Ducati needs Bagnaia because he is a huge talent and because MotoGP has changed. You only need to look at Andrea Dovizioso’s recent results to understand there is a new way of going fast in 2020.
MotoGP riding technique is in a constant state of evolution and nothing demands riders to evolve more than a different interface between motorcycle and racetrack.
Michelin’s 2020 rear slick has changed MotoGP. Looking at who’s fastest now suggests that the new rear helps those bikes and riders that can use corner speed: Yamaha’s YZR-M1, Suzuki’s GSX-RR, KTM’s latest RC16 and Ducati’s GP20, with Bagnaia onboard.
The Yamaha and Suzuki have always liked to sweep through corners and now the KTM the can also be ridden that way, according to Pol Espargaró
“Now we have a very good feeling with the front, so we can release the brake a bit earlier, then carry on for more corner speed,” says Espargaró.
The Ducati has never been a corner-speed bike, partly because it’s built to maximise its amazing engine, so it’s a stop-and-go bike, using the V4’s braking stability and horsepower. Honda’s RC213V is the same, except when Marc Márquez is working his corner-speed magic.
Dovizioso won all his races with Ducati between 2016 and 2019 by steering into corners with the rear tyre. That technique no longer works because the softer-carcass 2020 rear is so grippy.
“The main difference between Pecco and our factory riders Andrea and Danilo [Petrucci] is that Pecco carries much more corner speed,” says factory Ducati team manager Davide Tardozzi. “The styles of Andrea and Danilo used to work so well, but not with the 2020 rear tyre.
“It’s a shame because we were always looking for more grip and now we have more grip, but the problem is that this extra grip doesn’t allow the rear tyre to slide entering the corner, to turn the bike before the apex. That’s why Andrea is in trouble. It’s not a tyre problem, it’s a problem of adapting your riding style.”
Bagnaia had a torrid rookie MotoGP season last year, blighted by numerous crashes (only Jack Miller and Johann Zarco had more). His problem was losing the front into corners but now he’s making time into corners. It’s a remarkable turnaround.
Bagnaia started his transformation at last October’s Thailand grand prix, where Ducati engineers told him he must change his set-up and riding technique.
“All last year his crew chief Cristian [Gabbarini, who guided Casey Stoner to the 2007 MotoGP title) and his electronics engineer Tommy [Pagano] had been discussing this with Pecco,” adds Tardozzi. “Finally in Thailand he understood he had to follow their advice. With the new rear tyre he has maximised his riding style and although he hasn’t fixed the Ducati’s turning problem his way of riding minimises the problem.”
Bagnaia isn’t exactly sure how he’s transformed his performance.
“I don’t know why – maybe it’s the new tyres, maybe the new bike or maybe the new me,” says the 23-year-old. “Last year I was trying to enter corners fast like now, but I was braking differently, so maybe the position of the bike was different, so I was losing the front. I always had less feeling with the front, compared to now.”
“Already during preseason testing this year we made a big step, so my new riding style is more suitable for the new Ducati and the new rear tyre. The Ducati is very stable in braking, so I can brake a lot and then use my entry speed to turn the bike, so I’m not struggling with turning. This way I don’t lose time to the Yamaha and Suzuki in the middle of the corner, then I can use our engine, which is incredible.”
The secret seems to be how you brake and how that affects the attitude of the motorcycle as it enters the corner. Bagnaia somehow manages to brake harder and more smoothly, keeping the bike more balanced, so he can use the grip of both tyres into corners.
Dovizioso has spent many hours examining Bagnaia’s data but struggles to mimic his technique.
“To be a hard braker is now really bad because when you brake more you put the bike in a bad position to stop the bike,” says Dovizioso, who was MotoGP’s latest braker. “Pecco is able to brake later with less brake pressure and stop the bike better. This is difficult for me to do, because when you are slow you want to be faster so you push more, but my team requests me to do the complete opposite. It’s so difficult to do that, especially because I’ve never braked that way and when I try I can’t find the feeling with bike. The way you have to approach braking now is very smooth, so it’s difficult for me.”
Of course, the differences in what creates the fastest lap time and what doesn’t are infinitesimal. Last Sunday Dovizioso was six tenths per lap slower than Bagnaia. To get a rough idea of how much he was losing on braking let’s divide that by Misano’s 16 corners and divide each corner into three segments, which makes a difference of one-hundredth of a second in each braking segment.
It’s the same with riding technique – the differences are almost imperceptible. Tardozzi says Bagnaia’s technique reminds him of watching Jorge Lorenzo on the Ducati in 2017 and 2018, but Pramac Ducati team manager Francesco Guidotti isn’t so sure.
“Pecco uses the same lines but not same the style,” says Guidotti. “Like Jorge, he brakes very late and goes really fast into the corners, but it’s not the same style.
“After Thailand last year he stopped using the style and settings that he had carried over from Moto2 and Moto3. His bike had been very low at the rear and very soft at the front, so he felt comfortable, but he wasn’t fast enough and he destroyed the front tyre. Now he’s changed his settings, his style and his whole approach to riding
“Now Pecco brakes very well in a straight line, so then he can release the brakes more and the bike responds to what he wants, so he can use the line and the speed he chooses. If you don’t brake properly you go into the corner with no confidence and anything can happen.
“He has the right feeling so he can slow the bike down and carry lot of mid-corner speed, so he stresses the rear tyre less in acceleration because he already has a lot of speed coming out of the corner. It’s a matter of feeling – it doesn’t mean that only this style pays.”
In other words MotoGP is all about details and nuances.
“We are used to trying to find a proper answer to each question, but I don’t think this is correct in this case because the difference between each rider is a very few tenths, so how we can say this is right and this is wrong?” Guidotti continues. “It’s always a mix of this and that. And at one circuit one riding style may work better, but at another circuit a different style works better. The gap is so small it’s difficult to have a proper answer to every question.”
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Of course, Ducati will have another style of rider in its factory team next year: Jack Miller. Tardozzi is looking forward to working with the Australian but believes he needs to work on his technique to get the most out of Michelin’s new rear tyre
“Jack’s way of riding deforms the new rear, whereas Pecco is much gentler with the tyre,” he says. “Pecco opens the throttle in a much gentler way, which is why he doesn’t have tyre problems. Jack is a very talented rider and absolutely has the possibility to find the way, but I think maybe he trusts too much in his talent.
“It is good that we have riders with different styles, because our system is to have five factory riders under contract, all working with Ducati engineers, so we have a lot of data and information, so all our riders can learn from each other.”
Bagnaia’s technique is certainly impressive. However, it’s important to remember that making time with the front tyre is always riskier than making time with the rear, because it’s much more difficult to save a front-end slide.
So far this season he’s had three front-end crashes. The first at Brno, where he fell at Turn One, breaking his right tibia, then two more last weekend at Misano’s Turn Six, once in FP3 and again while leading the race.
“It looks like I touched something like a tear-off or some dirt,” said Bagnaia after Sunday’s heartbreaking fall. “This can be the only thing, because otherwise I’m a bit scared for the next race…”
There are few things riders hate more than not knowing why they crashed because they don’t know what to do differently next time.