until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Bagnaia’s transformation is unique among MotoGP champions

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

For the purposes of this article, let’s say a rider contests their first ‘full’ grand prix season when he starts two-thirds of the races or more on that year’s MotoGP calendar. It’s as arbitrary a mark as any, given the metamorphoses grand prix racing has gone through, the past laissez-faire attitude towards full-season attendance and the inescapable occupational hazard of injuries, but it seems tidy enough.

In the years since veteran rider and former RAF pilot Leslie Graham kicked things off by winning the inaugural 500cc world title, 28 more riders immortalised themselves by becoming premier-class champions.

Of those 28, 19 finished in the top five in their first ‘full’ season in the class.

Pecco Bagnaia didn’t finish in the top five in 2019. He didn’t finish in the top 10 either. Equipped with a 2018-spec Ducati Desmosedici, he was 15th, averaging exactly three points per start. And the GP18, though not the terrifying Desmosedici we know these days, wasn’t exactly some lump of garbage – the year prior it won seven races with Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo.

But Bagnaia was floundering. The reigning Moto2 champion would occasionally flash up in Q2, and a weird Circuit of the Americas race in which several frontrunners either jumped the start or crashed handed him a first top-10 finish, but for most of the season the results just weren’t there. In the races where he wasn’t off the pace he tended to be off his bike.


The Ducati-friendly Austria weekend bailed him out with a seventh-place finish, and he did a great job to come home fourth, just off the podium, at Phillip Island. But even with those included it was still a 31.4-second average gap to the winner in the races where he saw the chequered flag. OK, more often than not that winner was 2019-spec Marc Marquez, perhaps the finest motorcycle rider in history, but it’s still an unseemly gap for modern MotoGP.

When Bagnaia’s season had ended in Valencia practice, with him front-flipping on pitlane exit (pictured below) and getting smushed by his Desmosedici to end up concussed and with a broken wrist, the line was drawn. Of that year’s rookie class, which also included instant star Fabio Quartararo and the likes of Joan Mir and Miguel Oliveira, Bagnaia – though he had outscored Oliveira – had been clearly the least impressive.


“2019, I started the season in the fairytale of the [Moto2] championship. And of the [pre-season] test,” Bagnaia recalled, having in the past remarked that finishing a close second in winter testing at Sepang had indirectly set him up for failure that year.

“In the test I was doing absolutely nothing – and I was so competitive, so fast. This was incredible in that moment. But then, when the first race arrived, I wasn’t competitive.

“I was behind. I was struggling a lot. I was crashing a lot. I did four in a row with zero [points] with a crash. In that moment I was very frustrated, I was very angry, very demoralised. I tried also in that moment to improve.


“We had a big meeting in Ducati to understand my mistakes, to understand why I was slow.”

Just over three years on, Bagnaia is a champion, a double-digit race winner and a rider with a remarkable 354 led laps to his name – very comfortably in the top 10 for the MotoGP era in terms of laps led. At 25, he is the spearhead for the series’ top manufacturer.

That just isn’t the kind of thing that happened in MotoGP in the past. No rider before Bagnaia had become premier-class champion after finishing 15th in their first proper season.

OK, it’s true there weren’t enough full-season riders to even fill out a top 15 during the early years of the championship. But adjusting for the number of said riders in every given season still shows there is no comparable start for any premier-class champion to Bagnaia’s debut in the midst of 21 other full-timers in 2019.

Gary Hocking (fifth out of 10 in 1959) and the icon that is Mike Hailwood (sixth out of 11 in 1960) are still ahead. Marco Lucchinelli (11th out of 20 in 1977) is closer but his result is much more proportionally akin to Mir’s 2019 debut of 12th place. And speaking of Mir, remember that he spent a large chunk of his first season injured and still scored 170% of Bagnaia’s points.

Even Kenny Roberts Jr, 13th out of 21 full-timers as a rookie riding for his legendary father’s Yamaha-affiliated team that ceased to be Yamaha-affiliated at the end of 1996, has a leg up over Bagnaia.


And that…that is awesome, for Bagnaia and for MotoGP. Really.

I cannot earnestly recall whether I thought Bagnaia had the potential to be a future MotoGP champion during 2019. My best guess is that it wasn’t a line of thought that was worth entertaining.

The questions instead were: Was Bagnaia flattered by that 2018 Moto2 title? Did Ducati royally mess up by committing to him on a two-year MotoGP deal? Did it mess up even further by allowing that deal to stipulate a factory-spec bike for 2020, forcing Ducati to arrange a fourth factory-spec package for Jack Miller – who was considerably outperforming Bagnaia at Pramac and had no interest in accepting a spec downgrade?

And, most pertinently, did Ducati bringing KTM outcast Johann Zarco into the fold for 2020, as a reluctant Avintia rider for the time being, mean Bagnaia’s place even in the second-tier Pramac team could be at risk longer-term?

That proved an irrelevant consideration. Clearly, Ducati retained faith in its protege, and it jumped at the chance to make him part of the factory team even during an uneven, injury-disrupted second year. Bagnaia immediately went about repaying said faith.

But what a path, no? It isn’t exactly fairytale stuff, but in becoming a fourth-season champion Bagnaia broke a trend. The last time MotoGP had a first-time champion with at least three seasons under their belt was Nicky Hayden in 2006.


Otherwise, the MotoGP era has been the domain of those who were stars more or less from the get go. Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Quartararo. Mir and maybe Casey Stoner are the outliers – but not Bagnaia-like outliers.

But Bagnaia-like outliers is what we want. Most riders will not enjoy the kind of manufacturer backing Bagnaia got, and you could argue this current state of play is one heavily conditioned by Marquez’s crash at Jerez in 2020, but that is the case for most of the grid really.

If you’re not a superstar right away, you still can be at some point. If you’re not in the ideal position, there’s every chance you will get matched up with the right team or bike at some point – there are so many good teams and good bikes, after all.

More will lose than win, as was ever the case, but the title dream is less exclusive than it perhaps ever was. A Bagnaia-esque rough start is not the end. Even 11 seasons of midfield heroics doesn’t have to be the extent of the story – see Aleix Espargaro.

Of the five MotoGP rookies in 2022, only one had what can be credibly described as a genuinely good season – and even then Marco Bezzecchi was only 14th. But two of his four roundly defeated peers have stuck around – and, though they had subpar campaigns, they can and should dream big.

And, for the rest of us, a MotoGP where riders grow into champions is simply a better spectacle than one in which those destined for greatness already arrive on top of the world.

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