Top 20 Stories of 2018
Top Stories of 2018, #5: Lorenzo forms Honda dream team
We kick off the final quarter of our Top Stories of 2018 countdown with a look back at the day Jorge Lorenzo stunned the MotoGP world by landing a plum seat at Honda after being let go by Ducati.
The nature of the MotoGP rider market has come in for plenty of criticism this year, what with 2019/20 contracts being signed so early in the season. And if there's one example that epitomises the flawed logic behind the now-traditional biennial scramble for signatures, it's Ducati's choice to axe Lorenzo.
Cast your mind back to May's Le Mans round, if you will. Ducati's top representative in the riders' standings after that race was not Lorenzo, nor factory teammate Andrea Dovizioso. It was Pramac rider Danilo Petrucci, on 54 points - versus 46 for Dovizioso (who crashed from the lead in France) and a mere 16 for Lorenzo (who finished sixth).
Petrucci made it clear at the start of the year that 2018 would be his last season at Pramac. He even had a works Aprilia contract waiting to be signed if the Bologna marque didn't take up the option it held on his services.
Back in 2016, Ducati had lured Lorenzo away from Yamaha at great expense. The Spaniard's first year in red leathers, in which he scored only three podiums and finished seventh overall, certainly didn't meet expectations. Clearly, Ducati expected more from its €12m-a-year investment.
Lorenzo knew this, admitting during the Ducati pre-season launch that his market value had dipped considerably in the preceding 18 months. And matters were complicated by Ducati needing to amply reward Dovizioso, whose 2017/18 salary didn't reflect his sudden surge in form (and subsequent interest from rival marques).
It's against this backdrop that Lorenzo's early-season 2018 struggles must be viewed. Of the first five races, Jerez was the only one where the three-time champion, buoyed somewhat by a modified seat, was competitive, but any chance of a podium finish vanished in a three-way melee with Dovizioso and Honda's Dani Pedrosa.
After Le Mans, where Lorenzo had led early on but faded badly in the latter half of the race, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali had seen enough. Despite the wishes of some senior team members to give Lorenzo more time to prove he deserved to stay, Domenicali wanted Lorenzo out, and the considerably cheaper Petrucci in.
Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
The very next race at Mugello, of course, was where Lorenzo finally broke his losing streak, with a new fuel tank allowing him to keep up his energy and his pace over a race distance. But it was too late.
"My story with Ducati is over, it's a question of self-esteem," said the Spaniard after victory. "A part of me is sad because I know that with this bike I could have fought to be a world champion, which is why I came here. Now it's too late. There is nothing to be done.
"I kept telling people inside the team to believe in me, to bring me what I asked for. They have done it, but too late."
Soon after the Mugello race, Motorsport.com broke the news that Honda had taken the decision to ditch its long-time servant Pedrosa, and later on the same day that it had lined up Lorenzo as a replacement to partner Marc Marquez.
The following day, a two-year agreement covering 2019 and 2020 was communicated by the Japanese manufacturer, with confirmation following shortly that Petrucci would take Lorenzo's place at Ducati, albeit on a one-year deal.
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At Barcelona, Lorenzo revealed it was he who had made the first move with his new employer. He could see that the writing was on the wall after Le Mans, leading him to reach out to Honda boss Alberto Puig, who had been rejected by both Dovizioso and KTM-bound Johann Zarco in his quest to replace Pedrosa.
That weekend, Lorenzo rubbed yet more salt in Ducati's wounds by claiming back-to-back wins, and would go on to bag another victory in Austria before his season was effectively cut short by injury. After a huge practice crash in Thailand (not of his making), he only returned in Valencia for one final Ducati outing before getting his first taste of life as a Honda rider in post-race testing.
How he matches up against Marquez promises to be the storyline for MotoGP fans to follow in 2019.
Jorge Lorenzo, Repsol Honda Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
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|Teams||Repsol Honda Team|