Writing MotoGP season previews used to be a relatively simple affair: discuss the four or five riders who had a realistic chance of winning the championship, compare the strengths and weaknesses of the Yamaha vs the Honda, and ask whether Ducati have done enough this year to catch up. A few notes on the remainder of the grid, and you were done.
Previewing the 2023 MotoGP season is potentially a much more time-consuming affair. All 22 riders on the 2023 grid have grand prix victories to their name in one class or another. All five MotoGP factories had bikes on the podium last year, and only Honda didn't score a win. There are 13 world champions lining up in MotoGP in 2023. To say the grid is stacked with talent is an understatement.
Potential champions this year? Obviously Pecco Bagnaia has a good chance of defending. But Yamaha have given Fabio Quartararo the extra speed he was missing to be able to challenge. Enea Bastianini could well surprise and upset his factory Ducati teammate. Aprilia have refined the RS-GP to a point where Aleix Espargaro is a serious candidate, and there is no doubting the talent of his teammate Maverick Viñales either. Jorge Martin has a better bike and a point to prove, and sprint races will play right into his hands. Miguel Oliveira is very much in the same boat. And it would be foolish to write Marc Marquez off, whatever the state of the Honda at the moment.
Then there's the riders who could still surprise us. Can KTM give Brad Binder enough grip to finally battle for a title? Will Marco Bezzecchi be even better than last year? Is Luca Marini's testing form a sign of things to come in 2023? How good is Alex Marquez going to be once he has a couple of races under his belt on the Ducati?
Summing all of the above up in a cogent manner, and giving everyone the coverage they deserve is a much longer and more labor intensive process than it used to be. In a way, this illustrates the downside of MotoGP's massive success in creating a close and highly competitive series: with so many riders to cheer on, it is hard to create the kind of rivalries which capture the public imagination. If there are 8 different riders at the front, it is harder for fans to choose sides when there are only two or three, even though the racing itself might be closer and more exciting.
So here are the basics of what you need to know going into the 2023 MotoGP season.
Once Pecco Bagnaia turned his head around after the German GP at the Sachsenring last year, he has been a formidable force. He made up 108 points in ten races on Fabio Quartararo, and was rarely off the podium. The bike worked everywhere, both in qualifying and in the race. More importantly, Bagnaia learned to keep his nerve.
The bad news for the rest of the grid is that Ducati have reversed the mistakes of the 2022 preseason. Last year, they finished testing in FP4 at the opening race in Qatar. This season, they were pretty much done with testing parts by lunchtime on the first day of the final test. With a day and a half to prepare the first race in Portimão – and the first sprint race – Bagnaia has all his ducks in a row.
Bagnaia isn't unbeatable, of course. But he is brimming with self confidence, the bike is fantastic – Ducati have focused on making the bike more usable, instead of chasing even more power – and he has a superb team around him. Pecco Bagnaia lines up at every round with a very good chance of victory, and in the 2023 season, he is the man to beat.
In 2022, two things held Fabio Quartararo back from competing for the championship: the Yamaha M1, and Fabio Quartararo. After a solid start to the season, despite having what was basically the engine from the 2020 M1 in his bike, the Frenchman started falling apart in the second half of the year. A stupid mistake at Assen, just before a long summer break, and after that, he never found his feet again.
Things are looking much more positive for 2023. The 2023 M1 engine – a development of the power plant Yamaha had wanted to use for 2022, but which kept blowing up – has the horsepower Quartararo had been missing. After trying and then abandoning their aero updates, and then going back to an older base setup for the bike, Quartararo was extremely competitive on the final day of the Portimão test.
What this tells us is that the base of the Yamaha is still a fantastic motorcycle, and is capable of being competitive despite not being built entirely around the ride-height devices and aerodynamics which are at the core of modern MotoGP motorcycle design. And Quartararo is an exceptional rider.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Quartararo is that he is pretty much on his own. Yamaha have lost a satellite team, and after last year's performance, they did not endear themselves to any potential suitors. Despite occasional signs of progress, Franco Morbidelli is still slogging through a slough of despond, and is at the opposite end of the timesheets.
This is where the benefit of having a satellite team comes to the fore. Morbidelli's settings are of little use to Quartararo at tracks where the Frenchman might struggle, if Morbidelli is down in 15th place. Where Pecco Bagnaia has the settings of his teammate, of Johann Zarco, of Jorge Martin, and even in extremis of the satellite Mooney VR46 and Gresini squads.
Quartararo has already proven he can win a championship pretty much single-handed. He will need to find some of that magic again in 2023.
Promotion to a factory team means you are expected to challenge for the championship. But moving from a satellite team to a factory squad is not the bed of roses you might expect. The pressure to perform is through the roof, and the family atmosphere, the community built on being the underdogs and taking on the might of the factories, is gone.
Enea Bastianini earned the seat in the factory Ducati Lenovo team after a scintillating season in the satellite Gresini squad, beating rival Jorge Martin comprehensively. Bastianini has had a solid preseason, but has not been the revelation many of us have been expecting. Where Pecco Bagnaia has looked serene and in control at all the tests, Bastianini has looked, not quite a shadow of himself, but not like the force of nature he was at the end of 2022.
Looks may deceive, and Bastianini may just be finding his feet in the factory team. If the Italian can continue the trajectory he was on at the end of last season, then he will surely be able of causing his teammate not just a headache, but the mother of all migraines.
And if he does, that will liven MotoGP considerably. Bastianini's 2022 battles with Bagnaia were wreaking havoc on the mental health of Ducati management. With their first title in sight since Casey Stoner in 2007, they feared that a satellite rider could wreck the party. In 2023, however, it would be factory Ducati rider vs factory Ducati rider, Italian vs Italian, and as long as one of them comes out on top, then Ducati will be happy either way.
Fueled by resentment
From the outside, the rider Bastianini beat to the factory seat appears to have gotten the better end of the deal. Jorge Martin is happy, is healthy, and has been very very fast indeed throughout testing. Martin has the best of both worlds as far as equipment is concerned, the GP23 engine a big improvement on the GP22 engine he had to race last year. And with the rest of the bike changing so little, he has less adapting to do.
Something else is playing into Jorge Martin's hands as well. Sprint races look almost made to measure of the Spaniard, his forte being his ability to pull out a fast lap and to push hard when his tires will last. Martin tended to fade in the second half of the race last year, where Bastianini grew stronger as the race went on. Martin insists that he has made a big step forward in that area over the winter, and he will be competitive in both sprint and feature races.
Martin has another thing on his side, apart from his unshakeable faith in his own ability. He feels slighted by the loss of the factory seat to Bastianini, and it is clear just how much that slight fuels his ambition, his desire to prove Ducati wrong. That fire could take him a very long way in the championship in 2023.
The other major player in the 2022 championship should be capable of mounting an even more serious challenge in 2023. Aleix Espargaro surprised everyone – even himself – when he looked like being the main challenger to Fabio Quartararo in the first half of last year. Things went awry in the second half of the season, and especially once the flyaways arrived.
Was that down to Espargaro, or was that down to Aprilia? The truth is probably a bit of both. In 2014 I interviewed Espargaro after he finished as top Open Class rider, and he said all he wanted was to have a chance to fight for the championship on equal footing. After a journey which started with replacement rides in 2009, his chance to do just that finally came.
But it isn't as easy as it looks, and comes with a new set of pressures. Every move you make, every mistake comes under intense scrutiny and evaluation. Espargaro did not always seem prepared to handle that level of pressure, and 2022 turned into a year where he received an education in some of the last pieces missing from his racing career.
Aprilia, too, faced new lessons. After years of chasing success, suddenly they were winning races and challenging for a title. Espargaro brought pressure not just on himself, but on the team and Aprilia as a factory as well. A series of mistakes slowed Espargaro up badly, further disrupting his title hopes. And the long overseas schedule at the end of the year left Aprilia occasionally struggling to manage parts and bikes.
Those are the lessons which are most valuable, and both Aprilia and Aleix Espargaro look to have learned a huge amount from 2022. The RS-GP has been refined rather than developed, turning an already very good bike into a great one. It should be a sharp enough tool to see a title challenge to the end. Or at least, further through the season than in 2022.
The biggest and perhaps most interesting group are the riders who are likely to throw a spanner in the works of everyone aiming to stage a serious championship challenge in 2023. There is a large band of riders who look capable of winning races and battling for podiums, and generally disrupting the best laid plans of the title candidates.
We should perhaps start with Marc Marquez, and his return to something close to full physical fitness. The fourth and final surgery has been a success, and though he still has a few minor issues with strength in his right arm, he can ride exactly as he wants, no longer hindered by the injury he sustained at Jerez in 2020.
What is holding him back is the Honda RC213V. The Honda stagnated during Marquez' absence, lacking a clear sense of development direction, and the bike is a mere shadow of the 2019 machine with which the Spaniard imposed his will on Andrea Dovizioso and the entire MotoGP grid.
Each journey starts with a small step...
The arrival of Ken Kawauchi from Suzuki has been the first step in a long journey back to competitiveness, Kawauchi bringing structure and organization to HRC's development and testing plan, and Honda making increasing use of outside parties such as Akrapovic for exhausts and Kalex for swingarms, and soon, a chassis. But progress is going to take time.
That doesn't mean you can write Marc Marquez off completely. The Spaniard's generational talent has not gone away, despite his injury hiatus. The eight-time world champion will find a way to scare and surprise, and cause the odd upset or two, even on a rather poor motorcycle. And with the sprint races likely to be a test of aggression and courage, it is hard to think of a rider who has those talents in greater abundance than Marc Marquez, allied to incredible skill and reflexes.
A title for Marc Marquez in 2023 looks rather unlikely. But he is certain to scare the living daylights out of rivals, teams, and fans in equal measure.
The younger, faster brother
Meanwhile, brother Alex looks set to upset the odd apple cart in 2023 as well. Even after just six days on the Ducati GP22, Alex Marquez has been consistently quick, both in outright speed and over race distances.
The advantage of a satellite team is that there is much less to test during the preseason, and so Alex Marquez has had much less work to do and has been able to concentrate on adapting to the GP22s which the Gresini Ducati squad have at their disposal. Alex Marquez still has room for improvement, and he is already one of the most competitive riders of the preseason. The Spaniard is likely to impress in 2023. And cause more than a few upsets.
The list of satellite Ducati riders likely to cause problems for the title candidates is surprisingly long. Johann Zarco feels he has made the step that was missing from last year, and the Pramac Ducati rider could finally get the win he has been chasing since he entered the MotoGP class. Marco Bezzecchi and Luca Marini have used the improved competitiveness of the Ducati GP22 to put the Mooney VR46 at the front of the pack. Bezzecchi and Marini were a handful at some races last year already: a better bike and another year of experience is only going to put them even closer to the front.
Even Fabio Di Giannantonio has become a rider to keep an eye on. The change of crew chief, with ex-Joan Mir chief Frankie Carchedi bringing structure and experience to the Italian's side of the Gresini garage. Di Giannantonio has been transformed, from a rider in the bottom half of the pack to someone always at the pointy end of the action. 2023 could well be a big year for Di Giannantonio.
RNF to the fore
Then there's the Aprilias. Miguel Oliveira has taken to the Aprilia RS-GP like a duck to water, and the RNF team is the right environment for the Portuguese rider to flourish. Oliveira was so good so quickly that Aleix Espargaro was studying his data at the Sepang test for inspiration to fix some of the areas he was struggling. Oliveira's trajectory is heading in the right direction for more than the occasional podium.
And you can't write off the mercurial talent of Maverick Viñales. When the Spaniard is in the right flow, he can beat anyone in the world, as he proved numerous times on the Yamaha. Last year on the Aprilia, he showed a return to form, and an ability to race at the front. On the improved Aprilia this season, he should be even more of a force. Whether he can challenge for a title is another matter altogether – he is widely branded as mercurial for a reason – but he is going to be more than a handful for the championship challengers throughout 2023.
Though KTM's progress with the RC16 appears to have stalled, or at least taken an unwanted side road, there are signs that the bike has real potential. All four KTM riders (the GasGas is just a rebadged KTM) chose the same engine and praised its power delivery. The real problem, of course, is that the RC16 lacks rear grip, and so even the creamiest and smoothest power delivery won't put the ponies on the asphalt.
The positive point of lacking rear grip is it is eminently fixable with hardware which can be replaced through the year. Get the engine wrong and you are stuck for the rest of the year. Get the aero wrong and you are stuck until at least the first test of the season, and a chance to try out alternatives before homologation. KTM can throw frames and swingarms at the RC16 in pursuit of mechanical grip, while working on refining torque maps and power delivery to put the power to the ground in a better way.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that MotoGP will have to keep an eye on Brad Binder. The South African has already demonstrated that he is capable of riding above and beyond the potential of the KTM to win races and score podiums. Where everyone claims that passing in MotoGP is almost impossible, Binder appears to be on a one-man mission to disprove that assertion. In tricky conditions, Binder is someone to be reckoned with. If KTM can improve rear grip, he will be challenging every race.
Two riders to watch out for are the ex-Suzuki men, moved along with Ken Kawauchi to HRC. Joan Mir and Alex Rins both struggled with the Honda at Valencia, but have made solid progress at Sepang and Portimão. Both Rins and Mir have been very close to the times set by Marc Marquez in testing, which must raise hopes in Honda that they at least have a chance of making the bike competitive.
Can Joan Mir achieve his ambition of challenging for a second MotoGP title on a Repsol Honda? That seems unlikely on this bike in 2023. But for the first time since HRC dropped Dani Pedrosa, it feels like Marc Marquez has a teammate who will push him to the limit. (And also, for the first time in his career, a teammate who is younger than him).
Not waving but drowning
So to the bottom of the grid. Two riders are fighting for their future in MotoGP, and both have been a major disappointment through preseason testing. No doubt you can guess the names, but 2023 could well be the last hurrah for both Franco Morbidelli and Takaaki Nakagami.
First to Morbidelli. The Yamaha M1 is clearly a much more difficult bike to ride than it has been in the past, especially when it was so badly down on power. But Morbidelli is underperforming the bike's potential, as well as his own, with no clear rhyme or reason explaining the problem.
Morbidelli has a single year left on his contract, the only factory rider to be in a position to be out of a job at the end of the season. With a host of hungry rivals angling for a better seat in 2025, and the specter of Toprak Razgatlioglu making the switch from WorldSBK in the next year or two, Morbidelli simply has to perform this year. If he doesn't make progress soon, he will be out of a job.
Takaaki Nakagami may be out of a ride in 2024, but it is unlikely that if he loses his seat in the LCR Idemitsu Honda seat to Ai Ogura, as is widely expected, Nakagami will be out of a job. There has already been talk of the Japanese rider making the switch to full-time test rider for HRC, as the option of having a fast Japanese test rider to communicate with the Japanese engineers would be too good to turn down.
So far in testing, Nakagami has not given HRC any reason to prefer him over Ai Ogura, or if necessary, Somkiat Chantra. The Japanese rider will have to turn this situation around very quickly if he is to save his seat for the future.
But first, Portimão
What are we to make of the opening round of the 2023 season? With two days of testing at the Portimão circuit, the riders are raring to go. Pretty much everyone has a good base setting for the circuit, and an idea of what they want to do . So your best guide to what might happen is the results of the test.
At the Portimão MotoGP test, there was nobody faster than Pecco Bagnaia. Not only did he smash the lap record, but he also ran a highly competitive sprint races simulation on the last day of the test. If testing is anything to go by, the race at Portimão will be for second, with Bagnaia the clear favorite to clear off and clean up.
The fact that the teams test at the same track the first race of the season is held takes a lot of the unpredictability of the opening MotoGP round away. The test provides a guide for the opening race, with few causes for surprise. The season starts for real once we return from a dusty Argentinian track, and the physically demanding anomaly that is the Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas, and start to race in Europe again.
Portimão should be fun and interesting. But the season gets serious over a month later, once MotoGP kicks off the full European summer season at Jerez. Then we'll start to see the championship take shape.