Last weekend, the penultimate round of the MotoGP World Championship took place under the lights in the desert at the Losail venue in Doha, Quatar. Round 19 of the 2023 campaign continued in the manner of recent races, with significant controversy between Ducati’s title protagonists, works Lenovo’s Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia of Italy and the Prima Pramac entry of Jorge Martin of Spain.
Dedicated readers might wonder if this has to do with a specific spec Michelin tire pressure rules infraction or perhaps a track limits penalty, since both items that have caused controversy lately and could still decide the title battle with two races left this year, Saturday (sprint) and Sunday (main event) at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain.
But controversy in fact followed Martin, who won the Quatar sprint race but was in trouble from the start in the final, sideways off the second row in a manner that seemed decades removed from modern traction control and rider aides. Lucky to stay on board, Martin was swamped by the pack, eighth into the first turn.
From there, Martin fought a rear-guard action, perhaps aided by his team-mate Johann Zarco, who might have been asked to help – it was an evening when team orders seemed to be in play, but at best poorly executed and maybe misunderstood.
At the front, Bagnaia held on to the lead, chased closely by Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Ducati), Alex Marquez (Gresini Ducati), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Ducati) and the on-the-move KTM of Brad Binder. Marc Marquez had the works Honda briefly up to sixth, just ahead of Zarco, Martin and the Aprilia of Maverick Vinales.
The man on the move was Di Giannantonio, the Sprint race runner-up. Recently released from his team for 2024 (to be replaced by Marc Marquez), Di Giannantonio had quickly moved from also ran to fan favorite status. Since his dismissal, Di Giannantonio has been allowed to choose his own settings, providing an increase in performance and a first podium at Philip Island.
Although Alex Marquez briefly took the lead from Pecco on lap two, soon Binder had pushed the younger-brother-of-the-legend down to fourth. Marini was the last in the lead group in sixth, just over a second clear of the second pack, now headed by Martin from Vinales, Zarco and a charging Yamaha of Fabio Quartararo.
At this point, mid-race, the “active championship” predicted that the pending results would yield a 22-point margin for Bagnaia over Martin with only Valencia remaining, 442 points to 420.
With five laps to go, Di Giannantonio was all over the back of leader Bagnaia, and everyone was wondering if there was any reason why he couldn’t pounce – it wasn’t like he owed anything to Ducati. Then news arrived of a dashboard message indicating “Mapping B.” Was this code to ease his pace and let Bagnaia take the win that would help Pecco’s title repeating aspirations?
In fact, Di Giannantonio immediately stuffed his way under Bagnaia to grab the point, never to be repassed. This was confirmed when Bagnaia almost torpedoed the new leader from behind into turn one, missing the Ducati by inches and running wide, dropping out of the lead fight.
So, Di Giannantonio took a popular first career MotoGP victory, the 25-year-old a former Yamaha protégé who attended the VR46 training camp along with Yamaha Canada’s Tomas Casas only a few years ago.
Bagnaia was 2.7 sec behind for second, Marini third from Vinales, who worked his way through the field. Binder faded to fifth, Alex Marquez sixth, Quartararo continuing his recent form in seventh from the charging Enea Bastianini (new lap record) in eighth and KTM’s Jack Miller in ninth.
Following the race, Di Giannantonio tired to explain that his dashboard text message was a reminder to go for the lead, and he couldn’t easily read his pit board while in a pack on Qutar’s long front straight.
“Man, what can I say about this? It was an incredible weekend, we had an amazing pace,” confirmed the winner. “Today I knew was my opportunity to win a MotoGP, and I did it. Pecco was making little mistakes, and I waited for the time to pass.”
Runner-up Bagnaia now had a 21-point lead atop the World Championship standings, with a possible 37 points up for grabs over the two events this weekend at Valencia.
“I’m very happy, we managed to do a perfect track,” said the title favorite. “I tried to manage everything, and it was great. Then he passed (Di Giannantonio) and I got stuck in his slip stream and ran wide, so I knew I should be second.”
Meanwhile, Martin was angry with his Michelin rubber, both front and back, and openly wondered if somehow there was a conspiracy to keep him from winning the 2023 World Championship. On the flip side, he had struggled with practice starts over the weekend, and the cooler evening conditions affected many of the racers.
Valencia is home to MotoGP, and a big crowd is expected to watch the venue’s first-ever Tissot Sprint (13 laps) on Saturday as well as Sunday’s 27 lap main event scheduled for 9 am EST – be sure to watch the race on REV or via your Dorna MotoGP video package!
- From Colin Fraser