Of necessity, the past two MotoGP seasons have seen races repeatedly run on the same race track. 2020 was a succession of back-to-back races at the same track: Jerez 1 and 2, Austria 1 and 2, Misano 1 and 2, Aragon 1 and 2, Valencia 1 and 2. With a better grip on the Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 was much better: the first 15 races have been at 13 different tracks. So far we have only had Qatar 1 and 2 and Austria 1 and 2.
The next three rounds will see MotoGP visit just one new circuit. We have the Gran Premio Nolan del Made in Italy e dell'Emilia-Romagna, or Misano 2, the Grande Prémio do Algarve, or Portimão 2, and then Valencia. But where Misano 2 and Portimão 2 differ from, say, Qatar 2 and Austria 2, is that they are not being held the week after. Misano 2 is happening five weeks after Misano 1, and with a race in Austin having taken place. Portimão 2 is even more distant, with nearly seven months and 13 races between the two rounds in Portugal.
So the Misano 2 of 2021 will be very different to the Misano 2 of 2020. Last year, the weather was pretty much identical between the two races at the Italian round. This year, air temperature at Misano 2 could be as much as 11°C lower than it was when we raced here five weeks ago. That could have a massive impact on track temperatures too; the asphalt might be 20°C rather than 29°C.
A change is as good as a rest
With conditions so very different, it is perhaps a good thing that in the intervening five weeks, MotoGP has been to Austin for the Grand Prix of the Americas. Given that the data from the Misano 1 race and from the post-race test will be of less use than in previous repeat races, a race at a different track may be the MotoGP equivalent of cleansing the palate. A reset of the senses, a recalibration of the racing reflexes, before taking to the track again.
The benefit of returning to Misano a second time is that the likely loss of dry track time on Friday will be less of an issue. The bikes are mostly dialed in, and the biggest task facing the teams and riders will be figuring out how the tires are working on a cooler track. Michelin have brought the same allocation of tires to the second Misano round, so at least the teams know what they have to work with. The challenge they face is figuring out how the track has changed since the last race here.
If the track is the same and the tires are the same, can we expect a similar race? Though much remains the same between the two Misano rounds, one big thing has changed: the dynamics of the championship. When we arrived for Misano 1, Pecco Bagnaia had just seized back 12 points from Fabio Quartararo after taking the first MotoGP victory of his career at Aragon. Bagnaia had dominated the weekend, and held off the challenge of a late charge from Quartararo to take his second win in a row. The 2021 championship no longer looked like the foregone conclusion it had after Quartararo's imperious victory at Silverstone.
Returning to Misano, Quartararo is once again in complete control. The Frenchman finished second in Austin, just one place ahead of Bagnaia, but the 8-point difference between finishing second ahead of Bagnaia or third behind the Italian is huge. Quartararo comes to Misano with a 52 point lead, needing 24 points from three races to put the championship out of reach of Pecco Bagnaia. Bagnaia, for his part, has only one possible way of denying Quartararo the 2021 crown: winning all three remaining races.
Quartararo, on the other hand, has a much simpler task. Just 24 points will ensure he takes the title, no matter what Bagnaia does. The Frenchman can also become champion with 23 points, if he scores a second place in one of the remaining three races. Currently, Quartararo has 5 wins, 2 seconds, and 3 third places. Bagnaia currently has 2 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds. If Bagnaia won all three races, the pair would be tied on race wins, and if they were also tied on points, the championship would be decided by the number of second places, then third places, etc.
Quartararo can also take the championship on Sunday by the simple expedient of finishing ahead of Bagnaia. Bagnaia has to win; if Quartararo can prevent that, then he will pretty much have one hand on the title. If Quartararo finishes on the podium and ahead of Bagnaia, he will wrap it up on Sunday.
Hurry up and wait
That seems unlikely, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because Bagnaia has looked fearsome at the last three visits to the Misano circuit. He finished second to Franco Morbidelli at Misano 1 last year, then crashed out of the lead in Misano 2. A month ago, the factory Ducati Lenovo rider was fastest overall in free practice, took pole position, and won the race, holding off a late and strong challenge from Quartararo. He loves the Misano circuit, and rides here frequently with the rest of the VR46 Academy. He starts the weekend as odds-on favorite, and is likely to live up to that role.
If Bagnaia dominates as expected, then Quartararo has some decisions to make. That in itself points to how having a significant lead doesn't make life as easy as you might think. Bagnaia has just one road to the title: win all three races. He has to go all in, and will face no criticism if he slips up and crashes out. He has to take risks, and so can afford to take risks.
Quartararo, however, cannot afford to risk it all. The championship is within reach, but any mistake can put that in jeopardy. If he crashes out while pushing too hard, then he will face a barrage of criticism from fans, will have his team asking questions of him, and even worse, start to question his own decision making. But if he rides too timidly, then he risks giving away precious points that could end up costing him at a later date.
Adapting to the circumstances
Taking risks and pushing hard is very much Quartararo's style, however, and how he got to be leading the championship in the first place. But now he found himself close to achieving his dream. "It’s how I like to race but I have never been in that situation," he told the pre-event press conference. He had led the championship early in 2020, but had seen it slip away. "Last year I learned a lot, not how to fight for a championship, but to be leader of the championship for many races was an important step for my experience."
He would decide on his strategy for the championship once he got to race day, he said. "I think we need to take it like a normal race but we know on Sunday something special can happen. But first of all on Friday and Saturday ,we need to plan it like the rest of the year, and then on Sunday we will see the amount of risk we will take. At the moment it is a normal race and we will see how much risk we will take on Sunday."
It is not looking like a normal race weekend, however. Heavy rain is predicted for Friday, meaning the first day of practice is likely to be lost to the weather. Light rain could follow on Saturday, complicating qualifying, while the weather on Sunday is expected to be dry and sunny, but much colder. That is going to throw a spanner in the works of any preparation Fabio Quartararo may have hoped to do for the race.
The rain, especially, could make life hard for Quartararo. The Yamaha is bad in the wet, especially in mixed conditions, the biggest weakness of a package that has improved vastly in 2021. If it is wet on Friday and Saturday, then Quartararo may struggle to qualify well, and starting from further back on the grid will force the Frenchman to evaluate what is possible and how much to risk. The Ducatis are much better in the wet and mixed conditions, and Bagnaia is fast around Misano both wet and dry.
The wildcard, perhaps, is Marc Marquez. Fresh from a convincing victory in Texas, he returns to Misano with his confidence bolstered. Not just thanks to the win, but also by the fact that he finished fourth at Misano 1, at a track which is very physically demanding for his troublesome right shoulder.
In the press conference, he made sure to downplay his chances. "I arrive here at Misano with the feeling of the test more than the Austin race," he said. "We know Austin is a special circuit and still I feel a big difference between left and right corners." Yet he also acknowledged that he had fared much better than expected at Misano last time out. "In Misano 1 was better than what we expected before the race and it was a result I didn’t expect." He was keen to temper expectations. "This weekend we will try to do a small step, top five will be a good result."
Though his recovery is going much slower than he had hoped, trying his patience sometimes. "I keep improving but too slow, I mean, it’s really slow," a frustrated Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "The comeback is difficult, even like this I’m able to ride in an acceptable way and I’m able to finish on the podium three times this year but still it’s not the way and the performance I would like." For a rider used to winning, three podiums from 13 races is a painfully modest haul.
All eyes will also be on another young Italian. Enea Bastianini has made outstanding progress in the last few rounds, scoring two sixth places and his first MotoGP podium in the last three races. That podium came at Misano 1, giving him confidence returning to the Italian track. Wet practice and qualifying may complicate matters, but the Esponsorama Ducati rider has proven that he can ride through the pack with aplomb. If there is a dark horse, it is Bastianini.
Another Italian will also be at the center of attention, though more due to his impending absence than the expectation of great results on Sunday. Misano 2 is Valentino Rossi's final race on Italian soil, a chance to say goodbye to his home fans. But precisely because it is his last race in Italy, the media demands on him are greater than ever. Even for a consummate profession and master of media like Valentino Rossi, the pressure is likely to be huge. That, and the knowledge that he has struggled all season, will not make life easy for the Italian.
The MotoE bombshell
Finally, a few words on the surprise announcement of the new MotoE motorcycle manufacturer. Prior to the weekend, there had been rumors that replacing the small Italian specialist electric bike maker would be a major manufacturer. Further rumors suggested it would be one of the factories already involved in MotoGP. All eyes were on KTM and Honda; even Harley-Davidson got mentioned in passing.
Nobody expected it to be Ducati, however. The Italian factory has a very defined and specific brand profile, one which an electric bike did not seem to fit easily. But Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali gave an in-depth and fascinating insight into their decision to get involved in MotoE, and what they hoped to learn. He revealed a deep understanding of the challenges involved, and laid out the difficulties and opportunities facing motorcycle manufacturers over the next decade or so, as the world attempts to transition to a carbon-neutral future to confront the existential threat of the climate crisis.
The objective, Domenicali explained, was to develop the technology and gain the experience to build a platform for electric motorcycles in the future. "We are thinking to develop technology with this MotoE program, and we are now somehow thinking about how the program could be for the electrical mobility, and we are thinking about the platform," the Ducati CEO said. "Because once you make the investment for the electrical engines, and all the battery packs and inverters, actually like with an internal combustion engine, it makes sense to share a platform."
Lighter, further, faster
The biggest challenge they faced in that was obvious. "The biggest challenge is the weight compared to the range," Domenicali said. Building bikes which were light, fast, and had range was hard with electric bikes. "The main problem of lithium, which is actually already very good chemistry, is that the energy density which you can charge in lithium is about 15 to 20 times less than the fuel. The battery is the fuel for the motorcycle, so the amount of fuel that you need to load in terms of kilograms is super heavy."
Maximizing energy efficiency and recovering as much energy as possible was key here. "We need to learn how to make the best use of energy, which is how the inverter is designed," Domenicali said. "The efficiency of the inverter, the energy recovery, the efficiency of the engine, but the most will be which chemistry we can select. So this is the biggest challenge, to make a motorcycle which is not too heavy, not much heavier than a typical ICE motorcycle, and has enough range."
Using racing as a platform to gain knowledge and expertise, and train engineers both in the racing department and in R&D for street bikes, was the goal. "We want our engineers to become as good as they are at developing internal combustion engines and I think everyone can say our engine in MotoGP is one of the fastest, if not the fastest. We want to get the same experience and technology on electrical propulsion. This is why when we started discussing, we thought that it was a very good moment. It's a long period we have been getting experience, making tests, trying to understand when was the right moment."
Keeping options open
This didn't necessarily mean that Ducati are all in on electric bikes for the future, Domenicali insisted. Using synthetic fuels, biofuels, or what he called 'eFuels', Ducati could continue to build internal combustion engines as well. With MotoGP about to transition to more synthetic fuels to race, in an attempt to make the racing more carbon neutral and help the manufacturers gain knowledge of how combustion worked with non-extracted petroleum products, this would open up a second track for Ducati.
Here, they were following in the footsteps of Porsche, a stablemate in the Volkswagen Audi Group which owns Ducati. Porsche, like Ducati, is a high-end brand which is know for high performance vehicles, and is both developing high performance battery vehicles, and working on ICE vehicles using synthetic fuel.
"For example Porsche already stated that in 2030, they will have 80% of their range electric, but the 911 will remain with an internal combustion engine and they are developing eFuel in South America," Domenicali explained. "But it requires a lot of energy to make eFuel, and the only way to produce a green eFuel, is if you have a lot of renewable energy, so you have to make it in a place where there is either a lot of sun or a lot of wind."
The transition of the championship to synthetic fuels, and building a MotoE bike, allowed Ducati to hedge their bets for the future. "In this championship now, you have both platforms," Domenicali said. "So the conventional engines are fantastic, we have MotoGP which is fantastic and we don't want to touch, but we want to move in the direction of carbon neutrality. So there, eFuel and synthetic fuel will play a role. So to understand how to then transfer that into mass production. And then on the other side, we have a platform to develop e-mobility in order to be high performance. So it's a kind of predicting what could be the future 10 years from now."
Progress in a conservative world
Will an electric bike diminish Ducati's image with its traditional fans? Domenicali pointed out that the community of Ducatisti was a broad church, with many views. There are those who still believed that a Ducati should be an air-cooled V twin with two desmodromically operated valves, housed in a trellis frame. That period belonged in Ducati's past, Domenicali said, pointing to the many changes in Ducati's technology, and even market segments.
Ducati had gone from air cooling to liquid cooling in 1985, and added more valves. They had switched from V twins to the V4, with great success. They had added the Monster, and even the Multistrada, a completely different bike to Ducati's heritage, and a totally different machine even within its market segment of large-capacity adventure bikes, which are mostly twin cylinders. They had even dared to drop the desmodromic valves from the Multistrada, as the desmo system was more suited to very high-revving engines, and using conventional valves allowed for much greater maintenance intervals.
Ducati had done all this, and gained market share. They had abandoned what hardcore Ducatisti regarded as the brand's core values, and grown in popularity. And they had done so while creating a newer, clearer image, redefining and sharpening the focus on Ducati's real values: "As Ducati are style, sophistication, and performance," Domenicali said. A MotoE bike with Ducati styling should be able to embody all of those values.
The winds of change
This feels like a monumental moment in motorcycle history. So far, electric bikes have been seen as more of a curiosity, built by niche companies, usually technology companies in Silicon Valley, rather than motorcycle manufacturers in the traditional heartlands of Europe and Japan. A factory of Ducati's stature embracing the challenge of developing a MotoE bike, with a view to using it as a platform to develop technology and launch a new family of road bikes in the long term, that feels like a sea change in the motorcycling landscape.
Whatever you think of electric motorcycles – personally, I am a big fan, and would have one if the range was long enough and recharging fast enough – there is no denying that this is big. At a stroke, Ducati have changed the way the world looks at electric motorcycles. Even their most ardent detractors will take them more seriously now.
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