How Jack Miller kept his cool in the MotoGP chaos

A flag-to-flag race and ever-changing conditions are the stuff of nightmares for many riders but somehow Jack Miller made it work for him

Jack Miller, 2021 Le Mans MotoGP

Miller was fast when he needed to be throughout the weekend, whatever the conditions


Jack Miller made some history at Le Mans yesterday when he became the first rider to win a MotoGP race after taking two long-lap penalties and doing a little motocrossing.

You may have noticed that Miller looked even happier on top of the podium at Le Mans than he did at Jerez two weeks ago.

There were a few reasons for this.

After the Spanish GP, the Aussie was overcome with emotion. Jerez wasn’t his first MotoGP win but it was the first that really counted and he knew it. Before he climbed the podium he ducked down behind his Desmosedici and had a little cry as the realisation of his achievement swept over him.

At Le Mans he was more joyful, not only because two wins is better than one, but because win number two has got him into the title fight after a grim start to the season and because surely now Ducati will extend his one-year contract with its factory team. But probably most of all simply because he had survived the weekend.

Already, dry MotoGP weekends are more stressful than they’ve ever been. Every session – apart from FP4 and morning warm-up – the rider has to be on the absolute limit, chasing a lap time to get into the Q2 qualifier or towards the front of the grid.

At Le Mans the stress was multiplied many times by the mad weather.

It was as if Zeus – the Greek god of the skies – had spent the entire weekend stood over Le Mans, feeling very sadistic and getting his kicks by hurling rain, cloud, sun, wind and god knows what else at the riders. Each time the riders were getting used to a soaking track he threw some sun and wind their way. And each time they were getting used to a dry track he threw rain and clouds at them.

Whatever the stresses of a dry MotoGP weekend the riders at least roughly know where they are. They know where the limit is located and they pretty much know how that limit will move as the race goes on and their tyres get used up.

It’s the same in the rain, but less so. However, when track conditions change lap by lap and corner by corner the rider has no real idea what’s going on because the limit is never in the same place for more than a few moments. He must therefore live on his wits, put his faith in lady luck and somehow make it happen.

Fabio Quartararo, 2021 Le Mans MotoGP

The race started in the dry. Within minutes the heavens had opened. This time Quartararo didn’t falter


It sounds easy but isn’t. It’s much, much more mentally demanding than riding in the dry, because you attack every corner with your heart in your mouth, half-expecting to crash because you don’t know where the limit is until you trip over it.

“I don’t feel physically exhausted,” said Miller after the race. “But I think I speak for all the riders when I say you feel mentally exhausted because the mental focus it takes and the feeling, just to try and predict what weather or what conditions you’re going to have when you arrive at the next corner has been the hardest thing, so this race was more mentally draining than physically.”

Le Mans was an ice rink for much of the weekend, claiming 117 victims over the three days. Winner Miller was one of many riders to hit the ground more than once, but importantly he had his accidents during practice – at Turn Seven in FP2 and at Turn Six in FP3.

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Just as importantly he was always fast when he needed to be – a huge challenge in such conditions. He was quickest in wet FP1, went directly into Q2, qualified on the front row, got the holeshot and immediately started battling for the lead.

During the chaos of the bike swaps, he dropped from first to fourth but even then he didn’t panic. In fact, he played it perfectly, allowing Marc Márquez and Fabio Quartararo to set the pace and find the limit. When Márquez tripped over it, Miller started closing on new leader Quartararo.

And then he got the news that he had been punished with a double long-lap penalty. He had no idea what he had done to deserve the penalty and many riders would’ve lost their cool and their concentration through anger and frustration. Miller didn’t. He calmly took the penalty and slowly but surely closed the gap to Quartararo.

Johann Zarco was by far the fastest man on track in the closing stages, swooping upon Quartararo with six laps remaining and then going after Miller. This was no great surprise. Point-and-squirt bikes nearly always work better in the rain than corner-speed bikes, because you can gun it from corner to corner, then tiptoe through the turns.

And neither Miller nor Zarco are risk-averse.

When Zarco took second place he was taking at least half a second out of Miller every lap, because he had chosen medium front and rear rain tyres, while Miller had gone for a medium front and a soft rear, which was getting chewed up on the drying track.

Miller had chosen Michelin’s soft rear because he knew it would give pretty much immediate grip after the bike swap, so he could be fast and safe with new rubber, then worry about what happens next later in the race.

Jack Miller, 2021 MotoGP Le Mans

Miller chose the soft rear because he knew it would be faster and safer immediately after the bike swap


He knew the medium rear would give better grip as the track dried out, but only if he survived that long because with new rubber he would’ve struggled to get grip and feeling, so he would’ve been skating on the edge of disaster.

Márquez chose a medium rear and didn’t survive. Zarco went for the medium and did survive but he lost time in the first few laps after the bike swap because he wasn’t getting the grip he needed.

All that changed in the second half of the race as the track dried. Miller knew Zarco was coming and had something saved for him.

With four laps to go – when his advantage was down to less than five seconds – Miller changed his traction-control map, reducing his TC to the minimum, which reduced his safety margin but increased his pace.

He had been waiting for this moment because he knew that his fast-deteriorating soft rear would spin more as the track dried, so the more TC he used the more the software would reduce torque delivery and thus acceleration each time the tyre lost traction. It was therefore time for him to take full responsibility for the tyre and for his lap times.

Immediately his lap times dropped by around half a second and that was that.

Miller’s second victory in as many weeks, Zarco’s third podium from five races and Pecco Bagnaia’s cool-as-a-cucumber ride from 16th on the grid (following an incorrect tyre choice in Q1) to fourth once again vindicated Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna’s decision to let Andrea Dovizioso walk out of Ducati without so much as a goodbye.

If Miller seemed happier than he was at Jerez then Quartararo was ecstatic with third place because last year when the rain came down at Le Mans he went backwards, from pole position to ninth. Also, he had regained the championship lead a little more than a week after undergoing arm-pump surgery.

The rain was a get-out-of-jail-free card for last year’s Le Mans winner Danilo Petrucci, who had struggled in the early dry races aboard KTM’s RC16, which has been somewhat knobbled by Michelin’s 2021 front-slick allocation.

Petrucci’s size – at 80 kilos he is by far MotoGP’s heaviest rider – exacerbates his front-tyre issues with the RC16 because the bike gets more weight transfer on the brakes, which squishes the front slick even more. His Tech 3 crew has tried lengthening the wheelbase but of course, this impacts turning.

In the rain, Petrucci had none of these worries. Indeed his weight can be an advantage because it increases load on the tyres, which increases grip. His first top five of 2021 was richly deserved.

Quartararo now leads the championship at (possibly) one-quarter distance in the 2021 championship, with Bagnaia just one point down and Zarco and Miller right behind. Three Ducati riders in the top four of the championship and super-fast Mugello next…