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How a struggling MotoGP sophomore saved his career but highlighted a wider issue

Even before Marc Marquez took his Gresini seat, Fabio Di Giannantonio’s hopes of remaining in MotoGP beyond 2023 looked slim. A form surge coinciding with career opportunities at the end of the season transformed his year, but the fact a MotoGP race winner almost found himself ousted just as everything finally clicked underlines the need to give riders time

Fabio Di Giannantonio, Gresini Racing

Gresini Ducati rookie Fabio Di Giannantonio scored points on just six occasions in 2022. His haul at the end of that season was a slender 24, a full 87 points adrift of the next Ducati rider in the standings. His fellow rookie Marco Bezzecchi, had a higher peak too, managing a podium at Assen on his VR46-run GP21.

There was a flash of speed when Di Giannantonio took pole at Mugello. But this was circumstantial, as he had come through Q1 on a drying track and therefore had a head start on the conditions over most of the Q2 field.

“The first thing is, due to unfortunate circumstances with Fausto [Gresini] and everything – I’m sure he would admit himself – that he was early to move up,” Di Giannantonio’s crew chief Frankie Carchedi tells Autosport.

“I think he finished seventh or eighth in Moto2. So, already it’s going to be difficult. You go to MotoGP where everyone is a world champion at some level. The team saw something in him, which is why they picked him, and it was a difficult first year but I think that’s also the transition. I think the class of the team, because not many teams would have given a rider a second year.”

Di Giannantonio, runner-up in the 2018 Moto3 title race to then-Gresini team-mate Jorge Martin, moved up to Moto2 with the Italian squad in 2019 and was a solid ninth in the standings with a couple of podiums. In 2021, he scored his first win in Spain and was already earmarked to make the jump to MotoGP the following season when Gresini parted ways with Aprilia and returned to fielding its own independent outfit.

Fausto Gresini’s untimely death at the start of 2021 due to COVID-19 didn’t alter this plan, but Di Giannantonio’s run to seventh in the standings in Moto2 that year arguably called for a fourth season in the class before taking the final step to MotoGP. Despite his difficulties in 2022, Gresini retained him for a second year.

After 14 rounds, Di Giannantonio had just 53 points. By now, eight-time world champion Marquez was icing him out of a Gresini ride. Even before this, Moto2 frontrunners Tony Arbolino and Jake Dixon had been linked to Di Giannantonio’s seat.

A lacklustre start to Di Giannantonio's second year put his seat under threat long before Marquez took it

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

A lacklustre start to Di Giannantonio's second year put his seat under threat long before Marquez took it

However that 14th round in Japan did mark a turning point, having finished eighth in the GP. The 25-year-old scored a career-best fourth (and first MotoGP top six) at the following Indonesian GP. A week later in Australia, he was third. All of a sudden, he was being linked to the vacant factory Honda.

A brace of ninths in Thailand and Malaysia came as VR46’s Luca Marini emerged as a frontrunner for the RC213V. In Qatar, Di Giannantonio put everything together to become MotoGP’s newest winner having beaten eventual world champion Francesco Bagnaia.

“On this, and it happens very, very rarely, if I had written it on a piece of paper and sealed it in a box, everything that happened was to the lap and almost the corner,” Carchedi says of Di Giannantonio’s Qatar win.

In those final seven rounds, Di Giannantonio scored 108 points. Only two riders scored more than this in the same period: world champion Bagnaia on 148, and title runner-up Martin on 112

“There’s a lot of things to think about now, there’s the pressures and everything. We’d already analysed through the sessions that we probably had the biggest advantage in rear grip and we were almost the weakest on the front. We had quite a lot of banding from day one.

“It was never about pace, it was trying to work out how to do the race without destroying the front. So, we literally said that the pressures are done so that you are third for the first 15 laps. The famous ‘mapping 8’ message was basically a sign because we’d worked out where the tyre pressures would be with four, five laps to go and then that was a sign that 'now everything is ok, you can go'.

“The only thing that was [different from the plan], we thought it would be Jorge Martin [leading], not Pecco. It was all planned for Turn 15. So, it was to the lap, four corners early. But maybe that might happen once every three years that you have that much pace you can do this.”

After this win, Ducati sporting director Paolo Ciabatti called it “unacceptable” that Di Giannantonio was not guaranteed a place on the 2024 MotoGP grid. Di Giannantonio said he was "speechless" that he was even in that situation, as he felt his career progression was "completely on time". In Valencia a week later, a deal was struck between himself and VR46 to replace Honda-bound Marini.

In those final seven rounds, Di Giannantonio scored 108 points to bring his total for the season to 151 (it would have been 158 had it not been for a tyre pressure penalty robbing of second and dropping him to fourth in Valencia). Only two riders scored more than this in the same period: world champion Bagnaia on 148, and title runner-up Martin on 112.

Di Giannantonio has a

Photo by: MotoGP

Di Giannantonio has a "very different" way of riding compared to the rest of the Ducati stable

Carchedi started working with Di Giannantonio in 2023 having previously been Joan Mir’s crew chief at Suzuki, the pair winning the title together in 2020. From the off, the Lincolnshire native noticed Di Giannantonio’s riding style differed massively from the rest of the Ducati stable. Focusing on getting this to work with the bike was key.

“His bike is set-up very differently,” Carchedi notes. “Obviously, the bike works incredibly, because all the others are almost identical. I think he’s probably got the most different style to the other riders.

“Then in a season, it’s really difficult because you start, you can’t really do a lot, you go out in FP1 to warm up, and FP2, you’re in qualifying mode. So, it’s really difficult to find the time to make real adjustments.”

He adds: “We’ve used their data to improve certain areas, especially the braking area. When we started, we were quite a way off. And I think actually in the braking and entry and apex we’ve been arguably one of the strongest in the last races.

“Pecco’s braking still has something over everyone. But he [Di Giannantonio] likes a lot of grip on the rear in that apex, traction phase. So, we just rebalanced it to suit his style.

“It’s not that you want to do something different, it’s always a case of ‘right, what’s going to make him go fast?’ But the beauty is once we found it we can just literally concentrate on his riding, the tyres. I think in six races [towards the end of the season] we’ve changed one thing.”

Of the rookie crop who stepped up in 2022 - Di Giannantonio, Bezzecchi, Raul Fernandez, Remy Gardner and Darryn Binder – three remain. Bezzecchi finished third in 2023 with three victories, some 178 points up the road from Di Giannantonio. But the latter did not disgrace himself. He was 80 points clear of Fernandez, whose best result was a fifth in the Valencia finale.

Yes, Fernandez did have some injury problems early in the season. But he is contracted directly to Aprilia – riding for the new Trackhouse squad in 2024, after RNF collapsed at the end of 2023 – and more has been expected for a long time from a rider who beat Marquez’s record for wins in his rookie Moto2 year (eight) on his way to runner-up spot in the championship. Gardner – 2021 Moto2 champion - didn’t get a second year in MotoGP, nor did Binder.

Di Giannantonio has a different approach to many of his fellow Ducati riders, Carchedi reveals

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Di Giannantonio has a different approach to many of his fellow Ducati riders, Carchedi reveals

Di Giannantonio has also gone up against two strong team-mates in MotoGP. He was partnered with a year-two Enea Bastianini in 2022, who won four grands prix, while Alex Marquez replaced him for his fourth season in MotoGP.

In 2022, the average qualifying gap between Di Giannantonio and Bastianini was 0.413s in favour of the latter across a 19-race sample. In 2023, Marquez’s average over Di Giannantonio was 0.410s based on a 15-round sample to remove qualifying sessions where conditions changed from Q1 to Q2.

In 2022 he only beat Bastianini in a race they both finished once, while in 2023 Alex Marquez (in the grands prix in which both saw the chequered flag) won 6-3. Clearly, Di Giannantonio needs to tidy up a lot of areas with VR46 next year.

The trying circumstances within which it all came together for Di Giannantonio did highlight the biggest problem MotoGP has right now with young riders: they're not being afforded enough time to adapt

The form he showed at the end of the season, having finally unlocked his genuine potential on the Ducati, earned him his reprieve. But the trying circumstances within which it all came together for Di Giannantonio did highlight the biggest problem MotoGP has right now with young riders: they are not being afforded enough time to adapt.

“I needed two and a half years to win my first race in MotoGP,” double world champion Bagnaia said earlier in the season while talking about Di Giannantonio. “I arrived in MotoGP [in 2019] having won the title in Moto2 with many wins and podiums. And the call for the factory team arrived at the correct moment – in a lucky moment and a perfect moment.

“I remember that the second race in 2020, I was close to my first podium and I broke the engine and I lost it. Then I broke the tibia in Brno, but after 20 days we were back in Misano and I was on the podium. And I think that helped a lot to get this call to be in the factory team.”

Expectations seem to have shifted since Fabio Quartararo came from winning just one grand prix at Moto2 level (he would have had two, had it not been for a technical infringement disqualifying him from the second) to being instantly competitive with SRT Yamaha upon his arrival in MotoGP in 2019, before stepping to the factory Yamaha squad in 2021 and winning the title.

Di Giannantonio was arguably in a similar position – albeit lacking the stellar junior career Quartararo had – and struggled for much of his first two years. Others have made a splash instantly: Bastianini and Bezzecchi fall into this category, as does like Brad Binder.

Ducati felt it

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Ducati felt it "unacceptable" Di Giannantonio was still without a ride after his Qatar win

Carchedi, who also acts as Jake Dixon’s manager, says he “doesn’t think there’s a perfect system in place, even for the ones who are in the class or the ones who want to go into the class. It’s not quite working.”

Across 2023 and 2024, there will have been just one rookie apiece: Augusto Fernandez last season and Pedro Acosta next year. It’s a fact that there are more riders than seats available, and that is the case for any top-flight motorsport. But in just one year, MotoGP has gone from having at least three rookies from Moto2 on the grid since 2017 to one in 2023.

“I always say there’s football, cricket, other sports, they have a perfect system where the top three in the championship go to the premiership,” Carchedi adds. “The ones [at the bottom] of the premiership go down. It’s very, very clear. You have transfer windows.

“Here, it’s not the same. You don’t have time, there’s people who have been here eight, nine years, some who’ve had factory bikes year in, year out. You’ve got guys chomping at the bit in Moto2.

“I had a very interesting conversation with someone very high up about the route Casey [Stoner] made. He needed help to get into 250s, he needed help to get into MotoGP. And he’s arguably one of the three greatest there’s ever been. So, it’s for that same reason you don’t know - there might be another Casey in Moto2.

“DiGia, we’re on an upward progression and it hasn’t petered out. We don’t know how much more we can go. I think there’s something that can be done to improve.”

Di Giannantonio’s slow burn in MotoGP was almost his undoing. Gresini’s perseverance, matching him with a top crew chief in Carchedi, helped him evolve into a rider who clearly deserves his place on the grid.

Should he carry this on into 2024 with VR46, it will hopefully act as a lesson to MotoGP at large that young riders must be afforded time to be able to adapt. Rome wasn’t built in a day and a world champion doesn’t evolve overnight.

Di Giannantonio's case should act as a lesson to MotoGP to give young riders time

Photo by: MotoGP

Di Giannantonio's case should act as a lesson to MotoGP to give young riders time

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