With just one round to go, the MotoGP World Championship will be decided at Valencia next month and with a 23-point lead, Ducati, with Francesco Bagnaia on board, are all set to claim their second rider’s title and their first since 2007.
Bagnaia on the brink
Mid way through the season, you’d have got long odds on Francesco Bagnaia being in the driving seat ahead of the final round with the Italian having a more than mixed first half of the year. It wasn’t disastrous, as wins in Spain and Italy showed, but four DNF’s from the first ten races and 15th place at round two put him a long way adrift.
However, since the mid-season break, he’s been a revelation and that, coupled with Fabio Quartararo’s poor run, has seen him not only overcome a massive 91-point deficit but go into the final round needing just a 13th place finish to win his first MotoGP world title.
In the nine races that have followed since his crash in Germany, Bagnaia has won five, finished second once and taken two thirds, his only blemish coming in Japan when he crashed out. That form is deserving of a world championship and if he achieves that. it will be his first in the premier class and comes after coming second last year. It’s clear he’s taken to life as a factory Ducati rider and the pressure that comes with it for an Italian rider.
What’s been particularly impressive has been how he’s dealt with the disappointment earlier in the season. It would have been easy to crumble but both he and the team responded and taken full advantage of the situations that have arisen, and the opportunities presented. If he can lift the title, he’ll be the toast of Bologna who have been striving for a second rider’s title ever since Casey Stoner won the championship back in 2007. Few would have thought it would have taken so long.
As Bagnaia’s stock has arisen, the opposite’s been the case for reigning world champion Quartararo and his campaign has unravelled in the second half of the season, the catalyst being his crash in Holland back in June and the subsequent long lap penalty at the following round in Britain.
Of course, it’s easy to pinpoint these two exact events and a lot more issues can be thrown into the pot to identify all the causes, but the fact remains, in the nine races since then – and the nine races where Bagnaia’s been in the ascendancy – the Frenchman hasn’t won a race and has only been on the podium twice, the second of those coming in Malaysia at the weekend.
One of Quartararo’s biggest problems is that he’s essentially a one-man band at Yamaha and no one else can get anywhere near the levels he can on the M1 Yamaha. Development of the bike has stalled. When everything clicks, he’s a potential race winner but, more often than not, it’s papering over the cracks and he’s having to ride over the limit to succeed.
That’s seen by the fact that none of the four other riders who’ve ridden the M1 this year have come anywhere close to the Frenchman’s pace or results. Quartararo’s 235 points compares to the combined total of 73 by Franco Morbidelli (the next top scorer on 36!), the now retired Andrea Dovizioso, class rookie Darryn Binder and test rider Cal Crutchlow.
That’s a damning statistic for the Japanese manufacturer and speaks volumes of the work they need to do with the M1 over the winter if they’re to regain their title.
Close but not quite
Like Quartararo, Aleix Espargaro’s championship challenge has run out of steam, especially in the recent ‘fly-away’ races with a best finish of ninth coming in the four races held in Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand.
To say the Spaniard wears his heart on his sleeve would be an understatement, but whilst he’ll be disappointed to have fallen away, both he and the Aprilia factory only need to look at how far they’ve come to realise this year’s championship has been a resounding success. With team-mate Maverick Vinales also on his way back up, the future’s bright for everyone connected with Aprilia.
The same applies to Enea Bastianini who, in his second year in MotoGP has taken four race wins with third place in the championship still very much on the cards. Bastianini has been rewarded with a berth in the factory Ducati team for 2023 with improved consistency the clear aim. His race-winning pace is clear for all to see but he’s also had several finishes in the 8th-12th bracket and if he can turn those into thirds and fourths, he’ll be a serious title threat next year.
After missing six races, almost a third of the season, Marc Marquez returned to action at the Grand Prix of Aragon last month and whilst still not back to his best as he builds his fitness back up, he’s breathed new life back into Honda’s campaign.
With Marquez having missed so much track time over the last two years, the RC213V has clearly fallen behind in development with the bike performing significantly better at some circuits than others and it was vital the Spaniard returned before the end of the season to give the manufacturer a clear direction to work towards over the winter.
Thankfully, Marquez’ right arm had recovered sufficiently from the fourth operation on the humerous to allow him to return and pole position in Japan was the Marquez of old. And nowhere was that shown more than at the Australian Grand Prix a week later when he finished a close second to Alex Rins to record his 100th premier class podium.
Like Quartararo at Yamaha, Honda needs Marquez and despite missing all those races, he’s still, comfortably, the leading Honda rider in the series (113 points to the next best score of 56 by team-mate Pol Espargaro).
The final few races of 2022 will have been a terrific boost to Marquez as he knows his GP career is very much alive and well with a strong chance he’ll be back to his previous heights next year. His return is also a boost for the MotoGP series as they need a fit and healthy, and fiercely competitive, Marquez back at the sharp end.
Since announcing their shock withdrawal from the series back in May, Suzuki’s fortunes have suffered with Joan Mir suffering injury and Alex Rins having a dip in form. But the superb Phillip Island circuit saw them back at their best with Rins taking a brilliant win.
If that’s to be their final success, then what a way to go out. It was, quite simply one of the best GPs ever with just eight tenths of a second covering the first seven riders at the chequered flag . Currently the best circuit on the calendar, it was a triumphant return to the venue for the first time 2019 (due to the covid pandemic) and no-one enjoyed it more than Rins who sliced through the field on the GSX-RR from tenth on the grid.
Carving lines that no one else could, the handling qualities of the Suzuki were again prominent whilst the race showed that a circuit can see all manufacturers be competitive with the leading group seeing all but Yamaha represented. The most telling point though was that the race illustrated just how much of a loss Suzuki are going to be, come the end of the season.
It’s been a mixed time for the British riders across the three classes, but the shining light continues to be Jake Dixon with the Ashby-based rider having finished in the top four in the last four Moto2 races.
The two recent of those were two more third place finishes, at Phillip Island and Sepang, which makes it six podiums in the total for the season and Dixon must be admired and commended for what he’s achieved this year.
It was, arguably, a make-or-break season, his fourth in Moto2, for Dixon and as well as having the speed all year, he’s also found a happy home at the GASGAS Aspar team. He made mistakes at the beginning of the season throwing away potential podiums, or even wins, but he’s learnt from them with the team giving him the support he needs. All that’s eluding him is a win.
Fellow Moto2 rider Sam Lowes has, on the other hand, endured a tough time since dislocating his shoulder at Silverstone back in August. Missing a number of races, he’s only scored four points since then and unlike Dixon, whose set to stay where he is in 2023, Lowes’ future is far less certain.
Last but by no means least, the British national anthem was playing once more in Malaysia last weekend with John McPhee claiming a superb victory in the Moto3 race. Due to the age limit of 28, it’s the Scot’s final year in the class and after an injury-plagued season, it was an emotional, and popular, victory for all concerned.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 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, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information