As the remnants of a category-one Typhoon named Nanmadol dissipated on Saturday evening, it was left to Jack Miller to do his best impersonation of a hurricane the following day at the Mobility Resort Motegi, blowing the race apart and destroying the field to post his most convincing premier class performance to date.
This was Miller like we’ve never seen him before. From the tenth lap, the Australian was already out of sight, building up a lead of 5.9s before the celebrations began. There was assuredness in every aspect of his performance here. Starting from 7th, it took just three laps to swat aside the six riders ahead, including a glorious two-in-one pass on Marc Marquez and Miguel Oliveira, his own nomination for the move of the season. Once out front, he never looked back.
Miller had been somewhat outclassed by Ducati stablemates in the three previous contests, but the rain-interrupted weekend in Japan was further proof that he is currently in the finest run of form of his career. Cynics may point to the fact it was an odd weekend, with just 95 minutes of dry track running before the race, and how he was one of only nine MotoGP riders there with the same manufacturer as 2019. He wasn’t, like runner-up Brad Binder, still experimenting with braking markers and lines in the early laps as he got up to speed. Yet even Binder acknowledged Miller was untouchable on Sunday. “By lap ten, I knew we weren’t going to see him again,” said the South African. “He just disappeared.”
And you have to say this result was coming. The 27-year old has been knocking on the door for the past few months. There was a podium at the Sachsenring, despite completing a Long Lap Penalty and there should have been another at Assen, but for a failed late pass on Maverick Viñales. He was third at both Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring, finishing 0.6s and 2.1s off the race winner. And he was leading at Misano before crashing out.
For months now, Miller has been pointing to one very clear reason for a turnaround. Two bad races at Mugello (15th) and Barcelona (14th) preceded a one-day test just outside the Catalan capital. The hustle and bustle of current grand prix weekends, with the need to always place inside the top ten limited chances to try great changes to set-up. The morning and afternoon there offered Miller and his crew a chance to go another way with set-up.
“Honestly, I’ve been riding this bike for such a long time now, I was quite far away from the other guys in terms of base setting,” he told me back at Misano. “Fundamental stuff, like the engine position, steering position, stuff like that. We were so far removed because of the old bike and we sort of followed our trend (our setting from 2021), basically. It just took a moment where we had had those two shit results in a row and I just could not pass. (At the test I said,) ‘Let’s go back to step one, try these other boys’ bikes and see what we’ve got to do here.’ Pretty much since we’ve done that, we’ve been fast.”
Suddenly, confidence in heavy braking zones returned. From feeling blunt and toothless in the pack, almost stationary behind other machines, to launching the kind of early offensives witnessed in Japan, the difference was clear for all to see on Sunday. “What we’re putting through the front brake lever – every time they put stiffer springs, I seem to be able to pull the brake harder,” he said back in Austria.
But along with setting changes, it’s clear a few off-track switches have left the four-time MotoGP race winner better equipped to deal with the blinding highs and crushing lows that come when competing at this level. Miller has been open and upfront about his struggles with self-belief. “I know myself. I do lack it quite a lot,” he told me recently. “If I was going to pinpoint down one of my weaknesses, that’s definitely one of them. I put this coat on where it looks like I don’t give a s**t. But that’s all false. At the end of the day, we’re all human, we all come from the same stuff and have the same issues, insecurities and anxieties.”
So, the fact he now has fiancée Ruby Mau (the pair are due to marry the week before the Australian GP) living with him in Andorra has helped maintain some perspective when things haven’t been going his way. “Having Ruby with me has helped me understand what’s really important in life. The one thing I’ve focussed on my entire life is riding a motorcycle to the best of my abilities. But it’s not the be-all-end-all. There’s a massive chapter afterwards.
“Having her around and understanding that side of things for sure has changed my outlook or the way I approach weekends, the way I approach the championship. It helps to just take my mind off it when it comes down to the race weekend. You don’t get yourself wound up into a big ball of stress and anxiety, (thinking) ‘I hope this is going to work, what’s the weather going to do?’ All that sort of shit. At the end of the day, you can’t change any of it so there’s no point in losing sleep or winding yourself up or letting yourself get too nervous about it.”
“(In Andorra) You’ve got no family. You can’t go home and go to your grandparents’ house and have dinner, or whatever. It’s not like that. Especially in the past, I’d just go home after a shit result and just and sit by myself for two weeks and stew on it, basically, and try to understand what to do better. Whereas now, things are a little different. You understand there is more to the world than just riding a motorcycle day-in day-out.”
Add to that, Miller’s future is settled for the next two years – a ‘first’ since he was still a class rookie aboard an ‘Open’ Honda. Those questions through 2021 and ’22 regarding his thoughts on another rider claiming his seat had begun to wear thin. As he recalled at Misano, “I remember coming (here) last year and a journalist asked me what my plans were for 2023 – what the f**k! We hadn’t even gotten through 2021, let alone 2022.” In short, “one less thing on my mind,” as he said in Austria.
There is the obvious argument that Miller is riding the grid’s best bike. And in his second year in factory red (and his fifth with the same manufacturer), this run should arguably have come sooner. It was certainly too little, too late to maintain his current seat in 2023.
Yet it’s uplifting to see a rider who has been so open about some of his weaknesses find a sense of calm and steadiness over recent months. In one respect, he’s in the dream position. On the best bike, in a winning team. But that comes with pressure like you couldn’t believe. It’s worth wondering how you would deal with a sticky spell when living in a foreign land, knowing close friends and family are 6,000 miles away for ten months of the year.
Thankfully for Jack, he appears to have cracked that. And if he should extend this good run in Thailand in the week ahead, preparations for his home GP really couldn’t be any better. How about that for a wedding gift?
By Neil Morrison. Photos by Ducati Corse