That both Ducati and Jorge Martin have treated the prospect of a 2024 factory line-up change like something of an open secret for the last month or so doesn’t make it less jarring.
Enea Bastianini’s triumph over Martin in their head-to-head to partner Pecco Bagnaia was supposed to lock him in for a two-year spell – that’s normally how MotoGP factory teams operate.
But while it was a two-year deal for him, the promise of ‘equal status’ with the Pramac-staying Martin seems to have implied the possibility of a mid-contract swap at Ducati’s convenience.
It’s a smart thing to bake in a contract when you’re the absolute top factory in the sport and get to dictate terms, and when the riders presumably understand that any number of their rivals would have their seat in a heartbeat. Had Bastianini flopped completely with a factory promotion, or had he and Bagnaia simply proved a terrible combination, it’s the kind of fallback that would come in handy.
And now it might just – if Ducati thinks that Martin’s superb 2023 form is evidence enough that it needs to course-correct its 2022 decision, if it thinks it initially erred last year in how it compared Bastianini on a sweet, fully-developed 2021 bike against Martin on a rough 2022 package, locked into an engine spec he’d spent all season describing as ‘not it’.
The thing is, though, if there’s reason to believe 2022 conclusions were faulty, basing major decisions on 2023-so-far conclusions when it comes to this same rider dynamic is completely unthinkable.
Bastianini’s season has barely started. This is effectively a statement of fact. He was in the mix when a Luca Marini crash eliminated him from the Portimao sprint, then didn’t race for nearly three months. When he did return, at the physically-taxing Mugello, there was little to be gleaned from that.
By his own description, Sachsenring marked his first weekend anywhere near full fitness – a left-hander-dominated track was kinder on the right shoulder injury anyway, and Bastianini described his post-race fitness as being “not like a normal situation but really close”.
And in that regard it was not particularly impressive to finish eighth, seventh of the eight Ducatis, 15 seconds off the winner.
“I hope to fight with these two guys,” he said on Sunday of his target for later in the season, referencing Martin and Bagnaia.
“Today Jorge and Pecco have made the difference compared to all the other riders – Ducati riders, because at the moment the Ducati package is so, so nice. But I need to bring the magic confidence with the bike.
“At the moment my riding style is not the correct one. I need some time to bring that confidence. I need to improve the bike for my riding style.”
The primary limitation, he admitted, was not the injury but the bike being “new for me”.
“And I am [yet] to understand the strongest points of the bike. Because I made only the test and some laps in Portimao. I need more time to close the gap to these two riders. Because I think in that race was not too much, 0.3s per lap, but… in one race it’s too much!”
The GP23 isn’t yet letting Bastianini exploit his strongest point – corner entry, where he currently doesn’t “make the difference” like before. And he didn’t deliver that trademark Bastianini longevity, unable to massively eke out tyre life the way he had been doing to secure the works ride.
In a certain way, all of that can be taken separate from the injury. We know this because this was effectively his exact feedback in the pre-season, where he was puzzled to suddenly find himself more effective on new tyres versus used, where his lean angle wasn’t what he wanted, where corner entry was a shortcoming.
Martin, at that point, had already taken to the GP23 as a duck to water, and you would’ve expected him to very much have Bastianini’s number in the early weekends of the season.
But drawing conclusions on the sample size available is brutal. Bastianini just hasn’t been afforded the grace period of figuring out the GP23. In fact, we can’t even be sure he hasn’t! As he himself pointed out: “I made a race 20 seconds faster compared to last year – I think I made a good step!”
Indeed, his two previous MotoGP weekends at the Sachsenring were just flat out no good – it’s just not the track to evaluate him on right now.
The physical Assen could be a deceptive test, too. So if Ducati plans to take a decision during the summer break, I argue there is only one decision to take.
Even beyond that, Bastianini simply deserves the rest of the season to figure things out and regain full fitness, physical fitness and race fitness, without the prospect of a 2024 trigger being pulled.
We know Martin wants to be in factory colours, and he seems to be pretty open in admitting it is more about the status and recognition than it is about the competitive picture.
“I feel like the bikes are so similar now, there’s no big difference between being – at least in Ducati – on Pramac or to be in the factory team,” he said coming into Mugello.
“For sure I feel like being in the factory team would be better, but I feel like on the results it’s not a big difference.”
Martin was hurt by the 2023 works seat snub, and he is well within his rights to dangle the possibility of a contractually allowed 2024 exit to a rival in front of Ducati’s bosses to try to force their hands if he so chooses.
But everyone involved has to realise it’s in his best interests to stay, even if it’s at Pramac. What’s he going to do, go ride the Yamaha M1 to seventh-to-10th place every weekend instead?
Ducati should pull out all the stops to maintain current parity, back Martin’s title challenge even against its works team, and promise him – in writing, if that helps – that, if he continues to be a better fit for the works-spec Desmosedici than Bastianini, he will have the seat for 2025.
But it should end the speculation now for 2024. Doing anything else risks burning a key asset within the programme.
What would a demotion after one injury-dictated year be to Bastianini if not a gigantic vote of no confidence? How could a way back be even imagined in that scenario? How would other prospective Ducati riders feel going forward?
Ultimately, the bike is strong enough to where it can do whatever it likes. Ducati has earned the right to be ruthless. Both Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller felt they were given too short a leash in terms of future reassurances, and that’s even without bringing up the split with Jorge Lorenzo, but it’s all worked out in the end. When it comes to riders, Ducati wants for nothing.
But even in this situation, sometimes it’s better to act in restraint. Sometimes it’s better to do nothing.