The 2022 edition of the MotoGP World Championship saw one of the tightest Riders Championship battles in recent years with Ducati’s Francesco Bagnaia pipping reigning Champion Fabio Quartararo by a mere 17 points.
Four Grand Prix (GP) wins in a row, stretching from Assen to San Marino, in the second half of the season tilted the title fight towards the Italian rider. This Ducati purple patch was compounded by a run of poor form for Quartararo, who could not muster a single point in three of the last six GPs, surrendering his crown at the final race in Valencia.
When the preseason tests in 2023 revealed that the Yamaha machine was nowhere close in performance to the mighty Ducatis, many considered the Riders Championship to be a foregone conclusion.
Bagnaia’s dominant Sprint and Grand Prix double during the first race weekend at Portimao in Portugal further strengthened the argument. Quartararo finished eighth in what turned out to be one of his more decent results as the season progressed.
Enea Bastianini, the second rider at the factory Ducati team, and presumably the closest rival to Bagnaia, suffered a horrific accident during the Sprint race at the Portimao track, with a broken shoulder blade forcing him out of the first five GPs.
The customer Ducati teams, mainly Pramac and the VR46 racing team, which run a previous generation of the factory team’s bikes, turned out to be the closest contenders to Bagnaia.
Pramac’s Jorge Martin, who was overlooked for the second factory Ducati seat during the off-season, and VR46 team’s Marco Bezzecchi are the closest to Bagnaia in points after 12 rounds of the 2023 Championship.
The Catalunya Mishap
Bagnaia seemed to be heading for a comfortable expedition to his second Riders championship after winning four out of seven races between April and August while also finishing second in Germany and Great Britain.
But the tale changed in Catalunya. Bagnaia looked set for another healthy haul of points after starting the race from pole position, his sixth of the season. The Grand Prix started with a five-man pileup at turn one, but Bagnaia sped into the lead, untroubled by the melee behind.
At the second corner though, the Italian lost control of his bike and was thrown into the air with the chasing pack right behind him. KTM’s Brad Binder was too close to the spot to avoid the stricken Bagnaia and the South African’s bike ran over the legs of the defending world champion.
Bagnaia was immediately taken to the medical centre and he sat out the race, which restarted after a red flag was brought out.
Initial conversations around the paddock implied that the Championship leader might have to sit out a couple of races before being fit enough to race again.
But Bagnaia was not to be kept out for long, as he returned the following weekend in San Marino, qualifying a highly impressive third, adding a double podium in the Sprint race and the Grand Prix.
Despite moving into second place during the Grand Prix race, ahead of title rival Bezzecchi, Bagnaia dropped farther away from the top two with each passing lap as fatigue kicked in his already bruised body.
Martin’s chance to take the initiative
Despite the fighting resurgence from Bagnaia at San Marino, it was a weekend to remember for Martin as he racked up 37 points -- the most available on a single GP weekend.
The Spaniard has cut down Bagnaia’s lead at the top of the championship from 66 points to 36 after the latter’s Catalunya GP crash.
With just nine races remaining in the championship, Martin will have to maximize the opportunities he gets before Bagnaia becomes fully fit.
The Indian Grand Prix, which will be held this week for the first time, will be the foremost test for Martin and Pramac as the riders are set to decipher the track for the first time through the practice sessions and qualifying.
With very little to separate the Ducati teams in terms of pace, the ability of the rider to extract the maximum out of the bike at the new track will be the deciding aspect.
Martin’s next few results will determine if MotoGP will get a fourth new World Champion in four years or if Pecco Bagnaia will reign supreme again.
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