Francesco Bagnaia came into Brno, round three of last year’s MotoGP championship, full of confidence and eager to make amends after seeing a debut podium lost due to a late technical problem at Jerez.
But if the smoking engine in Andalucia had been a cruel setback, the Italian was about to experience a far bigger – and more painful – obstacle when he fractured his right tibia during opening practice in the Czech Republic.
Not only did the injury put a stop to Bagnaia’s momentum, but cast doubt on his hopes of being promoted to the Factory Ducati team for 2021.
“One thing that pushed me a lot during rehab was the fear of losing the factory seat,” Bagnaia said.
By the time Bagnaia made his return at Misano the stakes were even higher with Andrea Dovizioso having announced in Austria that he wouldn’t continue at Ducati.
That meant his factory seat was officially available and Ducati soon made clear the choice would be between Pramac’s Bagnaia and Avintia’s Johann Zarco.
“I tried to come back at Misano to demonstrate what I had done in Jerez. With my trainer I had done a really great job, physically and mentality. I arrived in Misano with pain but I was convinced I could fight for the top positions.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Bagnaia qualified in sixth, then rode to a debut podium in the form of second place behind Franco Morbidelli. Bagnaia’s form continued to build with fifth on the grid the following weekend, when he looked on course for victory until falling from the lead.
But Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall’Igna had seen enough to give the 2021 Factory ride to Bagnaia.
“What Pecco did was really important in my opinion,” Dall’Igna said. “It was a crucial period in his career, because he got injured at Brno. And so for him, both mentally and psychologically, it was really difficult to deal with.
“As well as his athletic performance, it was the way he reacted to such a big setback that influenced the decision to choose him.”
Bagnaia now intends to channel the same motivation and mentality shown during his injury recovery for the full 2021 season.
“I will try to keep this mentality this year,” he said. “Try to do it like I did before Misano. I would like to be competitive like this period last year for all season.”
While the Misano form suggested Bagnaia was set for a strong end to last season, in reality he only finished three of the seven races that followed, with a best of sixth place.
“The thing was the temperature. Where we find hot temperatures. I was always fast. But when we found lower temperatures, like Aragon, I started struggling most of all with the front. I started crashing without pushing. That was critical for me,” said the 24-year-old.
“I prefer to have a better feeling with the front than rear. For the front, if you lose it you crash. The rear you can manage with gas.
“I have worked on this during this winter. Concentration and pushing when we have lower temperatures. I am lucky to have Jack [Miller] as team-mate. He’s very good in this [low] temperature.
“It’s something I have to work on if I want to stay with the faster guys. Looking at the data of Jack last year, this was clear. He was already fast from the first lap.
“I looked at every session of Aragon or Valencia where Jack was fast. It was very easy to see my exit lap was 4 or 5s slower than the lap of Jack.
“I have to learn to push without feeling to warm the tyre. If I can make it from the first lap, we can ride like we have more temperature.
“This is the most important thing to improve, because it will be easier to be faster always.
“I’ve been trying to work on it at the ranch. I tried at the ranch to push from the first lap and have improved, although it’s not the same as MotoGP for sure.”
At the team’s official launch, Dall’Igna made clear that Ducati won’t be lowering its expectations during the first year of the new Miller and Bagnaia factory era.
“Our goals must be to win the riders’ championship, or better still, both championships,” he said.
“For sure if I’m in the factory team it means the goal will be to win the championship,” agreed Bagnaia. “But my goal before that is to win my first race in MotoGP – something I lost last year by 6 laps [at Misano].
“I just would like to win my first race in MotoGP this year and be competitive always.
“In Moto2 I was consistent and wasn’t crashing. In the last two years I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I would like to be more competitive or consistent, also in the wet or in cold conditions.
“A factory rider has to be competitive always. When you have some problems or difficult moments, the result you need to do is a fifth position. You always have to be there.
“If we see in the championships of Vale or Marquez, a lot of times they don’t go out of the top 5. This is very important.”