Common Tread

Boom: Lorenzo to Ducati

Apr 18, 2016

With nearly every MotoGP rider's contract expiring this year, we knew this could be the wildest "silly season" in MotoGP in a long time, and now the biggest of the moves has been made: Jorge Lorenzo is leaving Yamaha for Ducati.

Why would Lorenzo give up the best ride in MotoGP for a spot in a Ducati program that has ground up several riders' careers and spit them out, used up and dejected?

The easy and possibly not-so-important explanation is money. Ducati is willing to pay more than Yamaha. The more intriguing theory is that Lorenzo, tired of being in the shadow of his more famous, more popular,  and more successful teammate, wants to show he can do what Valentino Rossi could not do: win on a Ducati.

History suggests it won't be easy. Let's look at the long list of motorcycle racing careers the Ducati MotoGP program has stunted, damaged or obliterated.

Nicky Hayden
Nicky Hayden was just one of several riders who went to Ducati, only to see their careers wither. Ducati photo.

Troy Bayliss came to MotoGP as a World Superbike champ. Nobody doubted Bayliss' ability or heart. He managed one spectacular but lonely win on the Ducati MotoGP bike.

Carlos Checa couldn't win on the Ducati MotoGP bike, though he went on to give Ducati a world championship in Superbike.

Remember when Marco Melandri was a promising young rider? Ducati started his downward spiral.

Nicky Hayden lost his prime years, when he might have had a shot at a second title, riding a Ducati on which he could not win.

Casey Stoner on a Ducati
Casey Stoner's supernatural ability to win on the Ducati allowed the team to continue on the same path, believing the problem was not the bike, but the rider. Valentino Rossi's high-profile failure to win ended that. Ducati photo.

Through all that, Ducati could blame the rider, not the bike, largely because of Casey Stoner's brief but undeniable success on the bike (though Stoner escaped Ducati for Honda when he could). The blame-the-rider thinking ended abruptly when Rossi switched to Ducati and went from perennial title contender to sad mid-pack rider. At that point, there was no choice but to admit the truth. If Valentino Rossi can't win on your motorcycle, you have an equipment problem, not a rider problem.

Then, just to add another disappointing addendum to the story, we got to see Cal Crutchlow go experience his own personal frustration on a Ducati.

The end result of the failure of the Rossi-Ducati partnership was that Ducati had to admit its bike just wasn't working, despite the evidence of Stoner's supernatural powers in 2007. The company brought in Gigi Dall'Igna, who turned around the program. Now, Ducati seems to be on the right track again. Apparently, that's enough to make Lorenzo think he will escape the fate of the others who went to the Italian team.

Motorcycle racers at the highest level have to be supremely confident. Even the guys running around in 15th place have to believe they can win, despite evidence to the contrary. This explains why someone like Crutchlow believed he could go to Ducati and conquer the bike, even though he just saw Rossi believe the same thing, try to do it, and fail.

Now Lorenzo will try. He has the added hope that comes from a belief that the Ducati program of today, under Dall'Igna, with whom he worked in his 250 days, is not the same one that left world champion riders like Bayliss, Checa, Hayden and Rossi frustrated. There's an old saying on Wall Street that the four most dangerous words are "It's different this time," because that's the sentiment that allows you to believe your hope and ignore the warning signs. Maybe it is different this time and maybe Lorenzo will succeed where all others, Rossi included, failed. If it's not different this time, he can't say he didn't have warning.

There is, of course, a more sinister suggestion that may help explain the jump. Did Rossi goad Lorenzo into this move? Earlier in his career, Rossi was known for getting inside the heads of his competitors. (Does anyone remember his prediction that Sete Gibernau would never win another race?) You could have read it several different ways when Rossi said: “To sign with Ducati you need to be brave, you need big balls. So I think Lorenzo stays with Yamaha."

If Lorenzo can't win on a Ducati, we may someday look back and remember the time that Rossi played one of his career's last mind games and eliminated one of his disliked competitors by daring him to make the jump.