Features 24 Oct 2023

Top 10: AUS MotoGP 2023 moments

Breaking down key topics at the latest Phillip Island outing.

With the 2023 Australian MotoGP complete, there are a number of pivotal developments and standout rider results to be reflected upon. CycleOnline looks at the Top 10 moments that emerged from the 16th round of the 2023 MotoGP World Championship at Phillip Island.

Image: Supplied.

1. Persistence prevails for victorious Zarco:
After 120 races, Prima Pramac Racing’s Johann Zarco was finally able to backflip again following a thrilling victory at Phillip Island. The Frenchman emerged on top in what was another Australian GP classic, with the race going right down to the wire between himself, teammate Jorge Martin, championship leader Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team), Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) and Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing). The double Moto2 world champion received his share of criticism for having not won a premier-class race, but the outcome at Phillip Island was a testament to the 33-year-olds perseverance. Also of note, Zarco confirmed ahead of the weekend that he not be joining the Repsol Honda Team next year, sticking with his two-year contract with the LCR Honda Team that commences in 2024.

2. Just one lap short for Martin with soft:
After crashing out of the lead at the Indonesian GP prior, the fire of redemption was clear in the eyes of Martin at Phillip Island. The Spaniard posted a blistering new all-time lap record of a 1m27.246s in qualifying, and was arguably the favourite ahead of the Australian GP that afternoon. The number 89 made the bold gamble of choosing a soft rear tyre, and throughout the opening stages of the race was able to open up a comfortable buffer out front. Martin looked to be managing the race well, at times enjoying a gap of over three seconds, but that all changed in the closing stages. Throughout the final quarter of the race, Martin’s gap was drastically reduced, holding just a four-tenth lead into the last lap. The Ducati rider held the lead until turn four when teammate Zarco made a decisive move for victory, and ultimately was pushed back to fifth at the time of the checkers. Martin – one of three riders to use the soft rear in the race – has vowed not to take any more gambles in the remaining four rounds, now facing a 27-point deficit to points leader Bagnaia. Of note, 15th-placed Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) and Pol Espargaro (GasGas Factory Racing Tech3), in 18th, didn’t have much luck with the soft rear either.

3. Weather turns the schedule around:
Phillip Island is known for its rapidly changing and at times adverse weather, with the 2023 Australian MotoGP copping the brunt of this. On Friday, riders and fans were greeted with near-perfect conditions, but it was the inclement weather forecast on Sunday that was the concern, which saw the full-length 27-lap MotoGP encounter brought forward, effectively trading places with Saturday’s sprint race. A further schedule change was made on Saturday, pushing each of the races scheduled on Sunday forward an hour in a bid to beat the worst of the conditions. The Moto3 race on Sunday was, fortunately, able to go ahead, albeit in wet and windy conditions, with the Moto2 outing brought to a premature end due to the conditions, before the decision was ultimately made to cancel the MotoGP sprint – the wind being the greatest area of concern.

4. Composed Bagnaia extends out the front:
Across the last two rounds, whenever Bagnaia has been on the back foot, he has been able to rebound in a convincing fashion. Having to participate in Q1 once more, Bagnaia transferred to the second session and scored a solid P3 on the grid. The Italian looked to be struggling for pace throughout the first half of the race, however, kept his composure and remained in contention with the group fighting for the podium. He was ultimately able to pass his title-rival Martin on the last lap and score a crucial second place, just 0.201s from victory. While the momentum has been with the Prima Pramac Racing rider over the previous rounds, Bagnaia has been able to capitalize on mistakes and still extend his advantage out front, now 27 points ahead of this weekend’s round in Thailand.

5. Dream weekend for Kelso at home:
What a weekend it was for Australia’s Joel Kelso at Phillip Island! The CFMoto Pruestel GP rider was consistently fast and able to set times without the need for a slipstream, ending practice inside the top three. The number 66 went one better in qualifying to line-up second on the grid, before the heavens opened on Sunday. The wet conditions did not deter the 20-year-old, and he was able to remain in the victory fight for much of the race, ultimately scoring his career-first podium in the Moto3 World Championship with P3. To make matters even sweeter, it was announced that he had secured a position on the grid for next season for the BOE Motorsports team, alongside David Munoz for 2024.

Image: Supplied.

6. Miller engaging with the fans:
After finishing second in practice on Friday, hopes were high for Australia’s Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) to be right in contention. Unfortunately, a run-in with Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) disrupted his second run in qualifying two, leaving him unable to improve in the closing stages of the session. Nonetheless, he made a rapid start from eighth on the grid come Saturday afternoon, reaching as high as P3 on the opening lap, but was shuffled back in those that followed. He ultimately crossed the line in P7 at the conclusion of the bout, drawing both positives and areas to improve from the outing. What really spoke volumes about Miller though, was his genuine effort to connect with the fans following the cancellation of the sprint on Sunday. In the wet and windy conditions, the Australian led the way for riders to cross the track on the Gardner straight and go and interact with the spectators, handing out various bits of his racing gear to those on the other side of the fence. It was a nice touch of class from the Australian, despite the weekend not unfolding as he would have liked.

7. Diggia right in the shop window with first podium:
Following the announcement of Marc Marquez to Gresini Racing next year, the future of Di Giannantonio became increasingly uncertain. However, since it was confirmed he would not remain with the Ducati-equipped team next year, the Italian has hit a timely run of form. Off the back of a P4 finish at Mandalika, the number 49 delivered a commendable performance at Phillip Island to score his first-ever MotoGP podium, less than half a second from victory in the 27-lap bout. With LCR-Honda bound Zarco confirming he would not move to Repsol Honda next year, on paper Diggia would have to be a key contender to take the seat, especially considering his recent run of form. However, if the Repsol opportunity goes to another rider currently contracted to another team, such as Crypto Data RNF team’s Miguel Oliveira, then you would think Di Giannantonio would then be the favourite to slide into the newly vacant spot.

8. Acosta goes down on sighting lap:
While Red Bull KTM Ajo’s Pedro Acosta has been dominant throughout much of the second half of Moto2 this year, Phillip Island overall was not his strongest showing. Finishing practice fifth fastest, the highly-rated Spaniard was again P5 in qualifying two. The tricky wet and windy conditions on Sunday threw a spanner in the works, and unfortunately for Acosta, he crashed on the sighting lap, at turn four. His team delivered a commendable effort to get his bike ready by the time of the race, but he was forced to start at the back of the grid. Acosta made solid progress throughout the encounter, reaching P9 by the time that the race was red-flagged due to the weather conditions. Crucially, as less than two-thirds of the full race was completed, half-points were awarded following the decision to not restart the race. While perhaps that limited how far Acosta could have raced up the field, it also limited the points lost to race-winner and closest championship rival Tony Arbolino (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team), the gap a healthy 56 points. Notably, Acosta wasn’t the only key contender to fall on a sighting lap at Phillip Island, as in Moto3, title challenger Daniel Holgado (Red Bull KTM Tech3) and Mandalika winner Diogo Moreira (MT Helmets MSI) both fell victim to the conditions, prior race start.

9. So close for Sasaki once again:
Considering the pace of Ayumu Sasaki (Liqui Moly Husqvarna Intact GP) and how often he has featured in the leading battle on the last lap, it’s hard to think that the Japanese talent has not yet won a race in 2023. Phillip Island was another case of ‘oh so close’ for the number 71. From pole position, Sasaki appeared as one of the smoothest riders in the lead group, taking the lead on lap 16 as Adrian Fernandez (Leopard Racing) went down. Entering turn 10 on the last lap, Sasaki left the door open enough for Oncu to slide past in a decisive move, stealing the win in the closing stages from the Husqvarna rider. While disappointed to miss out on victory, Sasaki was able to claw back solid points on championship leader Jaume Masia (Leopard Racing), who splashed to P8 in the encounter.

10. Dominance from Arbolino in soaked Moto2 encounter:
After starting the season with two victories, and four podiums out of the first five races, Arbolino’s second half of the 2023 campaign hasn’t been all smooth sailing. A P2 finish in India marked a positive uplift, but he wasn’t looking particularly strong in the dry conditions at Phillip Island. That said, he was nothing short of dominant in the rain. Arbolino survived what were chaotic opening laps in the soaked Moto2 encounter, and had a 15.08s advantage by lap nine when the red flags came out. Unfortunately, half points awarded meant he was unable to fully capitalise, and he still faces a very steep task to claw back 56 points on championship leader Acosta with four rounds remaining.