In the hectic world of MotoGP’s rider contract market, it seems difficult right now to predict what will change in the coming weeks let alone whole seasons away – but if telling comments emerging from inside Ducati’s factory team is anything to go by, it’s entirely possible that Australian racer Jack Miller might well be already in a fight to retain his seat beyond its current terminus at the end of the 2022 season.
That comes down to one particular factor, one that few perhaps counted for much before the 2021 season kicked off: the incredible rookie debut of former Moto3 world champion Jorge Martin, who replaced Miller at the satellite Pramac Racing team.
When combined with a consistently strong start to the season for Miller’s factory team-mate Pecco Bagnaia, who currently sits fourth in the championship and who has been knocking on the door of a debut win all season, it means that the noises already emanating from the Ducati camp are all suggesting that Miller’s longer-term position at the Italian manufacturer could be in jeopardy.
That was hinted at today during practice for the Aragon Grand Prix, when Davide Tardozzi admitted that Miller’s inconsistency was something of an issue for them – and one that has to be addressed by the Australian soon.
“It was a fantastic show, the last lap, Jack and Espargaro,” said the team boss and former racer. “But in the end, Jack is going a bit up and down this year, but we still think that he’s very fast and must be a title competitor in the future.”
But Miller’s problem remains that while he’s fast on his day, as proven by two race victories so far in 2021, he’s also got three DNFs from the season’s nine races to date. Currently sitting fifth in the championship and increasingly looking like any title tilt is long done as Fabio Quartararo continues to extend his 88-point lead over Miller, Miller is in stark contrast to Bagnaia’s record.
The Italian on the other side of the garage has yet to win a race – something Tardozzi says is long overdue – but has been four times a podium finisher and has only one race crash next to his name, meaning that while he too isn’t exactly right on Quartararo’s tails, his gap is a slightly more manageable 70 points.
“Regarding Pecco, he’s been always fast,” added the team boss. “He didn’t bring home what his speed showed, because since the beginning he was always fast, he makes some fantastic podiums. He deserves a win. He made a big mistake in Mugello but due to other problems… anyway, Pecco was always fast and he will reach the win quite soon.”
That matches Bagnaia’s status within the team, too. Very much recruited as the junior partner to Miller’s team leader following Andrea Dovizioso’s unexpected departure at the end of 2020, there has been less pressure placed on him since the start of the season as a result.
Given both his improving form in what is essentially a rookie season as a factory rider (even if on paper both he and Miller are newcomers to the team) and his bonus status as an Italian, it’s hard to see a future where the marque doesn’t try to retain his services for 2023 and beyond.
And that creates an issue on the other side of the garage for Miller, with Ducati understandably keen to retain the services of Martin. Tipped as a future MotoGP world champion contender since at least 2017, he’s lived up to those expectations by taking the Pramac Ducati to the team’s first ever victory in his rookie season.
Twice a podium finisher as well as a race winner in Austria, the Spaniard is 10th in the championship. 54 points behind Miller in fifth, that doesn’t seem too impressive until you consider two key things: that Miller scored 50 of his 118 points from just two rounds, and that Martin has missed a full third of the season so far after suffering a litany of injuries in a crash during practice for the Portuguese Grand Prix back in April.
Should his rapid trajectory improve in the coming rounds of 2021, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t start the 2022 season as a consistent podium and race win contender on the satellite machine, even if it does prove tough to fight for the title as an independent-status rider.
If he does score a strong start to the season again, then the pressure is very definitely on Miller and not Martin to secure his ride, as the Australian is placed on the defensive by a rider who so far looks just as fast, younger, and perhaps more consistent.