until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

MotoGP

The mental toll of a dream-gone-wrong first Ducati year

by Simon Patterson
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

New factory Ducati rider Enea Bastianini headed into the 2023 MotoGP season on the crest of a wave.

A four-time race winner in 2022 on satellite squad Gresini’s year-old bike, his reward was the chance to replace Jack Miller and turn his late charge the season before into a concerted title fight against new team-mate Pecco Bagnaia.

But any such hopes were a non-starter almost from the get-go. Injuries sustained in a crash that wasn't his fault in the opening sprint race of the year at Portimao effectively derailed his season, as Bastianini was taken out of action completely for five races and subsequently struggled for form for the entire opening half of the campaign.

Then, just when things were starting to look up for him, disaster struck again. This time it was his own mistake - one in which he took multiple other Ducati riders down with him - as he crashed out of the opening lap of the Catalan Grand Prix in September.

And despite a late-season win at Sepang in November offering a rare high in an otherwise tough 2023, Bastianini admitted that the end result was a year that was just as tough on his head as it was on his body.

“Mentally, and also physically, it’s been a difficult season,” he explained when he sat down with The Race at the final round of the season.

“After the first injury, I understood that it was difficult or even impossible to come back on track very early. I understood also that my possibility to win the title was zero or one [in one hundred] - very, very strange.

“I came back and in my first three or four races, my shoulder didn’t work well. When I was OK again, I crashed again and got the other injury - and mentally it was so, so difficult. I always remained focused and positive, but it was hard to do that.”

And painful, too. While Bastianini might have gone into the season expecting to be a title contender after the way his 2022 ended, only 46 points behind Bagnaia, rather than for whatever pre-season form he might have had his season will instead be remembered for the crashes.

Bastianini broke a scapula in the first one, an injury that meant he sat out months of the season, only to damage the same break again in September alongside fractures to his left hand and ankle that also required surgery.

“The main injury was the first one,” he explained, “because after it, after three months, I thought I would be like before. That was my question. I lost the power in my right shoulder, I wasn’t the strongest, and when I went to the gym it was so difficult for me to train.

“For me mentally this was difficult, but for the Barcelona Grand Prix I received something. I was powerful. And then I crashed again.

“After this crash, the shoulder also suffered a lot, and again at the gym it was difficult to work with the upper body.

“It was different, but at the end it was the same. I was angry about my mistake in Barcelona. After a good start, I was a little bit nervous because inside me I knew after the good start that I wanted to stay on top during this first corner.

“I braked later and, well...the disaster happened. It was different [from Portimao], but in the end it’s the same. You stay at home.”

But there was some relief, in the form of that somewhat unexpected - at least to everyone but Bastianini, it seems - victory at Sepang, bringing as it did a chance to remind the world that he remains a world-class talent deserving of his factory ride.

That reminder was crucial given it’s timing, too, with talks circulating throughout the latter part of the year suggesting Ducati was interested in swapping him with 2023 title contender Jorge Martin, despite the manufacturer’s early vote of confidence in Bastianini when it announced he would remain in red back in August.

“It was important,” the 25-year-old said of his Malaysian win. “Because during that weekend, I was really focused on my objective. When I saw myself fast on Saturday, fast on the pace, I thought, ‘OK, tomorrow I can win’.

“I started the race with this objective and not any other one. Not to go onto the podium, just to win again.

“When I saw Alex [Marquez] very close to me every lap, I was 0.7s [ahead] the lap before, then 0.5s, then 0.7s again. It was very close! At the end, I pushed hard - over the limit - and we arrived.”

But Bastianini also admitted something that's perhaps a little surprising: that even without the injuries, repeating his title charge of the year previously might have been tough in 2023 given the changes that he experienced.

Bastianini jumped onto a bike that was vastly different from the 2021-spec machine he rode at Gresini, thanks to that season’s effective freeze on development from 2020 owing to the pandemic, and the new one was a big step. It was something he was already struggling to come to grips with a little in pre-season testing.

Both his team-mate Bagnaia and fellow Ducati rider Martin benefitted from a more gradual transition to the 2023 bike from the 2022 version Bastianini never got a chance to try, and Bastianini is certain that even without injury a title tilt this year would've been a big ask.

“It would have been much difficult, because the bike of last year [the 2021 machine] was really good, and very fun for my riding style,” he said. “This one is much more difficult to go on the limit with. It’s strange.

“One of my strongest points is the entry, and to make the entry really fast with this one is not so simple to understand.

“But at the end, it was good. Now, in Malaysia and in Qatar I was competitive because we understood something. The team know me better. And, well, it would have been difficult to win the title this year even apart from the injury.”

If there's more good news to go with that Malaysia-Qatar step - eighth at Lusail might not seem a lot to shout about but it matched Bastianini's second-best Sunday finish, and he also set the fastest lap - that's in the fact that the first feedback on the 2024 Ducati from the post-race Valencia test not only positive but aligned with what Bagnaia offered on where the bike is better for both of them (primarily on corner entry).

But there’s another job still to be completed before his second season in factory colours: using the relatively short winter break to make sure he’s in proper physical condition to start next year, given the toll that the past nine months have taken upon his body.

“We have to make a programme with my trainer to have much better sensation with my body,” he explained of his winter plans.

“At the moment I’m not at 100%, and after the Malaysian GP I was so tired after the race. But I know. I haven’t trained in three months, and to come back to MotoGP is so difficult with this high level.

“You have to push every lap, every session. It’s different. And we haven’t a lot of time. We have two months and then we have to go to the Sepang test. It is short, the time, but we have to use it very well.”

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