Imagine a football club allowing a misfiring striker to sign a contract to play for another club from the end of the season, only for that striker to then start banging in goals left, right and centre and becoming one of the best in the league. That’s not a million miles away from the situation facing Ducati with Jorge Lorenzo right now.
The Italian MotoGP team narrowly missed out on the world title last year with their established number-one rider, Andrea Dovizioso, in a season that saw ‘Dovi’ dominate the garage while multiple former world champion Lorenzo struggled to get to grips in his first season with the team.
Lorenzo has long been characterised as a rider who can beat anyone on two wheels when he’s happy and confident in his bike setup, but also someone who can drop down and become a mid-pack rider if things aren’t quite to his liking. It’s a reputation that he’s struggled to shed down the years and it led some harsh critics to write him off after a decidedly patchy 2017 season.
But this season, after a remarkable mid-season turnaround in form, it seems Lorenzo has finally found his sweet spot.
The problem for his team is he’s already heading out of the door at Ducati, and on his way down the pit lane to their biggest rivals, Honda.
On June 6 it was announced that Lorenzo would be making a sensational – and largely surprising – switch to the Repsol Honda team to partner the all-conquering MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez.
It puts two of the most naturally talented riders on the planet on equal kit in the same team. But it also prompted the question from the doubters: what if Lorenzo can’t adapt to the Honda?
But those who may have thrown Lorenzo’s struggles at Ducati into the mix as proof that a move to Honda is misjudged may now have to revise their opinions. Coincidentally, at around the same time, Lorenzo announced his end-of-season departure from Ducati, his form took a turn for the better, and how.
After a 2017 season that saw him finish on the podium just three times and fail to register a single win – and after a decidedly shaky start to his campaign this year – Lorenzo hit form just days before news of his move to Honda broke.
Incredibly, and almost out of nowhere, Lorenzo won the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello on his Italian bike – his first win for Ducati – and he’s gone on to win twice more, including in Austria last weekend where he outbattled the scrappiest of all MotoGP scrappers, Marquez himself, in a thrilling elbow-to-elbow duel at the Red Bull Ring.
Team bosses at Ducati now face a bizarre situation. From having a clearly-defined number-one rider (Dovizioso) they now find themselves with a twin threat, and the man who’s heading out the door in the summer looks like the man in form.
Granted, Lorenzo is only a single point ahead of Dovizioso in the championship, but with three wins in his last six races, it’s clear that Jorge is the man with the hot hand heading into the second half of the 2018 season.
Having two competitive riders is usually the dream scenario for a team boss, but this isn’t a regular situation. Lorenzo’s unexpected upturn in form, if anything, muddies the waters at Ducati. Do they back their number-one rider and the man who’ll be with them next season, or do they put the lion’s share of their efforts into making Lorenzo a bona-fide title threat as they look to chase down Marquez at the top of the MotoGP standings?
And if Lorenzo pulls back the deficit and makes it close heading into the last couple of rounds, will Ducati enforce team orders on their number-one rider to give Lorenzo a shot at the title, as they did with Lorenzo to help Dovizioso last season?
Every time Lorenzo finishes ahead of Dovizioso he takes points away from the rider the team have thrown all their weight behind, while also chipping away at the Italian rider’s confidence. From being a man who seemingly couldn’t get to grips with the bike last year, Lorenzo has not only worked it out, he’s now faster than the team leader.
It makes for a fascinating dynamic in the pit lane, with Lorenzo going wheel-to-wheel with his future teammate Marc Marquez on the track and with every big result showing the Ducati team just what they’ll be losing in the off-season.
With their man Marquez holding a 71-point advantage over the surging Lorenzo, Honda will be enjoying all of this in the knowledge that they’ve nabbed Ducati’s best rider from under their noses to make the strongest pairing in the MotoGP paddock next year.
For all the money invested in the Ducati MotoGP programme, the team has managed just one world title, with Casey Stoner back in 2007.
And with Lorenzo now looking every inch a title challenger in red and white, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Spanish star will prove to be the one that got away for the Italian manufacturers.
And you can bet the bosses at HRC will be rubbing their hands together in glee that they’ve signed a man who, quite clearly, is anything but a busted flush.
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