Walls closing In?

Perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation that’s talking. But step back, glance at the opening two rounds of MotoGP 2021 races from afar, and they begin to merge into one. On both occasions the competition was almost comically close, the record books once again realigned (16s covering 15 men in race one, 8.9s in race two). Yamaha’s two factory riders showed enough in their respective wins to suggest they have cured at least some of their previous deficiencies. And on both occasions, bosses at Ducati will have left the circuit on Sunday night feeling those double podiums were somewhat bittersweet.

One of their riders leads the championship, yes. Also: of the six podium places on offer over the Doha fortnight, its riders filled four. But even in recent years when the factory has struggled to keep up with its Japanese rivals through the European slog of the season, it won races here. And yes, we are just two rounds into the year but Ducati’s factory riders – Jack Miller in particular – have yet to show their full potential.

While it’s much too early to sound the alarm bells, a pair of ninth places fell some way short of the Australian’s preseason expectations. He was coolness personified through the five days of testing in Qatar. There was an evergreen smile, relaxed demeanour and a hint that a change of air would do the factory squad good after Andrea Dovizioso’s departure and two years of fraught tension. Miller’s description of the debrief after his first run in factory colours showed he was ready to be embraced. “I said a couple of swear words and everyone started laughing.” Add to that, he was blindingly fast, leading a trio of Yamahas in a day four time attack and posting a race run that was entirely competitive.

It’s important to state there were mitigating factors behind Miller’s pair of ninths. A dud rear tyre hampered grip levels in the final laps of race one, he claimed. Arm pump then reared its ugly head at just the wrong moment in race two, depriving him of crucial feel in his right limb. “I don’t know if it’s to do with this track, or to do with the wind,” he said. “I felt fantastic until the last 4 laps. (But) I couldn’t really feel the front brake lever. I stopped being able to hang of the side and it locked my wrist and I couldn’t really turn that well.” He had battled through well to sit fourth before the numbness crept down the arm and to the fingers.

The physical issue is bad timing to say the least. Portimao was a great track for Miller last year. But its long sweeps and undulations will be a real test on the arm that was operated on this week. Then comes Jerez, never a Ducati favourite, Pecco Bagnaia’s surprise warm-weather blitz last year aside. Miller could be in danger of losing grip on the championship leaders before the season’s European leg is yet three races old.

What may be of concern is how patience isn’t a virtue familiar to Ducati’s factory team. In recent years the suitability of Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo and Danilo Petrucci has been judged with great urgency. Considering the top speed advantage of the Desmosedici GP21 in a ludicrously tight field, it’s fair to assume more than one top factory engineer feels this bike is capable of, at the very least, a title challenge. Miller will no doubt remember how Gigi Dall’Igna – the most senior of those engineers – saw his talents as entirely disposable mid-way through 2019, when Jorge Lorenzo was attempting to wriggle his way out of a two-year Repsol Honda deal. Now in his fourth season with the factory, the bottom line is clear: Miller is expected to deliver.  

Another worry is the level on which Ducati’s other names are operating. Johann Zarco appears more like the 2017-version of himself by the day. That he can use this bike’s grunt and outright speed to control contests means he isn’t reliant on the fairing bashing that characterised his riding back in that rookie campaign. His race craft was cool and calculating through Sunday’s GP. Jorge Martin’s speed caught him off guard. But the Frenchman was never flustered, instead using the position of his rookie team-mate to his advantage, acting as a buffer in second. “Every time someone was overtaking me and maybe tried to attack Jorge, thanks to the engine I was able to get second again,” Zarco said.

Contrast that calm, measured approach to Bagnaia, who blew a podium finish with a braking error into turn one. And yes, Miller had positioned himself well just before the arm pump hit. But there was a hint of desperation in the start straight exchange with Joan Mir. He was clearly incensed by the world champ’s earlier move and didn’t deny his subsequent whack was intentional. “It was the way the race was going,” he shrugged. The more I view the clash, the more I think it was a racing incident. But clearly lost both valuable time. From there the Ducati man had to expend further energy re-passing Aleix Espargaro and chasing Fabio Quartararo, the day’s real danger. Here, it was Zarco that looked as though he has been riding one of the Bologna bikes for close to three and a half years, not Miller.

Then there is Ducati’s shift in philosophy. The average age of its rider line-up has slid from 28 in 2020 to 24 in 2021. Martin’s outstanding performance at race two, complete with his radical, shoulder-down riding style, hinted at Ducati having a future star within its satellite ranks. The same could be said of Enea Bastianini, whose debut performances on a two-year old bike – 9.2s off the winner in the first race, 5.5s in the second – also caught the eye. Bologna has invested very wisely in its future – another reason for Miller, and, to a lesser extent, Bagnaia, to feel the pressure.

Not that this is anything new for the 26-year old. Miller has a history of fighting through adversity, be it on underpowered equipment in Moto3 or his early years of MotoGP, or attempting to recast opinions of his shortfalls (his tyre management has come on a good deal in the past year, despite what some may think). It shouldn’t be forgotten that, in what was a largely unhappy year for Ducati in 2020, he was the factory’s most consistent bright light.

Yet it was hard to shake the feeling leaving Doha that the challenge facing Miller could be bigger than previously thought.  

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP

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