The Beauty and The Beast

If the Chinese proverb is to be believed, the best things in life come in twos. Yin and yang; male and female; and in Francesco Bagnaia’s case, MotoGP victories. The Italian sustained the rich vein of form that saw him defeat Marc Marquez the previous week to triumph at home after a late Fabio Quartararo onslaught.

Bagnaia’s staunch defence here may have lacked the all-out kung-fu combat of the previous race, but there was reason to believe it was just as impressive. While his rival in Aragon was still far from full fitness, regaining strength-and-feeling aboard one of the poorest incarnations of Honda’s RC213V in living memory, here he had to hang on as the championship leader, a rider competing at the very top of his game, honed in.

This was a stunning match up of two of the fastest riders in the class in 2021. But even from their positions on the top two steps of the podium there was further warning that the conveyor belt of talent seeking to usurp them is never-ending. Here it was Enea Bastianini’s turn to stun, putting in a performance of combative quality to take third, a debut podium in the class. Not only did he rise through the pack from twelfth on the grid; the rookie’s mid-race pace suggested he could well have challenged the top two were it not for an average Saturday.

That’s 14 riders now to have climbed the rostrum in the premier class this year. Perhaps this was the most surprising of the lot. Sure, Bastianini showed real pace in FP4. And Misano has long been his favoured track on the calendar, as evidenced by his wins here in Moto2 (2020) and Moto3 (2015). But did anyone really think a ride of this quality was possible from a class rookie starting from twelfth, on a two-year old machine?

Not me. But the speed with which the 23-year old slashed through a group fighting for fourth containing Aleix Espargaro, both Repsol Hondas and both Ecstar Suzukis, made a mockery of their reputations. It’s rare to hear Marc Marquez speak so enthusiastically about a rider who had just left him in his wake. The eight-time champion was impressed by Bastianini’s riding from the moment he saw a blur of blue on lap eight. “He was understanding a lot the way to ride the Ducati. He was braking so late, and exit of the corner with a lot of torque and a lot of grip. He was doing everything in the correct way.”

‘The Beast’ has always been something of a puzzle. From the moment he rocked up in Moto3, it was obvious he had talent in abundance, taking a second place in just his seventh race. But he was never world champion material in the junior class. Even in Moto2, he was the most consistent of the four names gunning for the title, but rarely the fastest.

Plus, he seems so laid back in his manner around the paddock that you wonder how he can transform into the ruthless animal MotoGP requires. I remember a moment in a press conference after last year’s second Aragon outing. Enea was asked for his opinion on Valencia – the scene of the upcoming two races. He shrugged, offering, “It’s not my favourite track,” Sam Lowes, chief rival, sized him up from the next seat. Among smiles and giggles, Bastianini appeared completely oblivious these settings could be and are used for psychological intimidation. Yet after the Valencian double-header he outscored rivals Luca Marini and Lowes by 2 and 21 points respectively. Work that one out.

Yet Avintia team boss Ruben Xaus doesn’t see his rider so laid back. “It seems like Enea is really calm when he’s going out there. But when he makes mistakes, you can see he’s really under pressure.” One of those moments came after FP3 at Misano. “After Aragon our pace was in front. We had to start here what we finished at Aragon. He was following slower riders than him in FP3. I don’t tell many things to Enea, but I said, ‘We don’t follow slower riders than us.’”

Amazing bike control and front-end feel was a hallmark of his title year in Moto2, evidenced by three slides – and saves – at Misano, Aragon and Valencia that were Marquez-esque in their execution. “It’s called talent and a bit of luck,” said then team boss Robertino Pietri. The fact he did it thrice hinted more of the former than the latter. And this year, smoothing out his style has been key to his last two results. “I’ve changed my style during the last three races, also I’m more soft in all the movements when riding,” he said on Sunday. “I have seen the data of Pecco and also Jack. It’s a different bike, but the DNA is similar. Now I’m more relaxed.” 

Crew chief Alberto Giribuola – formerly with Andrea Dovizioso – has also been key in adapting his rider to the class. “During Austria two from FP4 he changed his mind, the approach, on the way to ride the bike,” said Giribuola. “He was more relaxed and at the same time focussed. He stopped thinking about other riders and the way they ride. he was just trying to ride the bike as he likes.”

At Misano, his rider focussed on maximising the Ducati’s strong points – braking strength and accelerating, as well as attacking the three fast rights after the back straight. “We have to think about the potential of the bike. For sure our bike is good in braking and in acceleration. But track by track there are some corners that, if you really make in a good way, you can gain in other corners. For example, if we try to make the first two corners here in Misano like a Yamaha, probably we cannot get that result. We focussed on other points that for our bike are good.”

Quartararo noted Bagnaia’s strength in sector three all weekend. Well, Bastianini was even faster than the winner there in the race. Even Jack Miller was perplexed as to how he could carry so much speed when leant over so far. “Definitely was surprised … with the amount of lean angle he was able to carry that late in the race. I was just a sitting duck.”

After a showing like this, there could be more to come when we return to Italy’s east coast in late October. Xaus certainly thinks as much. “It might sound arrogant but without that starting position, we could have even fought for the win,” he said. “Enea’s growing so much but in certain points, he’s missing strategy. Here, we recovered the situation. I’m sure that in Misano 2 we’ll start from that point. If we go to Austin and finish 15th I don’t care. Then when we come back to Misano, rock and roll.”

By Neil Morrison @neilmorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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