MotoGP 2023 Mid-Season Report
So far, so good, but October and November loom
It’s now August. Pecco Bagnaia leads a bevy of Ducati Desmos in the 2023 title chase; no surprise there. Brad Binder being the top non-Ducati challenger surprises me, but perhaps not you. All-time track records are, once again this season, getting clobbered. But the rate of attrition amongst the contestants is truly frightening.
The good news, so far, in the 2023 MotoGP season is that no riders have died [Don’t confuse the frankness of this comment with glibness. The safety of the riders is of real concern (especially on the starts) during the Sprints. -Ed.]. Sure, almost all of them have been bent, folded, spindled, or mutilated in the short, friendly first half of the championship. We’ve had eight rounds - 16 races - in 14 weeks, most of which have taken place in relatively temperate climes.
The second half of the season must have the riders and crews quaking in their Vans. 12 rounds, 24 races in 18 weeks. Four weekends in September - back-to-backs in Catalunya and Misano, a week off, then another twofer in India and Japan. October and November will separate the men from the boys. On a planet that is literally on fire, six rounds - 12 races - in seven weeks, in autoclaves. Mandalika. Buriram. Sepang. Losail.
Memo to riders: A broken bone at the wrong time this year can jeopardize a 75-point championship lead. The older riders - Aleix Espargaro and Johann Zarco foremost - may actually be risking their lives just suiting up this fall. Alex Marquez blew chow in his helmet in Texas; what’s to stop a dehydrated, overheated, overstressed rider from passing out in a long straight? Conscious riders are getting injured in disturbing numbers (see below.) How can Dorna, in good conscience, create scenarios in which an unconscious man could be traveling at 180 mph on two wheels? The season is too long, the races too close together, and the venues too hot.
MotoGP, at this point in time, is scintillating, and utterly unsustainable.
Riders Paying the Price During the ‘Easy’ Half of the 2023 Season
Enea “EBas” Bastiannini - A broken shoulder blade sustained during the first real competition of the season, the Portimao Sprint, after getting skittled by Luca Marini. Any hopes of a 2023 world championship he may have entertained lasted about three minutes.
Pol Espargaro - Eight fractures suffered during a frightening Friday crash in Portugal. Hard to imagine he will ever be the same. Along with EBas, his 2023 season (and possibly his career) was over before it started. Hasn’t been seen since. Due to return this weekend, a shadow of his former self. And a centimeter and a half shorter than he was at the end of last year.
Marc Marquez - Eight-time world champion, his career has been reduced to rubble in 2023, courtesy of the unrideable Honda RC213V. It was once said that the only man ever capable of holding Michael Jordan under 30 points a game was his coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith. Honda is filling that role as the only entity capable of making Marquez appear mortal. I can’t imagine seeing him on a Honda in 2024, contract or no. His performance at The Sachsenring this year was unspeakable.
Miguel Oliveira - Knocked out of Round 1 by Marquez, knocked out again by Quartararo at Jerez. If it weren’t for bad luck…
Joan Mir - Has spent 2023 crashing and getting injured, finding the Honda MotoGP bike a bleeding nightmare compared to the relative comfort of the Suzuki upon which he won the championship in the asterisk-laden 2020 season. Dickering with Ducati over a satellite ride beginning next year.
Alex Rins - Ate it big time during the Mugello Sprint, breaking both bones in his lower leg. He is so outta there at Honda despite being the only rider to win a GP race on a RC213V this season, taking his marbles to the troubled Yamaha factory for next year, demonstrating that discretion is the better part of valor.
Fabio Quartararo - Has become “just another rider” as Yamaha is unable to deliver a competitive bike for the 2021 world champion. Injured a toe in training, then crashed out with Johann Zarco at Assen, injuring an elbow. In 2023, it literally hurts to watch the French heartthrob pedaling as hard as he can for measly top ten finishes.
Pecco Bagnaia - Sure, he’s leading the chase at the turn, having largely avoided injury on the front nine. Nevertheless, he arrived at Mugello on crutches before winning the damned race. Tougher than he looks, he will need every bit of toughness he possesses to repeat as MotoGP world champion.
Alex Marquez - Ruptured a quad in a dust-up with Jorge Martin in Texas, damaged a ligament in his leg, and finally puked in his helmet. No 10-gallon hat for this Marquez brother. Avoided injury at Le Mans after getting tangled with Marini. Early in the season it looked like he had been reborn. Heading to Silverstone, he has once again found his level of incompetence. Totally nice guy, but not championship material in the premier class.
Fabio di Giannantonio - Dead man walking. Concussed in the gravel trap during the demolition derby in Portimao, he appears to be the weak link in the Ducati chain of excellence. Rumored to be getting replaced at Gresini by Moto2 pilot Tony Arbolino next season.
Johann Zarco - Narrowly escaped Marc Marquez’ riderless Honda during practice somewhere (Dorna has kindly removed most of the season statistics in the rollout of its new terrible website, which is replacing the old terrible website.) Not sure old Johann will survive October and November without numerous visits to the Medical Centres.
Jorge Martin - The newest supernova in the MotoGP firmament, he escaped serious injury at Portimao and survived illness at COTA. Injury-prone during much of his young career, and contending for the championship, he will need to keep his powder dry during the second half. Will ultimately become a factory Ducati prince. Think the second coming of Dani Pedrosa.
Luca Marini - Has been involved in several incidents already this year, including the biggie with Alex Marquez in France. It’s going to take more than just being Valentino Rossi’s half-brother to make young Luca a serious contender. He will have at least one DNS during the second half.
Raul Fernandez - Battling arm pump all season. Had surgery after Jerez. The future appears less than bright for the riders named Fernandez in 2023.
Augusto Fernandez - Escaped a big high side in practice at Mugello. Rumored to be heading to LCR Honda (KTM?), along with Marc Marquez, Pedro Acosta and a player to be named later. More on Acosta and Marquez below.
Takaa Nakagami - The only one of the four Honda riders to start every race this season, Takaa tends to take things, as we used to say in playground kickball games, slow and smooth. Ongoing issues with one of his hands (I’m thinking his right or his left) are likely to recur later this year.
Aleix Espargaro - Pol’s older brother injured himself in a bicycle accident while talking on his phone preparing for Mugello. He is another grizzled veteran for whom I worry during the fall. All the conditioning in the world is unlikely to prepare him for six race weekends out of seven in the heat of Asia and The Middle East.
Automatic Entry to Q2 Gets More Dicey
When the new qualifying format was introduced years ago, the 10 riders having accrued the fastest times over FP1, 2 and 3 gained automatic entry into the scrap for pole taking place in Q2. At the dawn of this season the rules changed such that only FP1 and 2 counted towards the pole battle. Effective this weekend, only FP2 will count. The effect is to compress the weekend. The riders originally had all day Friday, plus Saturday morning, to get settings and tires sorted. This year, Saturday was taken out of the equation. Now, Friday morning has also been rendered irrelevant. It appears The Powers That Be are doing everything possible to increase the pressure on riders and crews; Friday afternoons are now, in effect, the whole ball of qualifying wax. Casual fans are likely to think, “I can go to the gym on Friday morning and brunch with the wife on Saturday and not miss a thing.” Me, I don’t get it.
New Tire Pressure Regulations
Before you all go super-technical on me let me say I’m just not that interested in the chapter and verse around this particular set of new rules. They strike me as a solution in a desperate search for a problem. What I do know is that maintaining workable front tire pressure is a big issue in this sport. My take is that it has largely been outside of the rider’s control, with pressures rising in traffic, most notably on the Yamaha contingent. (Perhaps that’s true, in part, because they’re never carving clean air while leading a race.)
Apparently, some teams have been hedging, reducing tire pressures at the start in anticipation of their rising unbidden later in the day. It just seems to me that riders will almost assuredly encounter handling difficulties when their tire pressure rises, as if they can control that. Other than slowing down, what options will riders have when their pressure indicators approach the red zone? Is this some kind of back assward approach to reducing speeds? I’m just going to add it to the list of things I don’t understand about MotoGP. Perhaps one of you will be kind enough to enlighten me in the comments section below.
Silly Season in Full Swing
Pedro Acosta. Marc Marquez. Tony Arbolino. Augusto Fernandez. Frankie Morbidelli. FDG. Alex Rins. Johann Zarco. Joan Mir. Most of these guys are under contract for 2024, but all are finding their way into conversations about changing teams. Apparently KTM wants to steal LCR from the Honda fold and put Acosta and #93 on Austrian hardware. (I would dig the hell out of that.) What is undeniably true is that most of the cogent riders are trying to get away from Honda and Yamaha.
That Alex Rins is joining up with a downtrodden Yamaha team says everything you need to know about the condition of the Honda program. I think concessions are in order for the two Japanese manufacturers before the suits in Asaka and Iwata start toying with the notion of getting the hell out of MotoGP altogether, putting an end, for now, to their recent and complete humiliation.
2022 Race Winners
- Silverstone – Pecco Bagnaia
- Red Bull Ring – Pecco
- Catalunya – Fabio Quartararo
- Misano – Pecco
- Motegi – Jack Miller
- Mandalika – Miguel Oliveira
- Phillip Island – Alex Rins
- Buriram – Miguel Oliveira
- Sepang – Pecco
- Lusail – Enea Bastiannini
- Valencia – Alex Rins
My 2023 Pre-Season Picks, once more, with feeling
- Moto3: Jaume Masia
- Moto2: Pedro Acosta
- MotoGP: Pecco Bagnaia
What Does It All Mean?
In any other year, one would expect one of the three leaders - Bagnaia, Martin and Bezzecchi - to finish on the top step of the championship podium. Such a mild prediction is compromised by two factors - the brutal calendar, and the fact that Bagnaia came back from 91 points down at midseason last year to win the title. His resurrection was aided in no small part by the complete collapse of Fabio Quartararo. While no such face plant is foreseeable from the top three, a serious injury at the wrong time (read: after September) is a definite possibility. Such being the case, the list of contenders for the 2023 title must be expanded to include Binder, Zarco and Marini. Two of these guys have never won a premier class race, yet they must be considered possibles, if only by the bookmakers. Of these three, Zarco is the longest shot, given his age and history. But it would not surprise me to see him on the podium at season’s end.
Lest the ghost of Spiro Agnew accuse me of being a nattering nabob of negativism, I still love watching these guys do their thing. The best racing of most weekends is the Moto3 tilt, where 12-man lead groups are a common sight and a rider can leave the last turn in the lead and find himself in P8 heading to Turn 2. And although I’m happy to criticize riders as regards career choices, there is no questioning their courage, skill or motivation. They are the best the sport has ever seen.
Assuming I don’t get eighty-sixed by the suits in Toronto in the meantime, I will be back at season’s end with a recap of 2023. Keep the shiny side up.