not possible in modern MotoGP.
In other words, don’t expect a boring season just because there are reliably faster Dukes.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern. For example, what if Bagnaia goes into the closing stages of the races tied on points with Fabio Quartararo or Mir or Marc Marquez and most of the other Ducatis are out of contention for the title?
We’ve already seen Jack Miller try to help his teammate win the title last year – but that didn’t bother anyone as Miller played dead fair and Bagnaia was far from catching Quartararo and needed all the help he could get.
But what if he, or Miller, or Martin, or whoever Ducati’s leader is, is in a title fight against a rival who, by definition, doesn’t have the same lineup of competitive stablemates?
We already saw in last year’s DTM how a manufacturer – in this case Mercedes – can use its disproportionate presence on the grid to clinch a title win at the expense of its smaller rival. Ducati would probably never say it so bluntly as it just isn’t the MotoGP way, but it must absolutely make you drool at the thought of a first Riders’ title since 2007.
And having a fleet of support bikes that compete harder against competing riders than your “chosen one”? That can be one hell of a thumb on the scale.