Why a pre-season MotoGP favourite really is 'in the trenches' - The Race
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Why a pre-season MotoGP favourite really is ‘in the trenches’

Apr 21 2021
By Valentin Khorounzhiy

“The hope is not lost yet. We won’t give up until we can’t fight no more.”

MotoGP is three races into its 2021 season, so that kind of thing goes without saying – of course the hope isn’t lost yet, for anyone in the field.

But the fact Jack Miller felt the need to put it that way, and that it didn’t sound an absurd thing to say, highlights just how rough his start to the campaign has been.

After three races the Australian is 12th in the standings, fifth among the six Ducatis, with an already-worrying 43 point deficit to championship leader Fabio Quartararo. Qatar 1, Qatar 2 and Portimao have gone just about as badly as could’ve been expected.

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“We all want to be winning. We all want to be on top. But in reality it’s not always like this,” Miller said after Portiamo.

“It’s difficult. But I’ve been in worse positions in my career, and dug my way out. And yeah, we’re in the trenches, we’re working, and I’m very lucky to have the support I have – whether it be from my team, from my management, with Aki [Ajo], giving me guidance, giving me reality.”

Miller is clearly right that, at 26, he has had tougher times in his career than now. This is not quite making the leap from Moto3 to Open-class MotoGP, and it’s not quite gradually losing the faith of Honda and finally its works backing.

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And it’s probably not quite rocking up to the Red Bull Ring in 2019 and hearing rumours that Ducati may be open to giving your ride to Jorge Lorenzo.

But it’s also not a negligible blip – you don’t fall 43 points off the championship leader with those – and it’s a particularly poorly-timed one. Miller, after all, is just on a one-year Ducati deal, and though Pramac duo Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin both shunted at Portimao they’ve still had an obnoxiously strong start to the season.

Miller should’ve, too. By the end of 2020 he really did seem to have Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci and Francesco Bagnaia covered within the works-spec Ducati camp, capping off a campaign that really could’ve been title-worthy with a pair of runner-up finishes. And that 2021 pre-season looked pretty great too.

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But there were a pair of “shit little crashes” in the opening Qatar weekend. There was a rear tyre running out life in the Qatar GP. There was arm pump in the Doha GP. And there was the big error at Portimao.

Is there a common thread running through the mishaps? For Miller, the crashes at least are “simply circumstantial”.

“The Qatar crashes were simply what they were, just testing that front tyre, it’s nothing… but for sure they knock your confidence a little bit.

“But here I didn’t even feel like crashing. I felt fantastic all weekend and then it really caught me off guard.

“I was just kind of getting in the rhythm of things in the race, and it’s one of those ones, where you’re sort of sliding along going “what just happened?”.

“The magnitude of the situation hits you.”

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The kicker here is that, while it could’ve been so much better, it also could’ve been worse. There was a real humility and ownership of his mistake by Miller at Portimao, but it doesn’t change the fact he’d basically got away with one at the Doha GP, when he ran Joan Mir off the road. Those six points easily could’ve – should’ve – been chalked off, and then this start to the season would’ve been an even bigger nightmare.

But while the Australian has never been the most consistent rider, there’s also something that doesn’t quite gel about his current insistence that “we’ve got the pace, we’ve got the speed, I’ve just got to put it all together”.

Is Jack Miller suddenly slow? Goodness, no. Of course not. But the first three races of 2021 painted a picture of a Jack Miller who, even while staying out of trouble, is maybe not as fast relative to the other Ducatis as he seemed heading into the season.

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The comparison to the pesky Pramacs sticks out, but it’s the other side of the factory Ducati garage that has looked most ominous for Miller. Bagnaia has not exactly had an uneventful run so far in 2021, yet he has led Ducati.

In their time as team-mates at Pramac in 2019-20, Miller outscored Bagnaia 297 to 101 – yes, there were injury caveats, and differing bike specs in ‘19, but those alone do not account for the points gap. But the different levels of experience might, because as a third-year rider Bagnaia has seemed every bit as quick as Miller.

Maybe ‘seeming’ isn’t good enough. So let’s take a closer look at the stats. Below I’ve combed through the numbers from the three weekends so far – the race and qualifying gap, but also the combined practice gap (made representative by those automatic Q2 berths everyone wants) and the average times of representative FP4 laps.

Ducati works riders in 2021 so far
Miller Bagnaia
Qatar 1
FP1-3 1m53.387, P1 +0.035s, P2
FP4 avg 1m55.753s -0.369s
Q2 1m53.215s, P5 -0.443s, P1
Race P9 -5.929s, P3
Qatar 2
FP1-3 1m53.458s, P1 +0.313s, P2
FP4 avg 1m56.101s -0.579s
Q2 1m53.303s, P4 +0.351s, P6
Race P9 -2.723s, P6
Portimao
FP1-3 1m39.345s, P6 -0.228s, P3
FP4 avg 1m40.739s -0.179s
Q2 1m39.061s, P4 +0.421s, P12
Race DNF P2

Does Bagnaia look the stronger of the two on the above? On one lap, it’s hard to tell – but remember, at Portimao the Italian had a monster record lap chalked off for yellow flags. Yes, the lap was illegal, but the fact is that this is how quick Bagnaia was capable of lapping, and it was a brutal benchmark.

And as for the race pace simulations in FP4? We don’t know what run plans and set-ups were at play – the word from Miller is that he’s been experimenting a bit in these sessions – but Bagnaia’s numbers are just better. The two Qatar FP4s for the pair are comparable in terms of tyre life, and at Portimao, though Miller ran longer, Bagnaia ran on much older tyres and was still faster.

The races themselves are hard to compare, and Miller’s not had a properly clean run. He feels his pace would’ve been similar to Bagnaia’s at Portimao but doesn’t want to extrapolate that claim any further, simply putting it as “the race was long and I didn’t make it”.

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But Bagnaia’s Portimao ride was super-special. Remember, he didn’t benefit from Ducati’s customary fast starts and was 11th at the end of the opening lap. It took him six laps to break into the top 10. And yet by the end of it he was second – a result slightly flattered by Alex Rins’ needless crash, but one that would’ve been a podium nonetheless.

“Pecco rode I think a fantastic race today, he stayed very calm in the beginning, was able to stay out of strife, with the battles going on everywhere,” Miller said. “I take my hat off for him, and it’s good for the team for him to be able to carry us like that.”

Bagnaia has had false dawns before, but if this is his new normal, it instantly makes Miller if not expendable then at least replaceable. Which clearly some at Ducati may have already thought he was, back in 2019 during that brief Lorenzo chase.

Now, Miller doesn’t perhaps need to be indispensable, but he can’t afford this to let this slump go on anyway. It’s only been three races, but it’s only a one-year deal. This may be obvious, but it is time to knuckle down.

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