Narrowing this down to one particular moment throughout 2017 has been mighty difficult as so many things have been a personal highlight for me. Valtteri Bottas securing his first F1 win after years of trying at Williams was one, and the incredible return of Robert Kubica to a Grand Prix car was another. But the one I finally settled on was that of Andre Dovizioso and Ducati taking the fight to Marc Marquez and Honda in MotoGP and, despite not winning the title, finally reaping the rewards after years of hard work to get back to the front.
Pre-season gossip saw all the hype take place around Marquez and new Yamaha rider, Maverick Vinales. Vinales had of course moved from Suzuki after winning with them at Silverstone in 2016 and replaced Jorge Lorenzo who had moved to Ducati to partner Dovizioso. Vinales pace throughout testing was blistering and he backed that up by winning two of the first three races of the year. Dovizioso nearly fended off Vinales at the opening race in Qatar before settling for second place, but other than that it was a fairly quiet opening part of the year for Ducati, especially with Lorenzo struggling to adapt to the red bike.
But come Mugello and things started to change. A change to the late 2016 front specification Michellin tyre, one with a harder construction than the 2017 spec, seemed to give the Desmosedici a boost in performance as Dovizioso qualified third on the grid for his and Ducati’s home race. Despite having suffered from food poisoning overnight, the man often known as ‘Desmo Dovi’ produced an incredible performance to win in front of the Italian crowd and produce one of the stories of the season. Despite this though Dovizioso kept expectations for the rest of year fairly low, not wanting to believe he could make a title challenge out of this campaign. After all, it had been some 6 or 7 years since Ducati had really fought for a world title.
He soon started to eat his own words however. Just a week later, Dovizioso took another victory at the Grand Prix of Catalunya before taking the championship lead at the next race in Assen. But the best was yet to come. In Austria, a ferocious battle with Marquez culminated in a thrilling final lap, final corner battle for supremacy between the two championship contenders as Marquez launched it up the inside of the Ducati before Dovizioso rebounded as Marquez went wide, flicking his hand in the air and taking yet another victory. Then at the next race, as Marquez suffered an inexplicable Honda engine failure (yet in F1 they go bang all the time) Dovizioso took another victory after beating out Valentino Rossi and Vinales. Third place in San Marino was followed by two more victories in Malayisa and Japan, the latter seeing a repeat of the thrilling duel between Marquez and Dovizioso in Austria, this time in heavy rain and with an extra edge to the battle. Sadly though for Ducati and Dovizioso, Marquez was leading the championship at this stage. A scrappy 7th in Aragon had left the door open for Marquez to do so after closing right up in San Marino. Then a poor P13 in Australia meant that despite the Malaysian victory, it looked all over for Ducati and ‘Dovi’.
That didn’t stop them from giving up though, and fate nearly swung there way at the season finale in Valencia. If Marquez failed to finish, Dovizioso had to win and half of that nearly happened as, after taking the race lead from rookie sensation Johan Zarco, Marquez pulled off the save of the year at over 100mph at turn one when he really should have ended up in the kitty litter. Despite this scare, Dovizioso was only fourth as teammate Lorenzo hauled up to the leading pair of Zarco and Dani Pedrosa. But the Ducati riders were pushing their bikes beyond its limit, and on the same lap both Lorenzo and Dovizioso crashed out and finally ending the dream of a new Ducati world champion.
Despite this though it almost didn’t seem to matter. Because what Dovizioso had done was become one of the greatest underdog hero’s in Motorsport in recent years. Not one person named him a championship contender at the start of 2017. Yet by the end of it, he had won six races and been the only man to give Marquez a taste of his own medicine, as Vinales and Yamaha faltered following Dovizioso’s Mugello victory. 2018 will no doubt be much tougher, with Lorenzo more than likely able to win races again and Yamaha back on the pace as well. But MotoGP 2017 will not be remembered for Marquez’s incredible 4th title in 5 years. It will instead be remembered as the year that Andrea Dovizioso finally came of age and when Ducati became championship challengers once again. This season will live long in the memory of all that saw it.
Feature Image Credit: Ducati Corse Media