The shock MotoGP wildcard upsets Pedrosa could repeat - The Race
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The shock MotoGP wildcard upsets Pedrosa could repeat

Aug 4 2021
By Simon Patterson

This weekend will see the return of not just one but two MotoGP race winners to action at the Styrian Grand Prix, as Dani Pedrosa appears for KTM, returning for the first time since leaving Repsol Honda at the end of the 2018 season, and new Yamaha test rider Cal Crutchlow steps in for the injured Franco Morbidelli at the Petronas Yamaha team.

The British rider has already suggested that he’s not expecting much to happen for him, at least this weekend, thanks to the nature of the Red Bull Ring and the weaknesses of the Yamaha that he’ll be riding. A bike that loves fast corners, the stop-start bends of the Austrian circuit and its long straights mean the underpowered M1 will most likely keep Crutchlow out of contention.

But Pedrosa could well be a very different case. Lining up on what’s expected to be a 2022-spec RC16, the first bike that is significantly built using his input as KTM’s test rider, the bike could well be very good indeed.

KTM has made a significant step forwards in recent months and years, and given Pedrosa’s notorious reluctance in the past to return to racing (despite KTM’s urging), it means that reading between the lines suggests that the new machine could in fact be very good indeed.

That gives Pedrosa a fighting chance of pulling off a surprise result this weekend on home soil for the manufacturer – a surprise that would allow him to join the hallowed ranks of other wildcards, replacements and guest riders who have managed to stun their established rivals with a dramatic return to MotoGP action.

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The most famous of the modern era, of course, is Troy Bayliss’ incredible victory for the factory Ducati team at the final round of the 2006 championship in Valencia. A Ducati MotoGP rider in 2003 and 2004 before joining Sito Pons’ Honda team for 2005, Bayliss never managed any better than third during his career as a factory rider, coming home on the podium four times in two seasons for the Italian team.

Squeezed out of Grand Prix racing for 2006, he rejoined Ducati in the World Superbike championship, a series where he was already world champion in 2001. Dominating the season to take victories in half of the year’s 24 races, he won the title comfortably and was the obvious choice to replace the injured Sete Gibernau for the final MotoGP race of the year.

Yet while some were expecting Bayliss to slot into his previous top 10 contender position with the team, he instead turned the weekend upside down by qualifying second and leading from start to finish, leading a Ducati one-two from full-time rider Loris Capirossi.

He’s the only wildcard of modern times to pull off a win, but there have been others who have managed to come close too, though – normally aided by wet weather. Most recently it was Japanese Superbike champion and Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga who almost pulled it off, again at Valencia in 2012.

Lining up at the final round of the year as part of his testing program, heavy rain at the November race somehow saw him ending up second at the chequered flag, a huge 37 seconds from the winner (ironically, Dani Pedrosa), but in turn nearly 30 seconds ahead of the second Repsol Honda of Casey Stoner.

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Before Nakasuga, it was Frenchman Olivier Jacque who did the same feat, taking second place at a torrentially wet Chinese Grand Prix during the first of MotoGP’s four visits to the Shanghai International Circuit in 2005.

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Replacing the injured Alex Hoffman at the factory Kawasaki team, Jacque pulled off a rain ride extraordinaire, picking his way through the field to put eventual winner Valentino Rossi under severe pressure on the final laps – and missing out on a win by less than two seconds.

But of course, you can’t talk about grand prix racing comebacks and wildcard appearances without going all the way back to 1978 for the most famous of all of them; Mike Hailwood’s incredible return from retirement at the Isle of Man TT after an eleven-year absence.

Hailwood had retired from grand prix racing more than a decade earlier, leaving the series as a nine-time world champion in 1967 to instead pursue a career in F1, where he eventually became a two-time podium finisher.

He made a sensational return to the TT in 1978. It wasn’t with 500cc machinery but with a Ducati Supersport 900 – a combination of Italian machine and 38-year-old rider that few gave any chance of winning.

Yet win he did, taking the victory in the F1 race by two seconds from John Williams. He returned again to repeat the feat in 1979, this time on a Suzuki RG500, winning the blue-riband Senior TT before finally hanging up his leathers for good.

It’s unlikely we’re going to see a performance of that calibre this weekend from Pedrosa, especially as he’s been adamant so far that he’s only here to test, not to fight for victory. But, with an inclement weather forecast for this weekend’s race, anything could happen – as the history books show!

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