The Market’s Drying Up – What Now For Ducati?

Just four weeks into the new decade and it’s fair to state the first shellacking was delivered without a wheel even turning. MotoGP’s recent trend of extending contracts or signing riders as early as possible continued, with the offseason work conducted by Yamaha and Managing Director Lin Jarvis catching more than a few off guard.

If the factory’s late January splurge of news was something of a statement of intent, the announcements of Maverick Viñales’ renewal until 2022, Fabio Quartararo’s promotion to its factory team from 2021 and the re-signing of Jorge Lorenzo (albeit in a testing capacity) could also be viewed as a triple blow to a number of rival manufacturers, a swift, decisive combination that has upended one firm’s plans in particular.

The move was rightly lauded for its timing. With Yamaha’s factory line-up in now in place for the next three years, it has wisely given Valentino Rossi the necessary half season to decide on his own plans beyond this year. Aside from that, it provides Viñales and Quartararo a sound base from which they can launch challenges for regular race wins (and perhaps more). “We really want to focus on 2020 so we did these announcements early to get them out of the way,” Jarvis told onlookers on the eve of the Sepang test.

With two of the grid’s fastest, youngest talents secured for the meantime – and Alex Rins and Joan Mir on the cusp of renewing with Suzuki according the reliable Oriol Puidgemont of Motorsport.com – it begs the question: what now for Ducati?

The Italian giant has just seen four potential additions chalked off the ‘To Sign’ chart that hangs in Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti’s office. Yamaha was partly spurned into action as Ducati was showing concrete interest in both Viñales and Quartararo. Both would arguably have improved its factory line up, which now has a combined age of 62. From being touted as the team most likely to flaunt the vast reserves of Phillip Morris International cash, the last superstar option for the Bologna factory now appears to be the unlikely plundering of Repsol Honda for the reigning world champion.

Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig told onlookers last week that a deal to secure Marc Marquez for a further two years is yet to be agreed. The newly-turned 27-year old is no doubt keen to assess all his options while also hoping the manufacturer can stump up the necessary funds for his demands, believed to be in excess 20 million Euros per season (one source told me Ducati were unable to match his current deal, which stands at 15 million Euros).

But Marquez has all he needs at Honda to win titles for the next three years. His team – such a crucial factor in his success – is settled. And he can’t claim the factory doesn’t pay his wishes any heed after the surprise appointment of brother Alex last November. Should Honda’s most successful grand prix exponent do as expected and stay among HRC’s ranks, what then for Ducati? And does this heavily impact on technical guru Gigi Dall’Igna’s desperate goal to win the MotoGP title at all costs in the years to come?

Possibly. It must certainly frustrate Ducati management to miss out on its desired target for the second MotoGP ‘transfer window’ running. Certain instances in 2019 pointed to those at the top of its premier class operation – notably Dall’Igna – not having absolute trust in its current line-up. “We had the bike to win the race,” he told Sky Italia in the wake of his riders’ inability to challenge, let alone defeat, Marquez at Le Mans last year. Then there was the saga that tainted last August’s Austrian Grand Prix, when it appeared the bearded Italian was more than willing sacrifice Jack Miller – surely Ducati’s most promising prospect going forward – if it meant bringing Lorenzo back into the fold.

With no stand out MotoGP-ready candidate currently plying their trade in Moto2, Ducati’s best option may be looking within its own ranks. Ciabatti even said as much in a recent interview with Italian website GPOne.com.

Going off recent form, Miller wouldn’t look out of place in the factory team. By the end of 2019 he was regularly placing as the top Ducati, even if some puzzling inconsistency remained. Should he replicate that form in the opening six races of this campaign, scoring a number of podiums along the way, the Australian will surely be a safe bet for a factory seat.

But who is Ducati’s other bet? As impressive as his turnaround from CRT tail ender to MotoGP race winner has been, it’s hard to see Danilo Petrucci retaining his seat on the back of an anonymous second half of 2019. Francesco Bagnaia has failed to live up to his Moto2 showings, crashing 14 times in the process. Avintia’s Johann Zarco didn’t exactly display the requisite traits to drag a factory forward in his brief, doomed stint at KTM. And those close to the factory point to relations between Dovizioso and Dall’Igna verging on non-existent. The rider’s frustrations at the technical chief’s refusal to address the bike’s most glaring deficiency in recent years boiled over after a distant fifth place in Germany last year. “We need a strategy for the future,” he railed. One source close to the factory said Dall’Igna found this to be unacceptable.

With this in mind, Dovizioso’s ability to grind out another second place finish last year is all the more impressive. Yet the cold, hard truth of the matter is the wily Italian finished 76 points behind Marquez in 2018 when the GP18 was widely regarded as the grid’s best bike. Honda matched Ducati’s top speed last year and he could get no closer than 151. Is he likely to get closer in 2020?

We’re still in February but the early signs at Sepang weren’t great. Yamaha and Suzuki appear to have gained a foothold at the top as Dovizioso and Petrucci struggled to understand Michelin’s new rear tyre. Expect Marquez, Viñales, Quartararo and Rins to be podium regulars. Ducati’s cause looks more difficult than before.

A feeling that may sting all the more considering they may be waiting two years more to make that superstar signing.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP

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