It was one of those days. We had a fascinating FP4 session for the MotoGP class, where a clear pattern emerged for the race, followed by a thrilling and action-packed qualifying, yet barely anyone is talking about that at all. And all because early on Saturday afternoon, the bombshell dropped that Andrea Dovizioso will be leaving Ducati at the end of the 2020 season.
Though the news itself did not quite come as a surprise, the timing and nature of the announcement caught us all a little off guard. Ducati had said they had hoped to make a decision after the two races at the Red Bull Ring. But Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella had already said he was having a meeting with Ducati management on Saturday, and Sky Italia TV tracked him down as soon as Battistella left the Ducati truck to ask how the meeting had gone. Battistella told them, and all hell broke loose.
"It’s normal to have a lot of questions and I’m a bit disappointed but this moment is not the right moment to speak about all the details," Andrea Dovizioso would tell us when we finally got to talk to him during his media debrief, held via Zoom. A debrief that was 20 minutes late, and started right in the middle of the qualifying press conference traditionally held at 5pm on Saturday afternoon. It was late because of all of the TV interviews Dovizioso had to do to explain himself, before doing it all over again for the written press.
No mood to talk
Dovizioso spent a lot of time doing his best – and largely succeeding – to say nothing. A frustrating experience for journalists and fans, when this is one of the biggest stories to break in MotoGP for a while – I was going to say for many years, but then I remembered that Jorge Lorenzo announced his retirement at Valencia last year, and that the year before that he was being forced out of Ducati before going on a winning streak with the Desmosedici. Frustrating for Dovizioso too, for he faced the same question reframed many different ways, always replying the same: he doesn't want to go into details, he just wants to focus on racing now.
So in a year with a lot of big stories – Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo signing for the factory Yamaha team back in January, leaving icon of the Yamaha brand and of MotoGP Valentino Rossi no room in the factory squad, Marc Márquez' monster four-year deal with HRC, Alex Márquez being demoted from the Repsol Honda squad before the season even started, and of course the herd of pachyderms rampaging through 2020's front room save for best that is the COVID-19 pandemic – Andrea Dovizioso leaving Ducati, the factory which he has been with for eight seasons (by the end of 2020), and which he played a major role in turning around from utterly uncompetitive to fighting for the title for the last three seasons in a row, after Ducati had tried and failed to sign his big name rivals for 2021, is right up there, if not the biggest story of all. You can read the initial story with most of the nitty gritty published earlier today here, but that still leaves a lot to ponder. Too much to note even on a Saturday night, ahead of a big race. So a random collection of thoughts on the Dovizioso-Ducati divorce.
Resigned, not sacked
First, it is notable that this was Dovizioso's decision, not Ducati's. There was no way forward together, was the line being pushed by both Dovizioso's management and Ducati. But it was Dovizioso who decided to pull the plug, taking control of his own destiny. "That decision is related to the situation there is in Ducati," is about as much as Dovizioso would let slip. A telling statement, despite its brevity.
We had known for some time that the relationship between Dovizioso and Ducati had broken down. There was a lack of trust, especially between Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna. Dall’Igna believes he has built a motorcycle which can win races with the right rider on it. Dovizioso is frustrated at the fact that Dall’Igna is focusing on speed and horsepower, and not fixing the issues mid-corner which has plagued the bike since the beginning. The GP15 was a massive step forward, and the bike has gotten better every year after that, but fundamentally, the problem remains the same: Marc Márquez can stop and turn the Honda RC213V better than Dovizioso can do the same with the Ducati. That is an advantage Dovizioso doesn't believe he can overcome without help from Dall’Igna.
Money as a token of investment
Was the decision about money? Finances were obviously a factor, but in general, they are rarely decisive. The money being offered by a team – especially a factory team – is a reflection of how that team rates the rider. It is also, Simone Battistella once told me, a reflection of how heavily invested the factory are in making this a success. It is financially more painful to fail with a very well-paid rider than with one being paid on the cheap.
So salary demands should be seen not necessarily as a way of pumping up a rider's bank balance – though that remains a very important factor, even for a man with a relatively modest lifestyle like Dovizioso – but also as a way of testing how much effort the factory is willing to put into building a bike that the rider can win with. It is also a measure of desire for success, with this particular rider.
It is more likely that the split came because Dovizioso was tired of fighting his corner. "Eight years is a long time," Bradley Smith reflected when I asked for his take on the situation. "Sometimes people need some motivation or need a change of scenery. We’ve seen Valentino change his crew chiefs many a time, just to kind of create that new atmosphere and working with VR46 academy riders, just trying to keep that spark. Maybe that’s something that Dovi is missing. I don’t know if that means that he’s completely fell out of love with motorcycles, or just needs some time to consider what is next for him."
True love fades
The intensity can fade when you have been inside a project for a long time, Smith said. "Especially if you feel that it’s heavy and people, maybe relationships aren’t great inside of there." That can be tough to maintain if a rider feels it is not being reciprocated, Smith explained. "This takes a lot of of our time, a lot of our effort, and there’s a hell of a lot of passion that comes from riders. If you feel that you’re putting in the passion and you don’t feel that you're getting that back, there’s only so long… It’s a one-way relationship. A lot of work and emotions and those type of things. It could just be a simple thing as that. It’s not working just like maybe with a girlfriend or something like that. It just gets to a point where everyone says ... isn’t it rocky at seven years or something? So maybe it’s just that situation."
Smith was at pains to point out that he has no special knowledge of the situation, and it was just his personal view from the outside. "It’s all speculation. You need to speak to him." We did, of course, and Dovizioso told us nothing.
For good reason, perhaps. "It’s not the moment to speak about that, because I don’t want to create a tension in Ducati because we are focused on racing," Dovizioso told us, several times, phrased several different ways. "I don’t want to create any problem. I want to stay in best situation with the team because it’s related to the results we can make during the weekend."
The objective is still to win the 2020 MotoGP title, Dovizioso said. The imminent split is unlikely to have a negative effect on that objective: Dovizioso is more motivated than ever, in part to show Ducati what they are losing. Ducati are as motivated as they ever were, with the title seemingly closer than in previous years because of the absence of Marc Márquez. Dovizioso is still the top Ducati, and the most obvious contender for the 2020 championship from the Ducati camp. The interests of this season vastly outweigh the longer perspective of the two parties continuing without each other.
The riders all had similar feelings about the news when asked about it. It was a real shame, most riders felt, though they were not entirely surprised. "It looks to be completely up to him," Jack Miller, due to move up to the factory Ducati team in 2021, told the qualifying press conference. "He’s made the decision. You got to back it. The guy has been here a long time. He knows what he’s doing. First of all, I want to say thank you to him for eight years he’s put into the Ducati and we have this competitive package we have now I think a big part because of him. I made a joke with him once he did it. I popped over the garage and poked my nose in and said, “What happened, mate? You didn’t want to share a garage with me?” It’s a shame, but I’m not Ducati management."
Aleix Espargaro was one of a few riders who were surprised that Ducati would let Dovizioso go. "I don’t understand it," the Aprilia rider said. "It looks like some teams are not giving enough credit to their riders. I think what Andrea give to Ducati is unbelievable. I don’t know the situation there inside but I’ve said it many times, Andrea is one of my favorite riders of all. He’s very hard working, a very clean rider with a very high technique. I think he developed the bike very good. I think the most impressive thing for me is how fast he is on race day. Sometimes on a Friday and Saturday he is not explosive or fantastic. But on race day he is always unbelievably fast."
Despite his denials - "In this moment I don’t have any plan B," he said – Dovizioso is being linked to the second seat at Aprilia. Espargaro was enthusiastic. "As a rider, I know it’s not easy for the Aprilia management, but as a rider I would love to have Andrea, for me the second best rider in the world in the last five years, as a teammate," Aleix Espargaro said. "It would help the team to grow up a lot and it would help me to be a better rider. I think I can be faster than him but I also think I can learn many, many things from Andrea. He would be more than welcome at Aprilia from my side."
The question of who might replace Dovizioso was already at the top of many people's minds. "This news surprised me, and it opens very much the riders' market," Valentino Rossi said. "Because now you have one of the best places on the grid – the factory Ducati – that is open. I think that there will be a lot of riders that want to go there. Also our Pecco Bagnaia that unfortunately he had an injury in Brno, in the worst moment for him for the championship, because I think that he can be very competitive."
Gigi Dall’Igna named a few possible candidates for the seat, though he said Ducati were not ready to make a decision just yet. "We have confirmed that we are interested in continuing our relationship with [Pecco] Bagnaia and [Johann] Zarco," Dall'Igna told Italian broadcaster Sky. "They are doing very well. We have some ideas, but it is still too soon to talk about them." Dall'Igna was less enthusiastic about any suggestion of a return to Ducati by Jorge Lorenzo. "I think the idea of Lorenzo is a very risky hypothesis. But it is on the table, and we are evaluating it."
Jack Miller was even less enthusiastic about Jorge Lorenzo when he was asked what he would do in Gigi Dall'Igna's place. "I’m not Gigi, so I don’t have this job. Thank God! It is what it is. Jorge has been busy the last couple of years with Ducati and Honda and Yamaha. We’ll see. A lot of media hype about it. You always read something. I think the logical choice for me would be Pecco. He’s been there, done the junior academy. He’s a young rider. He’s hungry. Unfortunately he’s injured at the moment, after he had a great showing in Jerez where unfortunately he had a mechanical. If I have to be completely honest, I think he is the most logical one for the job at the minute. As we’ve seen, anything can happen. Thank God I don’t have this job."
But enough of contract talk. Andrea Dovizioso also deserves mention because he is clearly one of the favorites for the race on Sunday, and he starts from fourth on the grid, after a thrilling qualifying session. The battle for the top positions went down to the wire, Maverick Viñales only certain of pole at the very end, when Jack Miller came up just shy of deposing him and had to settle for second, ahead of Fabio Quartararo. Remarkably, Quartararo hasn't been off the front row of the grid since Silverstone 2019, making Austria his tenth front row start in a row.
In terms of pace in FP4, however, Pol Espargaro stands head and shoulders above the rest. The KTM rider posted 11 laps in the 1'24s during the only really full-dry practice session of the weekend, nearly twice the number anyone else was capable of. Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco, Maverick Viñales, Andrea Dovizioso, and Fabio Quartararo also had strong pace, though a little way behind Espargaro. That is toughest on Rossi and Zarco, as both have poor qualifying positions to overcome: Zarco starts from ninth, while Rossi will line up in twelfth.
Andrea Dovizioso acknowledged he was in good shape for Sunday. "I think we have our chance for sure," he said, before pointing out that it wouldn't be as easy as in previous years. "But I think the situation is a bit different to the past because the competitors become stronger. So to win I have to find a good strategy and I don’t know if I will have a chance. Pol today did an incredible pace. I think Rins will be a race contender. And in the middle there are a lot of really fast riders. I think the Yamahas and Jack will be really strong. I don’t know if they can fight until the end. But that can create a big confusion for the race so it will be hard. The start will be important. But with 28 laps the consumption of the rear tire here we have to study and try to be ready in any condition tomorrow."
Race wide open
Miguel Oliveira, starting from eleventh, saw chances for himself as well. "For sure there is an opportunity," the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider said. "I see the Suzukis really strong in the pace, also Pol and for sure Dovi. I think they are going to be the threats of the weekend. I am not sure about the Yamahas, maybe they have found something also for the used tires, but yeah, we need to see and analyze tomorrow what is going on. It is true that Valentino did a very good FP4 when he put the new medium, so maybe he was testing the tire, I don't know. For sure we are going to see an interesting race tomorrow."
Suzuki's Joan Mir has high hopes for Sunday. "Our expectations always are higher than the position that we start," Mir told us. "That’s true. We have a good pace, really constant. I think that not a lot of people have our pace. Probably I see the KTM, Pol is really strong here. Then I see Dovizioso. And Miller with the Ducati will be strong also. But then I see the Yamahas struggling a little bit. It can be a good result if we are with the first three that I said. Then if at the end of the race we have the good pace that the Suzuki normally has maybe we can get the chance for a podium."
It was something of a surprise to see so many Yamahas at the front in qualifying, and so many Yamahas fast in FP4 as well. The Red Bull Ring is not supposed to be a strong circuit for the Yamahas, yet they are looking threatening. When I asked Franco Morbidelli what the strength of the Yamaha was around the Red Bull Ring, he answered without hesitation: "Corner speed." When quizzed about the fact that the Red Bull Ring was known for its straights rather than its corners, he pointed out it there was more to the track than just the straights. "There are ten corners here," he pointed out wryly.
On paper, the Yamahas look like being a factor on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring, certainly in the dry. But in the dry, Pol Espargaro looks the favorite to make it two wins in a row for KTM, which would be a meaningful victory at KTM's home race. But Dovizioso, Miller, Mir, or even Oliveira could be in the mix.
In the wet, it is anyone's guess, and with heavy rain predicted for 2pm, the starting time of the race, all bets are off. So far, however, the weather has studiously ignored the predictions so carefully made by meteorologists. Anything could happen, both on track and in the heavens above it.
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