Bagnaia caps 20-year journey to the top with world title

When Francesco Bagnaia crossed the finish line on his Ducati at Valencia on Sunday to become MotoGP world champion for the first time it completed a journey that began in Turin almost 20 years ago.

Although his father was not a racer himself, he followed the sport closely, both professional and amateur, and made a key decision that would influence the future champion.

"When I was little I went to grands prix with my father and uncle and that led me to trying a Minicross race when I was six years old," Bagnaia, now 25, previously told crash.net.

"Pecco" -- his sister could not say his name when he was born and the nickname stuck -- was hooked.

From junior motocross he evolved to track racing, inspired in no small part by the great Valentino Rossi, the last Italian to have been crowned MotoGP world champion, back in 2009.

Bagnaia spent four years in Moto3, finishing fourth in the 2016 championship and prompting a promotion to Moto 2.

There he raced for Sky Racing Team VR46, an indelible link to Rossi's academy team with whom he had also raced in 2014.

Bagnaia was crowned Rookie of the Year in 2017 and went several steps beyond the following year by winning eight races and claiming the Moto2 title.

That led to the step-up to MotoGP and inevitable comparisons with seven-time champion Rossi.

Bagnaia, however, cuts such conversations short.

"There can never be an heir to Valentino Rossi. Everyone needs to walk their own path," he told AFP in a recent interview when his own path to the crown was still very much covered in thorns.

- Fightback -

Midway through this season you would have got long odds on Bagnaia winning the title. He was nowhere, running sixth and 91 points behind Fabio Quartararo, who looked a dead cert to land a second successive title.

Bagnaia had picked up two wins but no other podiums and had retired four times. At best he was looking at a repeat of 2021 when he finished second to his younger, French rival.

The tables turned, however, in dramatic fashion as Bagnaia found the midas touch with four wins on the bounce and Quartararo hit the skids, managing a single podium in that time, his lead cut to 30 points.

Even as "Pecco" pegged that lead back to 10 points after finishing second at the Aragon GP, he deflected title talk away from himself and towards his Ducati team.

"The most important thing for Ducati is to win and it's no different whether it's an Italian, Frenchman or Spaniard doing it," he told AFP.

He suffered a blip in Japan, crashing out on the last lap as he tried to overtake Quartararo.

But third places in Thailand and Australia, tied in with further problems for Quartararo, gave Bagnaia a 14-point lead heading to Malaysia, the title suddenly and unexpectedly within his grasp.

He won in Sepang but rival Quartararo finished third to keep the battle alive until the season's final race in Spain.

On Sunday in Valencia he made no mistake, producing a controlled race to finish ninth which was sufficient to give Ducati their first title since 2007 and pay back his father for that early investment in his Minicross education.

bsp/nr/