In 2021, Ducati came close to fulfilling their dream of winning a second MotoGP riders' championship after Casey Stoner in 2007, Pecco Bagnaia falling just short of holding Fabio Quartararo from the title. That came after an impressive second half of the season, in which the factory Ducati rider won four of the last six races, and finished on the podium in a fifth.
That is quite a turnaround for the Italian. Bagnaia's first season in MotoGP was dismal, finishing fifteenth in the championship with just three top ten finishes and six DNFs, including four in a row between Jerez and Barcelona. But he had shown promise in the preseason test in 2019, ending in second place behind Danilo Petrucci with a lap of 1'58.302. That time was just 0.037 slower than Bagnaia managed on the second day of the Sepang test at the start of February 2022, with three years of experience and a much improved Desmosedici underneath him.
The man who has guided him in this transition is crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. The Italian engineer is no stranger to success: Gabarrini was crew chief to Ducati's only world champion, Casey Stoner, from 2007 to 2012, and worked briefly with Marc Marquez on his arrival at Honda before returning to the fold at Bologna.
Gabarrini is a quietly spoken, intense, thoughtful man, who weighs his words carefully. He wears his razor-sharp intelligence lightly, listening carefully and giving precise and thoughtful answers in clear and easily understood language.
At Sepang, I spoke to Gabarrini about his work with Bagnaia, and the work he and Bagnaia had done to go from struggling for points to battling for the title, and starting the 2022 season as the favorite to win the championship. Along the way, we discussed how Bagnaia became one of the strongest brakers in MotoGP, why Bagnaia coped with the new Michelin rear tire where Andrea Dovizioso struggled, the successful plan to beat Marc Marquez at Aragon in 2021, and the genius of Casey Stoner.
Speed and pace
I started off asking about that lap time at the Sepang test in 2019. At the time, I had asked Gabarrini about Bagnaia's phenomenal lap time, but he cautioned that what mattered was race pace, rather than a single fast lap. In 2022, he repeated that. "In my opinion, the talent can help you to make one good lap in perfect conditions. But, to manage the tire, you have to have experience also."
Being fast was fine, but being fast over 25 laps of a race required something more. "The talent helps in every sector, but to manage the tire, first of all you have to know the tire. The tire behavior is not always the same. It depends the temperature, the track conditions, which kind of tire, specification of tire, carcass they bring, the compound combination. So to me, you need time to try many solutions and to obtain data to elaborate later. That’s why I was quite sure that our problem, if we had a problem, was to manage the tire during the race, not to make the fast lap."
As Bagnaia learned over this time in MotoGP, so he turned raw speed into results, Gabarrini said. "For Pecco it was quite normal what he did, the progression he did in three years, but I agree with you that last year the slope of the progression was a lot more steep. He improved a lot more in the last year compared to the other two."
There are several reasons for this, Gabarrini explained. "First of all, he used a full factory bike last year and it helps, we know very well. In the other side, it was his third year in MotoGP. So, like we said before, many, many things that you have to learn, making experience, crashes, etc., he has already done. Then we know also that in the rider’s mind to be in a factory team is something that everybody aims for, and can help also on the mental side. So, I think that the combination of these factors helped to make really a huge step in the last twelve months."
Gabarrini also pointed out that Bagnaia had suffered a serious leg injury in 2020, after a massive crash during practice at Brno, which caused him to miss three races. "Don't forget also that he has a big injury that stopped him quite a lot," he explained.
Before the start of the 2021 season, Bagnaia told journalists that he had spend a lot of time working on getting heat into cold tires in cool conditions as quickly as possible, and teaching himself to push hard as soon as he left the pits.
Heating the front
This is a skill which has always been important in MotoGP. It was something which Casey Stoner was doing on the Ducati, as Gabarrini pointed out to me back in 2010. What impressed Gabarrini back then was how Stoner would be setting fastest sector times in the third and fourth sector on his out lap already.
"I agree with you," Gabarrini told me. "Especially in MotoGP, what you said is super true. With this kind of tire, you have to push on the tire immediately. As soon as you leave the pit lane, you have to push immediately. You have to keep the temperature high. It’s not so natural. It’s not so comfortable to do at the beginning."
To push at the limit, you have to have faith that the tire will grip, but the tire will only grip if you push at the limit. "Especially because the best way to put energy in the front tire is to brake very hard," Gabarrini said. It was something Bagnaia had had to learn. "He didn’t at the beginning. It was funny to see him braking. We worked a lot on it."
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