It has been a remarkable year for Andrea Dovizioso. After years of being dismissed and overlooked, the 31-year-old Italian went from being placeholder for his new teammate Jorge Lorenzo – far more successful previously, and vastly better paid as a result – to being Ducati's main weapon in the 2017 MotoGP championship.
Viewed from the outside, Dovizioso's transformation has been truly astonishing. After a slow start in MotoGP – a podium in his first year with the JiR Scot Honda team, then a solitary victory at a soaking Donington Park the following season in 2009 – Dovizioso got into his stride in the Repsol Honda team. He scored seven podiums in his first season on the factory Honda, but that was not enough to secure his spot at Repsol. Early in 2010, Honda announced they would be signing Casey Stoner.
Dovizioso refused to budge for the Australian. He held HRC to their contract with him, and three Repsol Hondas lined up on the grid in 2011. Despite finishing ahead of Dani Pedrosa – helped by Pedrosa's absence with a broken collarbone for three races after he was knocked off at Le Mans by Marco Simoncelli – Dovizioso was dropped by Honda at the end of the year, when the Italian's contract expired.
The Nearly Man comes good
Dovizioso gained a reputation as the nearly man: always fast, but never able to finish the job. After moving to the Tech 3 Yamaha squad and finishing fourth in the championship, he was offered the seat at Ducati vacated by Valentino Rossi when he left at the end of 2012. While the media still focusing on the fallout from the inevitable break up of the marriage between two Italian icons which had ended so badly, Dovizioso got on with the slow and steady work of developing the bike.
It was a long and sometimes painful process. He stuck with Ducati as Bernhard Gobmeier, parachuted in by new owners Audi, then moved aside to make way for Gigi Dall'Igna after Ducati poached the Italian engineer from Aprilia.
His results improved as the bike developed. Two podiums in 2014 were followed by five in 2015, with the introduction of a radically new bike. Another five followed in 2016, along with his second victory in MotoGP, Seven years after his first. But questions remained over just how good he was: his win at Sepang was taken in the wet, and he had lost out to teammate Andrea Iannone in the dry in Austria.
Ducati, too, seemed to be having their doubts. They signed Jorge Lorenzo to a monster contract early in 2016, forcing a battle between Iannone and Dovizioso over the remaining seat at the Italian factory. It was a battle Dovizioso looked like he had lost, with reports that Ducati had already settled on Iannone for 2017. But Iannone scuppered his own chances by taking out Dovizioso on the last lap in Argentina, when they looked on for a double podium.
Dovizioso picked up his bike and pushed it across the line to finish thirteenth, picking up three points in the effort. Iannone sat disconsolate, having given up. That incident, and the way Dovizioso handled it and the incident in Austin the following week, where he was taken out by Dani Pedrosa, helped to make up Ducati's mind. Dovizioso stayed, as dependable teammate and second fiddle to Lorenzo.
The unseen change
Things did not work out that way, though. Throughout the 2016 season, Dovizioso had been making changes to his approach to life, and to training, and to racing. Those had slowly been paying dividends, but they went largely unnoticed as everyone focused on Jorge Lorenzo's switch to Ducati in 2017, and Maverick Viñales' move to take the place of the departing Lorenzo in the factory Yamaha squad.
People started paying a little more attention after the race in Sepang, where Dovizioso won quite convincingly as others struggled and crashed. They were intrigued at the beginning of the 2017 season, when it became clear he was outperforming his highly paid teammate Lorenzo, especially after nearly winning the season opener at Qatar and finishing between Viñales and Valentino Rossi. But he was still only fifth in the championship after Le Mans, and fans and pundits alike were looking forward to what Ducati would be able to do in 2018.
Dovizioso forced the world to sit up and take notice by winning convincingly at Mugello, but victory a week later at Barcelona under difficult conditions – a track lacking grip and searing heat – was what made the fans and media look at him differently. Suddenly, Dovizioso was within 7 points of the championship lead, and clearly capable of beating the Yamahas who were starting to struggle.
A new spirit unleashed
The second half of the season saw Dovizioso become a serious challenger for the 2017 championship. It was not just that he was winning races, it was how he was doing it. Twice, in Austria and at Motegi, Dovizioso disposed of Marc Márquez in final corner battles. Dovizioso, the nearly man who would never win in a straight fight on the last lap, was suddenly a force to be reckoned with, a hard-bitten rider outsmarting the best racer in the world, luring Márquez into mistakes and taking advantage of them to beat him at his own game.
In the end, Dovizioso lost out to Marc Márquez, finishing 37 points behind the Repsol Honda rider. But it had gone down to the last race, and Andrea Dovizioso had established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and a title contender in his own right. He has also changed the way riders, the media, and fans looked at the sport. He got where he was thanks to a totally different attitude to racing, a far more cerebral approach based on maintaining focus throughout the weekend.
I spoke to Dovizioso at the Jerez test about his transformation over the past eighteen months. In a way, he said, he was lucky to have remained in MotoGP for long enough to be able to make this transformation. "I think this is like Formula 1," he said. "If you are on top, you can stay in this level for a long time, but if you are a good rider, you take a lot of risk. You don’t have a chance to continue to work on yourself, to try to get that result."
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