For the past few seasons, there has been a fierce debate over what is the best bike on the grid. In 2021, we thought it might have been the Yamaha, given just how good Fabio Quartararo has been. In 2020, the Suzuki looked to be a pretty complete package, though that was a little distorted by the pandemic-hit season. In 2019, with Marc Marquez' dominance, there were those who claimed the Honda was the best bike, though the difference in performance between Marquez and the other Honda riders was rather stark.
The common thread across all these years was the Ducati. Was it perhaps the Desmosedici, born in Bologna, which was the best bike? And was it the riders on the other machines that was making the difference? In 2019, the Ducati was faster than the Honda, but not fast enough to get enough of a gap until Marc Marquez threw the RC213V underneath Andrea Dovizioso on the brakes in the next corner. In 2020 and 2021, Ducati improved the turning of the bike, but it was still no match for the corner speed of the Suzuki GSX-RR and the Yamaha M1.
Even at the start of the 2022 season we wondered whether the Ducati was really the best bike on the grid. After Aleix Espargaro won Aprilia's first MotoGP race in Argentina, we started to think that perhaps the RS-GP was the best bike on the grid, an impression strengthened by Maverick Viñales' increasing competitiveness. Espargaro was turning into a podium regular, and at the front of the championship.
Desmo the MotoGP slayer
Since the summer break, however, all doubt has been removed. The Ducati Desmosedici is the best bike on the grid, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Want proof? Ducati riders have won 9 of the 14 races held so far. They have 22 of the possible 42 podium places this year. They have set 7 of the 14 fastest laps in each race. They have taken pole position 12 out of 15 times. And they have monopolized all three places on the front row of the grid 5 out of 15 times.
It is logical to draw the conclusion that the Ducati is the best bike on the grid. But they also have multiple outstanding riders. Johann Zarco has been a dependable stalwart, always in with a shot of the podium. Jorge Martin is, on his day, the fastest rider in the world over a single lap in just his second year in the class.
Marco Bezzecchi is best rookie of a strong crop, and has already had a podium. Jack Miller has won races, taken a pole, and secured a front row start six times this year. Enea Bastianini has been phenomenal, winning for the satellite Gresini team and being strong enough to secure a seat in the factory Ducati team. And since fixing his tendency to make unforced errors, Pecco Bagnaia has inflicted a reign of terror on the MotoGP grid, winning the last four consecutive races and quickly closing in on championship leader Fabio Quartararo.
Bagnaia showed once again just how very good he is by smashing his own pole record on Saturday. The factory Ducati rider took three tenths off last year's phenomenal best lap and setting a time of 1'46.069. Close to cracking into the 1'45s, were it not for the fact Bagnaia's lap was as close to perfect as you can get, he said. "I think it’s one of the best I ever did. Everything was perfect," Bagnaia told the press conference.
His only concern had been Turn 2, the first right hander after a very, very long time on the left side of the tire. The way the asphalt chews up tires at Aragon, Bagnaia knew he had to push on his first lap, but with a strong wind and cooler conditions on Saturday, he wasn't 100% certain the right side of the front would hold. It did, and the rest is history.
Bagnaia's lap was so fast it struck fear into even his fast rivals. "During the quali, it's a little bit frustrating," Alex Rins told us. He knew he was fast, but he would need a tow in qualifying. "I needed to find a guy to follow, and today this guy was Pecco, and he put 0.8 seconds on us in a fast lap. So I gave it my 100% and this was the result." Rins will start from ninth, behind six Ducatis, a Yamaha, and an Aprilia.
Best back up
Bagnaia was quick, but his teammate Jack Miller is not far behind. The Australian was less than a tenth of a second slower than Bagnaia, and under last year's lap record. Bastianini was remarkable as well, making it the third time in a row that the factory Ducatis and Bastianini had locked out the front row.
Will that translate into Sunday's race? "As we saw today, the Ducati riders are so fast," Marc Marquez said. But he also singled out Fabio Quartararo on the Yamaha as having real pace. "Fabio is doing something special with his bike." Alex Rins had said much the same. "The only rival that has a little bit more looks like is Fabio," the Suzuki rider said.
Marquez has clear expectations for the race. "There are three riders that are flying, Pecco, Bastianini and Fabio. The others, they are not bad." Looking at race pace, those three seem to have an edge, with Aleix Espargaro not that far behind. If anything, Quartararo is the fastest of the three, but that won't do him much good starting from sixth. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider is probably quickest through the first three sectors, but is getting destroyed down the back straight.
Quartararo's problem is precisely in the straight, not in the last long left-hander. "We went to see exactly in the last corner, video analyze in the last corner, we are not losing there," Quartararo said. "So the four tenths, we know where it is. In the average over 23 laps that is quite a lot!"
It is frustrating for the Frenchman. He is faster than anyone else on track, but only when he has a clear run, and only when speeds don't get much above 320 km/h. As soon as speeds climb, or if he has to overtake, it's game over.
Quartararo has only one plan for Sunday: "Perfect start, perfect first laps, then we see," he said. "But it's a shame, because I'm super happy about my pace because I feel so good. I feel that we have the pace to fight for the victory. But it's exactly the same since the beginning of the year. I can have a good pace or three tenths pace faster than the others, but in the race at the end I will be behind."
Things are not really falling Quartararo's way, with little hope of help from other quarters. The KTMs were quick on Saturday morning, but a big crash for Brad Binder meant he struggled during qualifying, him and teammate Miguel Oliveira starting from the fourth row. The KTM excels in low-grip conditions – think of Binder's victory at Brno in 2020, a track with terrible grip, or his win in Austria in the rain on slicks – but starting from the fourth row leaves them both a lot of work to do.
The main hope for Quartararo and anyone not named Pecco Bagnaia is that tire management will play a role on the abrasive Aragon tarmac. But even that has changed over the years. "In this new era of MotoGP, either you start on the first or second row, or you have less chances to be there fighting for the podium," Alex Rins explained.
Once upon a time, a smart rider such as Andrea Dovizioso could play a waiting game and conserve his tires, knowing that he could reel in anyone who escaped at the end of the race as their tires dropped and his remained relatively good. But the new tires Michelin brought after 2019 changed this. "In the end, year by year and season by season, everybody is improving. Michelin is improving, the bikes are improving," Rins explained. "So now the technology we have on the tires is quite nice, it's quite good. Trying to compare 2022 with 2019 or 2018, before you needed to manage the tires much more than now."
Perhaps Enea Bastianini can play the role of spoiler, the Gresini rider showing how much stronger he can be at the end of the race at Misano. The Italian is great at managing tires and carrying corner speed, and perhaps he can put up a fight toward the end against Bagnaia. With Quartararo knowing how badly he is outgunned down the back straight, the championship leader's hope lies only with outside interference. And interference is only likely to come from Bastianini, or Aleix Espargaro. They are the only riders who have the pace to match Bagnaia.
Testing, not racing
Quartararo may also have hoped for help from Marc Marquez, given the Repsol Honda rider's performance here last year against Bagnaia. Marquez will eventually be in much better physical shape than he was last year, his fourth surgery a resounding success. The problem is that though his humerus has fused and is straight, the muscles in his arm are still not strong enough to maintain race pace for a full race distance.
He has no idea of just how long his arm will last, Marquez said. "Tomorrow will be an interesting day because since Mugello I haven’t made any long runs. The maximum long run I did is five laps in a row." That is 18 shy of the 23 laps he will need to complete on Sunday.
The good news for Marquez is that he no longer needed to seek out a tow. "I was alone and did a 1'46.9, which is a good sign because in the first part of the season it was impossible to ride alone. Now I rode alone and I did a good lap time," the Repsol Honda rider told us.
But Marquez is focused on 2023, rather than on 2022, as evidence by the fact he sacrificed FP3 and a shot at Q2 to work on the future direction of the Honda RC213V. The team fitted both his bikes with the older carbon swingarms to concentrate on changes in the geometry. Marquez' crew had the front fairing off and were changing the headstock angle in the middle of a session, a change that is usually to time-consuming and drastic to undertake during free practice. But gathering data to build a better bike was more important than chasing a lap time.
Keeping the carbon swingarms for those experiments is a simple rule of engineering: you only change one thing at a time, the thing you want to measure. HRC have a lot of baseline data with the carbon swingarm, and so know how it reacts. But the aluminum swingarm built by Kalex is the better option for performance, Marquez said. "If I did the quali with the aluminum one, it’s because I feel better."
Activity masquerading as achievement
Beyond track action, the FIM and Dorna published the new schedule for grand prix weekends from next year. In brief, MotoGP gets 45-minute and 60-minute sessions of timed practice on Friday, which will determine entry into Q2. Then a 30-minute session of untimed practice on Saturday morning, to replace FP4. Directly after, from 10:50 to 11:30 there is Q1 and then Q2, to determine the grid. And at 3pm on Saturday, a half-distance Sprint race, where the bikes get 12 liters of fuel instead of 22.
From 9:40 on Sunday morning, MotoGP riders get 10 minutes of warm up, before a half an hour of "fan show" at 10am where there will be a lot more direct interaction between riders and fans. Then the race schedule as normal starting at 11am with Moto3, Moto2 at 12:15, and MotoGP at 2pm.
Will this make much difference to the popularity of MotoGP? It's unlikely, though it should make a ticket to a grand prix event better value. It doesn't address the sport's central problem, however, which is growing the profile and popularity of MotoGP, and reaching a wider public. This change appears to be more aimed at appeasing circuits, who have complained of falling attendance (while glossing over their own role in event promotion) for events for which they still have to pay a sizable sanctioning fee.
Pit lane madness
Finally, a quick word on the two mechanics who received a two-race ban for impeding Adrian Fernandez in Moto3. The two got in the way when the Tech3 team tried to release him, and have been banned from the Phillip Island and Sepang races, and fined €2000 each. They would normally have been banned for the next two races, but visa applications for Japan are so incredibly complicated that it would have been impossible to get the paperwork done in time for the flight to Tokyo on Monday or Tuesday.
As a result, the ban has been imposed for Phillip Island and Sepang. As these are far more popular events among the paddock than Motegi and Thailand, it is a severe punishment indeed.
Why did they do it? Though we know nothing of the background, the two mechanics work for the Max Sterilgarda team, who Adrian Fernandez rode for last year. The grand prix paddock is a hive of petty hatreds and grudges built up over the course of many seasons spent together under forced circumstances. There are a million reasons for people to seek revenge, and the outside world will never learn of the whys and wherefores.
That does not excuse their behavior, of course. Blocking a rider from exiting the pits is dangerous, irresponsible, and incredibly unsporting. Normally, old grudges play out in the car park on Sunday night. Why these mechanics decided it was either necessary or worth it to bring it to pit lane is a mystery.
They have received formal punishment from Race Direction. The question is whether informal punishment will be meted out as well, in terms of not being able to find a job for next season. The Max Sterilgarda Team and Max Biaggi issued a forceful condemnation of their actions after the video came out. The future for these mechanics is not looking bright.
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