Jack Miller signs with Ducati factory, sets his eyes on the MotoGP prize
© Gold & Goose/Red Bull Content Pool
"A dream come true" for Jack Miller sets him on a path for 2021 MotoGP glory, and the 25-year-old Aussie is more than up to the task.
When you consider Jack Miller's journey from Townsville tearaway to fully-fledged MotoGP factory rider for Ducati, it's almost inevitable that his biggest career break came in the middle of a global pandemic and after he'd not ridden a lap in racing anger for six months.
Because Miller doesn't do 'normal', neither in the way he rides nor the way he's carved an unlikely career (out of outsized talent) while defying numerous roadblocks.
As it happens, Miller doing things his way seems to be working out just fine.
Earlier this week, the 25-year-old Australian achieved what he called "a dream come true" when he signed for the factory Ducati team for the 2021 season, with an option for 2022. Miller has ridden for the second-string Pramac Ducati outfit for the past two seasons and will do again in 2020 when the season eventually starts following the coronavirus-caused delay.
I'm stoked that Ducati see me as their guy to try to fight amongst ourselves, and hopefully with Marc in years to come.
Being entrusted as lead rider for what is effectively the Italian national two-wheel team is a responsibility he coveted and was thrilled to be given, even if hearing the news at his parents' house on the outskirts of Townsville wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
"2020's been a strange old year, hasn't it?" Miller laughs.
"When I got to MotoGP in 2015, this is what I was always chasing, so to have it actually happening is a bit surreal. But it's the reality, and it feels bloody good. This is, pretty much, what I've been working towards my whole life – to sign with a factory and be a fully-fledged factory rider is something you put in your mind as a goal."
The generation game
Miller shapes as Ducati's long-term lynchpin to achieve what they, Yamaha, Suzuki, KTM and Aprilia have rarely been able to since 2013; beating the potent partnership of Marc Marquez and Honda, which has won six of the past seven MotoGP titles.
Marquez fast-tracked MotoGP's youth movement, and Honda's opposition has belatedly decided that fighting fire with fire is the only way to loosen his iron grip. In the past two years, goliaths of the game like 33-year-old Jorge Lorenzo and 34-year-old compatriot Dani Pedrosa have retired from full-time riding; MotoGP's resident Peter Pan, 41-year-old Valentino Rossi, remains the sport's biggest box-office draw, but has won a single race in the past three years.
Jack is probably one of the only guys here that has the talent to beat Marc over a season.
With his factory Ducati contract in his pocket, Miller is now part of a young and hungry chasing pack that features Yamaha's Maverick Vinales, 25, and Spanish 20-somethings Alex Rins and Joan Mir for Suzuki. The sport's brightest neophyte, flying Frenchman Fabio Quartararo, will take Rossi's spot at Yamaha's A-team next season at the age of 20. It's a generation game Miller says has been a long time coming, and one he feels comfortable being in the thick of.
"I remember thinking last year that I felt the rider market in MotoGP was stale, and was in for a bit of a shake-up because of the way Marc has been on top," he says. "I was hoping Ducati would see me as their guy who has been around for a while but is still pretty young to get into that conversation. Marc is the benchmark, so the main goal for all of the other factories is to get somewhere close to him.
"I'm stoked that Ducati see me as their guy in that age range to try to fight amongst ourselves and hopefully with Marc in years to come."
Count Marquez's Honda stablemate, Cal Crutchlow, as a believer. The Briton, privy to Marquez's telemetry shared amongst Honda's engineers and riders, describes the Spaniard as a "freak", but feels Miller has the skill level to muscle in regularly on the fight at the front, particularly as he'll have a sharper tool to wield from 2021.
"Jack is probably one of the only guys here that has the talent to beat Marc over a season," Crutchlow says. "I believe he has as much talent on a motorcycle as anyone in this championship. I see him as the guy who's able to step up and take the fight to Marc over the coming years."
A long and winding road
It's easy to forget how far Miller has come since his rookie season as Crutchlow's teammate in 2015, when he mostly struggled to come to terms with what was required on and off-track to run with the world's elite on a consistent basis.
There were glimpses of genius – who could ever forget his extraordinary win in the Netherlands in 2016 in the pouring rain on what was essentially a third-tier Honda? – but it wasn't until he joined the Pramac Ducati squad in 2018 that potential began to turn into production more regularly.
Ducati saw enough promise from Miller on a hand-me-down 2017 bike that season that he rode the current-spec 2019 machine last year, and he responded with five podium finishes while finishing a career-best eighth in the world championship.
The factory Ducati team, who tasked Miller with testing new parts last season, were so impressed that they planned to assess Miller in the opening races of 2020 with an eye to a promotion. With racing on hold because of the coronavirus, they'd evidently seen enough in the pre-season tests in Malaysia and Qatar to make up their minds.
Once you are in the factory team obviously you only have one target, which is to fight for the podium and win races.
"He's definitely one of the four fastest and most aggressive riders in MotoGP, and we think he can still improve on some areas and become really one of the top riders of this class," Ducati Corse sporting director Paulo Ciabatti told motogp.com.
"Jack is still young, he's only 25 even though he's already been in MotoGP for five years. We saw his progression last year and we think he has room for improvement.
"Once you are in the factory team obviously you only have one target, which is to fight for the podium and win races."
Unlocking new levels
Miller feels the stint with Pramac has been the making of him as a rider, and as a man. He still has a quick grin and larrikin streak, and the penchant for mischief remains when it can be coaxed out.
But in his European base of Andorra, these days Miller is more likely to be found out cycling the hills with the racers and ex-riders who call the mountainous landlocked country home, or indulging in a spot of fishing with young Australian rider Billy Van Eerde, for whom he acts as an unofficial mentor.
Working smarter and harder, he feels, has unlocked a new level in his riding, one that could fulfil his goal of eventually being known as the best in the world at his craft.
"The last two years with Pramac, I've learned a lot about myself as a person, about everything to do with the sport really," he says.
"I've learned how factory riders are supposed to be, supposed to work. It's had a big effect on the way I approach my racing. There's a methodical way of working that I had to learn, but it's one where you can have a lot more impact on the way the team and bike works. More responsibility, basically. I've really enjoyed that, and it's brought out a new level in me. Hopefully it’s the way to take me where I want to be."