The much-hyped final MotoGP event of 2022, the Gran Premio Motul De La Comunitat Valenciana, took place on Sunday (Nov. 6) at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Spain.
With the title decided between reigning Champ Fabio Quartararo of France on the Monster-Yamaha works entry and points leader Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia of Italy with the factory Lenovo Ducati squad, it was a chance for organizers Dorna to publicize a title race at their home venue.
So far this year, I have watched Ben Young earn the 2023 Bridgestone CSBK Number one for BMW at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in an August final round, and then Jake Gagne snatch the MotoAmeria crown for Yamaha in a decider at Barber in September. The MotoGP points battle wasn’t as close, but this is the premier category of motorcycling in the world.
Focused on consistency in the second half of the season, Bagnaia didn’t show much of that in Valencia, fading back with a couple of issues including missing aero bodywork. Still, he held on for the crown, and made the most impressive comeback in the history of the series.
Quartararo needed to win and have things go wrong for Bagnaia, and it looked like it might work out that way. Although he qualified well, the problem Quartararo is that his Yamaha doesn’t do well when ridden near other bikes – does turbulent air hurt the aero package, or traffic cause heating issues with the front Michelin, or he needs his “special” lines and can’t manage them in traffic?
Whatever the issues, Yamaha struggled for consistent pace in the second half of the season, although Quartararo’s riding is frequently exceptional, if also sometimes over the edge. He was most impressive in practice and Qualifying in Valencia.
The three days of on-track in Spain, after five weeks of “away” races, highlighted just how tight the action is at tracks where the teams have established knowledge and pace. There was little to choose among the top riders, and I was amazed to watch the eight different Ducatis (one third of the grid) behave very differently from each other at various parts of the track.
My takeaway is that the Ducatis are not just the class of the field, but also adaptable in a manner that allows a variety of rider styles and rider likes to be incorporated into the machine’s many settings. When you hear some of the factory aces complain about the restrictive nature of the effective range of choices on their bikes, you can tell that they are comparing their machine to the flexible and forgiving armada of Ducatis.
No one is sure of how aero works on motorcycles, and many talking points are derived from the world of auto competition. Suzuki have stepped back on aero, and this has made their bike faster. Helicopter shots have many observers wondering how some very draggy looking bikes don’t seem to suffer in comparison to the more traditional, slippery set-ups. Can you really tell anything about motorcycle aerodynamics (bikes are inherently not efficient in an aero way) just by looking?
Suzuki have been on a roll lately, and you could tell the various team staff were frustrated that such a good squad, with such a balanced and ridable machine, are now leaving the series. Race winner Rins clearly was wondering during the post-race press briefing if he would ever get another bike as usable as the GSX-RR.
While it is true that Rins’ ride was a career high point, he joins Honda’s satellite LCR squad for next year, and his ex-Suzuki team-mate Joan Mir goes into the “A” Honda Repsol squad. Did Honda mix-up those assignments?
Both Rins and Mir will need to get something going with the current generation of traction impaired HRC offerings and establish the fact that they are better at development then the previously much vaunted, recommended racers that they replace (Alex Marquez and Pol Espargaro).
Attracting lots of attention was Honda’s big gun Marc Marquez, the rider I picked to earn a come-back win at the final round of the series. Trying new aero including a curving “F-Duct” near the lower front of the fairing, Marquez was on a mission at Valencia in front of a highly partisan throngs in attendance, and frequently on the ground.
Marquez’ fall in the race was a big disappointment to the crowd who filled the amphitheatre set up at Valencia, arriving bright and early, even on Saturday. Marquez was unhappy with braking performance, and thought he had a torque-related engine issue from the start of the race.
The passionate fans will not get to see Tuesday’s first 2023 test at the same venue, when a wide range of new and development machines are expected to appear, including a completely new Honda that is the focus of attention for eight tile World Champ Marquez.
KTM celebrated Brad Binder’s second place like a win, confirming how frustrating their year has been, at least in dry conditions. With Ducati’s Jack Miller coming on board, the Austrian builder will have two popular, aggressive, and outspoken aces – can they get consistent pace from the only bike in the class that is much different from the rest of the grid?
KTM are planning to evaluate a modular offering over the winter, meant to allow major changes in things like weight distribution during brief test periods. KTM also use WP suspension, a company they own, rather than the ubiquitous Ohlins forks and shocks. Many insiders still wonder if KTM might be unstoppable if they can get a regularly workable set-up like Ducati now seems to enjoy.
And here is hoping the “Pecco” get to have some fun now that he is number one. Pressure from inside his team next season will be intense, when Enea Bastianini joins the “A” squad. The rider who didn’t make the cut to step up, Jorge Martin, is still rated very highly in the paddock, so three young guns fighting for the title on similar Desmosedici’s could make for a team management nightmare.
The other builders can only dream of such problems.
So let us congratulate our new World Champion Bagnaia, the 25-year-old the second ever premier Champ for Ducati following Casey Stoner’s break through in 2006. Bagnaia, a long-time member of the VR46 Academy, is the first Italian to take the crown in the premier category since Valentino Rossi in 2009.
The last Italian to win the premier category on an Italian motorcycle was the legendary Giacomo Agostini, on hand for the race, who did it on an MV Agusta many times, most recently in 1972. “Pecco” took six wins, but also 5 DNFs over the twenty-race series, the later number also a record.
– Colin Fraser