By Rohith Nair
(Reuters) – When Francesco Bagnaia crashed at the German Grand Prix in June, the Ducati rider found himself 91 points behind reigning champion Fabio Quartararo, an enormous lead that had never been overhauled in MotoGP history. Until this season.
Bagnaia came agonisingly close in 2021 when the Italian pushed Quartararo all the way before a crash with two races left handed his Yamaha rival the title.
But Bagnaia’s comeback this season, the greatest in MotoGP history, saw Ducati clinch the title after 15 years as he sealed the championship in Valencia on Sunday and finally ended the dominance of Japanese manufacturers Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki.
“It was an amazing victory. I was feeling the weight on my shoulders to bring back this title to my team Ducati and to Italy,” Bagnaia told reporters.
“I’m very proud of my team, of myself, of what we did because it’s incredible.”
The start of the 2022 season was far from ideal for pre-season favourite Bagnaia, however, when he began with a crash in Qatar as he struggled to come to grips with a new Ducati machine.
“I know that the task of a factory rider is to work, but if we want to win, then we have to be more concentrated on me during the race weekend,” Bagnaia said at the time as he blamed Ducati for trying to test new specifications on a race weekend.
He took his time to adapt while Ducati also worked with him, trusting his judgement, eventually allowing him to claim his first victory in the sixth round in Jerez.
But just as Bagnaia felt that he was back to his best and set to challenge Quartararo, the 25-year-old failed to find consistency, with one more win in Italy sandwiched between three retirements.
SEASON OF TWO HALVES
The 91-point deficit midway through the year looked daunting but Bagnaia put his head down and soldiered on, taking things race by race.
His patience paid off and the season quickly became a story of two halves as Quartararo began to flounder.
The Frenchman, who won three races in the first half of the season, did not win again while he also failed to finish three times.
Meanwhile, Bagnaia won four in a row to shoot up the standings, leapfrogging other contenders Aleix Espargaro and Enea Bastianini in the standings.
By then Quartararo was nervously looking over his shoulder and, before he knew it, Bagnaia had forged ahead with three more podiums.
Luck ran out for the Frenchman, who was denied points when former champion Marc Marquez crashed into him at Aragon.
His bike’s straight-line speed was also no match for Ducati as much as he tried, and he eventually relinquished the championship lead to Bagnaia in Australia with another crash.
By the time they reached the penultimate race in Malaysia, Bagnaia was one with the Ducati machine.
He produced a near-flawless display to win the race from ninth on the grid — which he described as the “best ever start to a race in my life” — to all but seal the title.
With just a top-14 finish required in the finale at Valencia, Bagnaia held all the cards and even gave Quartararo a tough time early in the race, nudging him to remind the Yamaha rider that he was not backing down.
After an engrossing battle, ninth place at Valencia gave Bagnaia his maiden title and made him the first Italian champion since Valentino Rossi, who won the last of his seven MotoGP titles in 2009.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; editing by Clare Fallon)