The central ‘European season’ of Moto GP is now underway, and the tour was back at its spiritual home of Jerez, for the Red Bull Grand Prix of Spain, on May 1.
This was the sixth 2022 event, the second in a row after Portugal the previous weekend. Many observers also consider Jerez a return to Grand Prix normal post-COVID, with a huge crowd showing up to watch their heroes, many sitting for free on the hillsides around the circuit.
The Dorna group that runs MotoGP is based in Spain, and the launch of the amphitheatre at Jerez in 1986 is one of the key developments in the modern era of the sport, currently riding a wave of considerable success.
MotoGP 2022 has been unpredictable, with a stellar range of riders enjoying success early in the season.
However, Jerez may have marked the return of standard service, as the factory run Lenovo Ducati of Francesco ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia took a solid victory. The pre-season favourite based on his late 2021 form, Pecco’s win was his first feature triumph of the season, and the fifth different winner in the six 2022 counters.
Ducati insiders suggested that it would take a while for the revised 2022 machine to outperform the existing 2021 models as well as previous gens – there are eight Ducatis of various vintages on the grid in 2022.
So far, the only double victor in the series is satellite team racer Enea Bastianini on the Gresini team’s 2021 Desmosedici.
At Portimão the weekend previous, Bagnaia fell in practice, severely injuring his right shoulder. While it was still troubling him in Spain, he still earned Pole position for the race, joined on the front row of the grid by Monster Energy Yamaha’s reigning World Champ Fabio Quartararo and the Aprilia of Aleix Espargaro.
Quartararo was fresh from victory in Portugal, somewhat calming the troubled waters of a Yamaha squad that is mostly underperforming. Meanwhile A. Espargaro continues from strength to strength with the ‘other’ Italian factory and was looking for his third podium in four races.
The 25-lap race would demonstrate that at tracks well know to the teams, in typically hot and sunny conditions, the pecking order in the series is getting more established as each team dials into the established Michelin slick/Magneti Marelli control ECU era.
When the pecking order starts to lock in, it is important to qualify well, since passing is getting harder to do – and conserving tires, currently focused on the front, is an inevitable concern.
Bagnaia and Quartararo took the control from the start, building a slight advantage over the fast-starting second works Ducati of Jack Miller, even quicker from the green LCR Honda of Takaaki Nakagami, Repsol team leader (and Jerez hero) Marc Marquez and Espargaro.
Although troubled superman Marquez had down-played his chances pre-race, he was soon pressuring Miller for the final podium spot, in a fight that would attract much attention as Bagnaia slowly but surely gapped Quartaro at the front – was the Yamaha rider leaving a little space to allow his front tire to get cooler air?
Eventually Miller was under relentless pressure from both Marquez and Espargaro, this trio no longer a threat to the leaders.
With four laps to go, the action started in earnest as Marquez boldly jammed under Miller in a fast sweeper. However, when they arrived at the famous final hairpin at the end of the lap, Marquez suffered one of his famous ‘practice tucks,’ saving the bike with his knee and elbow in dramatic fashion, and in the confusion Espargaro was now third.
At the front, Quartaro closed the gap, but Bagnaia was flawless on his way to a .285 of a second victory. Espargaro and the resurgent Aprilia were ten seconds further back for third.
In a crazy last lap, Marquez jammed his way past Miller for fourth, this duo less than .3 of a second from the Podium. Suzuki’s Joan Mir was the last rider with any view of the top five, earning sixth.
“It’s a beautiful day,” started Bagnaia post race. “We have struggled a lot from the start of the season, during the tests, but we never stopped working.”
“I had luck to race in Portimão, even with the pain,” explained the winner. “But importantly I was able to fight to have the same feeling again as last year; and then, finally, this weekend, everything went well.
“I am so happy we are back at our potential, or more. Because last year at this track, we were struggling more compared with Fabio – Fabio was unbeatable – so today, we have done an incredible job.”
Runner up Quartaro was in cheerful spirits, commenting that, “It was a really tough race, the whole way. Pecco had an amazing race. The pace was insane, and I was always trying to save the front tire. We were both very fast today, it was an intense race, insane pace, and we try a lot.”
Fighting his way onto the box, Aleix Espargaro admitted that the race was, “Good mentally, so I’m happy. I was a lot quicker than Marc and Jack, but it was so hard to pass – I was just waiting for mistakes. Then Marc ran wide (Marquez’ big save at the hairpin) and I can see that it’s my time. I’m second in the Championship now, so it is like I am dreaming!”
The next round takes place at Lemans, France, where Quartaro is sure to receive a hero’s welcome. Currently, Quartaro leads the points standings with 89, followed by Espargaro (82 points), Bastianini tied with Suzuki’s Rins (69), and Bagnaia (56) tied with Mir for fifth overall. Expect to see Bagnaia continue to climb the standings ladder.
- Colin Fraser