The Dovizioso/Ducati divorce and other MotoGP bust-ups

MotoGP

MotoGP rivals rock and roll when it comes to high-profile splits. But who's the prima donna in the Andrea Dovizioso/Ducati camp? Plus Yamaha's speed woes: 2020 MotoGP Austrian GP Insight part 2

2020 Ducati MotoGP team with Dovizioso Domenicali Dall Igna and Petrucci

Dovizioso, Domenicali, Dall’Igna and Petrucci: smile for the camera!

MotoGP

Any MotoGP rider will tell you that motorcycle racing is a team sport. The rider makes the difference, but he will struggle without getting the best support from his engineers, his mechanics and his team boss.

We don’t know for sure, but Andrea Dovizioso’s decision to get a divorce from Ducati seems to be a case of their relationship simply falling apart. In rock and roll they cite “artistic differences” in such cases.

This is nothing new. In an ideal world, the rider needs to respect the boss and the boss needs to respect the rider. And the boss that works for one rider may not work for another.

The combination of Wayne Rainey and team owner ‘King’ Kenny Roberts was one of the greatest racetrack partnerships of all time, producing three consecutive 500cc world championships in the early 1990s. The pair were perfect for each other.

“Me and Wayne clicked – it was almost like we were related,” says Roberts. “I knew what he was going to say before he said it and he knew what I was going to say before I said it.”

Imagine what Roberts could have done for Rainey’s great rival Kevin Schwantz. Or maybe not…

“If I’d ridden for Kenny I probably would’ve had a pretty short career because I would have told him to get f***ed real early,” says Schwantz. “When I used to beat Wayne I’d listen to Kenny giving him shit. Kenny’d be going, ‘What did you do, you stupid son of a bitch!’ If that had been me, I’d have punched him!”

The history of grand prix racing is littered with failed rider/team relationships.

“Rocky liked to be the big boss: ‘I’m Count Agusta, I’m the team owner’”

In the 1950s the great Geoff Duke finally quit Norton for Gilera when Norton managing director Gilbert Smith told Duke that the reason the four-cylinder Gilera was faster than the single-cylinder Norton was because Duke was attending too many dinner-dances. In fact, Norton’s made 40 horsepower, compared to the Gilera’s 55.

Grand prix racing’s first superstar, Giacomo Agostini, dominated the premier class for almost a decade from the 1960s into the 1970s, happily riding for dour Italian aristocrat Count Domenico Agusta. Things changed when the Count died and the team was taken over by his young and flamboyant nephew Rocky Agusta.

“Rocky liked to be the big boss: ‘I’m Count Agusta, I’m the team owner’, I think he was jealous of me,” recalls Ago, who soon started looking for another ride, finally defecting to Yamaha.

Almost two decades later Ago was on the other side of the argument. He was owner of Marlboro Yamaha Team Agostini and his star rider was Eddie Lawson. Together they won the 1984, 1986 and 1988 500cc world title. But that was as far as they got – at the end of 1988 Lawson stunned the paddock by signing for Rothmans Honda.

“I had some problems with Ago,” says Lawson. “He told me they had a lot less money for 1989, but when I went to Lausanne [Marlboro’s HQ] they said they had doubled his budget. So Ago wanted to cut my pay after I’d won him another championship; so I was like, ‘Oh man’. And I was thinking I did okay in ’88. I didn’t feel like they were behind me at all. Gary [Howard, Lawson’s manager] said, ‘You’re going to take a lot less money to go with Honda’. I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t care, I’m going’. I didn’t care about the money.”

Dovizioso’s dissatisfaction with Ducati is probably similar to Lawson’s grievances with Agostini – a combination of relationship and financial issues. Because whatever riders say, money is almost always part of the argument.

Ducati, which achieved its 50th MotoGP victory on Sunday, has certainly managed to fall out with some very talented riders over the last decade or so. Its first and so far only MotoGP champion Casey Stoner started looking for alternative employment when Ducati and Philip Morris gave him no sympathy when he got sick with lactose intolerance in 2009. Why would you want to ride for a team that doesn’t care about you?

Two years ago the factory parted ways with Jorge Lorenzo, on the very day the Spaniard proved he could’ve been Ducati’s second MotoGP world champion.

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Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali certainly made a mistake when he let Lorenzo go, probably his biggest error since falling out with Stoner. Domenicali is one of those factory bosses who doesn’t allow the rider’s ego to overshadow his own. This might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the rider, but this is what one of his former world champions told me recently, “Too many grappas and he thinks he is Donald Trump”.

Dovizioso’s problem is more with Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall’Igna. The pair have barely been on speaking terms since 2018.

Stoner, Lorenzo and Dovizioso are all cases of poor rider management. If the rider is fast enough, he needs to be managed in a way that allows him to win races, whether the team boss likes him or not. Again, there’s a rock and roll analogy: band frontmen are often a pain in the arse, but if they sell tons of records then you work around them.

Soon we will hear who Ducati will choose to replace Dovizioso – Pecco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco or, surprise, surprise, Lorenzo.

And soon we will hear where Dovizioso will be next year, if anywhere. The only factory seat that remains is at Aprilia, if the factory dumps the problematic Andrea Iannone.

Dovizioso would be gold to Aprilia, whose latest RS-GP is similar to Ducati’s Desmosedici, so he would be able to use his eight years of Ducati knowhow to help MotoGP’s straggler catch up.

Aprilia team manager Massimo Rivola says the factory cannot afford Dovizioso, but Aprilia is owned by Piaggio, one of Europe’s biggest automotive groups. If the parent company wants to fully compete in MotoGP it needs to open its wallet wider. After all, even a top rider’s salary is a fraction of a factory MotoGP spend, so it makes no sense to build the best bike you can manage and not put the best rider you can on board.

Yamaha’s speed woes are getting worse, not better

Fabio Quartararo is chased by Danilo Petrucci in the 2020 MotoGP Austrian Grand prix

Quartararo’s M1 is a sitting duck for Petrucci’s Ducati in the rush to the finish line

Petronas SRT

 

Fabio Quartararo had his world championship lead slashed from 17 points to 11 on Sunday and he can expect more of the same in next weekend’s second outing at Red Bull Ring.

The Austrian circuit is MotoGP’s fastest, with three long straights that are essentially drag strips, with riders entering all three in first or second gears – the championship’s biggest test of horsepower, electronics and aerodynamics.

Yamaha has always struggled with horsepower. At Red Bull Ring the YZR-M1’s lack of straight-line speed is usually quite obvious, even more so now than in the past.

When MotoGP first visited the track in 2016 the Yamaha was the second fastest bike, at 192mph, just 0.4mph off the fastest Ducati. In 2017 the M1 was the third best bike, at 193.9mph, 2.3mph down. Same in 2018, when the Yamaha managed 192.2mph, 2.7mph off the Honda. Last year the gap from the fastest bike to the best Yamaha jumped to 5.5mph and this year it was 3.8mph. Indeed, this year’s 191.7mph M1 was slower than the 2016 bike.

Red Bull Ring top speeds

Mean mph, from each bike’s five best race top speeds

2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Ducati 193.3 Ducati 196.2 Honda 194.9 Honda 196.1 Ducati 195.4
Yamaha 192.9 Honda 194.9 Ducati 194.5 Ducati 195.9 KTM 194.8
Honda 191.8 Yamaha 193.9 Yamaha 192.2 Suzuki 193.6 Suzuki 193.8
Suzuki 191.1 KTM 192.4 KTM 191.3 KTM 191.7 Aprilia 193.7
Aprilia 190.3 Suzuki 191.6 Aprilia 191.2 Aprilia 191.5 Honda 193.7
Aprilia 190.3 Suzuki 190.6 Yamaha 190.6 Yamaha 191.7

 

Such a handicap makes the Red Bull Ring a nightmare for Yamaha riders. With such a big deficit it’s difficult to hold the draft of the faster bikes, which makes attacking and defending almost impossible.

“This track is always difficult for us,” said Valentino Rossi, who was Yamaha’s top finisher on Sunday, in fifth place, while his bike was 19th fastest out of 20. “We can make a hot lap with new tyres because our bike is good there. But racing against other riders with such a difference in top speed makes the race very critical, because we lose too much on the straights.”

Quartararo finished eighth, starting from last place on the restart grid, after he had run out of brakes and taken a trip through the gravel in the early stages of the first start. His M1 was 20th and last in Sunday’s top-speed race and he lost seventh place to Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci in the race to the finish line. And yet his biggest problem wasn’t so much going as stopping.

“We know our speed is really low but at the moment I’m more worried about finding a solution for the brakes for next weekend,” he said.

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Quartararo wasn’t the only rider to report brake problems, which had his crew replacing calipers and discs before the restart. Cal Crutchlow suffered from overheating brakes, due to the track layout, which is one of MotoGP’s four most demanding layouts for brakes, along with Twin Ring Motegi, Sepang and Barcelona.

Yamaha is also in trouble with engine reliability. Rossi, Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli have each broken one engine of the five they are allowed this season. Due to the blow-ups suffered by Rossi and Viñales at Jerez all four Yamaha riders had their first two engines removed from their allocation to be flown to Japan to be checked. These engines have yet to be returned to the riders. Other engines have been subject to rev limits, to increase longevity.

Yamaha may make it to the end of the season without needing more engines – which incurs a penalty – but its mechanics will be busier than ever, swapping engines throughout race weekends to save the best units for qualifying and racing.

And if factory engineers can pinpoint the fault that led to the three engines breaking, they can request to open and fix their surviving sealed units. But this requires unanimous agreement from all six factories, which is surely unlikely to happen.

Maverick Viñales’ engine allocation

Viñales has four of his engines left and is already using his fifth engine

Maverick Vinales engine allocation 2020