After looking at the top three finishers in MotoGP, our review of 2014 turns to the riders who didn't make it onto the podium. After Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, we turn our attention to the men who finished behind them. Today, we review the seasons of Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
4th - 246 points - Dani Pedrosa
Dani Pedrosa is easily the best rider never to win a MotoGP title, and if anything, 2014 merely reinforced that reputation. By almost anyone's standards, ten podiums, including a victory, and a total of 246 points – his fourth best since joining the premier class – is an outstanding year. But for a rider with aspirations of becoming world champion, it is simply not good enough.
Looked at another way, this was the worst season Pedrosa has had in MotoGP. The Repsol Honda rider has always managed to score multiple victories each year, even during his debut in 2006. This year, he never really looked a threat, except at Brno. Throughout the year, Pedrosa was consistently behind the front runners, never capable of making a push to dominate.
What was Pedrosa's biggest problem in 2014? Quite simply, the team's approach to fixing the shortcomings of the preceding season. In 2013, Pedrosa had found himself coming up short in the second half of races, getting overhauled by either Marc Márquez or Jorge Lorenzo. Over the winter, his crew, under chief mechanic Mike Leitner, had worked on a strategy to counter this situation, adjusting the balance of the bike to make it faster during the second half of the race.
The problem Pedrosa faced was that making the bike faster in the second half meant sacrificing some speed at the start, traditionally the strongest part of his race. In previous years, Pedrosa was a safe bet to be the first rider into the first corner. In 2014, it was rare for him to get into the first corner inside the top five. That left him stuck behind other riders and struggling with a bike that wasn't quite where he wanted it, his Honda RC213V only coming into its own as the fuel burnt off and the tires started to wear. By the time he got past them, the leaders were too far gone for him to be able to catch them.
Pedrosa's predicament was made worse by the allowances made to Ducati. The soft tire the Bologna bikes were allowed meant that Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone often qualified very well, and ahead of Pedrosa. Though Pedrosa had little problem lapping faster than the Ducatis during the race, getting past them was a different matter altogether. The Desmosedici had good top speed and, especially in the second half of the season, was very strong on the brakes. It still would not turn, however, so Pedrosa would find himself parked behind a Ducati in the corners, struggling to get good enough drive to blast past on the straights, and unable to pass the bikes on the straights.
The change of strategy did not sit well with Pedrosa. He was frustrated at finding himself stuck in traffic. He pushed for more speed at the start of the race, but progress was not made at the pace he wanted. Like a tiger defanged, he felt he had been robbed of his strongest weapon. Crew chief Mike Leitner felt that the cause needed to be sought elsewhere, pointing out to me at Silverstone that it was not so much that Pedrosa was slower, but that the rest had all caught up. "Now, these riders are all prepared to push hard from the beginning on, right from the start. I don't think we made a step back, I think we stayed where we are. We just improved a little, because we were already at the limit, but the others also made a step."
Leitner's view exposed an underlying fracture in the relationship between crew chief and rider. From mid-season, rumors emerged from the Pedrosa camp that the Spaniard was unhappy with his crew chief, and was looking for a replacement. By the end of September, the situation seemed to have been resolved, with Pedrosa accepting he would have to continue with Leitner. Leitner, however, was not so happy, especially after Pedrosa also had two of his mechanics replaced. The Austrian handed in his notice, announcing he would like to spend some time at home, and away from MotoGP for a little while, though he has been linked with the MotoGP project KTM are putting together.
For 2015, Pedrosa will have a new crew chief in former data engineer Ramon Aurin. He will have a bike which should be a little easier to ride, if HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto's word is to be believed. But he will face the same challenges in the coming year as he faced in 2014: an exceptional and ambitious young teammate, a hungry and improving Valentino Rossi, and a Jorge Lorenzo out for revenge. Pedrosa will have to find improvement inside himself if he is to make real progress next year.
If there was one word which summed Andrea Dovizioso up at the end of his first season at Ducati in 2013, it would have to be dismay. The Italian looked pained; not as shell-shocked as Marco Melandri when he first got on the Ducati in 2008, but still clearly finding it hard to come to terms with the bike. "This is the reality," he would say whenever he had rolled over the line thirty or more seconds after the winner. As the year progressed, the look on his face turned to one of resignation, accepting that eighth place was all the Ducati was capable of.
2014 saw only small changes to the Desmosedici, but it saw a major change to the fate of Andrea Dovizioso. If you asked the Italian what the weakness of the GP13 was, he would tell it was in braking, in corner entry, mid corner, and corner exit. Or to put it another way, everywhere except in a straight line. At the Sepang tests in February, Dovizioso was almost upbeat. The GP14 was already a step forward: the bike still struggled mid-corner, but braking was improved, as was the initial turn in for corner entry. Corner exit was improving as well, with less rear-wheel pump making the bike more stable, and quicker out of the turns.
The improvement was visible on the timesheets: at Qatar, Dovizioso slashed the difference to the leaders from 25 seconds in 2013 to just 12 in 2014. At Austin, he could only cut the gap by a couple of seconds, but thanks in part to tire problems for Valentino Rossi and a jump start for Jorge Lorenzo, he finished the race on the podium, the first dry weather podium for a Ducati since Valentino Rossi put the GP12 on the podium at Misano. But that weekend at Misano in 2012 had been almost entirely washed out, the track only drying for qualifying, limiting track time for everyone except factory Ducati riders Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, who had tested there a couple of weeks' previously.
The improvement continued as the season went on: at Jerez, Dovizioso cut the gap from 42 to 27 seconds; at Barcelona, from 32 to 16 seconds; at Indianapolis, from 42 to 20 seconds. Better results, and a string of minor updates, each one bringing small but clear improvements, vastly improved Dovizioso's mood. Where in 2013 he had worn a look of resignation, in 2014, there was an impish glint in his eye again. His media debriefs were no longer an agonizing affair for both parties, there was a sense of fun, an occasional joke, a sense of lightness.
This lifting of his spirits translated to better results on the track, with Misano being perhaps his finest race of the season. Dovizioso hounded Dani Pedrosa all race long, coming up just short of passing the Repsol Honda rider for third. If Dovizioso's podium at Austin had had an element of luck to it, his fourth place at Misano was all down to him. The gap to the winner, Valentino Rossi was just 5.5 seconds. He would go on to add a pole position at Motegi to his achievements, but Misano was surely the high point.
Where had this improvement come from? Certainly, the changes made to the Ducati Desmosedici had helped. Though the bike which rolled onto the grid at Qatar was essentially the machine left behind by departing Ducati Corse boss Bernhard Gobmeier, new chief Gigi Dall'Igna quickly left his mark. Lacking both the time and the resources to make the major changes needed, Dall'Igna focused on areas which could be improved quickly and cheaply. A lot of small updates followed – swingarms, a new chassis, lots of software iterations – which improved braking, corner entry, and made the bike less physically demanding to ride. Just making the bike less of a physical handful helped a lot, riders ending the race with more strength and energy to maintain their pace all the way to the final lap.
That fact, the interaction with Dall'Igna, the clear signs of progress, all left Dovizioso far more optimistic than he had ever been in 2013. That change of attitude made a huge difference to his performance, making him more willing to take a chance, seeing that real results were almost within his grasp. A year's experience helped: instead of having hopped off a bike which handled onto one which didn't, Dovizioso had gone from a bad bike to one which was a little better. Switching to the GP13 from the Yamaha M1 in 2012 had dealt a hammer blow to Dovizoso's confidence. Going from the GP13 to the GP14 had given him a boost. It was a very different rider who sat astride the GP14 throughout the year.
Things are looking even brighter for Dovizioso in 2015. The new season will finally see a radically revised version of the Desmosedici designed from scratch by Gigi Dall'Igna. That bike has been designed to cure the Ducati's chronic understeer, while maintaining the strengths of the current machine. If that bike is all that Dall'Igna promises, Dovizioso could be a real threat for podiums. The motivation from small improvements in 2014 already had a huge impact. The motivation from a major leap forward should help him fight for podiums every race next season.
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