Recently, I have wavered on a 2023 MotoGP update for this blog – reigning World Champ Pecco Bagnaia of the works Lenovo Ducati squad has controlled the action for most of the season, and there wasn’t much drama. This is hardly a surprise, since Bagnaia’ s most likely threat, team-mate Enea Bastianini, has been sidelined while recovering from injuries most of the season.
While it is true that the premier two-wheeled competition is ultra competitive these days, Bagnaia’ s consistent effort this season, especially with the new, Saturday Tissot Sprint races, suggested this campaign would not be as dramatic as recent championship chases.
Then, in September, a crash plagued Catalunya event saw lap one leader Bagnaia was pitched off and then get run over by Brad Binder. The run-away world championship leader (66 points ahead of his nearest rival) managed to damage to oil cooler of Binder’s works Red Bull KTM with his feet, was very fortunate to avoid serious injury. He was back on track for the next round, but not quite at his typical level – no surprise.
During this period, the satellite Prima Pramac Ducati of Jorge Martin hit stride in a major way. In the most recent round in Indonesia last weekend, Martin won the Saturday Sprint, and took over the World Championship points lead for the first time, 328 points to Bagnaia’ s 321. This marked the seventh race in a row where Martin had out-scored Bagnaia, who was down in eighth, complaining of braking issues.
Sixth on the grid, Martin seemed unstoppable in the Sprint, moving quickly to the lead, and holding of Luca Marini and third placed Marco Bezzecchi, the Mooney VR46 teammates both dealing with injuries. Third in points, Bezzecchi was competing just days after surgery to repair a right collar bone broken while MXing.
On Sunday, second row starter Martin made one of the best launches of the season, passing five bikes into turn one to take the point. Taking control, he built a three second lead over the Aprilia of Maverick Vinales, only to low side in a fast right hander.
“It was perfect,” stated Martin of his early efforts, “A great start, and then trying to make the gap a bit bigger. When I saw 2.8 (sec, on his pit board), I was really surprised. I thought it was time to calm down now.
“I was a bit wide on turn ten, it was a bit dirty – so when I went into turn 11, I lost the front doing the same thing as the lap before. But shit happens. I was felling super good, my mistake was to run one meter wide on the dirt and then in the next turn I crashed. This was my mistake, but I felt like I was running in safe mode.”
Martin’s shock fall turned the focus of the race to Bagnaia, starting 13th but suddenly much more comfortable with his works Ducati. When Martin fell, Bagnaia was already all the way up to third after a string of strong overtakes and pushing new leader Vinales.
From there, Bagnaia took control, and although he slowed near the finish, he moved back into the World Championship lead with the win.
“This is a great moment, for sure,” he explained. “Yesterday I was quite upset after the qualifying and the sprint race because I was struggling a lot; I could not get set-up with new tires.
“I was struggling a lot; my pace was not bad, but I didn’t have a chance to overtake. But today we improved a lot – I already felt better in the warm-up, and in the race, I could do the maximum from the start.
“I could see Martin was getting away, but I was thinking that his pace was really fast. The last lap I knew the guys behind were catching me, and I just had to close out that lap.”
At the finish, Bagnaia was just 0.3 of second clear of the on-form Vinales, while the works Monster Energy Yamaha of former World Champ Fabio Quartararo was another 0.2 of second back for third – it was that close.
“From my side, the victory means many things,” considered Bagnaia. “We are very competitive again. We were missing the right felling so to have this performance again is very important. And in a moment when Martin was out if it, it was important to take the most points available. We did that.
“From the moment in Barcelona it has not been easy,” reflected Bagnaia of his incident with Binder. “Honestly, this win today has given us a lot of motivation.
Another established star reflecting on his come back was Quartararo, who said that his third 2023 podium was “his best race of the year.”
Quartaro was inside the top five all weekend, a big step for the struggling Yamaha squad, currently struggling to “switch on” the spec Michelin rubber.
“On the warm-up lap I pushed a lot because we were struggling to heat up our rear tire,” continued ‘El Diablo.’
“After two or three laps we were Okay. Our pace in the middle part of the race was good, and although I couldn’t overtake it was a good race. I think I was 3.5 seconds behind Bagnaia at one stage in the race, so to finish really close was a good step for us.”
Meanwhile, Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez crashed in both races, a big come down after strong recent efforts in the wet in Japan (first podium of the year) and new venue India. Earlier in the week, eight-time World Champ and possible GOAT Marquez finally confirmed his long-rumored decision to leave Honda to ride for Gresini Ducati next year, where he will pair with brother Alex.
In India, the resurgent Alex Marquez broke several ribs, and strained the injury trying to lift his bike after a crash during practice in Indonesia. The opening session at the Mandalika venue was the first time during 2023 that every official rider entered for the MotoGP season was healthy and able to take part.
Next up is rider-favourite Philip Island in Australia this weekend, followed by Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar, and the title decider at MotoGP’s home base in Valencia, Spain, November 24-26.
- From Colin Fraser