Joy, confusion, dilemmas | Why COTA MotoGP has Ducati bosses scratching heads

Ducati's 1-2-3-4-5 on the grid at COTA MotoGP gives bosses the perfect opportunity to measure its talent against one another... with confusing results

Enea Bastianini, Pecco Bagnaia, Jack Miller, Jorge Martin

It’s fair to say the 2022 MotoGP World Championship hasn’t exactly gone the way of most pre-season title predictions but kudos to you if you happen to have Enea Bastianini, Miguel Oliveira and Aleix Espargaro in your fantasy line-up.

Indeed, while the unpredictable nature of MotoGP is becoming, well, predictable there is a clear indication that MotoGP bosses are scratching heads right down to the scalp at the moment as the winds of momentum lurch from changeable to full on tornado.

Of course four rounds don’t make a season but it’s telling that several riders have flagged up the impending European leg of the season as the time when things will calm down and a thread will appear. However, these are mostly riders on the back foot with a flag in one hand and a clutch of straws in the other.

They might have a point though. The four flyaways are generally considered a vacation for MotoGP and its performance guide, with the grained surfaces and more technical layouts of circuits in the moderate climes of Europe more likely to swing back to the more experienced all-rounders.

Indeed, there is a sense that many in the MotoGP paddock are having to re-evaluate their plans for the future as the form book is updated again, an impression demonstrated by an unusually stagnant transfer window that isn’t unfolding as in previous years.

Two years ago we were branding the ‘silly season’ as occurring earlier than ever as most teams locked in their riders to form a grid for 2021 before pre-season testing for 2020 had even begun. 

By contrast, as of now only four riders have their futures beyond 2022 assured - and two of these (Marc Marquez and Brad Binder) are because of long-term deals.

Dilemmas for the future are typified no greater than at Ducati, who had the perfect opportunity to measure its Armada of talent in COTA this weekend when it locked out positions 1-2-3-4-5 on the grid. 

Of these, only one - Pecco Bagnaia - is nailed on for 2023, which leaves one factory seat and two pseudo works rides at Pramac Racing available, plus of course Gresini Racing and VR46 with their year-old options.

And yet, while the outcome of Ducati’s race in COTA followed the pattern of the year thus far it wasn’t necessarily happy to see that outcome.

How do you solve a problem like Ducati?

If anyone needed reminding, Enea Bastianini proved himself to be the low-fi title contender an increasing number are branding him with another exemplary performance in the US.

Having slipped under the radar for much of his 2021 rookie campaign in part because he is the rare thing of an Italian NOT associated with the VR46 Racing Academy, Bastianini has come of age over the last six months, cultivating a riding style that allows an extraordinary talent to conserve tyres to negate arguably the Ducati machine’s biggest weakness.

However, his efforts have created a dilemma for Ducati looking forward, in part because of a decision made way back in 2020 to hire Jorge Martin for Pramac Racing despite Bastianini - 2016 Moto3 runner-up and 2020 Moto2 champion - having superior results in the feeder categories.

That’s not to say Martin hasn’t excelled since arriving in MotoGP, the Spaniard’s deft ability to maximise the Desmo over a single lap making his six pole positions a superb achievement.

Then again, no points are given out on Saturday and Martin has converted just one of those poles into a win thus far, with COTA giving him a proper kick back as he slumped to eighth at the flag, one place ahead of Johann Zarco.

Jack Miller, meanwhile, enjoyed a confidence boosting weekend with a front row and a third on the grid but while the results appear strong on paper, the fact he was swallowed up by Bastianini late on and then muscled out of second with two corners to go by Alex Rins won’t have escaped notice.

A change in rhetoric from Miller this weekend appears to suggest he is resigned to the fact he won’t hold onto his factory seat next year. Having started the season clapping back at journalists for questioning his future, in COTA he was talking up the possibility of switching back to Pramac.

In terms of hierarchy, Martin is the most logical replacement so Ducati might have breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday that another pole from the Spaniard might just make its decision that bit easier, or at the very least justifiable. However, watching Bastianini produce another signature performance to devastating effect makes it querysome to justify giving Martin the nod over him.

Moreover, whichever rider Ducati picks to replace Miller - assuming he is indeed on his way out - presents a risk that the other will be showered with offers to go elsewhere.

Bagnaia buckling under weight of MotoGP expectation?

Which brings Ducati back to the most frustrating development of all… Bagnaia.

The one rider who doesn’t need to check his phone for messages is arguably the one rider underperforming right now. While Ducati can be forgiven for getting Bagnaia locked in early following his stunning late season form of 2021, it might be cursing itself for not holding off.

It has been a rotten start to the year for Bagnaia, who has looked flaccid among his Ducati peers and, perhaps more tellingly, mentally shaken by the weight of expectation as pre-season title favourite with sloppy errors and on-track remonstrations of frustration.

In short, COTA was an excellent opportunity for Ducati to conduct a little in-house fight for affection but while Bastianini’s tactical brilliance, Miller’s nearly-nearly ride, Bagnaia’s anonymity and Martin’s inconsistency weren’t necessarily a surprise, it just ended up compounding Ducati’s dilemma going forward…