The 2020 season has been something of a triumph for satellite MotoGP teams, as the chaos of the calendar, the absence of Marc Marquez and the insanely high pressure the grid is under have conspired to produce a golden era for the underdog.
It’s first season since the introduction of modern four-stroke MotoGP bikes in 2002 where we’ve seen satellite machines from a manufacturer other than Honda win, with Fabio Quartararo’s victory at the opening race of the season for Petronas SRT Yamaha opening the floodgates.
Since then, he’s taken another two wins and his team-mate Franco Morbidelli has taken three as well to give Petronas a grand total of 6-1 versus Yamaha’s factory effort.
Factory KTM rider Brad Binder might have been able to grab the Austrian firm’s very first premier class success in Brno, but it only took two weeks for satellite compatriot Miguel Oliveira to match the feat at Tech3.
At Honda, things are a little difficult thanks in part to the injuries sustained by both factory rider Marquez and three-time satellite race winner Cal Crutchlow, but it’s still Taka Nakagami on the LCR Honda who is leading the way in the championship standings for the firm even if he is still without a podium.
With Aprilia and new world champion Suzuki still without a satellite project (for now), that just leaves one red elephant in the room in 2020: Ducati.
Ducati was the first factory to ever extend considerable support to its satellite teams rather than just treat them as customers, but it’s ironically still without an independent team win since joining MotoGP in 2003.
There’s nowhere that’s more painfully felt than within the ranks of Ducati’s most loyal stalwart team Pramac Racing.
A satellite team for the Italian manufacturer since 2005 (after two brief seasons with the NSR500s and RC211Vs it inherited when it took over Shell Honda), no squad has come closer to victory only to be knocked back so many times.
An unusually-structured team in that it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Italian generator giant Pramac rather than a privately-owned squad with a sponsor partnership, that’s meant it’s become something of a fixture on the MotoGP grid.
And, with some impressive names lining up for Pramac over the years and with factory backing from Ducati (it switched from customer team to factory-supported status in 2013), there’s never been a shortage of talent or resources to make the dream a reality.
That’s backed up in its CV, too. Though it got its podium first in 2003 with Makoto Tamada, most of its 20 podium apperances have come in more recent times.
Jack Miller finished third five times in 2019, and in 2020 not only Miller but now team-mate Pecco Bagnaia have broken through into the ranks of regular victory contenders.
Yet 2020 has been, on the balance of things, a complete disaster for Pramac rather than another stellar year.
Twice now Miller has been robbed on the last lap, first by Pol Espargaro’s lunge at the Red Bull Ring that handed Oliveira his first win and most recently by a ferocious attack from Morbidelli at Sunday’s Valencian Grand Prix.
There’s also been heartbreak for Bagnaia, with a mechanical problem at the Andalucian Grand Prix robbing him of his first chance at the podium and a crash out of the Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna when it looked like he had one hand on the trophy already.
Look back through the history books, and that’s not an uncommon emotion for Pramac Racing, either.
From Danilo Petrucci losing out to Valentino Rossi by a mere 0.06s at Assen in 2017 to crashes and mechanical problems when everything looked golden, it’s an unfortunate part of racing that seems to strike Pramac perhaps more unfairly than anyone else.
It’s through no fault of the team or its riders, either. It’s a professional squad and they’ve had some of the biggest names in racing: names like Andrea Iannone, Ben Spies, Toni Elias, Aleix Espargaro, and Scott Redding.
And while it’s easy to assume that its time will come, that might not be quite so straightforward for 2021.
As Pramac is Ducati’s main feeder system these days, both Miller and Bagnaia will step up to the factory squad for next year, leaving Pramac pinning its hopes on rookie Jorge Martin and MotoGP veteran Johann Zarco.
Martin will without a doubt be a future MotoGP race winner, and probably a world champion some day.
But it isn’t going to happen overnight, and the team may have the same approach with him in 2021 that it did with Bagnaia in 2019.
Zarco might be a better bet, though. He showed at Tech3 Yamaha that he’s capable of being a podium regular, and he’s bounced back impressively in 2020 with Esponsorama Ducati after an abortive switch to Pramac.
The Frenchman has been a pole position qualifier and a podium finisher this year. All it would take for him is a little bit of luck to finally break Pramac’s 18-year duck in 2021.