Sunday’s final round of the 2023 MotoGP World Championship at Valencia, Spain was billed as a battle between the reigning World Champion Pecco Bagnaia’ s works Lenovo Ducati and the upstart Prima Pramac entry of Spain’s Jorge Martin. Martin won Saturday’s Tissot Sprint race in impressive style, knocking the points gap between the title contenders down to just 14 with Sunday’s Feature round left to go.
If Martin won and Bagnaia was fifth on Sunday over 27 laps, the two would be tied in points, with the deciding factor main race wins, and the title would be Bagnaia’ s.
Although Bagnaia was fifth on Saturday, he was comfortable that the choice of a too-hard rear Michelin compared to the pace setters would inform his decision for the main event. This proved to be true, pole starter Bagnaia jumping out front from the start lights with Martin right on his tail from the second row.
Martin, frustrated by a rear Michelin issue at the previous round seven days earlier in Qatar, soon ran wide in turn one while slipstreaming the leader, clipping Bagnaia and then dropping back to eighth.
From there the aggressive Martin hand got into a dispute with local hero Marc Marquez on the works Repsol Honda. Martin hit the rear of Marquez twice in the same turn, taking the two crowd favorites out of the race (Marquez was sent flying and was lucky not to be hurt) and ending any drama over the 2023 championship. Martin blamed Marquez for the incident, a view not supported by the video.
Martin’s Cinderella 2023 story was over, and he was shown crying in his pit box, surrounded by admirers from Ducati and series owners Dorna. The story goes that, if Martin had won, his contract specified that he would move do the factory Ducati team with him number one plate for 2024.
This was also a bitter pill for Marquez, in his final career race for the works HRC team after an amazing ten year mostly success story, now joining his brother Alex in a satellite Ducati effort with Gresini next season – starting at the upcoming traditional post-season test at the same venue.
Meanwhile, Bagnaia was under pressure from Brad Binder on the KTM, looking for his first win of the season. Binder got by, and was soon tailed by Red Bull team-mate Jack Miller, and suddenly a KTM one-two seemed on the cards. But Binder ran wide in turn 11 and rejoined in sixth, while Miller took the point (did Pecco opt to let him by?), only to crash shortly thereafter.
Binder was in the wars, getting a penalty for passing under waved flag, and involved in a few other incidents, too. He would eventually work back up to net a reasonable fourth.
Bagnaia, so nervous while edging Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo for the crown in a tense 2022 final race in Valencia, was back out front under pressure from the Gresini Ducati of Fabio Di Giannantonio. The big story of the last couple of months on the MotoGP tour, since Di Giannantonio does not have a confirmed ride for next season – although rumors the week of Valencia suggest he will join the Mooney backed Ducati effort owned by Valentino Rossi.
Also in the fight for first was Johann Zarco, once again showing great race pace on the other Pramac Ducati. At the finish, Bagnaia held off the concerted efforts of Di Giannantonio, with Zarco third from Binder and the impressive CryptoDATA RNF satellite Aprilia of Raul Fernadez – who held off the best efforts of Alex Marquez on the second Gresini bike, having survived an attack from Binder.
Post race, Di Giannantonio was penalized for registering tire data beyond the specified norms, dropping him to fourth, moving Binder back to the podium behind new runner-up Zarco. For the last few races, it was expected there would be some enforcement of the controversial tire rule, but most insiders expected Martin to get the hook.
“I feel incredible,” explained victor Pecco after celebrating his second-consecutive title, a feat matched by thirteen others in the history of MotoGP. “I feel the top level of happiness, nothing ever like this. The thing is, I am so happy as well because I won the race too!
“With five laps to go I started to get a cold feeling with the bike (tire issues?), and I was very scared because of my front tire choice, the hard. It was not an easy day because I was often under pressure.”
Bagnaia confirmed that the sense of pressure was different than what he experienced the season before in his gripping campaign against Quartararo and Yamaha.
“Last year Fabio started really well,” started the 2014 number one plate holder: “but as soon as I started to win, he was in more trouble. He was fast, he is super fast, but his bike was not giving him the possibility to fight with me. We were in a different situation.
“Then with Jorge, after Barcelona he was with much more confidence every weekend, and he was difficult to stop. Then I crashed in India when I was in front of him so for sure that was a plus for him.”
Continuing the theme of his late season Championship fight with fellow Ducati pilot Martin, Pecco concluded that “sharing data is useful but stressful sometimes.”
Di Giannantonio explained that “in the middle of the race I was struggling a lot, and it was maybe not how I expected. But then I started to get a good rhythm, started smelling the victory. I came up really fast on the front group of Pecco and Johann.
“On the last lap I tried everything, but Pecco is the World Champion for this. He was using his defensive lines, and he was better than me.”
- From Colin Fraser