Another MotoGP season came to an end at the weekend and whilst Jorge Martin’s crash meant the final race of the season wasn’t quite the cliffhanger we’d hoped for, Francesco Bagnaia delivered a champion’s performance to take the race win and wrap up his second successive title.
Cool, calm and collected
Ducati’s Bagnaia is the epitome of the phrase cool, calm and collected. The Italian seems to lack the fiery, Latin temperament of some of his compatriots, both previous and present, and instead goes about his business in a very calm manner. He seems to take everything in his stride and never ever seems phased by the high-speed, high-pressured cauldron he’s living in.
Of course, coming into the final round at Valencia with a 21-point lead helped his cause considerably and meant the odds were in his favour. But there was undoubted pressure to deliver a second premier-class title and 15th in practice cranked that pressure up further. However, he took advantage of the extra time in Q1 and, after easily progressing into Q2, duly qualified on the front row.
Bagnaia’s priority on every weekend was the feature race and big points on Sunday, rather than Saturday’s Sprint and that’s how it panned out again. Despite seeing his lead cut to 14 points after Martin’s ninth Sprint win of the season, when Bagnaia looked far from comfortable, he remained unflustered and grabbed the lead immediately in the final race.
Martin’s mistake on the third lap, which dropped him back to eighth, made his life easier and he duly went on to take the win, resisting the late challenge of fellow Ducati rider Fabio di Giannantonio.
Martin may have taken more Sprint wins, nine to four, but in the feature Grand Prix races, it was Bagnaia who came out on top by seven to four and the bigger haul of points on the days that counted the most ultimately proved pivotal.
Bagnaia’s calm demeanour means he won’t go down as one of the most charismatic or entertaining World champions but he’s certainly one of the most intelligent and calculating and that’s why he’ll again be the man to beat in 2024.
So near, yet so far for Martin
Pramac Racing’s Martin certainly falls into the charismatic and entertaining category and when it comes to the on-track activity, it’s clear he’s giving it 100% every time.
That was his attitude, and more, at the final round and with a deficit to make up, he didn’t hide his strategy of either winning or crashing.
He ended up doing both. Having made the Sprint races his own in the second half of the season, winning seven of the last nine races, he again delivered the victory in the shorter format, but it still meant he went into the final race 14 points adrift and knowing that even if he won, Bagnaia had the luxury of being able to finish as low as fifth and still be champion.
Neither of those were a formality given the severe competitiveness of MotoGP but when Martin got sucked into the slipstream of Bagnaia early in Sunday’s feature race, he missed his braking point and nearly took both himself and his Italian rival out of the race.
Dropping down the order, there were plenty of laps left to get back into the lead, but his impatience ultimately got the better of him.
An over-ambitious overtaking manoeuvre on former champion Marc Marquez, saw them both crash out on lap six of 27, an ignominious end to an otherwise superb season which had seen him do wonders to whittle down Bagnaia’s lead, which at one point stood at 61 points, as he fought to become the first rider from an independent team to win the MotoGP title.
He could point to several races where it went wrong particularly Indonesia where he crashed out of the lead and Qatar where a duff tyre kept him down in tenth. However, Bagnaia’s experience in the premier class counted and was enough to edge him out but Martin can look back on 2023 with pride.
He became a regular race winner and doubled his career haul of MotoGP podiums so will undoubtedly be amongst the favourites again next year.
Best of the rest
Marco Bezzechi (Mooney VR46 Racing Ducati) and KTM’s Brad Binder were the best of the rest during 2023 and ended the year in third and fourth respectively in the final championship standings.
Bezzecchi was a title challenger for the first half of the season but several average races in the second half saw him fall away and he ran out of steam during the flyaway races. Indeed, he only scored one podium in the last seven rounds, third in the Sprint race in Indonesia, with India in September the scene of his last victory.
In just his second year in the class though, he went from 14th overall in 2022 to third in 2023 so that highlights the strides he’s made. He’ll have learned a lot from the experience and will be an even stronger threat next year. So too will Binder especially as KTM continue to develop at a rate quicker than their rivals.
The South African took two Sprint race victories in the first four rounds but never made it on to the top step again although he should have won in Valencia only to run wide mid-race and drop back to sixth. He eventually finished fourth only to be promoted to third after di Giannantonio fell foul to the front pressure tyre rule and was relegated to fourth.
Binder was a constant thorn in the side of the Ducati riders and, this time around, both he and the KTM were far more consistent than previous seasons. Rarely out of the top six, it’s only a matter of time before the combination of man and machine not only become regular race winners but also serious title challengers.
Second in the 2018 Moto 3 Championship and a race winner in Moto 2, di Giannantonio only took one top ten finish in his maiden MotoGP campaign last year, ending the season with just 24 points and down in 20th overall. This year has been considerably different.
A top ten finisher straightaway, di Giannantonio was the one who found himself without a seat when Gresini Racing signed Marquez but the final third of the season saw him excel and end the year as the surprise package.
The final seven rounds saw the Italian not only finish every feature race inside the top ten but take four top four positions, including a maiden podium in Australia and then a first ever MotoGP victory in Qatar.
He looked to have the pace to beat Bagnaia in Valencia’s Sprint race, eventually closely following his fellow Ducati rider home in sixth, and then took second in Sunday’s main race, only to be hit with the aforementioned penalty.
Having clearly found the sweet spot with the Ducati, after hours of work with crew chief Frankie Carchedi, it was astounding that the 25-year old was facing a year on the sidelines. But on Monday this week, it was finally announced he’d be remaining in MotoGP in 2024 with Mooney VR46 signing him for the year ahead, common sense prevailing at last.
Mixed final weekend at Honda for Marquez
Marquez’ 11-year tenure with Repsol Honda ended in a similar manner to his last couple of seasons with the team who he won six MotoGP world titles with between 2013 and 2019 – mixed. A brilliant third in the Sprint race was followed by the crash with Martin and it all meant he ended the year in 14th overall, one place lower than 2022.
The Spaniard hasn’t won a race since 2021 but his talent remains the same, a view held by the entire paddock, and that could be seen by the fact the next best placed Honda in the Sprint race was 18th. The Honda is a far cry from the bike it once used to be, but Marquez continued to get results that no one else could.
Of course, it’s all come to an end now with a switch to Gresini Racing for 2024 where he’ll line up alongside brother Alex, who took two Sprint victories this year and scored almost double the points of his illustrious brother.
It’s widely agreed Marc is the much better rider of the two and will get back to winning ways on the Ducati, even if he is on the 2023-spec machine.
He got his first test of the machine at Valencia on Tuesday and within ten laps was running in the top three, eventually ending the day in fourth, just 0.171s adrift of the pace setting Maverick Vinales (Aprilia Racing).
That was only 0.149s slower than what he managed all weekend on the Honda and it sent out a clear warning to the rest of the grid.
Marquez’ place at Honda has been taken by Luca Marini who finished eighth overall this year with the Italian moving out of the comfort zone of the VR46 team, home for the last six seasons.
Stepping out of the shadow of big brother Valentino Rossi, Marini feels ready to embrace not only the challenge of turning Honda’s fortunes around but also spearheading a factory team for the first time.
A two-year deal will help his cause – and the early indications from Tuesday’s test were promising – but he’s not the only one to switch from Ducati to Honda with Johann Zarco, second in Valencia and fifth overall in the standings, switching from the Pramac team to LCR Honda.
Franco Morbidelli has replaced Zarco at Pramac as he looks to get his MotoGP career back on track. Second overall for Yamaha in 2020, the Italian has subsequently finished 17th, 19th and 13th so it’s undoubtedly a make-or-break year for the 2017 Moto 2 World Champion.
Yamaha have taken Alex Rins from Honda to ride their M1 alongside 2021 Champion Fabio Quartararo whilst a final big change sees Pedro Acosta make the step up to the premier class with the Tech 3 GasGas team.
All eyes will be watching the 19-year old’s progress but having already won the Moto 3 and Moto 2 titles in 2021 and 2023, it’s widely anticipated he’ll impress.
Lowes bowes out
Finally, a word for Brit Sam Lowes who bowed out of Grand Prix racing with a seventh-place finish in the Moto 2 race.
Although he never managed to win the title (he perhaps should), Lowes took ten wins and 26 podiums in the class, his best years coming in 2020 (third overall) and 2015 and 2021 (fourth) and that makes him the most successful British rider in Grand Prix racing since Barry Sheene.
The World Superbike Championship now beckons where he’ll continue with the MarcVDS Racing team on a Ducati.
Jake Dixon took sixth at Valencia, which meant he ended the year in a fourth overall in a season that saw him take his first Grand Prix victories. After winning at Catalunya in early September though, he never stepped on the podium again and with Spanish hotshot Fermin Aldeguer winning in Valencia, his fourth win in a row, the 18-year old grabbed third from Dixon in the final standings by eight points.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for almost 20 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News, Classic Racer and Road Racing Ireland, as well as being a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport.
He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including PBM Ducati, John McGuinness, KTS Racing and Jackson Racing. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races working with the race organisation, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing the TV and radio broadcasting teams with statistical information.