Jack Miller’s first contract as a factory Ducati rider is a 2021 deal with an option for 2022, meaning it theoretically leaves him vulnerable to not even seeing out the standard two-year MotoGP works rider cycle.
And though such an outcome has looked somewhat far-fetched, it was given credence by Miller’s poor start to the season in 2021 that yielded only 14 points in the first three races.
But the Aussie came up big with his first Ducati win at Jerez, and now sits only 27 points off the championship leader – his team-mate Francesco Bagnaia.
With contract decisions usually taken early in the year, should Ducati commit to Miller right away on the heels of his Spanish GP success – or does he still have much to prove relative to the other potential contenders for the ride?
Mugello and Barcelona are the real tests
Sure, Miller might have got a little lucky at the Spanish Grand Prix, taking a maiden Ducati win and his first since Assen 2016 only after arm pump issues for Fabio Quartararo – but the thing is, even second place would have been a resounding success for the Aussie at Jerez given his form in recent race weekends.
He might not be the title contender that team-mate Bagnaia now is, but he did manage to make himself stand out over satellite Ducati rider (and Miller’s biggest threat) Johann Zarco, with the Frenchman having a largely invisible race behind Miller and Bagnaia’s successes.
But the real tell for Miller hasn’t happened yet – and won’t for a few more weeks, until we see what happens at Mugello and Barcelona. Very much favoured Ducati tracks and places where both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso have taken double wins in recent years, they’re also where Ducati does its decision-making, and Miller’s form there will be far more important for his future ambitions than Jerez.
Too few alternatives
Miller’s win is a 25-pointer but for me one swallow doesn’t make a summer. To be so lost for those first races meant he had to have a hard reset after Portugal but at this level you need to be on your top game every race. It’s not as if he’s not been in MotoGP for five minutes…
Signing a rider in mid-May is the thing to do nowadays so people don’t miss all the buses and there’s no person keener to do it than the manager of the rider. It’s in their DNA to take the deal quickly so the team doesn’t change its mind, the rider get injured or loses form. Aki Ajo is no fool but he and Miller know this is one of the prime positions in motorsport, let alone MotoGP, in being a works Ducati rider so they won’t hang around in pushing Bologna.
Three things are in my mind. One, let’s see what Miller can do now his first dry win is off his back, and two, who will Ducati talk to if it isn’t going to sign Miller? Zarco may well be riding very well, but Ducati can’t flick Miller for Zarco – as much as I think Zarco has really stepped up, it just can’t happen. Finally, there are many at Ducati who fondly remember the Foggy and Bayliss years and Miller has a huge amount of that aura that the Bolognese will be attracted to. He’s show business and the sponsor in the shape of Philip Morris will love that too.
He just hasn’t done enough yet
First win after five years and a lacklustre start to the season? It would be nothing less than impulsive for Ducati to commit just yet.
This somewhat lucky win (thanks to Quartararo’s arm pump) is a blip if Miller doesn’t carry on the momentum and start delivering results race after race.
Bagnaia is outshining Miller even without a win, and I would go as far as saying Miller has been the most disappointing Ducati rider on track (but the win has slightly improved my assessment).
To put Miller’s win into context, Bagnaia was still in Moto3 when the Australian last won a MotoGP race. OK, he’s only just got into the works team, but enough satellite riders have won in that period. Miller has been in the top tier long enough to know he needs to prove his worth in the factory team, as there are young talents rising quickly, and of course a resurgent Zarco in Ducati’s roster too.
For not only the sake of a future factory Ducati contract but his place in MotoGP in general, Miller needs to prove he can score big points regularly.
Ducati holds all the cards
All the power is in Ducati’s hands here. This isn’t likely to be one of the MotoGP silly seasons where lots of top rides become available, and even if Valentino Rossi calls it a day, that seems unlikely to create a domino effect that would open up a seat Miller would want to jump onto if Ducati hasn’t made up its mind yet.
Miller won’t have wanted anyone to rush to a judgement based on his difficult start to the season, so nor should we rush to forget those difficult races off the back of one good one. He needs to keep his head down and forget about the Jerez win, rather than thinking that he’s cracked it now.
As well as making sure he earns that contract extension, Miller needs to keep up the momentum over the course of the season to avoid being cast as the inconsistent support rider alongside Bagnaia.
The Petrucci example will give Ducati pause
Remember when Ducati extended Danilo Petrucci for another season in the works team on the heels of a famous, spectacular first win at Mugello? His start to 2019 was on the whole better than Miller’s first races in 2021, but his form dropped – cratered, really – immediately after the extension.
Aside from last year’s wonderful outlier at Le Mans, both Ducati and Petrucci would have been better off without that 2020 deal, even though signing it seemed obvious at the time.
Miller’s one-year ’21 deal shows Ducati wasn’t 100 percent convinced in him at that point, but, hey, maybe the flashes of super-strong form last year (which all came after the contract) and the Jerez win will persuade the manufacturer Miller is the best option around.
But it’s still prudent to wait as long as possible. And while that might tick off Miller, the perception of a contest for the 2022 seat will conversely help keep Zarco appeased, which is a tangible benefit.
Ducati should keep an eye on Morbidelli/Yamaha relations
As supreme as Jack Miller’s Jerez win was, there were way too many worrying signs from his first three races in factory red. The Jerez win feels more representative of Miller’s potential and talent, but so far he’s always been the feisty underdog, not the lead title hope of a major manufacturer, so he’s in uncharted territory and there’s not yet enough evidence to show how he’ll handle it, as encouraging as Spain was.
And it’s not like Ducati won’t have options, mainly in its own beautifully-poised talent ladder, but also potentially outside it.
Last year’s championship runner-up Franco Morbidelli is clearly disgruntled about being stuck on an old Yamaha right now with no prospect of that changing. He’s as unproven as Miller when it comes to being a manufacturer’s number one not an underdog who can only overperform, but making a big pitch for Morbidelli would offer a tantalising extra benefit for Ducati.
It’s already got one Rossi protege in its works line-up in Francesco Bagnaia, and Rossi’s own brother Luca Marini plus his team VR46 in its satellite ranks. Pop Morbidelli in the factory squad with Bagnaia, shore up the presence of VR46 on Ducati’s team list with a full two-bike team, and Ducati stands a chance of getting all the many, many goodwill and profile benefits of Rossi’s post-racing career that it failed to get when it signed him for that disastrous 2011-12 racing stint. And it’d swipe all that out of Yamaha’s hands too.