Algarve MotoGP: Pecco as close as it gets perfection at Portimao

MotoGP

Pecco Bagnaia and Ducati’s Desmosedici GP21 have evolved into a perfect combination and they’re still getting stronger

Pecco Bagnaia on Ducati

Bagnaia and his Desmosedici have been close to perfection at the last few races

Ducati

A quick stroll down the back of the MotoGP garages after a race always tells you as much as any post-race media conference.

Yesterday evening there was Gigi Dall’Igna (already changed into his crisp white Ducati Corse dinner shirt) and Davide Tardozzi on the beers, while a few doors down Red Bull KTM was packing up to the sound of Queen’s tragic rock opera Bohemian Rhapsody blasting out of the speakers.

If you’ve had a bad weekend the worst part is always packing up. Every freight case feels twice as heavy as it’s loaded into the truck and dinnertime will be drinking to forget, not to celebrate.

Last year KTM left Portimao with its third victory of 2020, this time the RC16 struggled to scrape into the top ten, stuck in a downward spiral that’s had the Austrians scratching their heads for much of the year

Meanwhile Ducati was already celebrating before the team left the circuit – Jack Miller, mechanics and crew raiding the hospitality for beers while they loaded the trucks with packing cases that must’ve felt light as feathers. That’s the magic power of a first double podium since Le Mans in May – Pecco Bagnaia first and Miller third, behind Joan Mir.

Valentino Rossi’ called the Desmosedici’s corner-entry performance “the f***ing black hole”

Ducati may not have won the headline 2021 MotoGP title – the rider’s crown – but on Sunday it secured the constructors’ title for the second year in a row. The constructor gong obviously doesn’t attract the same applause as the rider gong but for obvious reasons it means a lot to the people who design and construct the motorcycles.

Most important of all is the evolution of the Desmosedici GP21 and Bagnaia, who have evolved together throughout this season to take five pole positions and three victories from the last five races.

Bagnaia has established the kind of relationship with the Desmosedici as Marc Márquez has with Honda’s RC213V and Jorge Lorenzo had with Yamaha’s YZR-M1.

His consistency during Sunday’s race around one of MotoGP’s most challenging circuits was mind-boggling. From lap three to lap 19 of the 23 laps his times never varied by more than four tenths of a second.

Ducati team celebrates winning the 2021 constructors title

Happy Ducati with its 2005 champ Casey Stoner: Bagnaia’s third win in five races, Miller’s first podium since June

Ducati

Bagnaia attributes his unerring speed and accuracy to the Ducati’s front end. This shows how far Ducati has come – remember what riders used to say about the Desmosedici’s corner-entry performance?

It was never polite. Valentino Rossi, who had two grim seasons with the Desmosedici a decade ago called it, “the f***ing black hole”.

At Portimao, Bagnaia could only sing the Desmosedici’s praises.

“It’s the feeling I have with my bike,” he said after grabbing pole on Saturday. “In qualifying you have to do a crazy lap and you have to feel very great with everything to do that. I have a great feeling with the front of the bike and this gives me a lot of confidence in braking and entry, so in two laps of time attack I can give a bit more.”

When the lights went out on Sunday Bagnaia dived past Miller at Turn 1 and that was that, he was gone. Former world champion Mir also took Miller on lap one and tried to get his teeth into Bagnaia. He got the gap down to nine-hundredths of a second on lap three but that was as good as it got.

“We are always the first with the wings, the launch device, the ride-height device…”

A few years ago you would’ve bet good money that Mir’s fine-handling inline-four Suzuki GSX-RR would better the fast but furious Ducati around Portimao’s serpentine layout, but not anymore. Mir struggled to close the gap on Bagnaia through the turns and as soon as the desmo V4 unleashed its horsepower on the one-kilometre straight…

“You wouldn’t chalk this down as a fantastic Ducati track but that would be talking about the old Ducati,” said Miller, who pace was almost three tenths slower than his team-mate’s. “I feel the 2020 and 2021 bikes both work really well here.

“It’s the evolution of the bike – a lot of the older clichés with Ducati’s MotoGP bike don’t apply to the modern Ducati. The bike now works pretty much all-round, so we don’t have that cliché of the bike not turning anymore, because it turns quite well now and it’s getting better and better.”

This was as close as Mir got to attacking Bagnaia in the race. So how did Ducati get here?

When Dall’Igna arrived from Aprilia at the end of 2013 Ducati hadn’t won a race since Casey Stoner left in 2010. Dall’Igna designed his first Desmosedici for the 2015 MotoGP season and ever since then he’s been exorcising the Desmosedici’s demons one by one.

There’s no single secret to the bike’s current performance, of course. It’s a combination of everything: overall balance, chassis geometry and stiffness, engine character, aerodynamics and most of all a huge investment of time, money and brainpower.

Related article

Ducati’s radical aerodynamics are always the biggest talking point simply because they’re there for all to see. The Desmosedici’s big wings first appeared in 2016 in reaction to MotoGP’s first spec software, which has a very low-tech anti-wheelie programme, so the wings prevent wheelies by increasing front-end downforce, which allows riders to use full throttle sooner, which obviously improves acceleration.

The wings also help in braking and corner entry, by creating just the right amount of load on the tyres. This is another reason Bagnaia feels so good when he’s attacking corners.

But why don’t Ducati’s rivals pursue the same radical aero route pursued by the Bologna factory? Possibly because they don’t have the horsepower to spare. Aero wings inevitably increase drag, so Ducati engineers work very hard to find the best compromise between top speed, downforce and drag. And they seem to have found that compromise.

“For sure, four or five years ago we wouldn’t have performed like today,” said Ducati Corse boss Dall’Igna after Sunday’s race. “Some parts of the track we gain, others we lose, but overall Pecco’s performance was a little better than everyone else’s.

“The aero isn’t everything. In some corners the aero helps the bike enter well, but not in the slower corners, where it has no real effect. For sure it’s the general behaviour of the bike that’s most important.”

Alex Marquez on Honda

Alex Márquez made Honda’s revised RC213V sing at Portimao

LCR Honda

Not for nothing was Bagnaia at his most sublime while attacking Portimao’s daunting, high-speed Turns 9 and 12.

Team manager Tardozzi, who’s been with Ducati since the 1990s (apart from a brief stint at BMW), thinks that Bagnaia’s talent has brought the Desmosedici to a state of perfection.

“Pecco trusts himself, he trusts his feelings and finally his riding style covers some of the bike’s problems, some of the problems that were always underlying in the past. As Casey always says – focus on the bike’s good things, use them and manage the others. Pecco follows this way.

“We always had problems with the bike going wide when the rider touched the throttle and we still have this a bit, but the rider’s style helps here. Also, during this season we have had some new frames and new parts that have helped us to slowly, slowly close the gap.”

Stoner – back in the paddock for the first time since the start of the pandemic – confirmed that the old Ducatis he rode would’ve been a nightmare through Portimao’s sweeping final corner, where riders are hard on the throttle at high speed.

“Back then the bike wouldn’t turn through big, long corners – I would’ve lost half a second there every lap,” said Ducati’s only MotoGP champion, who won the title in 2007, and helped Bagnaia and Miller throughout the weekend with trackside advice.

Tardozzi acknowledges that however good the Ducati gets it will never have the strong points of the Yamaha YZR-M1, which took the riders title with Fabio Quartararo at Misano last month.

“The Yamaha will always be faster than us in changes of direction and the Yamaha will always enter the corners faster, but the Yamaha will never be faster than us on acceleration, on the straights or on the brakes,” he said. “Every bike has its good points and weak points.”

Miller was overjoyed with his first podium since June’s Catalan GP, praising his engineers above all.

Alex Marquez leads Jorge Martin and Fabio Quartararo

World champ Quartararo got stuck behind more powerful Ducatis and Hondas

LCR Honda

“The developments the bike has made over the last years, from the first Ducati I rode at the Valencia tests [in November 2017] to what I’m riding now is night and day,” said the Aussie. “I think that shows the process that Ducati is putting into this project. We are always the first – the first with the wings, the first with the launch device, the first with the ride-height device. Ducati are constantly, constantly pushing the limits and the others are following. So, it’s fantastic to be a part of a manufacturer like that.”

Of course things might have been different on Sunday if Quartararo hadn’t qualified on the third row, leaving the newly crowned champ mired in the pack, unable to make passes and his front tyre overheating, until he slid off. The Frenchman had started 14 of the previous 16 races from the front row – these performances were the foundation of his championship.

And what of KTM? The factory was wrong-footed at the start of 2021 by a change of front-tyre spec, which transformed the RC16 from podium challenger to nowhere bike. The factory dug itself out of that hole with amazing speed, Miguel Oliveira winning the Catalan GP. But then Oliveira got hurt and the factory’s development programme lost its way.

Related article

KTM has tried, maybe too hard, to fight its way out of this latest hole. The RC16’s main problem is getting turned mid-corner, so the rider can lift the bike nice and early and get on the throttle.

Miller’s podium was well-deserved but he had to fight like hell with LCR Honda rider Alex Márquez to make it to the podium party. And, who knows, if the race hadn’t been red-flagged with two laps to go, maybe he wouldn’t have made it?

Márquez’s best ride since last year’s Teruel GP suggests that Honda may have found its way, with a revised chassis that increases speed and stability through faster corners, where riders make the most time. At April’s Portuguese GP at Portimao the younger Márquez finished eighth, 18 seconds down on the winner. Sunday’s race was faster and he finished fourth, six seconds behind Bagnaia.

Which makes you wonder what his old brother would’ve done if he hadn’t been at home, nursing injuries from an enduro accident. Hopefully the six-time MotoGP king will be back in action at Valencia this weekend to push Bagnaia, Mir, Miller, Quartararo and the rest even harder.