‘When I won the MotoGP my team arranged a huge party – I went to bed instead’
Francesco Bagnaia was tense, stiff, and tight, like an old guitar string.
His breathing was slow and ponderous, like every breath waded through treacle on its way out of his body. Anybody nearby could almost reach out and grab his palpable nervousness.
Those feelings were clear in his performance and he was the first to admit it. Yet he did it! His beautiful victory was one full of firsts: The first Italian MotoGP champion since Valentino Rossi in 2009, the first Ducati rider to lift Champions Tower since 2007, the first rider to win the title having trailed by 91 points earlier in the season. The only first seemingly missing was his performance on a hot evening in Valencia.
He crossed the finishing line, not first, not second, not third, but in ninth position. Yet, it was like his body released all of the pent up aggression, fear, stress, and anticipation.
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“It was a relief. Seriously, I lost, like, 100kgs after the race,” Bagnaia laughed just before the British GP, almost 1- months after his career-defining victory. “It was very difficult. It was a very intense weekend, I struggled a lot.”
Now his name is etched onto Champions Tower forever, Bagnaia can afford to have a little giggle to himself. It was, as the 26-year-old said himself, “the worst” race of his season.
The Valencia GP was given the Hollywood treatment. It was framed as “The Decider” – a battle between the reigning champion Fabio Quartararo and Bagnaia. The latter struggled around all 27 laps, like his tyres were also buckling beneath the weight of a nation clamouring for their first champion since Rossi himself.
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However, things were not quite as 'win or bust' as you may have been led to believe at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo. For Quartararo to retain, he needed to win in Valencia and hope Bagnaia finished 15th or lower. Yet, Bagnaia almost suffered his fifth DNF of the year when he collided with the Frenchman and lost a winglet.
He would go on to cling onto ninth position while Quartararo could only muster a 5th placed finish. “It was very difficult,” he added when asked to reflect on that day. “It was a very intense weekend, I struggled a lot.
“I did not find any feeling in the bike and when I crossed the finish line, I was just breathing again. I feel that I needed that, that I had to be more relaxed.”
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For those who enjoy a glass of champagne or twenty, there would only be one way to release such built up energy and stress – but not for Bagnaia. “In the night, they were doing a party for winning the title,” he added.
“[Instead] I was in my bed sleeping because I was destroyed. Valencia was very tough and very intense. I was feeling the weight of many people on my back. It was great, seriously. It was great, when I won, it was the best moment of my career.”
Athletes dealing with the pressure of trying to win a title are told to block out the noise and forget everything else. For Bagnaia, that was next to impossible. Every press conference and interview in the build-up, was another reminder of those 13 years without an Italian champion.
Rossi, his hero and mentor he first met as a youngster graduating through the nine-time champion’s VR46 Riders Academy, was name dropped into every conversation. Even in Valencia, there are many giant murals of the iconic rider. There were, quite literally, physically gargantuan reminders of the gargantuan challenge he was taking on.
But there was a poetic ending. One of the first people to greet him after the victory was Rossi himself. “Valentino, not just for us, but for all the riders in the world championship, he was the man to follow,” Bagnaia said with a reminiscing smile on his face.
“The same moment he opened the academy and they decided to have me on the academy, it was incredible. It was a moment I will never forget, the first time I shook hands with Vale.
“And then being the first, after him, to win the Moto GP was incredible. It was incredible last year, he was one of the first people I hugged when I crossed the line. It’s a great emotion for me. Vale was always my idol, he always will be my idol. Being his successor for sure is great in terms of title.”
Bagnaia is in the perfect position to edge one championship closer to the legendary rider. He came into Silverstone with a wide, but not yet unassailable, 35 point gap from nearest challenger Jorge Martin. That gap has since been shrunk down to just 27 points, after finishing 15th in the Tissot Sprint and fellow Italian Marco Bezzecchi winning.
The gap may have been bridged slightly by his Italian counterpart, but he is still sitting pretty. Despite crashing with six minutes remaining during a qualifying session terrorised by Storm Anthoni, Bagnaia still managed to claim fourth in grid for the Grand Prix.
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