’Still in the frame’: Aussie star’s golden chance to save his seat as MotoGP future hangs in balance

Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFPSource: AFP
Michael Lamonato from Fox Sports

After more than 70 years of grand prix motorcycle racing, the premier-class championship is finally arriving in France in the hands of a French winner.

It’s been around six months since Fabio Quartararo won France’s first world title. Not only does he finally have the opportunity to return to his always enthusiastic French home crowd to celebrate his success, but he does so in the lead of the 2022 title chase.

But a lot’s clearly changed in those six months despite the familiar feel to championship picture.

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Quartararo’s had a torturous start to 2022, and he’s been so displeased with his bike’s limited progress that at times he’s suggested he’d be prepared to walk away from Yamaha. Tension rather than triumph defined the start of his title defence.

“It frustrated Fabio as a rider, as a newly crowned world champion, to see all the other factories making massive steps forward,” says Fox Sports commentator Damian Cudlin. “Suddenly you’ve got all these guys you’ve got to worry about and all you’ve had is your stickers changed.

“I think that was all boiling up in the background.

“But after a couple of races I think he’s realised that whingeing isn’t going to solve his problems this year and he’d best focus on the things he can control, and that’s riding the motorcycle as best he can.”

And there’s no denying we’ve seen classic Quartararo at the last two races. Back on familiar ground in Europe and with the sport in a comfortable rhythm, he was at his metronomic best to win in Portugal and ran Francesco Bagnaia to within a quarter of a second in Spain.

Suddenly he’s back on top of the riders standings and everything’s starting to feel very 2021 again.

There’s a funny symmetry to Bagnaia’s season. The Italian started the year as one of the favourites but took three rounds just to crack the top five, with a podium not coming until the sixth race.

The Ducati GP22 has been a difficult machine to master, but with each race the Italian has tamed it a little more before clean sweeping the Jerez weekend, arriving back on the scene just as Quartararo rediscovered his own mojo.

Photo by Javier Soriano / AFPSource: AFP

“It seems to be he’s finally found something he likes on the front of the bike and he’s got his confidence back and he’s got his feeling back, which for a rider is everything,” Cudlin says. “I think you’re going to see him featuring in the races a lot more from here on in.”

“I think it’s likely that that kind of competition between them that we saw last year will recommence now that Pecco has got comfortable on his new bike.

“This battle between those two guys may take the spotlight for the next few races.”

WHAT ABOUT LAST YEAR’S WINNER?

But if the Ducati is a bike returning to form, expect 2021 winner Jack Miller to be in the fight.

Miller typically goes well at Le Mans, having won here in Moto3 and maintained a decent record in MotoGP before claiming victory in the wet last season, his last to date. And weather could be a factor again this weekend, with rain forecast on Sunday.

Combined with his own improved feeling for the new bike, particularly after some soul searching in the aftermath of a difficult weekend in Argentina, Miller is well positioned for another strong race.

“I think we have a really competitive package,” he told the MotoGP website. “I think the upgrades we’ve done with the aerodynamics, with the chassis, with everything for sure have been a big shake up.

“Even session by session I’m starting to understand this bike more and more and the positives that are coming with the new bike and trying to make the best out of them.

“In general maybe at this point we’re getting close. It’s not quite on the level, but it’s coming to the level that I had with the GP21 and I think it will soon surpass the GP21.”

Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFPSource: AFP

A strong result would be timely for Miller, with the clock officially ticking on Ducati’s decision on his tenure with the factory team. Sporting director Paolo Ciabatti says Borgo Panigale will make a call by June, with Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini next in line.

But Miller’s start to the season has been underrated. A clumsy crash in Portugal is the only blot in his copybook, and had it not been for a technical failure in Qatar, he’d be closer to Bagnaia’s points total rather than 14 points adrift.

“I don’t think it is decision made,” Cudlin says. “I think Ducati have probably been guilty in the past of jumping the gun too early. We’ve seen it before — Jorge Lorenzo springs to mind.

“I think they feel as though their bike is probably the best, most desirable one on the grid, which can be argued, and they’re going to have no shortage of guys lining up to ride it, so they’re just going to wait and see how that season progresses and not jump the gun.

“Jack is coming into some tracks he’s done well at. He could still and I think he is still in the frame for that seat.”

Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty ImagesSource: Supplied

WHO’S THE DARK HORSE?

Miller’s victory in 2021 came just three seconds ahead of Johann Zarco in what was another agonising defeat for the veteran Frenchman, who’s still without a win in MotoGP despite his burgeoning collection of nine second-place finishes.

One of those came off the back of his seventh career pole just two rounds ago, which itself was his second podium of the season. There are only two riders with more podiums than him in 2022: Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaró, first and second in the championship.

Inconsistency has blighted his campaign, with two crashes contrasting against a record that otherwise has him inside the top 10 for every race he finishes. It’s just a matter of getting to the flag.

Consider too that Zarco is in the same fight as Miller for a Ducati contract. Miller wants to return to Pramac if he can’t stay with the factory team, but if Ducati opt for Bastianini over Martin, Pramac’s second seat will be a French-Australian shootout.

“He’s another one who’s slightly struggled to adapt to the 2022 Ducati,” Cudlin says. “But he has been growing in confidence, he has been getting faster and showing more potential in the last couple of races, and now we’re going to his backyard — Le Mans, in front of his home crowd.

“He‘s the kind of guy no-one’s really been talking about so far this year, but he could turn up there this weekend and smash it, win the grand prix, get the momentum going again and be a contender.

“Johann Zarco’s one of those main guys that may spring a surprise who we haven’t really noticed or featured too much this year.”

Photo by Javier Soriano / AFPSource: AFP

TYRES UNDER PRESSURE

Elsewhere in the paddock, Ducati has come under serious scrutiny after a tyre pressure data from the Spanish Grand Prix was leaked to Motorsport Magazine and showed race winner Bagnaia completed the entire grand prix with his front tyre blow the minimum required pressure.

Several riders were also pinged for being below the minimum, including Jorge Margin, Álex Rins and Andrea Dovizioso.

Tyres running with lower pressure generally generate more grip but in exchange for increased wear and, in extreme cases, the risk of failure, which is why tyre manufacturers stipulate minimum pressures.

There’s an agreement among manufacturers that pressure breaches aren’t enforced this season, but the controversy stems from Motorsport Magazine and now other publications reporting that some engineers believe some teams are taking liberties in the consequence-free environment.

MotoGP technical director Danny Aldridge said in a statement overnight that the sport is currently “evaluating a new tyre pressure monitoring protocol” ahead of 2023 and, as such, the teams are running different pressure monitoring devices, making comparisons between them difficult.

Photo by Jean-Francois Monier / AFPSource: AFP

But there’s a reverse side of the coin also, with riders confirming ahead of this weekend that they’ve all had trouble keeping the Michelin front tyre inside its pressure window and that it’s for this reason the minimums aren’t being enforced.

“I read that I was in an illegal situation, but this means also that 18 riders from the start of the season were illegal. But no-one was penalised. So we are speaking about nothing,” Bagnaia said.

Fabio Quartararo admitted: “It happened the same to me in Portimão; I think I was also lower all the race.”

“I completely agree with Pecco,” Marc Márquez added. “What I feel is that the new aerodynamics, the new MotoGP philosophy, is making it more difficult to overtake and ride behind the others.

“It’s more critical for the front tyre pressure because when you are alone you use your aerodynamic things to turn and don’t push a lot the front tyre. But when you are behind somebody you don’t have the downforce and then you push more the steering, push more the tyre and then the temperature is going up. So it becomes more and more critical every year.

“This is something also that for the future we need to adjust. It’s not just the tyre pressure; the tyre pressure is related to many things.”

The series says it will continue with its evaluation phase until it’s confident in the data it’s receiving is usable, but evidently some people inside the sport aren’t convinced. It’ll be interesting to see how the situation evolves from here.

Photo by Jean-Francois Monier / AFPSource: AFP

WHAT’S UP WITH SUZUKI?

But on-track matters will be overshadowed by off-track drama, with Suzuki confirming on the eve of the French Grand Prix that it intends to withdraw from MotoGP at the end of the year.

“Suzuki Motor Corporation is in discussions with Dorna regarding the possibility of ending its participation in MotoGP at the end of 2022,” it said in a statement, a reference to the commercial contract it signed just last year to continue racing until 2025.

“Unfortunately, the current economical situation and the need to concentrate its effort on the big changes that the automotive world is facing in these years are forcing Suzuki to shift costs and human resources to develop new technologies.”

The biggest blow from a sporting perspective is to riders Joan Mir and Álex Rins. Mir’s manager has said he expected to announce a contract extension for his rider this month, underlining how unexpected the withdrawal is. The knock-on effect for the rider market will be severe.

But the question of who might take Suzuki’s two-bike entry will also be the object of much speculation in the French paddock.

Dorna said in a statement last week that it “continues to receive high levels of interest” from manufacturers and independent teams, one of which is Moto3 team Leopard Racing.

“We‘ll see, but if a seat is freed up and, God willing, they give it to us, we’ll be very happy,” Leopard technical director Christian Lundberg told Autosport, and in a win for better grid parity, he’d expect to operate as an Aprilia factory squad.

“I think the only option would be to do it with Aprilia because, in my opinion, Dorna has to reward in one way or another the only constructor on the grid that only has two bikes, and today all the bikes are very competitive,” he said.

It’s early days yet, with Suzuki’s withdrawal still not finalised, but the sport will have to move quickly to keep the grid full next season.

HOW CAN I WATCH THE FRENCH GRAND PRIX?

First practice started at 5:55pm AEST on Friday before second practice at 10:10pm.

Saturday starts with third practice at 5:55pm, with final practice at 9:30pm leading into qualifying at 10:10pm.

Coverage of the French Grand Prix starts at 9:10pm on Sunday before lights out at 10pm.