Bagnaia's struggles as Ducati number one are nothing new

The pressure of Ducati appears to be getting to Francesco Bagnaia in 2022, but he is by no means the first to suffer under Bolognese weight.

Francesco Bagnaia crashes out of the 2022 French Grand Prix. - Gold and Goose

FRANCESCO Bagnaia crashed out of a seemingly guaranteed top two finish last weekend in Le Mans, adding a further setback to his already compromised 2022 MotoGP title challenge. 

Coming into 2022, Bagnaia was Ducati’s designated lead rider. The Italian won four of the last six races in 2021 on his way to second in the championship, and vastly out-performed his factory Ducati teammate, Jack Miller. In 2021, Bagnaia was allowed the freedom and time to learn in his first year with the factory Ducati team, while Miller was expected to go in and fight for the championship immediately. 

But while Bagnaia did learn, and ended the year with four wins and looking like the outright title favourite for 2022, Miller struggled, and by the time the paddock arrived in Jerez for the Spanish Grand Prix, Miller was already 47 points behind eventual World Champion Fabio Quartararo. Miller won in Jerez, and again in Le Mans, but after that scored only three podiums before the end of the year. He became the number two to Bagnaia. 

With roles reversed in 2022, Miller has two podiums to Bagnaia’s one and, while Bagnaia has a win and Miller does not, the #43 is six points and two places ahead of the #63 in the Championship. The pressure is off Miller, to the extent that the decision might have already been made by Ducati about his future with them, and he is currently experiencing one of his most consistent periods in MotoGP. 

The Miller-Bagnaia pressure see-saw is not the first time something like this has been seen in Ducati, though. In fact, it has happened many times. 

Let us travel back to 2017. It was the second year of Michelin, and a front tyre change by the French brand in Mugello transformed the fortunes of both Yamaha and Ducati. Yamaha had dominated the early part of the season, but their bike did not work with the new front tyre.

The Ducati, though, worked very well with it, and Dovizioso won the Italian Grand Prix with his Desmosedici. Dovizioso went on to challenge for the title, but that was not how it was supposed to go. 

The year before, Ducati had gone early for Jorge Lorenzo. They took him from Yamaha so that he would win them a world title, but in 2017 he did not win, and scored only three podiums. He was out-shone by Dovizioso, and this continued into 2018. It was not until Lorenzo had already signed for HRC for 2019 that he won with Ducati, and for three months he was the fastest rider on the planet. But Ducati had already lost him, and put their faith in Dovizioso instead.

But Dovizioso had already started to struggle in 2018, crashing in Jerez (not his fault) and Le Mans (definitely his fault), and then again in Barcelona. By mid-season, his championship was as good as over, and he was almost 80 points behind eventual champion Marc Marquez by the time they left Sachsenring. 

In 2019, it was more of the same, as Dovizioso left Germany for the summer break with almost 60 points to make up on Marquez in the second half of the season. An impossible task. The next year, in 2020, Dovizioso stayed in championship contention until quite late on in the season, but this owed more to the inconsistency of others, as the #04 himself mostly lacked speed. He fell out with Ducati’s lead engineer, Gigi Dall’Igna, and that was that, the pressure of Ducati had beaten him, as it had beaten Lorenzo before him.

A quick step back to 2019 reminds us that Ducati were leading the WorldSBK championship with a dominant Alvaro Bautista in 2019, before the factory’s management fell out with Bautista, his confidence dropped, his results suffered, and he left for Honda after losing the title to Jonathan Rea. Bautista’s replacement, Scott Redding, ended up leaving for BMW for this season, replaced himself by Bautista, who has accepted the pressure once more in a final bid to win a second world title. 

But will Bautista be doomed to the fate that is currently befalling Bagnaia, and let the 18-point lead he currently holds over Jonathan Rea slip in the remaining races? It is difficult to say. The Spaniard looks better on the bike in 2022 than he did in 2019, and able to brake with more stability, but Bagnaia was perfect in Jerez, and looked just as good in Le Mans, but he crashed trying to make up for a mistake he made four corners previously. 

And what about the man to whom Bagnaia handed the race win in Le Mans? Enea Bastianini has won three races in 2022, and after Jorge Martin has not yet finished three races this season the 2020 Moto2 World Champion is expected to be the replacement for Jack Miller in the factory team for 2023 alongside Bagnaia. 

Bastianini has already fired his first two shots in the impending psychological war between himself and Bagnaia at Ducati - firstly by winning the French Grand Prix, and secondly by questioning in the French post-race press conference whether Bagnaia would prefer to keep Miller as a teammate in 2023 for an easier time - but it is impossible to know whether he is prepared for the impending psychological war between himself and Ducati. 

As noted on the post-French-GP Paddock Pass Podcast, Bastianini suffered when he went to Estrella Galicia in 2017, where winning was the expectation. It is also possible to argue that he underperformed in 2018 at Leopard, another team where it is a necessity to win. At Italtrans in 2019 and 2020, Bastianini was back with friendly Italian faces, in a team which had not fought for a championship before, and which had not won a race since Mattia Pasini at Mugello in 2017. Now, back in the Gresini team with which he began his Grand Prix career, the situation is similar to Italtrans.

But, in Ducati, although the language will be common, and Bastianini will probably take Alberto Giribuola with him from Gresini as crew chief, the mood will undoubtedly be different. As mentioned in the aforementioned Paddock Pass Podcast, at Ducati, although winning is done together, as a rider you lose alone. Bagnaia was reminded of that on Sunday in Le Mans, and Bastianini seems destined to learnt that lesson at some point, too. 

How Bagnaia reacts next weekend in Mugello (of all places) will be indicative of where he feels he is in Ducati, and of his chances of mounting a major comeback in this year’s World Championship. Similarly, if and when the time comes for Bastianini, his response will be the key, as to date the only rider to do it successfully has been Casey Stoner.