There is a cliché about sports events having a "pressure cooker atmosphere", but in the case of the Sepang MotoGP race, it is almost literally true. A combination of withering heat, completely saturated humidity, and incredible pressure is cooking up an explosive climax to the MotoGP championship.
With a championship on the line, the pressure is plain to see. In the previous 18 races, Pecco Bagnaia had just 12 crashes. On Saturday, he added another two to that tally. Fabio Quartararo has had six crashes in the 18 races before this weekend, and added another during FP4, fracturing a finger in his left hand in the process. Likewise Aleix Espargaro, who has added another two crashes this weekend, taking his total to 13. For the record, the current crash leader is Darryn Binder, with 22.
Much of the attention after Sunday's race went to what happened at the front: Enea Bastianini beating fellow Ducati rider Pecco Bagnaia, Brad Binder firing from mid pack to the front in the first couple of corners, and of course, the massive crash caused by Fabio Quartararo hitting the back of Marc Marquez' Repsol Honda, and in the aftermath, Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami colliding, and Marquez being forced to pull out of the race with a piece of Quartararo's fairing stuck in his rear wheel.
But that meant that some of the things which went on behind were overlooked in the media overload. Aleix Espargaro's return to the podium puts him right back in the championship chase. Brad Binder showed his exceptional class to finish fourth, and nearly on the podium. And some of the riders who felt they had the pace to make up ground in the first couple of laps after qualifying badly.
Marc Marquez was hoping to make an impact on his return to MotoGP at the Motorland Aragon circuit. He made an impact alright, but not quite the one he was intending. A lightning start, collisions with Fabio Quartararo and Takaaki Nakagami – much, much more on that later – and a withdrawal due to having a chunk of Quartararo's fairing stuck in the back of his bike. Marquez had come up short on his objective: "Try to get kilometers, try to finish the race, and we didn't get the target. I just did one lap," he said after the race.
We will come to apportioning blame for the Quartararo-Marquez crash later, and how Enea Bastianini came to the championship leader's aid at the end of the race. The race itself was in some ways a repeat of last year: a waiting game, with a burst of excitement settling the outcome in the last couple of laps.
Bastianini's victory wrapped up the manufacturers championship for Ducati again with five races to go. There is no doubt that the Ducati is now the best bike on the MotoGP grid. But the halfhearted celebrations in the factory Ducati Lenovo garage betrayed just how much more the riders championship matters to Ducati.
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.
There were many, many tributes to Andrea Dovizioso on the day that he retired as a full-time MotoGP racer, but there was perhaps none so fitting as the winner of Sunday's MotoGP race at Misano. Pecco Bagnaia, riding the bike Dovizioso had a massive, massive part in developing in the eight years he was at Ducati, took two and a half laps to get to the front of the race and then controlled it right to the end.
It was the way Bagnaia managed the race that was so reminiscent of Andrea Dovizioso. The way you usually win a race from the front is by taking off at the front and trying to lay down a pace that no one else is able to follow. Once you've opened a gap, you can then manage the pace to keep the gap consistent right to the end. The benefit is that you don't have to worry about fending off attacks, and can just concentrate on your own riding.
There are two types of tires in MotoGP: wet tires for the rain, and slicks for the dry. The real world is not quite so binary, of course: the weather, and therefore the track, can be bone dry or having standing water on it, and anything in between. Damp patches. A thin sheen of water. A drying racing line. Cold but dry. Soaking, but very warm.
There may only be two types of tires in MotoGP, but that is enough to cover pretty much every kind of condition. Slicks are perfect in the dry and the soft wets are fantastic when there is water on the track, but the medium wets work well on a damp track, a drying track, and even on a track with next to no water on them. (True story: Michelin started off calling them hard wets, but then the teams and the riders were too scared to use them, and never fitted them. Michelin renamed them "medium", and hey presto, the riders were raring to give them a go. So much of motorcycle racing takes place between the ears.)
Enea Bastianini has won the battle for the second seat in the factory Ducati Lenovo Team. In a meeting today, the leaders of Ducati Corse's MotoGP project picked the Italian over his Spanish rival, Jorge Martin, for the seat alongside Pecco Bagnaia. Bastianini and Bagnaia will form the factory Ducati team for the next two seasons, through 2024.
Ducati had waited a long time to choose between Gresini Ducati's Bastianini and Pramac Ducati's Jorge Martin. In the end, Bastianini won out with better and more consistent results. Bastianini is currently 6th in the MotoGP championship, with 118 points including three victories and four DNFs, while Martin is 9th, with 87 points, with two podiums and four DNFs. The fact that Bastianini is Italian will only have worked in his favor.
Does MotoGP need something like sprint races to pack out otherwise empty grandstands? It depends on which you ask that question. On the evidence of Silverstone, where just 41,000 people turned up on Sunday, you would say yes, we need a change. Judge by the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, where 92,000 – pretty much a packed house – turned up on a gray and overcast day, when it looked like it could rain at any moment, and you would say that MotoGP is doing OK.
I spent a lot of time over the weekend talking to a variety of people about the way the sprint races will (or may) affect each MotoGP weekend, and so will save that subject for an in-depth look later in the week. But first, a few quick notes on the Austrian Grand Prix at Spielberg, which featured a demonstration of the pointlessness of team orders in Moto2, a further settling out of the order in MotoGP, and saw the end of the 2023 silly season start to approach.
No such thing as team orders