A Dangerous Game
How do we measure star power? Perhaps it’s the trophies collected, the titles accumulated over a particular career. Could it be the number of followers on Instagram or Twitter, the quantity of t-shirts bearing a particular name or number in the grandstands? Or maybe it’s the ability to dictate a weekend’s narrative when you’re stationed 400 miles away from the grand prix in question.
On the first two, Jorge Lorenzo may fall short when compared alongside Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez, two rivals that have consistently acted as a barometre for his own brilliance. Yet there can be no doubting the Majorcan’s clout and ability to dazzle, confound and, after last weekend’s news cycle, confuse.
The Austrian Grand Prix was further evidence of the Majorcan’s star power. Wherever you turned in the Red Bull Ring’s plush facilities there were words and whispers on the topic of Lorenzo – still recovering from injury at home in Switzerland – and his attempts to fashion an unlikely move out of Repsol Honda. Even in the depths of his worst Grand Prix season since 2002, the 32-year old retains the ability to hog the limelight.
News linking him to a sensational return to Ducati broke on the Wednesday prior to the Austrian Grand Prix, the scene of his last MotoGP victory twelve months before. A day later and Jack Miller relayed there was “some truth” in stories that placed Lorenzo on his satellite seat in 2020. This was not Pramac’s decision; far from it. Rather there was a figure (or figures) at the company’s head table in Bologna pushing for it. “Nearly everybody in Ducati wants to keep me,” Miller confided. “[But] Some people have fond memories.”
As it transpired, the figure that convinced Lorenzo that Ducati was prepared to match his ambition in the spring of 2016 was using his clout to attempt a move as unlikely as the Majorcan’s exit from the Bologna factory a year ago. Gigi Dall’Igna admitted as much on Sunday, telling Sky Italia, “I have to try to put the best riders on our bikes … if there is an opportunity, we must at least verify.”
This is a dangerous game for the pair to play. Not least for Dall’Igna, who risked upsetting the harmony that has existed among his factory and satellite teams since Lorenzo’s exit. This wouldn’t have gone any way to mending what was believed to be an already troubled relationship with Andrea Dovizioso. The winner of Sunday’s epic race gave short shrift to a question on whether this development meant Ducati lacked belief in its current line up. “You have to ask Gigi,” came Dovizioso’s curt reply. Just how does Dall’Igna rate his current line-up’s chances of winning the title when he’s moving for his old rider?
At 24 years of age, Miller could represent the future of Ducati. The Australian has shown serious improvement in 2019, his first year using the latest equipment in his MotoGP career. Yes, there have been a few frustrating mistakes. But aside from Assen he’s been a regular top five contender each weekend. Crucially in the past two weeks, he’s comfortably had the measure of factory stable-mate Danilo Petrucci, whose midseason lull must be of particular concern.
Miller remained committed to the Ducati cause by renewing for 2020, recognising the importance of stability at this stage of his career. One would imagine, however, this news will make him and Dovizioso think twice when offers for 2021 are coming their way.
As for Lorenzo, where do we start? Should we take a lenient viewing on his role in all of this the news shows the fire still burns within, at least. Through the pain, doubt – rumours of retirement were ever present over the summer break – and humiliation of recent months, he clearly feels a fourth premier class crown is possible, should he find a package that can compliment his riding qualities rather than inhibit them.
Why else would he be in talks with a satellite team? In fact, make that two satellite teams. For news emerged on Saturday that he had also contacted Petronas Yamaha SRT about the possibility of rejoining the Iwata factory in 2021. This doesn’t shriek of the actions befitting “not only a great rider, but a world champion,” as he likes to label himself.
Secret meetings and plotting ways out of unhappy marriages happen all the time in this paddock. But such talks should retain some kind of discretion. The news coming out of Austria means the affair now has all the subtlety of a race-going fan armed with a yellow flare and a klaxon. Repsol team boss Alberto Puig was apparently in the dark over his rider’s desire to leave. “The only important is when the rider comes to you and tells you what he has in his mind,” he told Spanish TV provider DAZN on Friday. “I never had any information like this from him so I have to believe that things are OK.”
What reception does the #99 expect to receive from his HRC technicians (and, more pressingly, Puig, who doesn’t suffer fools and has a memory as long as anyone would care to imagine) at Silverstone?
As, by all accounts, Honda has done everything in its power to get him comfortable on the RC213V; from a trip to Japan in June to continual tweaks to his tank and seating position, and continued backing in light of a troubling run of results. Lorenzo has yet to score a top ten finish aboard a bike that, as Marquez gleefully points out, is running away with the championship. In return they’ve learned its rider was, at some point, seeking a way out.
The impression here is Lorenzo’s head hasn’t been as immersed in the Honda project as it needs be. There have been mitigating factors, of course. Asked for his opinion on the matter, Valentino Rossi pointed to the difficulties of adapting without adequate testing time.
“The injury before the first test was a disaster for him,” opined the Italian. “He arrived already injured and that moment of the season is crucial because you can have six days for ride the bike without the pressure of a race weekend. So he missed [the Sepang test] and after that, when you arrive at the race weekends, everything is more difficult because you don’t have time, you have to push.”
And when you have to push without feeling comfortable, falls happen. No doubt, Lorenzo’s free practice spill at Assen was terrifying, as was the turn nine crash at the Barcelona test that preceded it – spills that would shake the best and fastest to their core. But look at the 32-year old’s recovery from this. Word is Honda employees raised more than an eyebrow upon seeing photos of their rider posing poolside at a luxury resort in the Maldives in July. Wasn’t he supposed to be engulfed in a rigorous recovery schedule by then?
Compare that to the recovery of his team-mate’s serious shoulder injury that afflicted his winter. Granted, a different recovery process was required. But Marquez attacked that with the kind of diligence he does a race weekend, employing a physiotherapist to live at his house to work on the injured joint for four hours a day. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were the only occasion the world champion saw fit to take off. These are the standards Lorenzo is measured against.
The truth of the matter is this won’t get any easier in the coming weeks. The Majorcan has only recently regained the necessary movement to train. But thanks to the myriad of injuries he’s carried from last September, fitness was below what’s needed to ride the RC213V prior to the Assen smash.
So essentially he’ll be starting from scratch at Silverstone in a team that knows its rider was exploring the possibilities of riding elsewhere despite its best efforts. Does the five-time world champion have the skills in his locker to get them completely behind him? Should results not improve quickly, events of the past weeks mean this is far from certain.
For all its dependence on the latest technological advancements, motorcycle racing remains a human sport. Success hangs on close relationships and mutual understanding. Without the unrelenting trust of those around you, plans to fight at the front can be put on ice. And after this summer’s dangerous game, Dall’Igna and Lorenzo may come to regret doubting those on whom they count for results.
By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87
Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp