October 30, 2016. Andrea Dovizioso storms to his first premier class victory in over seven years after beating the Yamaha duo of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo in a wet Malaysian Grand Prix.
The Italian came close to victory earlier in the season, but was pipped by then team-mate Andrea Iannone – the man many thought, despite his destructive unpredictability, should have been retained by Ducati – in a dry Austrian Grand Prix. After that disappointment, Dovizioso hailed his Sepang success as ‘important’, and felt he and Ducati were close to being championship challengers.
But all eyes were on the man sat next to him in the Malaysian post-race press conference as he uttered these statements, as the soon-to-be 31-year-old was expected to play tailgunner to Lorenzo who was supposed to be the final piece in the Ducati puzzle.
However, exactly a year later, Dovizioso clung onto a slim chance at a maiden MotoGP crown after a season-long battle with Honda’s Marc Marquez – beating Lorenzo in a similarly wet Sepang outing to keep those dreams alive.
As the new season dawned, the buzz surrounded Lorenzo, Marquez, Yamaha new boy Maverick Vinales and team-mate Rossi. Dovizioso’s odds of a title charge stood at 16/1 as the season got underway under the floodlights of Qatar.
Dovizioso secured second at Losail, a now customary podium for Ducati at a circuit that masks its disadvantages while allowing it to exploit the bike’s one key strength – its savage speed.
Wiped out by Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro in Argentina a fortnight later, a sixth in Texas, a fifth in Spain and a fourth at Le Mans saw Dovizioso head to the Italian Grand Prix 31 points adrift of standings leader Vinales.
A nasty bout of food poisoning struck Dovizioso for his homecoming. Securing a front row start on Saturday, the Italian opted to sit out Sunday’s warm-up session. He needed to conserve what little energy he had left, and was confident enough in his Desmosedici to not put any doubt in his mind over set-up in the largely irrelevant 20-minute morning outing.
Hitting the front early, Dovizioso fended off Vinales to take a sensational home win and vindicate Ducati in their decision to retain him for 2017.
Seven years split his first and second wins, seven months his second and third, and just seven days separated his third and fourth triumphs, as the Italian used his head to win the Catalan Grand Prix.
The Catalunya circuit was in poor condition, with the high heat not helping matters. Dovizioso knew cunning, not raw pace would win Sunday’s contest. With this in mind, he spent the entirety of practice working on used tyre pace. Drawing on a tactic his former stablemate played to great success in Austria a year prior, Dovizioso knew the Desmosedici’s kind nature on Michelin’s rubber would allow him to exploit an early grip advantage from his medium rear while keeping enough in reserve to get across the line safely.
All of a sudden, Dovizioso was just seven points from championship leader Vinales, whose season was beginning to take a sour turn. Meanwhile, Marquez was suffering the stress of a title tilt not going how it was supposed to. All of a sudden, Dovizioso emerged as MotoGP’s leading man, though he was reticent to admit this.
“To be thinking about the championship every weekend is impossible,” he said. “Every weekend going in a different way, nobody can understand the future, especially this year. So I don’t have any pressure about the championship, I don’t want to look at the championship. Also because I’m so focused on developing the bike.
“We didn’t change anything before Mugello; when we took (fourth) 13 seconds (from the win, the bike) is the same as now. But Mugello was a very good track for us, this weekend was a really strange weekend for everybody and I believe we managed in the right way everything, and I was able to fight in the race and to make a perfect strategy.”
The next three races proved tricky, the late sprinkling of rain at Assen halting his charge to the podium and resigning him to fifth, while the twisty nature of the Sachsenring worked against the Ducati and saw him cross the line a distant eighth. Sixth in the flag-to-flag conditions at Brno did not signal the ideal start to the second half of the championship, not least with Marquez winning in Germany and the Czech Republic.
It seemed Dovizioso’s scepticism was correct: he headed to Austria, the scene of his bitter defeat a year prior, 21 points adrift of the lead having held a four-point advantage after the Dutch TT.
But the season swung back in his favour. A titanic battle between himself and Marquez saw the Italian, unfancied at the beginning of the year, beat MotoGP’s hardest charger. Two weeks later he held Vinales at bay to win at Silverstone, a track not best-suited to the Ducati, while Marquez suffered an engine failure.
He was back in control, nine points split him from Marquez. After a wet Misano, however, Marquez clawed back. It was a race which defined their seasons. Dovizioso, lacking confidence in the soaking conditions, felt it best to hold third and stop Marquez taking a points lead, while the Honda rider knew the risky five extra points for beating Danilo Petrucci would draw him level in the standings.
A seventh in Aragon, the result of a wet Friday denying him the chance to find a fix for his Desmosedici’s weaknesses in certain areas of the track, meant Dovizioso slipped to 16 points adrift of Marquez. More worryingly, the Honda rider was not happy as well with his bike during the race, and escaped several near misses as he pushed his RC213V hard, though he was still able to win.
In a wet Japanese Grand Prix, those worries were quashed somewhat when he prevailed in another duel with Marquez to close the gap down to 11 points heading to Australia – the scene, as it would turn out, where Dovizioso’s challenge would end.
A general lack of pace around Phillip Island was not helped by a mistake at the first corner which sent him back through the pack. At the chequered flag Dovizioso was beaten by Dani Pedrosa and fellow Ducati rider Scott Redding to finish a lowly 13th, all while Marquez held his nerve in an epic eight-way lead battle to move 33 points into the lead.
The championship was all but over, but Dovizioso’s determination in Malaysia and Marquez’s unwillingness to throw away a comfortable advantage for the sake of a podium in the tricky conditions meant the title fight rolled on to the finale.
There would be no fairytale finish for Ducati, however. Marquez – despite a late scare at the first corner – stayed mounted to win his fourth premier class title. Dovizioso crashed in the closing stages, but never put the Spaniard’s coronation under threat. He was content with second, though, and even coped the praise of Marquez.
“This year, when people were asking me which rival, which opponent is the most dangerous, I was always saying Maverick, Dani, Valentino, maybe Lorenzo, but I never said Dovi. It’s something I learned this year, that you need to be careful with everybody and try to pay attention to everybody… Some nice battles (with him), and he won every battle.
“He deserves also to be in my place (as world champion), because he did an incredible season.”
It would be easy to write off 2017 as a fluke for the 31-year-old Italian. Each race weekend was a step into the unknown, Michelin’s unpredictable tyres making for topsy-turvy races. The faltering challenges of Yamaha, Pedrosa and the struggles of his new team-mate Lorenzo also took some players off the table.
But Dovizioso’s 2017 was born out of a number of factors far outweighing simple luck. Buoyed by his Sepang win, proof he could conquer MotoGP’s best when his day came, sent him into the winter with a more positive outlook – that undoubtedly boosted by his work with a mental coach.
Perhaps the change of front tyre construction brought in for the Italian Grand Prix helped. After all, Dovizioso is famed for his braking capabilities, and it is a style which is required to extract laptime from the Ducati. The stiffer carcass of this tyre would almost certainly aid the Italian in this area.
However, perhaps the most significant factor was the ultimate proof to the world that the Desmosedici is a seriously difficult bike to ride. This is, of course, no secret, but Lorenzo’s signing was meant to be the final piece of the jigsaw for Bologna and would potentially lay Dovizioso’s true form bare. The Spaniard’s struggles, however, highlighted just how much work a rider needs to do to get the best from the bike. This vindicated Dovizioso, his complaints of Ducati over the years seriously taken onboard in 2017 by the outside world.
The GP17 certainly was an improvement over the previous season’s machine, but it was the greater state of mind of Dovizioso and his methodical approach which made a tilt for the title possible for Ducati.
Heading into 2018 as the first man since Casey Stoner – arguably the most talented rider of this generation – to make Ducati serious title contenders, safe in the knowledge that he took on the likes of Marquez and Vinales and won, will almost certainly see Dovizioso gunning for glory again.