Fortunes in MotoGP can change fast. Before the opening weekend of the 2022 MotoGP season, Pecco Bagnaia was the most tipped rider to take the title, the Ducati GP22 was the hot bike to have. The question was not whether a Ducati would win one of the early races, but rather which one, and how many Ducatis would end up on the podium at them.
That prediction turned out to be accurate, but not in the way those making it expected. Enea Bastianini rode an outstanding race in Qatar to win the first race of 2022, and the first for the Gresini squad since Toni Elias back at Estoril in 2006. A Ducati stood on the top step of the podium, as expected. Only it was a satellite rider on a year-old bike, Bastianini riding a Ducati GP21.
The riders on a GP22 had a thoroughly miserable night. Jack Miller was forced to retire when the electronics on his bike got confused by which timing loop was where and started using the wrong power map. Pecco Bagnaia lost the front going into Turn 1 as he was trying to pass Jorge Martin, the Lenovo factory rider taking out the Pramac satellite man. Johann Zarco caught the struggling Fabio Quartararo on the run to the checkered flag on the very last lap, to grab a mediocre 8th spot. And Luca Marini battled his bike home to a handful of points in 13th.
The results were doubly disappointing because qualifying had been so promising. Jorge Martin took pole on the Pramac bike, Jack Miller lined up at the head of the second row in 4th, and Pecco Bagnaia's 9th spot on the grid came with much frustration, the Italian complaining of spending too much time still testing during practice.
Where did it all go wrong for Ducati? The problem is brought into stark contrast by watching the start of the race from the helicopter view. While the Hondas, KTMs, Suzukis leap forward off the line, the Ducatis are nowhere. The GP22 is sluggish off the line and completely lacks drive compared to the other bikes.
That lack of acceleration has taken a heavy toll on the newest version of the Ducati Desmosedici by the first corner. Jorge Martin qualified on pole, but enters Turn 1 down in 6th. Jack Miller drops from 4th to 8th, while Lenovo Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia slumps from 9th to 15th. Further back, Johann Zarco drops from 13th to 16th, while Luca Marini, who had qualified way down in 17th, had lost two places to enter Turn 1 in 19th.
Riders of a Ducati GP22 lost four places on average just on the run into the first corner. They went from leading the pack to being stuck in traffic.
Contrast that with the Hondas, for example. Marc Marquez went from 3rd on the grid to enter Turn 1 in first position, though he subsequently ran wide and let Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro through into the lead. Espargaro had started 6th, and approached Turn 1 in 2nd. Further back, Takaaki Nakagami started 16th and passed a bunch of riders to enter Turn in 12th, while LCR teammate jumped from 18th on the grid to 14th. Where the Ducatis had lost four places off the start, the Hondas had found them.
The problem was also restricted to the riders on a GP22. Enea Bastianini, the only non-rookie on a Ducati GP21, got a great start from the front row, entering Turn 1 right behind the Hondas of Espargaro and Marquez. The GP21 jumped off the line, where the GP22 seemed to get bogged down and go backward.
Why is the GP22 such a poor starter? The most obvious culprit would have to be the most significant change to the bike since last year: the front ride-height device. The system of locking the device is different, the latch having been moved to accommodate the cylinder lowering the front. But given Johann Zarco's difficult getting the front device locked on the grid, it seems unlikely this was the cause.
Rather more worrying is that where the Ducati seemed to lose acceleration was after the initial surge off the line. Where their rivals picked up speed as they changed up to second, third, and fourth, the Ducatis seemed to stall. That additional drive as they hit peak power was lacking, uncharacteristically for Ducati.
Drive to survive
That lack of acceleration was largely alleviated once the race got underway. But even then, the Ducati's drive was rather lackluster. Watching the bikes streaming onto the front straight via the helicopter view shows Jorge Martin gaining no ground on Aleix Espargaro's Aprilia RS-GP ahead of him, and the other Ducatis behind him in the same situation. The Ducati was slow to build a head of steam down the front straight, normally the point where the bike is strongest.
Is this an issue with the engine? Given that the factory riders were using an uprated version of the GP21 engine, and the Pramac riders the GP22 engine rejected by the factory team, it seems more likely the issue lies with changes to the geometry of the bike and to the electronics being used. The lack of a base setup is coming back to hurt them.
Which is where Pecco Bagnaia's complaints make sense. "If you look, you see all the new Ducatis have started so badly," the Italian said after the race. "We lost a lot of position. I was 16th in Turn 3. So it was not the best start for sure, then I started to push to recover positions."
But too much time spent testing new parts and a lack of time on setup cost Ducati dearly, Bagnaia felt. "We finished our work in FP3, and this is not possible for me, it's not great. My feeling was back in FP4, but just because we decided [on bike setting]. So from that point, we never touched the bike again, until this morning when I was riding and I felt that I was not ready for the race. Because I was a bit faster, but the electronics and the setting of the bike was not good for the grip and for the track. So we have done something for the race, but we were behind."
Ducati's problems sound fixable, but they will need time on track. Preferably a track which is a known quantity, but the next three circuits are all something of an anomaly. MotoGP has only seen Mandalika at the test a month ago, and the track has been partially resurfaced since then. Argentina is up next, a circuit which sees little use and tends to be dusty and dirty on the first day. Then Austin, which again has been partially resurfaced and features a unique layout. When you are looking for a base setup, you want as few variables as possible, but this opening section of the season is full of wildcards.
Ducati is still on paper the factory in the strongest position to win the championship this year. But they have made the job a great deal more difficult for themselves as a result of the ambitions they had.
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