The factory Ducati team is without doubt the best place to be in MotoGP and has been for at least two seasons now. Yet its two riders finished almost 400 points and 14 championship positions apart in 2023.
And you couldn’t put all of the disparity between champion Pecco Bagnaia and the struggling Enea Bastianini down to Bastianini’s pair of injuries - as costly as they were.
The difference between them was so stark that in a recent episode of The Race MotoGP Podcast the factory Ducati team was Simon Patterson’s pick when predicting the most one-sided team-mate battle of the 2024 season.
That’s despite Bastianini coming into the works team with such momentum from both a superb 2021 season with backmarker Avintia and then a stunning long-shot title bid with Gresini in 2022 on an old-spec bike and in the team’s first season back with Ducati.
Is the Bastianini/works Ducati tie-up a lost cause and heading into a lame duck season before he’s inevitably replaced for 2025? Or will 2023’s woes prove to have been all down to those injuries and the acclimatisation time they cost him?
Our podcast trio had some pretty different views on that as the debate unfolded.
SOME RIDERS JUST AREN'T CUT OUT FOR FACTORY SEATS
“I’m less convinced than I have been about Bastianini’s potential as a factory rider.
“When we saw Bastianini at his best was 2022 when he was a Gresini rider, riding essentially a two-year-old Ducati because the bike hadn’t changed that much during COVID.
“It had a tonne of data, it was working super-well. He had zero pressure. He had zero instructions from Gresini about work he had to do, he just went out and raced the thing.
“I remember Bagnaia complaining at pre-season testing that year that all Bastianini had to do was put tyres and fuel in the thing and that was a huge advantage when others had development work to do on brand new bikes. And Bastianini turned it into a really, really successful 2022 season.
“Then in 2023 everything kind of went in the opposite direction for him. OK, one of the big problems with his season was because Luca Marini smashed into him at Portimao. But when he got back on the bike he was still struggling in much the same way as he had been pre-season. Then he got injured again in a crash he admitted was his own fault.
“And although he won at Sepang, he never really looked comfortable and like he was using the strengths of the bike. And I think we’re going to see that carrying forward into 2024.
“Maybe he’s just not as comfortable as a factory rider. He wouldn’t be the first person that we’ve seen something like this from. Look at people like Cal Crutchlow, who had a terrible 2014 as a factory Ducati rider and then went to LCR and was immediately comfortable and started winning races and doing very good stuff again.
“Obviously we won’t see as big a divide between Bagnaia and Bastianini as we did in 2023 if Bastianini is fully fit this time. But I think there’s going to be quite a disparity between them.”
CURRENT FORMAT HURTS BASTIANINI
“It would not be the biggest shock in the world if there continues to be a sizeable gap between the two factory Ducati riders - especially considering how established Bagnaia is in that team and the results he continues to bring in and how difficult Bastianini’s first year in Ducati red was.
“Sometimes a rider comes into new surroundings or a new role or onto a slightly different bike and it just doesn’t work. The onus is on Bastianini is to prove it can work and it will work and it will work for sustained periods of time. I don’t expect a huge gap. I can’t rule it out, though.
“But I think this current MotoGP format is just the wrong fit for Bastianini. He’s just not a great MotoGP qualifier.
“And more pertinently he is probably not the best first-lap racer as it stands, and those are two pretty tough things to overcome.
“If they just showed up at the track and the grid was a random draw and the races were 100 laps, then Bastianini might win every single time!
“Once he gets to lean on his strength over full race distances a bit more in 2024, he will be better. But the format just worries me for him, I don’t see it as a good fit.
“But when he was fit, he did qualify decently to start the season - in the one opportunity he got before the Marini sprint crash injury. He has had flashes in qualifying. But only flashes.”
BASTIANINI IS STILL TOO GOOD TO FAIL
“What bothers me is what happened after the Sepang win. That was a huge breakthrough but it quickly just looked anomalous.
“Yet I’m still a Bastianini believer. I still think over the balance of his career he’s looked significantly better than he did in 2023.
“Sometimes riders just do not gel with a bike or situation. This will be a new Ducati but will it be different enough? Is he in the right headspace to solve his problems given the first season of what should have been his biggest career opportunity was essentially a write-off?
“I am nowhere near as confident about Bastianini as I was going into 2023, when I expected him to be Bagnaia’s main title rival, and I think it would just take one poor race weekend or test to make this relationship look doomed.
“But there’s still a part of me that thinks Bastianini is ultimately good enough to take on Bagnaia and give Ducati a real intra-team headache to manage.
“OK, he had a well-sorted bike in 2022 but he kept winning races brilliantly right to the end of the season and had a very strong section of 2021 as well when still a rookie and riding for Avintia.
“He has looked great throughout his career until he got on that factory Ducati, and then he kept getting injured.
“I still think there’s a greater chance of him rebounding and winning five races in 2024 than there is of him looking rubbish.”