It is hard to overstate just how big the turnaround of Pecco Bagnaia's season was in 2022. Going into the Dutch TT at Assen, Bagnaia trailed championship leader Fabio Quartararo by 91 points. Ten races later, Bagnaia clinched the championship at Valencia with an advantage of 17 points. The Italian had clawed back 108 points in ten races, an average of nearly 11 points a race.
The man who helped Bagnaia achieve that incredible comeback has experience winning world championships. Ducati Lenovo Team crew chief Cristian Gabarrini already had two MotoGP titles under his belt with Casey Stoner, first at Ducati, then at Honda. He oversaw Marc Márquez' first championship in 2013, as technical advisor in the Repsol Honda team, before returning to Ducati.
He is a quiet, modest man, softly spoken, who weighs his words carefully. That meticulousness is also apparent in his work as a crew chief: Pecco Bagnaia's garage is well organized and well run, the bike always ready for Bagnaia when he needs it. He is thoughtful, his responses to questions revealing a very sharp intellect indeed.
At Sepang, I had a long and very in-depth interview with Cristian Gabarrini. We spoke about the pressure of defending a championship, how sprint races will change MotoGP this season, how Pecco Bagnaia turned his season around, and the change Gabarrini saw in the Italian.
We also talked more broadly about riding a MotoGP machine. How aerodynamics and ride-height devices have changed traction, about finding the right balance between getting maximum performance from a new tire in qualifying and a used tire in the race, how the rider is the best sensor a crew chief has on the bike, and how Bagnaia is both very similar and very different to Casey Stoner.
Q: You have done the easy part, winning a title. Now you have to do the hard part, defending it. You've defended titles before, with Casey Stoner. What will you change this year, compared to last year, or just do the same thing?
Cristian Gabarrini: But if you think about my side, or the way to approach, it's exactly the same. I hope this year we will start in a different way. Because last year, after Germany, we were in a very particular situation. This year I would like to let Pecco start in a proper way and try to fight from the beginning, not have to face a big gap in front of us. But from my side, it's exactly the same, same way, same method, everything is exactly the same.
Q: Literally starting from zero?
CG: Yeah. Every season is a different season. This year especially with the sprint race. So we have to focus to obtain the maximum every weekend, as usual.
Q: Will sprint races change your job? Race data is the most valuable data, will sprint races make things easier, or just more stress?
CG: For sure more stress for everybody, riders first. Because if you have to face two races in the same weekend - it doesn't matter how many laps, but the mentality is a race mentality – for the rider it's more stressful. In our side, we have to change a lot the planning of the weekend, because we have to use anyway the first day, Friday, to go straight away into Q2. But in the same way, it looks like Friday afternoon is the only time and weather conditions in which you can understand for example which rear tire you can use in the normal race on Sunday.
Q: Because you used to do that in FP2 and FP4, now you just have FP2?
CG: Especially FP4, no? When you finished setting the bike, then you focus on the tire, especially on the tire. So we have less time to do all the work of the entire weekend. This is for sure to me the main change. I'm not scared about the sprint race itself. But not scared, but we have to focus how to prepared for a weekend, because of the sprint race.
Q: Because it changes everything and you have so much less time to understand what you are going to need on Sunday?
CG: Yes. If you think about Friday afternoon. If it starts raining five minutes before practice, it's gone, if the sprint race and Sunday race is dry. So you start more or less from zero. So for me, it's more important than usual to have a good base setting, to have a good base to work with, and not necessary to change the bike so much during the weekend. This will be a key point.
Q: Something Ducati did wrong last year was testing all the way to the first race, so you didn't have a base setting. Sprint races are going to make it even more important not to repeat this?