The race for the second Ducati MotoGP ride alongside Francesco Bagnaia for 2023 took yet another twist in the Catalan Grand Prix at Barcelona last weekend.
First, what had been effectively a three-horse contest for much of 2023 was effectively narrowed down to two with the news Jack Miller is set to take up a KTM offer instead.
But Miller was already an outside hopeful – and when it came to the two leading candidates, the balance of power shifted again at the conclusion of the race.
Thanks to his brilliant rookie season in 2021, Jorge Martin had spent several months as the presumed shoo-in for the ride – with speculation going as far as to suggest he’d already signed.
But Martin had not gelled with the 2022 Ducati. Equipped with effectively the latest spec of the Desmosedici GP22 engine – the spec that Bagnaia turned down shortly before the start of the season in favour of an earlier version – Martin felt he wasn’t getting the desired level of rear grip out of it, and conceded at Mugello that he “didn’t feel good since the first day” with his new package.
Aside from a valiant victory challenge at Termas, he had been crashing frequently and generally disappointing in terms of race pace when he did stay on.
And as of Mugello, he hadn’t found a base setting he liked with the GP22, saying: “Every race I did this year the bike was completely different.” He was also unable to find the limit, and was left concerned about adding another injury to what has already been a fairly crash-strewn MotoGP stint.
But at Barcelona it suddenly came together. Martin was probably fortunate to finish on the podium given Bagnaia’s early exit and Aleix Espargaro’s late-race blunder, but he was as competitive as he had been in a long time.
“After one month [that was] really, really tough, with a lot of people taking [about my form], it wasn’t easy to be fully focused, but today I demonstrated that I’m the same ‘Martinator’ – and I’m confident for the next races because finally this bike is working,” he told MotoGP.com’s After The Flag.
“I think [in terms of set-up] we touched one click during all the weekend, and this is the main thing.
“Really happy, it’s [now] my bike, it’s my confidence coming back.
“I can go into the corners, slide the rear – if you see the photos from two weeks ago, I couldn’t even slide, I felt nothing in the front, just going into the corner and trying not to crash, and riding like this is impossible.
“[Today] I felt some moments but at least I felt them – in the last races I just crashed.”
The breakthrough was followed by him going in for a planned, and successful, surgery in Modena to relieve what he described as a blocked-up nerve in his right hand, which had been flaring up on and off.
Martin is not expected to miss any races – but it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to return fully fit right away.
At the same time, his rival for the Ducati ride, Enea Bastianini, suffered a third crash in five races at Barcelona – a number to match with his field-high three wins.
Bastianini has been a revelation in 2022 and looked to have overtaken Martin, perhaps for good, in the race for a factory Ducati, but has now suffered a pair of ill-timed disappointing weekends.
He felt the Barcelona crash came down to “something strange on the bike”, but also admitted: “We have to work because at the moment I have lost a little bit the feeling, especially on the front – me, I ride a lot with the front.”
The good news for Ducati is that it has confidence that neither rider is going anywhere – and that whoever doesn’t get the gig should receive the excellent sweetener of a Pramac ride alongside the near-certain-to-stay Johann Zarco.
“The goal was to have Jorge and Enea at Ducati for the next two years – I think we’ve achieved that,” Ducati team boss Paolo Ciabatti told DAZN during the Barcelona weekend.
“We are going to make a decision about the factory team a bit later because we also know that Jorge is not physically perfect and we want to see a few more races after his surgery.”
But that came before Martin showed a massive pre-surgery improvement in Sunday’s race.
In giving it more time, Ducati can make sure it has the works set-up it wants – but it’s also creating a scenario of something of a straight duel, which carries with it a risk of conflict.
Remember, for instance, the 2016 Pramac ‘race-off’ between Danilo Petrucci and Scott Redding for a factory-spec Ducati, at a time where only one (well, two, for one rider) would be made available to Pramac.
Petrucci won the head-to-head and ultimately likely proved the right choice – but it had also clearly dented the intra-team atmosphere, with Redding particularly incensed by a collision with his team-mate while the fate of the works bike was still being decided.
There’s a good chance that both Martin, on the strength of Barcelona, and Bastianini, on the strength of the three wins, believe they are the right choice to partner Bagnaia.
This means somebody will have to be snubbed. And while that’s a good problem to have given the quality of the riders in question, it’s nevertheless a problem.
At least unless one of them clearly demolishes the other – with no fitness asterisks – over the coming races.