Coming into the Qatar double-header, newly-promoted factory Ducati MotoGP rider Francesco Bagnaia had never scored more than two top-six finishes in a season and had never put up more than 20 points in consecutive races.
In the Qatar Grand Prix and Doha GP, he was third and sixth respectively, and raked in 26 points to sit 14 off the championship lead.
It was sensible, then, to assume Bagnaia had hit his targets for the two races.
But when asked by The Race on Sunday whether he would’ve accepted such a haul at the end of the pre-season, Bagnaia said: “I was not accepting it, for sure. Because our objective was maybe to finish more in front.
“And looking at my pace today, my pace was to win the race.”
There was something of a consensus that Bagnaia was handed his factory ride perhaps a year too early, as a consequence of the Andrea Dovizioso contract standoff-turned-divorce. And Bagnaia was certainly anticipated to be playing second fiddle to Jack Miller, at least initially, in the Ducati works line-up.
That might yet happen, as Miller’s had a pair of really strange races. But Bagnaia, publicly at least, never accepted a number two role coming into the season, and in Qatar he walked the walk after talking the talk.
Bagnaia’s factory Ducati debut featured a superb circuit-record pole, and the race itself was a diligent ride in which he kept the lead for 14 laps and held off the attacks from faster-seeming bikes for as long as possible.
The second weekend was not as good, but in some ways equally as encouraging. Bagnaia’s launch device “didn’t work well” so he tumbled out of the top 10 as the lights went out, yet just 13 laps later he was up to third place behind the two Pramac bikes and looking like a prime contender for victory.
Granted, it unravelled slightly from there – Bagnaia was passed by eventual race winner Fabio Quartararo, and after repassing the Yamaha on the main straight he completely overshot Turn 1, effectively killing off his victory bid.
But he still salvaged a decent helping of points in the kind of race where last year he would’ve ended up on the ground.
“This confidence that I had with the bike made also me make an error, a mistake in Turn 1,” Bagnaia said.
“I have to learn, I have to improve on that area, because in a factory team this type of error is unacceptable and without this error for sure I would’ve been fighting for the top positions.
“I started to think that it was possible to win the race when I was behind [Johann] Zarco. I was controlling, I was trying to let breathe the rear tyre that from the start I had pushed a lot, and it was important to arrive on the last part of the race having let it breathe for two or three laps.
“But then Fabio overtook me and [while repassing him] I was in the tunnel of slipstream of Zarco, and when I braked I felt that it was impossible to stop.
“It’s a mistake, a big mistake that I have to not repeat for sure. This mistake cost me the podium, for sure.”
So, to recap – a “big mistake”, “unacceptable” for a factory rider and one that Bagnaia later said “makes me angry”.
All of that strongly suggests that the 24-year-old Italian’s first year as a factory Ducati man is no learning season. There are the words of someone who already sees himself as a MotoGP frontrunner.
“I have to improve and learn from my mistakes, to fight for the top position always,” Bagnaia continued. “So from Portimao we’ll have to start with this mentality.
“In situations like these, it’s not good to lose too much points like this, so it’s something I have to learn.”
Bagnaia running up front in MotoGP is no novelty – after all, he was mere laps away from a pretty dominant Misano win last year when he crashed.
But Misano was something of an outlier in 2020. And who knows, maybe Qatar will be this year – Bagnaia’s problem in MotoGP so far has been the performance ‘floor’, not its ‘ceiling’.
Yet it certainly sounds like Bagnaia does not expect to retreat into the midfield, and that he feels like he already belongs at the sharp end in MotoGP.
And if that’s indeed the case, Ducati’s long-standing faith in Bagnaia may already pay off fully in 2021 – and bring his employer even more than it could’ve hoped for.