The 2019 MotoGP season explodes into action this weekend with the VisitQatar Grand Prix opening a new FIM world championship for the 13th year in a row. While the novel Sunday evening show under floodlights (pushed to an earlier slot of 17.00 GMT to avoid the sudden and problematic shifts of temperature and humidity at the Losail International Circuit) often bathes MotoGP in a dramatic illumination of vivid shine and colour, there is another hot narrative brewing.
The end of the 2018 season saw the departures of Bradley Smith and Scott Redding (leaving the British ‘end’ somewhat light), along with Alvaro Bautista and Dani Pedrosa with a total of 33 years of MotoGP racing between them.
2019 sees a debut in the premier MotoGp class for the likes of Grand Prix winners and world champions Joan Mir (Spanish), Fabio Quartararo (French) and Miguel Oliveira (Portugal’s first MotoGP representative) not to mention arguably the most exciting of the bunch: Francesco ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia.
All four former Moto2 graduates join names like Franco Morbidelli (the 2017 Moto2 champ now into his second MotoGP year) and Hafizh Syahrin (the Malaysian also in his second term). In short, almost a quarter of the grid bring a youthful and fairly inexperienced zest to the championship.
Another four riders have tipped into their thirties (three more will during this season) and the elder statesman of them all is Valentino Rossi, who recently entered his fifth decade and will tackle his 23rd Grand Prix calendar.
If MotoGP has frantically waved the flag of parity in recent years then this fresh surge of increased weight against the establishment has arguably never been heavier. Standing at the front of the gang looking to control the 19-round collection of playgrounds is Bagnaia; a recently-turned 22-year-old from Turin with the natural touch, confidence, demeanour and the impudence befitting a leader.
Pecco is the second graduate from Rossi’s VR46 Academy of hand-picked and schooled Italian talent to earn world champion status and he needed only two terms in the cut-and-thrust of Moto2 – widely acknowledged as greatest divider of riding skills between all three of the classes in MotoGP – to make it happen. Back in 2016 success in Moto3 on a 250cc Mahindra earned the poster-boy a ‘reward’ of a brief test with a fearsome MotoGP Ducati machine and he turned heads even at that early first marker.
“Pecco has more natural talent…and [comes with] a smile,” Rossi opined last October, concerning the imminent arrival of his chief protégé to the same pitlane. “I think Pecco will be strong in MotoGP, I’m sure. He is young and Italian so he is good for Ducati.”
Through the mid-1990s and into the new millennium Rossi captured hearts and admiration for his attacking style, the transparency of his fun-loving character off the bike, his celebratory theatrics, his results and his superiority. It would not be an exaggeration to say most of his fans were born from that early and extremely rare (and eventual) sport-transcending mix.
Rossi was also the product of a more innocent age, when athletes did not have to worry so much about image, marketing and the pressures of brands and fans wanting more and more for their buck before the turn towards the next potential star.
Bagnaia shares the same traits of skill, and that slightly daredevil attitude to racing (witness the fantastic 2018 last lap in the Moto2 Austrian grand prix as an example), radiates self-belief and determination and is a product of his generation: which means he can joke around and present himself on Instagram to thousands and thousands of followers instead of running into a Portaloo post-race. His #gofree hashtag seems to symbolise a philosophy that is both full-tilt and individualistic.
For someone who admitted that he struggled with his English before the compulsory classes as part of the Academy structure located in Rossi’s hometown of Tavullia on Italy’s Rimini coastline, Bagnaia makes a robust effort at trying to convey his thoughts. He smiles now when describing how the route to MotoGP has passed so quickly from the days when he used to ride a Beta minibike only a couple of times a week around his grandfather’s garden.
“I wasn't riding that much on the minibike; maybe once or twice a week, sometimes even twice a month… and that was OK for me,” he says. Hardly the tale of obsessively-trained junior. “I think if you ride a lot of laps then it can get boring and repetitive. If you have to stop then you spend every day wanting to ride again.”
Bagnaia had drive, and had something fast. “It was incredible that I was able to touch the ground with my knee straight away,” he grins. “I was thrilled and that was the start of it for me.” School (“so boring”) was out as soon as he was elevated into the world championship picture in 2013 and then changed his life by swapping north-west coastal Italy for east.
At the VR46 Academy Bagnaia entered a brotherhood but also found a culture orientated around the perpetual search for excellence. “The difference between the Academy and the other guys in GP is that we are together every day, and also with Valentino, who helps so much,” he insists. “We are all different, and have different characters so we have different needs but we are pushing each other. I think I am quite normal, and one of the most important things is that we have people around us who will listen and adapt.”
Rossi is more than just a figurehead. He takes an active, almost parental, role towards his crop that is not only a stable of already successful riders but also a feeder to the world championship and his two teams in the Moto3 and Moto2 classes. The work done away from the track with technique, strength, education and media training means that the 13 riders from late teens to early twenties are discovering the Rossi mould.
“It is like real friendship,” Bagnaia says of Rossi’s presence. “We know him intimately.” Morbidelli was the first world champion from the collective and Bagnaia followed straight after. The grin was a little less prevalent in the tense title-fight with Oliveira in 2018 but the pressures and eventual payload was the ideal final lesson before MotoGP beckoned: Bagnaia had already signed the contract with Alma Pramac Racing well before the title fight developed, and thus proved that he was capable of stepping up to deliver.
Pecco has aped Rossi by claiming the intermediate category at only the second attempt. Like his countryman he’ll wade through a learning year in 2019 (Rossi claimed two wins and another eight podium appearances back in 2000). He’ll steer a year-old Ducati Desmosedici that was scorching Grands Prix in 2018 but has already forged impressive lap-times in pre-season testing and many are already linking him with the factory set-up for 2020 or the season after.
Rossi tasted a 500cc two-stroke back at the beginning of the millennium and has been a mainstay of the series and the sport ever since with seven titles and 89 race wins. It’s almost an impossible trajectory for Bagnaia and any other rider to match, but if Pecco reaches the MotoGP peak then he’ll hold the special status of being the sole Italian champion in the premier class other than Rossi since Franco Uncini back in 1982.
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