The 2021 factory Ducati MotoGP line-up will look very different for the first time in years.
Not only has number two rider Danilo Petrucci been replaced by Italian youngster Pecco Bagnaia but there’s also a new face in the team’s number one spot after eight years of Andrea Dovizioso on the bike.
Having been unable to agree on terms with the factory after long-standing grievances came to a head before contract negotiations had ever really started, Dovizioso will be replaced by Australian racer Jack Miller.
That leaves Dovizioso – a three-time runner-up to Marc Marquez in the championship – in the job seekers’ queue, having been unable to secure another ride after leaving it until mid-way through 2020 to announce his departure from Ducati. Forced to take a sabbatical year for now, it’s hard to envision a path back to title contention for Dovizioso.
So: out with the old and in with the new. Ducati has secured the services of a man who was still fighting for the Moto3 world championship when Dovizioso first became its lead factory rider.
Will Miller be able to do what Dovizioso was unable to and finally take the fight to established top dog Marquez, 2020’s surprise Suzuki package of Alex Rins and new champion Joan Mir, and the slowly improving Yamaha pack?
It might not be an overnight success story, but given Miller’s increasing maturity and how well he’s gelled with the Ducati Desmosedici in 2020 – better than anyone else in the line-up, at least – it’s not too hard to expect the team’s now set out on the right path after something of a lost year last season.
From the very beginning of 2020, even before COVID-19 significantly disrupted the schedule, it was obvious that there was going to be problems ahead for Ducati. The grippier construction of Michelin’s new and improved rear tyre played havoc with its set-up.
The Ducati has never been a bike that turns well in the middle of the corner thanks to its long and low design (a compromise needed to contain its insanely powerful engine) and its riders have instead always relied on a certain amount of rear sliding to make it around bends.
Turning it in, hammering the back brake to get the rear skipping around just enough, and using the momentum to navigate the corner has become the textbook way to ride the bike – right up until a better rear tyre meant that became significantly harder to do.
And while it was initially problematic for all of Ducati’s riders, it was Miller who first cracked the secret to riding around the problem and who was able to make real progress.
Though he finished the year seventh in the championship compared to Dovizioso’s fourth, Miller was nonetheless the more consistent podium finisher – taking home four trophies to the Italian’s two.
Dovizioso is believed to have reduced contact with Dall’Igna to a bare minimum even as the engineering team tried to rectify his problems
He was caught out repeatedly by bad luck and mechanical woes, and it’s likely that only an errant tear-off from Fabio Quartararo at Misano that left Miller watching from the garage cost him a place in the championship top three, given he was only seven points from Rins at the end of the season.
What’s more, there’s still much more to come from Miller not only in 2021 but beyond. He’s on a two-year deal, so while it’s likely that the development freeze forced upon MotoGP by the coronavirus pandemic will mean more of the same for Miller this year it’s 2022 where he’ll be able to really shine.
With Ducati clearly in need of a revised bike to cope with Michelin’s new rear tyre, he’ll now be the person to lead the development of that package.
There’ll be new frames and swingarms to try in 2021’s pre-season tests, of course, and they could be enough to close the gap already given that Miller has already demonstrated an ability to problem-solve Ducati’s current issues.
Perhaps even more importantly, those new parts look set to be designed based on Miller’s feedback, thanks to his incredibly important role within the team even before officially joining it in 2020.
The issues that arose between Dovizioso and technical boss Gigi Dall’Igna have been well reported in the past 18 months, with the two Ducati veterans at complete loggerheads since at least the start of 2019.
That led not only to a breakdown in communication, with Dovizioso believed to have reduced contact to a bare minimum even as the engineering team tried to rectify his problems, but also to a toxic working atmosphere within the garage.
So while Miller (and Bagnaia on the other side of the box) might not be the saviours that Ducati desperately need, they look set to bring a welcome injection of new blood and different personalities just when it’s most needed.
In fact, age is something that Miller and the entire 2021 Ducati line-up has on its side. For some time, Ducati’s recruitment strategy has been quite clear: use its significantly deep pockets (still backed by tobacco giant Phillip Morris) to recruit the best talent it can in the hopes of an easy win.
It failed with Valentino Rossi and it failed with Jorge Lorenzo, though, and attempts since then to poach away the likes of Marquez, Quartararo and Rins haven’t panned out either, leaving it to come up with a new approach.
That new approach is seemingly to do what used to work best for Ducati: take young talent, work hard on maturing them and giving them Desmosedici experience, and then promote them when the time is right.
Miller is the first product of that new system, coming to the factory after three seasons learning his trade on the satellite Pramac Racing bike. Still only 26 years old – nearly a decade younger than Dovizioso – he’s got time on his side as Ducati sets out to rebuild the team around him.
Will the end result of all those changes be an immediate title challenge? It’s hard to imagine that the Aussie will immediately become a title contender from the off in 2021, given that he first needs to establish himself as a regular race winner.
The signs are there that he’s made significant progress, and again this is somewhere where he’s got time on his side. Marquez will not be the unbeatable force at the top of the championship forever – and in fact, may never again return to his levels of domination given that he’s still battling injury.
Meanwhile, Miller is in his ascendancy as a factory rider, and if he can bend the will of Ducati to ensure he gets what he needs from the bike, then it’s not impossible to think that he could be the second Australian to do rather well for the Italian brand.