Winners, losers, saints and sinners: MotoGP’s 2023 quarter-time report card
By Matt Clayton
Thursday 25th May, 2023 - 4:02pm
With five of this season’s 20 rounds in the books, who has flown – and who has flopped – in the 2023 MotoGP world championship?
The French Grand Prix represented more than just the 1000th Grand Prix in the history of the world motorcycle championship; round five of the MotoGP season doubled as the quarter-time mark of the 2023 campaign, with the season reduced to 20 Grands Prix following last month’s cancellation of the inaugural Kazakhstan Grand Prix set for July.
With 25 percent of MotoGP’s longest-ever season – thanks to the introduction of sprint races at every round – in the books, who has shone and who has stumbled so far in 2023? Who are the standouts, who has underwhelmed, and what direction might the narrative take once racing resumes at the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello from June 9-11?
This is Speedcafe’s quarter-season MotoGP report card, running the rule over our winners – and losers – so far in 2023.
Winner: Marco Bezzecchi
A fast young Italian with Moto2 pedigree making waves on a second-string Ducati in his sophomore MotoGP season? If that sounds familiar, it should; in 2022, that was Enea Bastianini, who won two of the first five Grands Prix for his maiden premier-class successes, and took four wins overall en route to finishing an unexpected third in the title chase.
Fast-forward 12 months, and ‘Bez’ looks set to pick up where ‘The Beast’ left off; riding the Ducati GP22 piloted by Pecco Bagnaia to win last year’s crown, the Mooney VR46 young gun opened his MotoGP account in Argentina in round two, and added a second win in France to sit a solitary point behind Bagnaia at the top of the standings.
Bezzecchi won’t be rewarded for his breakout campaign with a seat at Ducati’s factory squad, with Bagnaia and Bastianini locked up on multi-year deals. But there’s every chance the ice-cool Rimini rider could provide some headaches for Ducati’s A-team, if the Italian outfit persists with its penchant of avoiding intra-squad orders for its riders to play nice at the front of the field.
Loser: Pecco Bagnaia
The same Bagnaia who has won two feature races and two sprints already this season to sit atop the championship table? Yes, if only because that sliver of a margin over Bezzecchi as best of the rest should be a chasm, such has been the pace shown by the reigning world champion this year.
Similarly to 2022, when Bagnaia overcame a 91-point deficit midway through the season to win his maiden crown, the Italian’s speed has him in a class of one when he stays on the bike … which he didn’t in Argentina when he was running second in the feature race, didn’t in Austin when he was leading comfortably one round later, and didn’t at Le Mans when he and Aprilia’s Maverick Vinales came to blows on circuit (and in the trackside gravel trap) after crashing out five laps in.
Conservatively, Bagnaia has squandered 60-plus points already this season; it may not matter in the long run, but Ducati’s main man still has his foibles despite his ferocious, class-leading raw pace.
Winner: Jack Miller
Miller looked to have backed the wrong horse when he left the championship-winning Ducati squad for KTM after pre-season testing had the Austrian squad mired in the back-half of the timesheets, but the Australian kept his head down and morale up, and the results have quickly followed.
KTM’s resource and ambition, allied to Miller’s knowledge gleaned from five years of riding for Ducati, have combined to see the 28-year-old and factory teammate Brad Binder emerge as the riders most likely to challenge Ducati at the front of the field, no matter the characteristics of the track.
With a multi-year contract in his pocket for the first time in his nine-year MotoGP tenure and first-time fatherhood just around the corner in August, Miller is secure, relaxed, fitter than ever and reveling in the workload demanded and trust installed by his new employers.
Yes, there’ll be weekends where his career-long penchant for chewing through tyres comes back to bite him like it did in France, but a pair of podiums inside the first five weekends is well ahead of expectations.
Loser: Fabio Quartararo
Quartararo, the 2021 champion, joins successor Bagnaia in the ‘loser’ category so far this season, and there’s little room for debate in this instance.
With the satellite RNF Yamahas off the grid in 2023, it’s left to Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli to fly the flag for Yamaha against an armada of Ducatis, rapidly-improving KTMs and ascendant Aprilias, with Morbidelli’s inexplicable lack of pace for a third straight season making it hard for the Frenchman to ascertain exactly where he – and his bike – stands.
Quartararo has just one podium to show for 10 races across five rounds, and has only once finished within five seconds of the victor in five feature hit-outs, a chastening come-down for a rider who has won eight times in the past two years.
After qualifying 13th and finishing seventh at his home race at Le Mans, Quartararo revealed that he’s resorted to utilising his 2021 bike set-up to find more speed and – perhaps more importantly – restore the confidence that’s been sapped by seeing a chance for a second title extinguished already.
“The championship … I don’t want to think about it, because I think we are way too far to think about it,” was his frank assessment after France. No argument from us…
Winner: Marc Marquez
Marquez’s past four seasons have been such an injury-ravaged mess that the occasional moments at the sharp end when his body and machinery allows offer a chance for nostalgia, while shaking your head at his brilliance and insatiable appetite for competition.
Consider France in round five, where he qualified second on the grid after not riding for seven weeks and three rounds with a fractured hand suffered in the Portugal season-opener (where he took a stunning pole), and then came within a lap of finishing second in the feature race before crashing, fighting a horde of Ducatis on his ill-handling Honda using a new Kalex chassis he’d never even raced. All while riding at perhaps 75 per cent fit, and with teammate and 2020 world champion Joan Mir having twice the number of crashes (10) than he’s scored points (five) on the sister Repsol Honda so far this season.
Has Marquez’s level dropped? Not a chance. Can he sustain it, given the machinery he’s riding and his medical history? That question, for a rider who’s not managed to string together more than six consecutive race starts since 2021, isn’t as easy to answer.
Where to even begin? Marquez’s Double Long Lap Penalty for skittling Aprilia’s Miguel Oliveira in Portugal – and a subsequent amendment to that sanction after an injured Marquez was unable to serve it at the following round in Argentina that was later annulled by MotoGP’s Court of Appeal – is just the tip of the iceberg this season, with consistent inconsistency the only constant across five races of stewards’ decisions that have been akin to a lottery.
Jorge Martin loses the front of his Ducati in Austin in round three on the opening lap and wipes out Alex Marquez … no penalty. Marquez runs too hot into Turn 4 on the opening lap at Le Mans in round five and forces Johann Zarco wide, who compromises the line of Aleix Espargaro’s Aprilia and KTM’s Brad Binder on the outside? A three-place grid drop for the following race at Mugello for Marquez, who was deemed to be “overly ambitious” and at fault for “the resulting chain reaction disturbance caused to other riders”, none of whom crashed out of the race.
There are countless other examples this season, so many that the riders were left exasperated after chief steward and three-time world champion Freddie Spencer attended the rider’s safety commission meeting in France, where a quest for clarity was only met with more confusion.
The most experienced rider on the grid, Espargaro, could only exhale. “I don’t want to talk more about the stewards,” the Aprilia rider shrugged. “From today until (the season finale in) Valencia, please don’t ask me. I will not respond, because there is no meaning …”.
Winner: Sprint races
The sudden introduction of sprint races – a half Grand Prix distance race for points on the Saturday of Grand Prix weekends – wasn’t handled well by Dorna, with most MotoGP riders blindsided by the decision to double the number of race starts (and subsequent risk) for 2023 when it was announced at the Austrian Grand Prix last August. But five rounds into the season, doubling the number of races has proven to be a hit with the riders and fans, at least for the time being.
The jury remains out whether 40 race starts across a season is too much of a good thing, and the risks taken on the opening lap of any MotoGP start mean the danger of a riders’ championship being decided by injury and luck as much as talent and speed remains ever-present. But it’s hard to argue with the spectacle so far.
The first instalment of the sprint in Portimao felt like the last lap of a longer-race thriller for all 12 laps, while the Jerez fight for the win between Bagnaia and KTM pair Binder and Miller was arguably the most captivating 18 minutes of motorsport anywhere this year.
Sprints are proving to be decisive in shaping the championship picture, too; Bagnaia’s Sunday feature race profligacy detailed above has been mitigated by the Italian scoring 44 points (47 per cent of his season tally of 94) in sprint races, while closest rival Bezzecchi has proven to be more of a Sunday man, scoring just 18 per cent (17 points) of his 93 points in Saturday sprints.Sign up here to receive our daily newsletters and breaking news alerts, sent straight to your inbox.
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