A Spartan’s Struggle

It was the worst-kept secret in the MotoGP paddock last year: Triple premier class champion, Jorge Lorenzo, was leaving the all conquering Yamaha factory outfit for Ducati in 2017. Signed to deliver the red bike’s first World Championship since Casey Stoner exactly a decade ago.

It has not gone as planned. Lorenzo’s results from the three opening fly-away races read thus:

Qatar: P11 (Started P12), 5 points

Argentina: DNF (Started P16)

USA: P9 (Started P6), 7 points

The warning signs had been evident for any rider joining Ducati: Just a few seasons after winning his title, Stoner became disillusioned with the team and defected to see out his racing days with Honda. Furthermore, since Stoner left in 2010, the Italian team have achieved victory in a grand total of two grands prix (Andreas Iannone and Dovizioso at Austria and Malaysia last season, respectively). Not even Valentino Rossi, with nine world titles to his name, could tame the Desmosedici-RR. The latter’s failure was perhaps Lorenzo’s real motivation for signing. Succeed where his arch rival could not.

Winter testing was a disaster for both team and rider. Although it is always difficult to judge the real performance of riders and teams, as we are not privy to details such as fuel loads and tyre choice, Lorenzo was constantly in the bottom half of the timesheets throughout most of the sessions. This was also because of Ducati discovering that they had lost some ground on their rivals now that the winglets had been banned. The lack of such aerodynamic aids has undoubtedly hurt the cornering performance of the Bologna-based outfit. With this in mind, the Spaniard was clearly always going to be struggling to adapt from the start.

However, in Ducati’s defence, their bike has always been much more physically demanding to ride than others. Therein lies the crux of all problems for the man known to his fans as ‘The Spartan’. Whilst the M1 has garnered the reputation of being arguably the most well balanced grand-prix bike to ever be built, the Ducati is the polar opposite. Designed around maximum straight line speed, the rider must be prepared to haul himself and the bike around every corner, combating the extreme levels of ‘chatter’ through the suspension, as the machine fights against every directional change. It takes an extraordinary rider to tame the beast. There is no place for finesse and smooth trajectories, which Lorenzo has built his career upon to date.

As a result, perhaps it should not have surprised us that the early stages of Lorenzo’s relationship with his new employers have been rocky. Both team and rider have had a stark reality check since joining forces. Ducati almost certainly won’t be able to win the championship this season, and Lorenzo has discovered how much he underestimated the challenge of riding the Ducati would be.

Poorer than expected results, and a completely disconsolate Lorenzo after Argentina, led certain media outlets into speculating how quickly he might part ways with his team. It was telling that it was Lorenzo who moved first to clarify his situation before last weekend’s American Grand Prix: “I don’t want to think about what has happened. In the team we are all optimistic. We’re working well together and this difficult moment will be over soon.”

Whilst ninth place will not bring home any accolades, it is proof that both the rider and team are improving. Lorenzo was understandably more buoyant speaking after the race. Additionally, there was more of a hint of the old bullish Jorge when on top form: “Today I was faster than ever on race pace. For sure we cannot be satisfied with our final position because our target is certainly much higher. We’re here to fight with Yamaha and Honda. But the positive is we’re much closer than before.”

Now that does not sound like a man who’s giving up just yet.

Eddie Hocknull @EddieHocknull

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