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As the saying goes: you wait for ages for a bus and then two come along at once. Jack Miller’s (Ducati Lenovo Team) debut factory campaign may not have started in an all guns blazing manner, but Jerez and Le Mans have seen the charismatic Australian claw his way out of the trenches to sit just 16 points off World Championship leader Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP).
The 2021 SHARK Grand Prix de France was bonkers from start to finish. Rather fitting then that Miller, a boisterous personality on and off the track, went on to win Sunday’s first flag-to-flag epic in four years. The threat of rain was constant throughout the weekend and straight away in FP1, we saw Miller in his element: iffy conditions, slick tyres. The Aussie seems to have a knack when the track is neither completely wet nor dry, see Argentina’s 2018 qualifying session for the prime example. Miller was 1.4s quicker than his rivals in FP1 after – unsurprisingly – being the first to gamble on slick tyres, however, the points aren’t scored on Friday morning.
In a dry qualifying, Miller stuck it on the front row for the second race in succession. Ducati have been looking forward to this stint of the season: Le Mans, Mugello, Catalunya – tracks that couple well with the Desmosedici’s strengths. And no matter the conditions in France, Miller was quick.
Second fastest to 2020 Le Mans wet race winner Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) in a rain-soaked morning Warm Up, you had a sense Miller was going to have an enjoyable afternoon. From the outside, the MotoGP™ race looked anything but enjoyable though. Rain and slick tyres don’t mix, and that’s exactly what Miller and his competitors faced early doors, the number 43 having to take to Turn 11’s gravel trap before piling into pitlane for a bike swap.
Aforementioned, Miller was fast in both the dry and wet conditions. As soon as the riders ventured out on Michelin’s wet rubber, the 26-year-old reeled in Quartararo at a rapid rate of knots and made his two long-lap penalties – for speeding in the pitlane – look like nothing. Miller admitted after the race that he had no idea what the double long-lap penalties were for, so to keep his cool and make zero errors from there on in is another indication that we’re seeing a complete Miller in 2021.
Riding in mixed, damp or wet conditions is much more mentally demanding than riding in the dry. Riders don’t know where the limit is, a crash can bite at any moment – as we saw 117 times across the weekend at Le Mans – and when you’re trying to win a race that has gone from dry, to wet, and back to dry again, the mental strain must be enormous. That’s why Miller’s comfortable win – relatively speaking – was so impressive. And it was a victory that sees Miller do something no other Australian has done since 2012.
Casey Stoner, a two-time MotoGP™ World Champion and a rider widely regarded as one of the most talented guys ever to grace the sport, last won back-to-back races in Jerez and Estoril during his swansong 2012 campaign with Repsol Honda. Stoner is also the only rider to have won the MotoGP™ title on a Ducati, that 2007 season strung together by the Australian is one of the all-time greats.
So when Miller put pen to paper with the factory Ducati outfit during the 2020 season, there were immediate flashbacks to Stoner’s dominant Ducati days and predictions being made about the latest Australian MotoGP™ winner replicating his predecessor. It’s unfair on Miller to expect that of him – not many did in fairness – but there was undoubtedly pressure to perform. Not just because compatriot Stoner had gone and blitzed the World Championship at his first attempt in Bologna red, but becoming a factory rider propels you into the realms of needing to fight for podiums and race wins week in, week out. Miller knew this though.
After the disappointment of Losail’s double header and Portimao, the critics were out in force. The pitchforks were ablaze. Just three races into his life as a factory Ducati rider, Miller was at rock bottom. So that’s why the raw outpour of emotions that we saw in parc ferme in Jerez was a sight to behold, we were looking at a rider realising their dream – becoming a MotoGP™ winner with a factory team. Miller’s Assen 2016 heroics in similar conditions to that of Le Mans had become a distant memory for the Aussie, he so badly wanted that win in a fully dry race with Ducati. Ducati believed in him, his friends and family believed in him, it was time for Miller to believe in himself. It's safe to say the critics have crawled back into the shadows.
Now Miller does believe in himself. Two wins in two, matching Stoner’s 2012 feat, and bringing himself right into the title frame just a few weeks after people were writing him off signal a perfect couple of Grands Prix. But what’s changed between now and the beginning of 2021? Well, in terms of Miller as a rider, nothing. But tyre woes and arm pump caused two P9s at Losail, then a mistake in Portugal cost Miller a chance of a good result. Those issues have now been firmly put to bed, and as the three-time premier class winner says, the ball is now rolling.
“Just a bit more confidence, the balls rolling you know? It’s generally something I’ve done throughout my career, I get stronger as the season goes on. I hate the first ones, but yeah, we were able to get it going,” said Miller in his post-race interview, speaking about the difference between now and Qatar.
“It feels amazing to not have to worry one bit about the arm, just focus on what I need to do. I’ve trained my arse off this year and I continue to do so in the weeks, I keep saying to the boys ‘we just keep training like we’re losing and all will be good’, and that’s what we’re doing.”
It remains to be seen whether Miller can become the second Australian to win a World Championship with Ducati. He’s already joined Aussie legends Troy Bayliss and Stoner in winning for the Bologna factory in MotoGP™, but the ultimate goal is the one every rider wants – the MotoGP™ title. At the quarter stage of the season, Miller is P4 in the standings behind Quartararo, teammate Francesco Bagnaia and Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing). 16 points between four riders after five rounds, three Ducatis chasing a Yamaha, with the Italian marque’s home Grand Prix at the magnificent Mugello up next.