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.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.