Reigning MotoGP world champion Pecco Bagnaia has finished the opening day of action for the Japanese Grand Prix more than a little relieved - feeling that he finally understood and perhaps even cured the braking issues that have plagued him at the last two rounds of the championship.
Rival Jorge Martin has cut Bagnaia’s championship lead to only 13 points, the smallest it had been since Mugello in June.
Bagnaia has been complaining since the San Marino Grand Prix that something has been missing from his Desmosecidi’s braking performance, even if the injuries from his horror crash a week earlier in Barcelona were somewhat masking the extent of his performance woes at Misano.
However, things came to a head last weekend at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix, where he crashed out of second place shortly after overtaking Martin, throwing away valuable championship points in the process that allowed both the Spaniard and race winner Marco Bezzecchi to tighten up the title race.
Bouncing back from the crash strongly, though, Bagnaia was adamant afterwards that - unlike with previous dips in his form both this year and last - he wasn’t letting the pressure get to him, insisting instead that because he knew the cause (if not the source) of his woes, it was something that remained very much in the hands of his engineers to fix.
“We spoke yesterday and today,” he explained in the pre-event press conference on Thursday. “On Monday night, I was at 3am watching every video of the braking points in Buddh, Barcelona, Misano and Austria trying to understand if also in the viewing it was easy to understand what was wrong.
“The only thing that came out is that in the last races the rear is doing something quite strange. The standard is a slide that I can control, but in the last two weekends and especially last weekend, my rear slide was over the limit. We understood that.
“Thanks also to the engineers at home because they worked with my crew and we decided to go in a different way for this weekend and we will start with two set-ups that are different, to understand the way to follow.”
And, thankfully for Bagnaia, it seems that one of those directions worked, leaving him feeling much better on the bike and ready to be competitive again this weekend at Motegi.
“I’m happy, finally,” he admitted, finishing the day in second overall behind KTM rider Brad Binder. “It was a long time that I wasn’t in the top five in FP1 [fourth today], but doing this laptime in FP2 is great.
“Finally, I’m back on the braking and I can force a lot the braking.
"I can take a big breath, because I’ve been struggling a lot in the past two weekends. I’m still missing something for being completely happy, but this is a huge step in the front.”
Bagnaia said it a matter of both the mechanical set-up and electronics, "but more mechanical".
By the time it came to pushing for a fast time at the end of the day, things were close enough to normal to leave him as the top Ducati man - and three tenths clear of fourth-placed man Martin.
“We did a different step during the day,” he explained. “For sure the first two exits in the morning were the best, and then in the third one we were back to the bike of Buddh and again I was feeling strange. I was up [slower by] one second in the laptimes. So thanks to that setting, we understand better what was wrong.
“In the afternoon we were just focusing on improving my feeling and every session [run] was better and better and better. In the time attack, on the first attempt I was pushing but doing it in a safer way.
“Then in the second one I just did it like a normal one and finally I felt again to be very strong on the braking. I was stopping the bike very well, sliding in the correct way, and it’s a true relief for me.”