On paper, Francesco Bagnaia finished the 2020 MotoGP season with one podium to his name and a lowly 16th place in the world championship.
But if events had turned out slightly differently, the young Italian could well have tripled his rostrum tally, including a debut victory, not to mention the three races lost after fracturing his right tibia at Brno.
That injury directly followed the late-race engine problem at Jerez, which stripped the Pramac Ducati rider of an otherwise safe debut MotoGP podium.
Although the Andalucia weekend ended with zero points, Bagnaia’s top Ducati form in both qualifying (debut front row) and the race put the former Moto2 champion firmly on the radar for the available factory team seat in 2021.
Any doubts that Jerez had been a flash in the pan were then extinguished by second place and an overdue podium on his return to action at Misano.
The 2018 Moto2 world champion looked set to go one better the following weekend, holding a confident lead with seven laps remaining, only to slide off and hand victory to Maverick Vinales.
It was a bitter blow, albeit softened when Bagnaia was confirmed as joining Jack Miller in moving up to the factory Ducati team for 2021.
But any hopes of Bagnaia leaving Pramac on a high were quashed by a shocking run of four DNFs in the final five events.
The last was due to contact from Joan Mir, while the others were falls in the opening laps of chilly Autumn races and getting the front tyre up to temperature quickly is Bagnaia’s top priority for 2021.
“The biggest problem was heating the front tyre. Very difficult to do,” Bagnaia said.
“Next year it will be interesting to have something to help us with that because we will have races with cold conditions again and it’s important to have the best bike in every situation.
“What I am asking Ducati for is something to help me have the best feeling already on the first lap.”
Fortunately for Bagnaia, team-mate Miller is one of the best at generating tyre grip in even the trickiest of track conditions and the Italian was able to make some progress by learning from the Australian’s data.
“I saw Jack’s data. He is always very competitive and fast on the first lap and in mixed conditions, a situation where I have always struggled.
“So I have learnt from him. But for sure I have to work on it more and change something to have the best feeling I can already on the first lap.”
‘Less rear brake, smart with the gas’
Until the introduction of last year’s softer rear tyre construction, success at Ducati largely relied upon exploiting the Desmosedici’s braking and acceleration strengths to the full. That included extensive use of the rear brake, which also helped to turn the bike.
But in 2020 Bagnaia and Johann Zarco showed that a smoother approach could also pay dividends with the new rear Michelins, especially at tracks where the heavy-brakers struggled.
After fighting his way from 14th to sixth in Catalunya, Bagnaia spoke of, “trying to use less rear brake, because I was stopping too much the rear tyre and always going wide.
“And one of the most important things was to be very smart with the gas, be very gentle on the edge of the tyre, to not stress it too much.”
By contrast, while Miller has also learned to carefully conserve his rear tyre, he does so by avoiding wheelspin when the bike is accelerating hard in an upright position, rather than while trying to carry corner speed on the edge of the tyre.
“Normally I’m one of the best for [saving] the rear tyre,” Miller said. “Pecco is maybe a little bit better but he runs a really ’round’ [sweeping] line [through the corners] and doesn’t really open the gas too much.
“So he spends more time on the edge of the tyre, but he doesn’t use the tyre so much with the acceleration. Whereas all the rest of the Ducatis, we seem to have a similar style. I’m one of the best with the throttle traces, spin levels and everything like that.”
With aggressive brakers Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci both leaving Ducati and three rookies joining the factory’s MotoGP line-up for 2021, it will be interesting to see if Ducati Corse engineers feel the Desmosedici needs to be tuned more towards a corner-speed style, or if the modifications made over the winter are aimed at regaining the hard braking and acceleration ‘lost’ last season.
Miller and Bagnaia are scheduled to make their first outing as Official Ducati team riders during testing at Sepang in February.