MotoGP: Can The Field Close The Gap To Bagnaia At Catalunya?
Advantage Bagnaia: can the field fight back in Barcelona?
The pace is hotting up and so is Pecco’s form. The first back-to-back of the coming crescendo is GO!
Monday, 28 August 2023
The season is about to light up in a stunning crescendo to the fight for the crown, with the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya hosting the first in a back-to-back with Misano before we head for India, Japan, and two triple headers across three continents to bring the curtain down. The form on show for Championship leader Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) showed no signs of feeling the pressure last time out though, with a perfect weekend seeing the number 1 sweep the board. Now it’s on the chasing pack to get the bit between their teeth and see if they can cut that gap, with Barcelona the first stop in a stunning final half of 2023.
Francesco Bagnaia (1). Photo courtesy Ducati.
The closest challengers
We could be forgiven for having expected a slightly different Martinator: Judgment Day for Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) in Austria, but what looked like it could be a key chance to hit back turned into a tougher weekend. Track limits bit him in qualifying, he was judged to have played the wrong kind of starring role in that Turn 1 incident in the Tissot Sprint, and then had his Grand Prix race hampered by a Long Lap to compound the mountain of starting P12. He’s still second overall, but that gap has grown once more. Still, Martin is one of the few on the grid who has gone toe-to-toe with Pecco this season and come out on top, in some style too, and he’s no stranger to a forced reset. He also took second last year in Barcelona.
Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), meanwhile, also lost out in that Turn 1 Sprint domino effect in Austria. And those were valuable points in play as the number 72 is now only six points off Martin. But sometimes, that’s the luck – or lack thereof – of the draw, and Bezzecchi reset on Sunday to grab a valuable haul and another podium. Heading into Barcelona, he’s somewhat of an unknown quantity too, as last season he crashed out. But he’s been slow nowhere so far in 2023…
In the leading postcode, Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) is hanging on. It’s now a sizeable gap from the South African down to fifth place as he grabbed a double podium on KTM home turf, and vs the rest of the field he was doing far more than hanging on – he left them in the dust except for that one pesky red machine up ahead. If KTM want to beat Ducati, Binder did that seven times out of eight in Austria – twice. Now in Barcelona, can they do it again, or similar? It’s a very different track to the Red Bull Ring… but so is Jerez and there, he was two tenths off. Teammate Jack Miller, meanwhile, is going for a full reset once the lights go out. The Australian started just off the front row in Austria and then positively plummeted on Sunday, so one-lap speed? Check. Race pace? The mission. We’ve seen it in Jerez though, so watch this space.
Keep an eye on…
One rider who leaves Austria with a newly minted return to the top five is Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) as he impressed on Sunday to dispatch Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP), and Marquez himself has impressed of late with that Sprint win at Silverstone only dampened by a mechanical issue thereafter. Marini has won in Moto2 in Catalunya and took sixth in MotoGP last year, and AM73’s record at the track is excellent: a Moto3 win and two Moto2 wins. Can they bother the podium battle?
Aprilia also had a fairly solid Austria, all things considered, mostly that it’s supposed to be a tougher venue for their machine. But Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) had PACE and put it on the front row, with those starts just hampering the ultimate result. It’s something the Noale factory say they’re working on, and if they can solve that, the mountain gets a lot less steep. For Aleix Espargaro, meanwhile, Austria was pretty solid and now it’s time for a true home round – with the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya just up the road from his hometown of Granollers. Last year his speed was enough for second place before that late error of judgement, and he’ll come into this one looking for some revenge. Both Viñales and Aleix Espargaro are likely to lay down some serious gauntlets this weekend.
For the CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP Team Aprilia contingent, the story remains somewhat familiar: Raul Fernandez wants to move forward, and Miguel Oliveira just wants some luck. For those who don’t believe in luck in racing, Aleix Espargaro doesn’t either – unless you’re talking about Miguel Oliveira’s 2023 season. That sole exception is truly true as the Portuguese rider has seemed to find misfortune through zero fault of his own again and again this year. And what almost makes it even more frustrating? He’s been quick regardless. He’s still impressing and at some point, surely, that luck will turn. He’s a former winner in Barcelona too.
Going back to that true hometown vibe, it’s as true for Pol Espargaro as it is for his brother Aleix. The GASGAS name is also racing at home with Pol and GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3 teammate Augusto Fernandez, and both will want some glory. Espargaro took that impressive Sprint result in Austria as he still gets back in the groove, and Fernandez then took a point after a late penalty for his teammate on Sunday in a mixed bag for the team, but a nice stat for Fernandez. He remains one of only two riders to have scored in every GP race so far this season. What have they got in the locker in Barcelona, and as the mystery rolls on for who will be where with KTM and GASGAS next season?
Looking for more
The first name on the list here has got to be Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing), who is fifth in the Championship and has a season littered with podiums so far… but it just didn’t come together in Austria. Can he fight back in Barcelona, with his future now confirmed? Can Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP) move forward and keep his name in the hat? And can Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team) really start to challenge as his experience on this new machine increases?
Zarco’s new home for 2024, meanwhile, we now know is Honda, and they’re another camp looking for steps forward. There was one small milestone last time out though: Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) scored points on Sunday for the first time since Malaysia last season. It was in P12, but it’s something ticked off. Next mission: top ten? More? This is home turf for Marquez so he could be pushing risk vs reward that bit more. Teammate Joan Mir, meanwhile, wants that finish after a crash out in Austria and also races on home turf. Iker Lecuona too, and he’s back in subbing for Alex Rins at LCR Honda Castrol. On the other side of that box, LCR Honda Idemitsu’s Takaaki Nakagami will just want a little less drama than Turn 1 last year, and will want to get back into those points after a tougher couple of weekends.
Last year holds much better memories for some on the grid, not least of all the winner: Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP). It pays to remember that Marc Marquez has already been on pole and the Sprint podium this season just as it pays to remember Quartararo fought for the Championship last year to the final round – and won a good few races, including this one. It has not been decades, so can they make those steps back forward? Will the venue still prove a good one for the Frenchman and Yamaha? Assen saw him further forward once again so Barcelona could prove similar. For teammate Franco Morbidelli too, as he looks to keep those points rolling in and get back in the top ten.
SHOWTIME IN BARCELONA
The Gran Premi Monster Energy de Catalunya has MotoGP last on the menu once more:
Tissot Sprint: Saturday 15:00 (GMT +2)
Grand Prix Race: Sunday 14:00 (GMT +2)
Can Acosta hit back on home turf?
After more than a year, Celestino Vietti (Fantic Racing) got back on the top step in Styria… and that was most definitely not in the script for Pedro Acosta (Red Bull KTM Ajo). The stars were supposed to have aligned: taking the Championship lead right before Red Bull and KTM’s home race, breaking the lap record on Friday, taking pole position despite that crash… the stage was set, but it wasn’t to be. A couple of moments – his own at Turn 3 and then another getting extremely close to Vietti’s rear wheel late on – saw the number 37 forced to call off the dogs and settle for second. And guess who won at Catalunya last year? Celestino Vietti.
Acosta, however, still extended that lead as Tony Arbolino (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team) only came home sixth in Spielberg, and that’s starting to become a problem. A few races ago the Italian was banking podiums on tougher days, but he’ll really need to start hitting back soon to stay in Acosta’s postcode in the Championship. Jake Dixon (Asterius GASGAS Aspar Team) also had a gap to the podium in Austria and will want more in Catalunya, and Alonso Lopez (Beta Tools SpeedUp) is on an even tougher run. Both Lopez and teammate Fermin Aldeguer, who won in Silverstone, will want a starring role.
Then there’s Ai Ogura (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia). The Japanese rider has now taken two podiums from three races after injury plagued his pre-season and start to the year… so can he find that bit more again in Barcelona? We’ll find out on Sunday at 12:15 (GMT +2)!
Öncü & Sasaki ready for another charge at Holgado
Deniz Öncü (Red Bull KTM Ajo) had been a frontrunner in Moto3 for a good few seasons before he finally took that maiden win in Germany, and only a few races later he’s now added a second Grand Prix victory – in style and on important turf. He’s now third overall after that final corner pickpocket and another dose of bad luck, this time technical, for Jaume Masia (Leopard Racing), and Öncü will be looking to gain more ground again this weekend.
Championship leader Daniel Holgado (Red Bull KTM Tech3), however, remains steadfast in his consistency, speed and racecraft. In only his second full season he’s not giving the veterans any margin at all and Barcelona is another track he knows well. It’s also, interestingly, the last of three tracks before we head from India – new turf for all – to Motegi and the start of a run of venues Öncü and Ayumu Sasaki (Liqui Moly Husqvarna Intact GP) have been racing quite a while longer.
Speaking of Sasaki, it’s now six podiums in a row for the Japanese rider, but it’s also a run of chasing the carrot to perfection before just getting pipped at the flag. He seems zen about it, however, confident it’ll come – so can he keep that roll of podiums going until the dice roll his way? Or will that be in Barcelona anyway? His teammate, Collin Veijer, needs a shoutout too after that speed in Austria.
Finally, David Alonso (Gaviota GASGAS Aspar Team), after winning and then coming back down to Earth with a crash out the lead, will also be one to watch, eager to get back to bothering the more veteran runners in that podium fight. Tune in for more Moto3 action this weekend, with lights out at 11:00 (GMT +2) on Sunday!