Features 27 Jul 2023

Top 10: Talking points of MotoGP

Looking at key topics after eight rounds of the 2023 season.

As round nine of the 2023 MotoGP World Championship draws closer, there are a number of key developments to watch for in this year’s campaign. In this Top 10 feature, CycleOnline looks at key taking points to follow as the European summer break comes to a close and racing continues next weekend at Silverstone.

Image: Supplied.

1. Reigning champion Bagnaia in the frame for second MotoGP title:
When a rider fails to score in three out of the opening eight grand prix in a particular season, it might come as a surprise that they lead the championship by 35 points. However, that is the advantage reigning champion Francesco Bagnaia holds over the European summer break. While a mixture of wrong place, wrong time and unforced errors has impacted his points haul on Sundays, the Ducati Lenovo Team rider has been electric across the newly-introduced sprint races on Saturdays, winning on three occasions and finishing no lower than third in seven from the eight sprint outings. Additionally, when Bagnaia has scored in a grand prix on Sunday, he has been all but unstoppable, standing on the top step four times already and finishing a close second at the Sachsenring. Historically, Bagnaia has only gotten stronger and more consistent as a particular season progresses, so unless anyone can rise to match his pace regularly at each round, it’s hard to see him not defending his title.

2. Martin and Bezzecchi fighting to stay in contention:
Bagnaia’s closest challengers come in the form of Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) and the GP22-mounted Marco Bezzecchi, the pair 35 and 36 points from the championship lead respectively. Despite finishing second in the season-opening sprint race at Portimao, Martin’s season really began to gain traction and consistency after he won Saturday’s race at Le Mans. He stood on the podium the following five races, highlighted by a Sachsenring sweep where he was victorious on both Saturday and Sunday. Assen wasn’t the strongest weekend for the number 89, but he was still able to salvage P5 in the Dutch TT. On year-old machinery, Bezzecchi has been immensely impressive in 2023, notching two grand prix wins plus the sprint race victory at Assen. While he hasn’t quite been able to match the speed of Bagnaia week in, week out, he’s shown that he is more than capable of being a key factor in how this championship unfolds. That said, both he and Martin will likely need to chalk up some more victories in the upcoming rounds if they are to have a chance of beating Bagnaia in the standings come year-end.

3. Marc Marquez yet to score in a grand prix this season:
Eight-time world champion Marc Marquez has endured a luckless 2023 campaign so far, failing to score on any Sunday. Seemingly defying the laws of physics, Marc Marquez put his Repsol Honda on pole at the season-opening Portuguese grand prix and finished third on Saturday at Portimao to commence the 2023 campaign. From there, it went downhill. The number 93 fell during Sunday’s race at Portimao after clipping Martin and colliding with Miguel Oliveira (Crypto Data RNF MotoGP Team) in the early stages, injuring his right hand and then missing the following three rounds. Since returning in France, he has been unable to finish or score in a grand prix race (he prematurely withdrew from the Sachsenring and Assen rounds). It’s clear the Honda RC213V is underperforming and Marquez has fallen on multiple occasions trying to consistently extract the maximum out of the platform. He has shown no shortage of grit this season and has delivered flashes of brilliance, but time will tell if a refreshed approach following the summer break will help as the second half of the season draws closer.

4. Japanese manufacturers needing to bridge the gap to European bikes:
Five years ago, if someone had said not a single Japanese bike would be inside the top eight of the MotoGP World Championship standings, it would have probably been considered a joke. However, that is the case eight rounds into the 2023 season, with Monster Energy Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo the highest placed of such in P9, with teammate Franco Morbidelli two places behind in 11th. While Yamaha has made gains in its top speed this year, its attempts to address that problem have created other issues in terms of handling, corner exit and stability – it’s simply not a platform right now that is allowing its riders to consistently fight for the podium. That said, Quartararo was able to score a P3 result on Sunday at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and was third in the sprint at Assen. LCR Honda Castrol’s Alex Rins impressed at COTA to take a sprint race podium and then grand prix victory, but is currently out with a fibula and tibia injury sustained at Mugello. He is linked to a seat at Yamaha next year.  Three out of the four regular Honda riders have been injured throughout the season, seemingly pushing the bike – that is on knife’s-edge – past its limits, with Repsol Honda Team’s Joan Mir enduring a bruising and luckless campaign to date, currently P26 in the standings.

5. Bastianini aims to return to form after the summer break:
Across his two-year stint with Gresini on older Ducati machinery, Enea Bastianini impressed with two podiums in his rookie 2021 campaign and four victories last season on his way to third in the standings. His performances secured him a highly-sought after contract with the factory Ducati Lenovo Team, and he entered the 2023 season a favourite to take the title from Bagnaia. However, his stint in red has been far from smooth sailing, and unfortunately, Bastianini fell in the sprint race at Portimao after Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) collided with him on the second lap. He broke his right shoulder blade in the crash and was forced out until Friday of the Spanish GP, but there he was forced to withdraw because of ongoing pain in his shoulder. He returned at Mugello and his best so far is P8 at the Sachsenring. Bastianini is a proven race winner, and now on arguably the most competitive bike/team package on the grid, he will be eager to build back to his winning ways when the 2023 season resumes.

Image: Supplied.

6. Miller looking to progress from solid opening KTM stint:
Making the switch to Red Bull KTM Factory Racing for 2023, Jack Miller has made a solid start to his stint with the RC16. Across the first eight rounds, he has sprint race podiums at Jerez and the Sachsenring to his credit, plus a P3 finish at the Spanish GP. Miller has been a rocket off the line onboard the KTM, but has suffered on some occasions with early race pace or a crash throughout the bout. Nonetheless, he is seventh in the 2023 MotoGP World Championship standings after eight rounds and will be sure to entertain with his character, performance and podium capabilities throughout the remaining races.

7. Aleix Espargaro eager to build off Assen podium:
2022 was a breakout season for Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) in MotoGP, scoring his first premier-class victory in Argentina and featuring in the championship frame throughout the majority of the year with consistent results and six podium finishes. He hasn’t quite been able to replicate that form in 2023, however, a P3 result at Assen marked a promising uplift entering the summer break. As racing resumes at Silverstone – a venue where the number 41 scored his first MotoGP podium with Aprilia – it will be interesting to see if Espargaro can build on that form approaching the second half of the season.

8. Just one session determines direct Q2 entry:
A development over the European summer break is the tweak to the structure of Fridays at MotoGP rounds, with now just a single premier class session timed for direct entry into qualifying two. The first MotoGP outing of a weekend will be named free practice one (FP1) and remain 45 minutes in length, but will no longer be timed for entry into Q2. The second 60-minute session on Friday will now be referred to as practice and will be the sole session timed for riders to secure a direct spot into the second qualifying session. The 30-minute session on Saturday morning will now be named free practice two, with these changes to become effective immediately at round nine of the 2023 season between 4-6 August at Silverstone. You would think teams will implement a greater extent of race focus now into FP1, and perhaps it will alleviate a slight pressure from MotoGP rookie Augusto Fernandez, who can focus more on learning the track onboard the premier-class machine in the first session instead of having the pressure to try and secure a spot into Q2 straight-up. Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see how riders and teams adapt to this slight tweak in the structure.

9. Australian charger Kelso in search of Moto3 podium:
The potential of Australia’s Joel Kelso was on display once more at Assen as he lined up second on the grid, but the CFMOTO Racing PruestelGP rider left the eighth round of the 2023 Moto3 World Championship hungry for more after taking the chequered flag in ninth position. Assen marked Kelso’s third front-row performance of the season, and an equal-best qualifying and race result in 2023. Kelso rebounded from injuries sustained in a freak post-race crash at Portimao, and has shown a red-hot pace at multiple rounds this year. Having lead laps this season, it would seem a matter of when, not if, the number 66 will stand on the world championship podium.

10. Previous winners returning as wildcards:
KTM MotoGP test rider Dani Pedrosa impressed when he returned for a wildcard appearance at Jerez, the 37-year-old concluding the weekend seventh in the Spanish GP. He has since been confirmed for another wildcard appearance at Misano, the 12th round of the season set for 8-10 September. Addionatally, a Motegi MotoGP wildcard has been confirmed for Cal Crutchlow this year, with the British rider to compete with a special livery Yamalube RS4GP Racing Team YZR-M1 later in the season in Japan. Crutchlow, the official Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP Test Team rider, will spearhead the outfit in a one-off entry at the 14th round of the 2023 world championship, set to take place between 29 September and 1 October. Crutchlow’s participation in the 2023 Japanese GP marks his first Yamaha wildcard experience since he started riding for the Yamaha Factory Racing MotoGP Test Team in 2021. He did contest in 10 GPs over the course of 2021-2022 as a replacement rider.