No shoey but finally all showy for ‘Thriller’
The staunch critics of the Ducati Lenovo rider – the people/commentors/trolls he confesses made him turn away from social media channels like Twitter – could argue that the Gran Premio Red Bull de España last weekend was as much about Fabio Quartararo’s epic fade and surrender as much as it was about Miller’s resurrection as a MotoGP protagonist. Quartararo is no shrinking violet when it comes to public displays of his state of mind, and it was initially hard to tell if the anguish immediately after his descent from 1st position – and the brink of a third consecutive rout of MotoGP at Jerez – to a humbling 13th was pain of mind or body. In those few revealing minutes after crossing the finish line and beamed to an international TV audience thanks to the dashboard camera, it was likely to be both.
The re-emergence of the 21 year old’s arm-pump issues – that could force a second corrective operation in the space of two years – is a worry and also puzzling after his rampant form in the three previous Grand Prix. Even if Jerez was a little more demanding on the brakes compared to the relative flow of Losail and the Algarve International Circuit. World Champion Joan Mir said: “25 laps here in Jerez, accelerating, braking, always this is difficult, it’s really difficult. It’s important to manage well also this situation.”
Quartararo’s physical block and eroding lap-times was the incentive for the chasing Miller who had dispensed with teammate Pecco Bagnaia and had seen Alex Rins scrape away yet more Suzuki fairing material this season. In Rins’ partial defence he was dealing with a tweak to the right shoulder he’d injured in 2020 at the same circuit, but this complaint had come through his mistake the previous day and could limit his testing time at Jerez on Monday.
Miller was ideally poised to despatch Quartararo. “I was just throwing out the hook,” he said afterwards; the euphoria pouring out of him in front of us in the post-race press conference with lively, occasionally profane engaging talk (ditching the strange Euro-English he sometimes uses).
“I was thinking ‘Fabio is going to demolish us all’. So I’ll throw out the hook, get towed around for a few laps and have a decent enough gap that I can wobble around for the last few laps and hopefully get a podium or something. As I was doing that I saw he wasn’t going anymore, and if anything I was starting to catch him back. Then in two laps I caught back a massive chunk and I thought, ‘you’ve got to go past him, he’s dropping’. As soon as I did that, it wasn’t too hard. The biggest surprise for me was when I came around after I passed him and I seen .6 on the board. I was like, ‘that’s a gap, are you kidding? That’s a gap!’ Then next lap it was 1.2. I’m like, ‘get going, go!’ A lot of fun, but also very stressful at the same time, especially around here.”
There were undoubted nerves as he completed the final circulations of the 4.4km silent circuit comfortably ahead of the other Ducati that he could slow substantially to the flag. The 1.9 second gap a little closer than it needed to be. “Jerez is so tight with these big bikes,” he added. “It’s a lot of fun, but between wheelie and with the devices we have and everything like that, and then try and switch maps and be as precise as possible, it’s not easy. It’s a long race around here 25 laps, but it makes it all the more sweeter.”
Why was Miller so emotional in Parc Ferme? There is context. Not only had it been five long years before he had sampled anything like the elation of winning but the chequered flag also waved away some of the thickening air around the Aussie. Pre-season testing had gone to plan with class-leading times in Qatar but then tyre problems, some bump-and-grind with the world champion and a costly mistake in Portugal meant he counted only 14 points and 12th position in the standings coming into Jerez; perhaps not the start Ducati bosses envisaged, and – with arguably the largest group of potential suitors on the grid eying one of two factory saddles – Miller’s Desmosedici comes with extra heat.
Miller had criticism. He was carrying a cloak of the the same uncertainty that shadowed his first two seasons in the class in 2015-16 and his unconventional move from Moto3 straight into MotoGP (ironically there is now speculation whether 16-year old Moto3 starlet Pedro Acosta could make the same unwise bound over a Moto2 education). He is now into his fourth team and second brand and the four podiums and 6th place from 2020 demanded that he begin to touch the next level of performance. As well as his own personal expectation and those surrounding him, Miller has a daily reminder of the standard he needs to reach thanks to Bagnaia. Ducati celebrated Miller’s Jerez feat with extra verve for what was their first win at the famous old circuit since 2006 but the jubilation also extended to Bagnaia’s runner-up finish and the fact that the Italian heads the points table for the very first time (the second Ducati rider to do so from three different ‘red plate’ holders thus far in 2021).
“In MotoGP everything changes very quickly and from one year to the other. A lot of performance changes and everybody tries to make things better…but sometimes it is not possible,” said Valentino Rossi on Sunday afternoon, a rider who languishes 21st in MotoGP tied on four points with his rookie step-brother and with a similar technical base that has won three of the four Grands Prix this season and led the race in Jerez. A two-year old version of the M1 was used on the other side of the Petronas garage to take the third podium spot in the hands of Franco Morbidelli. Jerez was the scene of Rossi’s last podium finish ten month earlier and could the first indication that the swansong starts in 2021.
But that’s another Blog and, at the very least, Rossi has definitely earned time in a new team to try and find his competitiveness. If he is finishing more than twenty seconds behind the victor by the time of round nine at Assen then the clock will tick significantly louder. Rossi’s point about change was loosely made but entirely accurate when applied to 2021 and where the formbook was again subverted. Even the Marc Marquez runaway train of comeback momentum felt the brakes with a scary Free Practice crash at Turn 7 and some investment needed by Jerez in their air fences.
Most of the hot air in Spain belonged to the #43 however. Miller delivered on the potential shown in braps during the last two months. Where will he – and MotoGP of course – turn next?
By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad
Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp