Mat Oxley: “Beating Márquez isn’t easy; Miller will have a better shot than most”

Ducati’s promotion of Jack Miller to its factory MotoGP team for 2021 should take the brand another step closer to challenging the dominance of Marc Márquez and Honda.

Miller is only 25 but he’s been around for a while. The New-Zealand-born Queenslander made his grand prix debut in 2011, in the final year of the last two-stroke class, the 125cc World Championship.

Miller was the last of this brave band to make it to the top. Then 15-years old, he arrived in Europe in the spring of 2010 with parents Sonya and Peter, who had mortgaged the family farm to finance the trip.

“Dad built a trailer that slotted exactly into a 40-foot sea-freight container,” recalls Miller. “We packed two bikes, a toolbox and all our living stuff, then when we got to Europe we bought a motorhome and hooked up the trailer. We lived in caravan parks or at racetracks. We would watch races, then after the racing, we walked around behind the garages and collected all the used tyres, which dad and I would fit so I could do laps and laps and laps during practice days. It was cool. We went our own way about it.”

The £250,000 gamble paid off. Miller got a grand prix ride the following season and three years later came within two points of winning the 2014 Moto3 World Championship, beaten, as it happens, by Márquez’s younger brother, Alex. His talent burned so brightly that HRC (the Honda Racing Corporation) signed him to a three-year MotoGP contract, so he went straight into the premier class without passing through Moto2.

Three seasons trying to master Honda’s unforgiving RC213V followed, although this injury-wracked period was sweetened by victory in the rain-affected Dutch round of the 2016 championship.

Salvation came in 2018, when Ducati signed Miller to the Pramac team, essentially the Bologna marque’s junior MotoGP squad. Ducati told its new hope to take his time because they had long-term plans for him, and they wanted him to stay in one piece. Last year he got a latest-spec Desmosedici, which took him to five podium finishes.

“I now see Jack more focused on important things, whereas before he was focused on enjoying the slides out of the corners!” said Ducati team manager Davide Tardozzi last summer. “Now he is thinking more; he has become more professional. When he finds his own way, he will make another step, and soon he’ll be with the top riders.” Miller has also stopped partying: “Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a beer here and there, but I knew I couldn’t live that kind of lifestyle and be a successful rider.”

Ducati is now so confident that he will take another step forward this season, once the racing starts, that in May the company signed him to a full factory 2021 contract.

Ducati has enjoyed success with Aussie riders. In 2007, Casey Stoner became the company’s first and only MotoGP champion, and between 2001 and 2008 Troy Bayliss won three World Superbike titles for Ducati.

Stoner, Bayliss and Miller all started the same way: thrashing dirt bikes around the bush and then racing on the dirt.

The cut and thrust of Australia’s buzzing off-road scene imbued the trio with a certain aggression and taught them everything about controlling a motorcycle that’s kicking this way and that across the dirt.

One of Stoner’s killer skills acquired on the dirt was the way he used the rear brake to control the bike. Miller has this too, which is especially useful on the hard-to-turn Ducati.

“Think of somewhere like Turn 3 at Sepang,” says Miller. “The moment you exit Turn 2 you’re on the rear brake to stop the wheelie, then you’re standing on it again to make the bike turn through Turn 3, where you’re on the brake the whole way through the corner.”

Miller’s time at Pramac has taught him plenty, much of it learned from examining the data of Ducati number-one Andrea Dovizioso, who is arguably the most intelligent rider on the grid. “Dovi is so strong at some of the points where I’m weaker. Also, you’re looking for things like where he short-shifts or does something different to save the tyres, so you study that kind of thing. At Aragon [last September, where the pair finished second and third to Márquez] I followed Dovi in the race and got to understand what to do in a few corners where he was getting a lot more grip coming out and using a heap less torque.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Miller has been more fortunate than most of his rivals because he has never been in full lockdown, so he’s been able to keep himself sharp by riding dirt bikes.

“I’m on the bike from sun-up to sun-down. Luckily we’ve got thousands of acres of Crown land behind the farm, so I’m just flat-out through the bush, trying not to hit any kangaroos.”

Next season Miller won’t only have full- factory bikes, he will also have the advantage of a much larger crew of electronics engineers and strategists investing their time in maximising his performance. Beating Marc Márquez will never be easy, but Jack Miller and Yamaha’s new factory signing Fabio Quartararo will have a better shot at it than most.