Aragon MotoGP Thursday Preview - What Pecco Bagnaia Has To Worry About, Marc Marquez Makes A Return, And HRC's Secret Tryst With Kalex

With three races coming up in three weeks, confidence is key. The next couple of months are going to be grueling, with six races in eight weeks, and everything still to play for. Heading into the logistically nightmarish Aragon-Motegi-Buriram triple header is a lot easier if you have the feeling that you have the wind in your sails.

That puts Pecco Bagnaia in a very strong position, you would think. The Italian took his fourth victory in a row two weeks ago at Misano, the first rider to do that since Marc Marquez in 2019, and the first Ducati rider every to manage that.

He has closed the gap to championship leader and title rival Fabio Quartararo from 91 points to 30 points in those four races. And MotoGP arrives at a circuit where Bagnaia won last year in a scintillating battle with Marc Marquez, a track which Quartararo regards as a bogey track. Things are looking very good for Pecco Bagnaia.

"For sure, for me, this moment is quite great, because I feel incredible with my bike and also with the work we are doing in the box," Bagnaia told the press conference at Aragon on Thursday. "Every time, we start the weekend maybe in the not the best way possible – apart from Assen; that was incredible from the start – then Silverstone and Austria, we were struggling a bit but we found the way to prepare for the race." Races he would go on to win.

Hot hand

Do we think Bagnaia has ever heard of the Hot Hand Fallacy? A phenomenon in sports, gambling, and finance where someone on a winning streak thinks it will go on pretty well uninterrupted into the future. The more you keep winning, the luckier you think you are.

But at some point, luck runs out, or fate intervenes, or, well, stuff happens. The winning streak comes to an end. Regression to the mean, this is called. At some point, a string of exceptional results or events revert back to normal.

In other words, as strong as Pecco Bagnaia has been over the past four races, that is not a guarantee that Aragon will see victory number five. There is no guarantee he won't win, either, of course, but Misano is history, and Aragon is a new race, a new chance, a blank sheet for everyone waiting for practice to get underway.

We shouldn't underestimate the significance of Bagnaia's string of wins, however. Odds may be high of a regression to the mean, but Bagnaia's winning streak may have moved the needle on what is normal. It certainly proved that Bagnaia has learned how to remain calm in the face of adversity, and that his crew, led by Cristian Gabarrini, understand the bike well enough to turn a bad start to the weekend into victory on Sunday. And it has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Ducati Desmosedici GP22 is currently the best bike on the MotoGP grid.

(Do not overlook that word "currently". Things can change fast in MotoGP, and the Aprilia RS-GP is hot on the Ducati's tail. As is Ducati's own GP21, of course. Before you know it, the GP22 is being outclassed by something the other factories found at the test.)

Free speed

Of course, Ducati have a lot of things going their way at the Motorland Aragon circuit. The track is long, and low grip, and is hard on tires. The bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire, both accelerating and braking, which means they end up chewing through the tires quite quickly. But the fast back straight is free lap time for those with horsepower, and Ducati has plenty of that. The bike is good with tires too, riders on both GP21s and GP22 able to run softer tires than others, a sign of a bike which can generate grip without consuming too much rubber.

"A big track where I think we can be back again with the good power we have, even if the other bikes I think are anyway good," is how Johann Zarco described Aragon. That surely plays into the Ducati's, and by extension, Pecco Bagnaia's hands.

The Ducati isn't the only bike which is fast, of course. The Aprilia RS-GP has also shown a fair turn of speed. What's more, now that MotoGP has moved from Misano to Aragon, the Noale factory has left its weak point behind. There are fewer places where the riders are braking in a straight line, and more where they are braking with the bike on its side.

"There are a lot of lean angle corners," Aleix Espargaro told the press conference. "We are struggling, especially me, on the hard brakes with the bike completely straight, I can’t stop the bike. But as soon as I’m able to lean and brake and in these types of accelerations the bike has a lot of stability and performance. So this is the reason why Aragon has been a good track for us so far and the 2022 spec-bike is the best Aprilia so far so I can’t wait to try it."

Coming off a podium in Misano, Maverick Viñales is also likely to be a factor at a track he loves. He has a score to settle at Aragon, he told us, after he was so slow at the track last year. Viñales has moved to master the RS-GP, but there are still points where he struggles. "I’m working on precision, still it’s difficult for us. It’s difficult to be precise 100% because the bike moves a lot. I said many times this bike is a wild bike," Viñales explained. More strength was needed to handle that wildness and gain precision.

So Bagnaia is unlikely to have things all his own way at Aragon. He will undoubtedly be fast, but this is not a track where he is expected to just run away with the race. Aleix Espargaro will put up a fight, and get into the middle of the battle for victory. Maverick Viñales is getting closer and closer, and is at the point where he, too, will be inserting himself into the fight for the podium.

Mixing it up

Then there's the bikes from Bagnaia's own camp. Johann Zarco is looking forward to Aragon after a weekend to forget at Misano, a track where he never felt comfortable. Jorge Martin found a step with braking thanks to revised geometry, that stopped him from locking the front. Jack Miller has been on a roll, when he hasn't made mistakes. Luca Marini has been slowing improving, and believes his shot at the podium is coming.

There's the Suzuki, too, the GSX-RR's blend of horsepower and turning seemingly made for the Aragon circuit. The Suzuki can stay with the Ducatis down the back straight, and turn inside them to pass in the final corner. Or any corner, for that matter.

Even the Yamaha may not be that bad. Sure, it's down on power, and this is a track where Fabio Quartararo doesn't feel comfortable. But if he can qualify well – no reason to believe he can't – then he is in with a chance of staying close to the front. The issue he has to deal with is the temperature and pressure of the front tire, but that too is something Yamaha are getting better and better at managing. And if others can insert themselves between Bagnaia and victory, then that can help Quartararo salvage a lot of points.

But perhaps the real wildcard at Aragon is the return of Marc Marquez. "The main thing this weekend is the comeback of Marc," Johann Zarco opined. "I think he will be on the top and almost fighting for the podium. Because he's just magic here, he has so much energy to give."

But wait, isn't this the Marc Marquez who is coming back from the fourth operation on the right humerus he broke at Jerez in 2020, then managed to destroy by trying to come back too early and weakening the plate, needing yet more surgeries, introducing infection to the bone? The fourth operation has straightened out his humerus, and the bone has now fused and is grown back.

There is reason to be optimistic about the return of Marc Marquez. Santi Hernandez, the Repsol Honda rider's long-time crew chief, was happy to see that Marquez was riding normally again, after suffering for two years with a right arm that would simply refuse to get into the correct position to ride a MotoGP bike.

"Now from what we saw in Misano, he is coming to a better position," Hernandez explained to a packed media debrief, an almost unique opportunity for journalists to have a formal conversation with the crew chief. "Before he was riding in an unrideable position and he needed to adapt. In Misano we started to see his riding as normal," Hernandez said. He was not completely back to normal however. "Still it is not enough, because he still needs more laps and power in his arm. It looks like the operation went in a good way and his riding is back to normal."

What can Marquez do? He put his own chances of victory at 1% when asked in the press conference on Thursday. Hernandez emphasized that Marquez was not here to win, but to prepare for the 2023 season. "Here for me the mentality is like the test: to see where Marc is and after he feels well and can go well then….we are not thinking about what Marc can do. Of course he can ride or he would not be here. We’ll see how the race weekend goes."

The Repsol Honda team were not treating it like a normal race weekend, Hernandez advised. "Of course the approach is different because we have to think about the whole situation, but he is clever and he knows where he has come from. He won’t do anything crazy or pass a hard time. I can say many things but he is clever. It is also not necessary to show anything because the most important thing this year is that he can come back, practice and get a feeling from riding. I don’t care about the result. It’s not our target. If the results come they are welcome. If not, the most important thing is that he gets his feeling."

Even Marquez just "getting his feeling" can pose a real problem for the front runners. Aragon is a track he loves, and where he goes well. He is still far from full fitness, but he nearly beat Pecco Bagnaia while effectively riding with one arm. Aragon is a left-hand track, where all of the hard braking is done for left-hand turns. Marc Marquez is strongest on the left side, and with 10 left to 7 right corners, the Repsol Honda rider can hide his weakness.

What does this mean? If Marc Marquez' problem is a lack of strength in his right arm, then a track with a lot of left-hand corners is going to be good deal less of an issue than a place like Misano, which stresses the right side of the body. It doesn't mean that Marquez will win at Aragon, but he is probably fast enough to make a real nuisance of himself.

Marquez is likely to get some help from the new aluminum swingarm produced by Kalex. Marquez was positive about the results at Misano, but Takaaki Nakagami was absolutely raving about it. "There was a little bit of a question mark about the performance, but once I tested it for a couple of laps, and I felt like, something interesting," the LCR Honda rider told us. "There were totally no negatives at all, and I felt quite good. And it was very positive, honestly. The feeling of the swingarm was no negatives at all, so it was good."

It was so good he had asked HRC how quickly he could use the swingarm on his own bike. "After the test, I asked HRC, because it was positive, is there any chance to use it in a race weekend. And they said, maybe, they are not sure. But I asked to use it. But I don't know when," Nakagami said.

Kalex swingarms are not quick to make, however. They are machined from aluminum billet by CNC machine, a process which takes roughly six weeks. Though Kalex have the facilities to produce 26 Moto2 machines, plus parts for various WorldSBK teams and other racing teams around the world, they still can't magic swingarms out of thin air. Physically machining a swingarm takes time.

Which also tells you a lot about how long HRC have been involved with Kalex. Taking into account designing to spec, setting up CAD/CAM designs and translating that to CNC machines ready for production, this is a process which has probably been underway for at least three months, and possibly even longer. It is therefore remarkable that this didn't leak out until shortly before the Misano test. They say it is impossible to keep secrets in the MotoGP paddock, but for six weeks, CNC mills ground away at a solid chunk of aluminum in Bobingen, Germany, and nobody outsie of HRC or Kalex knew anything about it.

It makes you wonder what else HRC is up to. Given where they are in the championship, they need all the help they can get. And given the example of the Kalex swingarm, there is every chance they are already getting it.


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Source: 
year: 
2022
round_number: 
15

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Comments

I have Pecco @ 5/4 which is a lot shorter than the 7/4 offered pre Misano! As for Marc saying he has only  1% chance of winning. That works out @ 100/1 which seems a lot more generous than the 15/2 I offered. 

Why should this be the years big secret. They chuck new swingarms at these bikes all the time. That Kalex are making it instead of in house? They have probably had dealings with Kalex since the 600 Moto 2 time. 

If they have been dealing with Kalex for the MotoGP bike since the 600 Moto2 times it is the first I have heard of it...must have been a secret. Or more likely I was half asleep.