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For Ducati, 2019 was a year of experiments. The Italian manufacturer promoted Danilo Petrucci to the factory team from Pramac, a reversal of the usual policy of top teams, to pair two fierce rivals in the hope they will push each other to greater heights. Signing Petrucci alongside Andrea Dovizioso turned the Mission Winnow factory squad into a true team, the two riders working together to try to improve the bike, and improve each other.
Ducati's experiments in teamwork came on top of Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna's usual experiments with the rules, pushing the boundaries of what is legal in MotoGP™. Ducati have always been at the forefront of aerodynamics, and in 2019, they found new frontiers to explore. With new rules in place further defining what was allowed in terms of aerodynamics, Ducati read the rules closely to see what hadn't been covered.
It turned out that the Grand Prix Commission, who make the rules, and not considered putting spoilers on a swing arm. So that's exactly what Ducati did, adding a spoiler to the bottom of the swing arm and covers over the front wheel, ostensibly to help cool the rear tyre – tyre temperature is a key factor in tyre wear, an area which Ducati have invested heavily in during the Michelin era. That it also added a small amount of downforce on the rear wheel, helping to improve braking by keeping it in contact with the ground, was merely a useful side effect. So useful that by the end of the year, all six MotoGP™ manufacturers were either running them in races, or testing them for the future.
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All that experimentation didn't help Ducati win the championship they have coveted so dearly, however. Despite Andrea Dovizioso scoring 269 points, his highest ever total in MotoGP™, the Italian veteran still managed to finish runner up to Marc Márquez. There is no shame in that: Márquez scored a record number of points 2019, and never finished lower than second place, with just one DNF all year. Beating that kind of consistency would require either a superhuman effort, or an overwhelming machine advantage.
Despite not winning a championship, Dovizioso had a very strong season in 2019. The Italian had wanted to improve his consistency after 2018, and last year he did just that. He had two DNFs, but neither were his own fault: Dovizioso was taken down in the multi-rider pile up at Barcelona, then wiped out at the start at Silverstone, when Fabio Quartararo fell directly in front of him, leaving him nowhere to go. Beyond that, he finished in the top four in all but three races, his worst finish a seventh place at Phillip Island.
With Honda having negated Ducati's biggest advantage – outright horsepower – relations between Dovizioso and Gigi Dall'Igna soured. Dovizioso has been asking for one thing since arriving at Ducati back in 2013: that they finally fix the turning issue. The Desmosedici has been slowly improving in that area ever since 2015, when Ducati launched the GP15, the first bike to be built to Dall'Igna's design. But it still suffers in long, fast corners, and Dovizioso's patience is running out.
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Will that change in 2020? Ducati brought a couple of different chassis to the tests at Valencia and Jerez, and the feedback was positive, though Dovizioso was his usual cautious self. "It’s a step forward because there wasn’t any negative points and this is good. But not that big a step." The new chassis, combined with a revised engine aimed at making the power delivery smoother, to be more gentle with the tyres, especially on the edge, should make it easier to hold a line with the Desmosedici.
Where does that leave Ducati for next season? Andrea Dovizioso has been runner up for three years now, and faces pressure both from Ducati and from himself to finally snatch the title from Marc Márquez. There is mutual frustration between Ducati and Dovizioso that the Italian has so far failed to do so. If 2020 looks like another year in which Dovizioso comes second, then a parting of the ways could well be imminent. Ducati would not be where they are without the years of hard grind by Andrea Dovizioso. But they may also feel that he has been able to carry them to second, but no further. A big play for a big name is likely.
If Dovizioso stays, then it could be Danilo Petrucci who has to make way. The Italian started 2019 on strong footing, and seemed to grow in the first half of the year. Andrea Dovizioso had taken Petrucci under his wing, Petrucci moving to live closer to the factory veteran, and using his personal trainer and his nutritionist.
That hard work culminated in the most emotional moment of the year, when Petrucci won the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, becoming only the second Italian rider to win the Italian Grand Prix on an Italian motorcycle – Andrea Dovizioso was the first, in 2017. It had been a long, hard, and improbable path for Petrucci: from jumping on a 600 when he grew too large to fit on a 125, to the Italian championship, the Superstock championship, the IODA CRT project, to end up winning the Italian Grand Prix on a factory Ducati.
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Petrucci lost his way a little in the second half of the season, losing faith in himself, his results suffering. That, too, is a consequence of his rags-to-riches story, a feeling that he was being looked down, seen as an imposter. If he can regain the confidence he had at the start of 2019, and build on that in 2020, then he has a shot to stay in the factory team.
Jack Miller is looking to earn his place in the factory Ducati squad as well. The Australian had his strongest season in MotoGP™ in 2019, racking up a total of five podiums, including an emotional rostrum at his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. The Pramac Racing team has been a good home for Miller, and his results have improved as he has matured. Having the same group of people around him for two years in a row has helped.
How good a fit is Miller at Pramac? When Ducati threatened to put Jorge Lorenzo into the Pramac squad between Brno and the Red Bull Ring, Pramac boss Paolo Campinoti kicked up a massive stink. The team paid Ducati a lot of money to lease the bikes, he said, so the team should decide who gets to ride them. The bonds there are strong, and if anything is going to prevent Miller from being promoted to the factory team, it is that.
Pecco Bagnaia gets a full 2020 spec Ducati for the coming season, and he faces the new year with experience under his belt. The former Moto2™ champion entered MotoGP™ as the hot new ticket, impressing during off season testing, ending the Sepang test as second fastest overall. He impressed at Qatar as well, though his race ended prematurely when he lost a winglet. But the Italian struggled through the season with tyre management, and was never really competitive through 2019. For 2020, Ducati expect him to step up. They signed Bagnaia to MotoGP™ even before he had started his final, championship-winning Moto2™ season. The Italian factory will want to see a return on their investment this coming year.
Zarco, the story so far...
Ducati have a surfeit of Moto2™ champions in 2020, with Johann Zarco being signed to ride alongside Tito Rabat in the Reale Avintia squad for the coming season. Zarco's path in MotoGP™ has been bizarre, to say the least. The Frenchman made a stunning debut in MotoGP™ in 2017, leading his very first premier class race at Qatar. By the end of that season, his former manager had already signed him up with KTM for 2019, before the 2018 season had even got underway.
That move proved to be a huge mistake. Zarco never felt comfortable with the RC16, regularly outclassed not just by his teammate, but by Miguel Oliveira in the Tech3 team as well. Switching to KTM from a Yamaha turned out to be tough, as Hafizh Syahrin also found out in the Tech3 squad. Zarco told KTM he wanted to leave at the Red Bull Ring, intending to stay on until the end of the season. But KTM had other ideas, the Austrian factory replacing him after his sustained criticism of the bike at Misano.
Zarco was thrown a lifeline after Motegi, when he was called in to replace Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda squad, after the Japanese rider ended his season early to have shoulder surgery. Zarco was impressive on the Honda, and after talks at Valencia, the Frenchman ended up with a contract with Ducati. The Italian factory is placing a lot of faith in Zarco, and he will be expected to repay it.
2020 is a big year for Ducati. They have a new bike which should turn better, four factory-spec GP20s on the grid, and a whole boatload of talent on the bikes. Gigi Dall'Igna was brought in by Ducati to win them a MotoGP™ championship. If he can't do it in 2020 with the current rider line up, then Ducati will make some big moves on the rider market. It's going to be a busy year.
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