The Greatest Comeback In Motorsport History
Written By Andrew Lwanga, Edited by Sameena Khan
The First Act: The Exposition
The opening narration through which the protagonists, the worlds they live and their story-lines are established.
The beginning of the 2022 season was a difficult one for Francesco Bagnaia. Having ended the previous season on a high finishing as runner-up and showing promise in pre-season testing. Unfortunately, the opening Grand Prix was a far cry from expectations. Despite a Ducati winning, it wasn’t red. Jack Miller’s bike lost power whilst the scarlet machine of our protagonist, “Pecco”, was deep in the gravel after a botched overtake attempt.
For Bagnaia, it got no better in the second round. A soaked Mandalika track exposed a significant chink in the Italian’s armour. Despite rain shamans and prayers, “Pecco” struggled, unable to use the limited tractions as some of his peers were only mustering the 15th place in the end. The last of the point’s scoring positions.
The next three races bore better fruits for Bagnaia, with all three in the top ten, albeit off the podium. Far from what one would term poor form, however, two-fifths and an eighth place are far from what one needs to win a championship, especially with defending champion Fabio Quartararo finding good form.
A win in Jerez was just what The Doctor ordered for “The Doctor’s” protege as it introduced him into the title picture. That introduction, however, was short-lived, as a crash at Le Mans followed it. Bagnaia made two mistakes at Le Mans, one putting him out of contention for the win, the other putting him out of the race altogether. However, any qualms he may have generated within the Ducati camp were soon forgiven as he brought the Italian team a win at Mugello with him, an Italian rider, at the helm.
The Second Act: Confrontation and Obstacles
The protagonist confronts obstacle after obstacle through which he is moulded.
Bagnaia sat on his bike at the very front of the start/finish straight of the Circuit De Catalunya. To his left, a few metres ahead, was Aleix Espargaro with his Aprilia but in front of him lay nothing. Empty tarmac on the downhill into the first turn, an almost serene sight juxtaposed with the rumbling 300-horsepower beast of a motorcycle beneath him.
The five red lights went, and a few seconds later, we were off. Bagnaia opened the throttle, and the rumbling beast roared to life as traction control settings worked to contain the engine of the Desmosedici. Within a few seconds, he was into the first corner, but before he could adequately lean his bike to turn, chaos. Suddenly he was caught in a whirlwind, and when it settled, he was in the gravel. Unbeknownst to him, Takaaki Nakagami had lost control of his Honda, crashing, falling off it and going head-first into the rear wheel of the Italian. At the same time, his bike collected Suzuki’s Alex Rins.
Unable to build momentum from his highs in Italy, Bagnaia left Catalunya empty-handed though no fault of his own.
Bagnaia arrived in Germany fifth in the championship and 66 points behind leader Fabio Quartararo. Bagnaia needed a change of fortunes sooner rather than later to avoid slipping out of contention. Unfortunately, it was not to be. As he chased Quartararo for the race lead, Bagnaia crashed. Ambition ahead of adhesion for the Italian as he opened the throttle too soon on exit, and there wasn’t enough grip to keep his motorcycle standing.
For Bagnaia, it was confirmation of what was already said. He was the architect of his demise. Fast enough to challenge the best but too inconsistent. Wilting, unable to compete psychologically, had made errors in France under pressure from Bastianini, which was further confirmation. Unable to ride a motorcycle in the wet, you can’t be a champion if you can’t ride in the wet. However, most of those sentiments were adjudicated as fair by the general public.
Quartararo went on to win the race, his third triumph of the season, thus putting the final nail in the coffin of Bagnaia’s championship aspirations, or so we thought.
The Third Act: Climax
The tensions are brought to their most intense and the protagonist has to reach a resolution.
After Sachsenring, Bagnaia had fallen to 91 points behind the championship lead. Nobody in any top-flight motor racing category, Formula 1, MotoGP, or the 500cc World Championship, had ever assailed such a gap.
Whilst Pecco licked his wounds; Grand Prix Motorcycle racing moved on to Assen in the Netherlands for the famed Dutch TT. The last TT in the world championship. Bagnaia could only make the best of his current situation and make the best of his situation he did
From pole position, Bagnaia led every lap in Holland to win the race. Behind him, Quartararo, often hailed for his consistency, made an uncharacteristic error, almost taking Aleix Espargaro. Espargaro managed to keep his motorcycle upright whilst trekking the gravel. However, he eventually dropped to last but one, the one being Quartararo.
With Quartararo a non-score, Bagnaia closed to 66 points behind the championship lead. If he could generate momentum, perhaps his dead championships could have a resurrection. So he won the next race, the one after that, and the one after that, the latest being in Misano.
“Pecco” silenced all claims that he was one to crack under pressure. Hounded by Bastianini for the entire duration of the San Marino Grand Prix, Bagnaia soaked it all, riding on a knife’s edge yet seemingly unaffected. Defending against the man nicknamed “The Beast” with ravenous fangs on his helmet, Bagnaia crossed the line first. Still, you wouldn’t tell it from the naked eye as the margin was only 0.034 seconds.
Bagnaia’s victory in Misano made him the first Ducati rider to win four races in a row and put him within arm’s reach of the championship leader.
Two weeks later, Aragon Bastianini would exact revenge on Bagnaia, winning by similarly close margins. For Bagnaia, however, it was still a victory as he’d closed the gap to Quartararo to only 10 points after the Frenchman tangled with the returning Marc Marquez.
For Bagnaia, it seemed all smooth sailing. Still, in the first Asia-Pacific tour race, he was literally brought back down to earth. The critics who’d termed him a detriment to himself were again audible back with the same chorus of doubt, but this time with good reason. No rider had ever won the premier class title whilst having five DNFs. Bagnaia had now certainly entered uncharted territory.
But the Italian had done what he’d done in Sachsenring - picked himself up. A run of three consecutive third-place podiums followed the crash in Motegi. By the end of that run, he was the championship leader.
In Malaysia, he once again withstood Bastianini, who had made a habit of being a thorn in his compatriot’s side to win. Bagnaia could have left Sepang world champion, but a brilliant ride from Quartararo stopped that from happening.
Bagnaia was crowned champion in Valencia in the final round of the season. Ducati’s first champion since the legendary Casey Stoner in 2007. The fickle boy who seemed to be swayed by the faintest of gusts had morphed into an unstoppable juggernaut. From 91 points down to 14 ahead when all was said and done, a 103-point swing. Bagnaia had achieved the impossible, and he’d done it his way.