The 2021 MotoGP season on paper looked like it could’ve been a difficult one for Ducati satellite squad Pramac Racing, after not one but both of its riders (Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia) were promoted to the factory squad, leaving the team searching for a double replacement.
However, signing Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin has instead sparked an incredible renaissance within the team that’s helped it take three podiums from the opening two races of the year.
It’s been an incredible start so far for the independent outfit, with Zarco the top Ducati in both races at the Losail International Circuit, finishing second both times behind only a factory Ducati and completing his redemption story after walking away from KTM halfway through the season in 2019.
And on the other side of the garage, Martin has been a rookie sensation, taking pole position at only his second-ever grand prix race and proceeding to lead for most of it, before eventually dropping back but still scoring his maiden podium.
That’s an incredible story made all the more impressive by the late birth of the 2021 team thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. With all pre-season testing at the end of 2020 suspended, this new Pramac set-up went into the opening round almost blind, with only six days together at the Losail circuit to get to know each other – something that team boss Francesco Guidotti told The Race he thought would be harder than it was.
“Last year, we didn’t get a chance to meet each other and get to know each other during the last tests of last year,” the Italian explained.
“In February, when we first met, it was a really smooth and easy thing. When we started talking for the first time at the first test, we understood each other from the beginning: we didn’t have to explain too much.
“Of course, it’s easier because of the language – both riders speak good Italian. We make some jokes in Spanish and I try French, but one of the key points has been the language. It helps a lot to build up the relationship.
“There are a lot of points that have helped to build up the relationship, but I didn’t expect it to be so easy, especially as we made some approaches with Johann years ago, but we never had any special contact with Jorge before.
“It’s what I like, but it’s still nice when it is this easy.”
It helps as well that Guidotti managed to secure not one but two riders who are both out to prove a point.
A part of the Red Bull KTM development system until he was left without a MotoGP place for 2021, Martin actively courted a move to Ducati rather than having to be chased by the Bologna firm, and, according to Guidotti, that mutual respect has built a strong relationship from the beginning.
“We made a choice with Ducati – maybe now we can say that we made it during the first lockdown!” he admits. “We wanted him, and he signed with us happy to be with Ducati.
“He wanted to be a part of our project, he’s a champion in Moto3, he missed [winning] Moto2 because of things that weren’t his fault, and last year he won several races.
“He was in a position where in a normal year he could have won the championship, so he arrived with our top consideration.
“Then what he showed from the very first start of his career explained everything about him. His character, his speed and his talent.”
On the other side of the garage, the story of how Johann Zarco has ended up at the team is even more a story about trust. A failed move to KTM despite having a Repsol Honda offer on the table had left Zarco dejected and potentially heading out of MotoGP altogether, and Guidotti is adamant that the trust shown in him by Ducati boss Gigi Dall’Igna has revitalised the Frenchman’s entire outlook on life.
“He had a very difficult moment during his KTM experiences, not because of KTM but because of the circumstances. His coach missed telling him something, from what I know, and when you feel like you’re in the wrong place you feel like you can’t perform.
“His decision to leave KTM without having an alternative somewhere else was a brave decision, and he has my full respect for it. He felt like he was in the wrong place, and it’s not normal in this world to leave a salary. It’s not normal in the whole world, not just ours.
“He was lucky to find a person who believed in him in Gigi [Dall’Igna tech chief], and his position last year was better than going back to Moto2. Until Misano, he had a chance to join the factory team, which shows how good the idea was to accept a second-level bike and to try to show his potential.”
And while there’s still time needed before Guidotti sees Zarco as a championship contender, he’s nonetheless happy to pile the pressure on his former rider Miller.
With Miller a part of the factory team for 2021 but on a one-year deal, Guidotti says that anything could happen in 2022.
“Now Johann is happy to have one more chance, and why not to join the factory team for next year or to stay with us and push with the championship? I think it’s maybe not the case this year, because to fight for a long season, he still needs to have a better feeling with the bike, to be more natural, to get the feedback from the bike easier.
“After one year that’s a process he’s still working on, despite the level of the bike.
“Jack in particular is in his fourth year on the bike, and his riding style is more natural. He is dedicated, customised, to the Ducati, but Johann still needs more time to understand the feedback in every condition.”
But looking at the more immediate future, and what will be possible for the team in 2021, it’s clear that Guidotti has targets that he hopes his riders can hit as well as one very elusive dream – the opportunity to see Pramac Racing finally standing on the top step of the podium as the team continues to hunt for that elusive first win.
“It’s difficult to say what will be a good year for them. Our natural target is to be the best independent team, that Zarco could be the best independent rider and Jorge the rookie of the year. That’s realistic. In the general classifications, top five would be something great.
“It seems that every time we get close, someone else finds ten milliseconds that doesn’t allow us to get the win! [Maverick] Vinales, [Fabio] Quartararo, [Franco] Morbidelli or [Miguel] Oliveira last year, Valentino [Rossi] with [Danilo] Petrucci at Assen five or six years ago – second place for 0.06s!
“Sooner or later it will come though, and we are happy and satisfied that we have the level every year.
“We can’t relax because everything rolls fast, but thanks to the technical support of Ducati we are constantly on the top.”