The last time I was in Portimao I spent the weekend watching Chaz Davies trying to work out how to beat Johnny Rea. For three-quarters of the lap, he had it sorted. The problem was the final sector; specifically the last corner, that big, fast right-hander that goes on forever. Chaz would regularly be right on Johnny’s pace until he got there, at which point the best part of a quarter of a second would go missing. If Chaz tried to push the envelope the bike would do something potentially disastrous. One incident is imprinted on my memory; Chaz on a fast lap pushed again in the big righthander and the Ducati tried to snap sideways. Now I have spent a long time watching motorcycles from trackside and it is nigh on impossible to tell if they’re behaving well or badly without a very experienced rider stood beside you telling you what’s really going on. If I could see the problem from the commentary box, it must have felt apocalyptic on the bike.
It was a vivid illustration of what we all knew: Ducatis, production based and MotoGP, really did not like spending a lot of time on the side of the tyre.
So how to compute what I watched on my TV last weekend? Pecco Bagnaia smashing out seventeen consecutive 1min 39sec laps (followed by a 40-dead and another 39) in a 23-lap race to win by over two-and-a-half seconds from World Champion Joan Mir on a Suzuki, the bike previously thought to be the one that went round corners better than the rest. Pecco’s first GP win was in Moto3 in 2016 at Assen on a Mahindra, then equipped with a chocolate gearbox. Somehow he won a typical Moto3 group fight. How did he manage that trick while nursing the transmission? According to his team if Pecco was told to change gear at a certain rpm, he did it. And he did it every lap, not just within shouting distance of the specified engine speed but bang on it every time. Anything the bike demanded, anything he was told to do to keep the bike rolling, he did to the letter. That’s where last weekend’s run of 39s came from.
But it’s not just Pecco who can ride the Duke. Ducatis also finished third, fifth, seventh and ninth, the factory picked up the Constructors’ Championship and barring acts of God Lenovo Ducati are going to win the Teams’ tile this weekend. The celebratory picture issued by the factory featured the five riders who’s contributed points to that title by being first Ducati over the line. Luca Marini was the one who didn’t get the memo; Ducati Corse have always had a different approach to rider management.
Bagnaia has always been able to extract the maximum from difficult motorcycles but the transformation of the Desmosedici into everyman’s motorcycle is a tribute to the genius of Gigi Dall’Igna. That crown used to be the preserve of Yamaha, never the fastest bike on track but the best compromise nearly everywhere. And where were the M-1s at Portimao?The first one home was thirteenth – Valentino Rossi reminding everyone that he isn’t senile. Sadly, Valencia and Vale have never been happy together, so this weekend’s major celebrations of his career will happen well after the race finishes. As usual at Valencia, chances are the pole sitter will win. Check the data for the number of lead changes in the last ten years: Clue, it’s a small number. But neither has Valencia been a happy hunting ground for Ducati. If Bagnaia or any other Duke rider wins on the track where both Dovizioso and Lorenzo crashed their Dukes chasing Pedrosa in the 2017 race it’ll be the first dry-weather win for the Bologna bikes since Casey Stoner in 2008, the only other dry Ducati winner being Troy Bayliss in 2006. A measure of the progress made under Dall’Igna is that Jack Miller was a fighting second last year. A win this year would put the seal on Gigi’s miracle transformation.