Thursday, February 29, 2024

Every seat change, new track and rider under pressure: MotoGP ultimate season guide

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It will have been 140 days this Sunday since Francesco Bagnaia secured his first MotoGP championship in sensational fashion in Valencia last year.

The Italian started the race as favourite to secure the silverware, but to say that so plainly does a great disservice to his almost unbelievable journey to the stop of the sport.

The Italian was down 91 points to title rival Fabio Quartararo at the halfway mark of the season. To win the championship he needed to execute the greatest comeback in the history of motorcycle racing.

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It took him all 10 rounds, but by the end of the year he’d completed a turnaround of 108 points to take Ducati’s first riders title since Casey Stoner’s crown in 2007.

Those almost unbelievable points figures are reset to zero now, but what can’t be erased is the new-found confidence Bagnaia has gained from having achieved his goal at the end of such an unpredictable campaign.

By all reports he has a new swagger about him, and it’s translated to a consistently searing speed on the track.

And he may need it too, because there’s been much change in the sport since it adjourned last November.

There’s been mass movement in the rider market ahead of this year and some significant changes in the teams themselves too.

Even the format of the sport is in for revision, with twice the number of races scheduled this year, and there are two first-time host nations joining the calendar.

Will championship confidence be enough to see Bagnaia cruise through this season and do the double? Or is the door open for someone to master the circumstances and give the sport a new world champion?

THE RIDERS RISING TO THE CHALLENGE ON NEW MACHINERY

The 2022–23 silly season was a very silly one indeed, with no fewer than 12 rider changes.

Aussie Jack Miller left Ducati for KTM to take up a ride alongside Brad Binder on a long-term deal. The Townsville native is hoping that he can establish himself in the Austrian marque’s project to rise to the top of the sport as an experienced hand with race-winning experience.

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Stepping into his red leathers is four-time race winner Enea Bastianini, who will partner reigning champion Bagnaia to form a pair with real dynamite potential. Bastianini and Bagnaia sparred several times last year, including multiple battles that resulted in Pecco hitting the deck, risking his title chances.

Bastianini, last year riding for Gresini, appeared to pay little heed to the senior status of his compatriot in the throes of a championship challenge. Now on the same bike, harmony is no guarantee at the factory Ducati team.

His Gresini seat has been taken over by Alex Márquez — a lifeline following his failure to launch his Honda career. The Spaniard has been one of the preseason’s star performers in his new environment and on a new bike, so much so he’s been trying to keep a lid on frothing expectations that he’ll be a victory contender this year.

Both former Suzuki riders will switch to Honda bikes. Álex Rins will take Márquez’s LCR, while Joan Mir will take on the formidable challenge of partnering Marc Márquez at the factory Honda team.

Neither Honda team looked particularly strong during testing after three bruising years for the Japanese marque. With two established stars on the RC213V, there’ll be a new spotlight shone on Honda, its relationship with Márquez and how the bike delivers its performance — and there’ll be nowhere to hide if things don’t work.

Mir’s arrival has pushed Pol Espargaró out of the team after two unhappy seasons; he arrives back into the KTM fold with the Gas Gas-badged Tech3 satellite squad, where he’ll partner rookie and 2022 Moto2 champion Augusto Fernández.

RNF gets an all-new line-up, with both Miguel Oliveira and Raúl Fernández joining from KTM. Andrea Dovizioso has retired from the premier class, while Darryn Binder has moved down to Moto2.

Aussie Remy Gardner also found himself without a MotoGP seat and has switched to the Superbike World Championship, where he’s currently 13th in the standings after two rounds.

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THE RIDERS UNDER PRESSURE

There’s little sign the frenetic rider market will relax after last season, with seven riders coming out of contract this season.

Franco Morbidelli’s Yamaha deal is up for renewal, and after a dismal 2022, he’ll need to be on his A-game if he wants to keep his factory seat, particularly with Yamaha-backed 2021 Superbike champion Toprak Razgatlıoğlu eager to make the switch to MotoGP.

There’s also a possible threat from Jorge Martin, whose Pramac deal expires this year. Martin is bitterly disappointed to have been passed over for promotion to the senior Ducati squad and has openly stated he’ll consider all his options this year. Teammate Johann Zarco is also up for renewal.

Both Alex Márquez and Fabio di Giannantonio will need to prove their worth at Gresini, and likewise Valentino Rossi-backed Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi will need new deals for 2024.

Other than Morbidelli, Takaaki Nakagami starts the season under the most pressure to perform. The Japanese rider was unexpectedly retained after Moto2 runner-up Ai Ogura decided he needed another year to build himself up in the intermediate class, but it’s difficult to imagine Taka being kept on for another season if he can’t improve on his previous scrappy campaign.

FLAT-OUT FORMAT TO SHAKE UP THE WEEKEND

The MotoGP weekend is being shaken up significantly for the first time in years to accommodate the new Saturday sprint, which will run at all 21 rounds this season.

The series is introducing the half-distance Saturday race following a fan survey into the health of the sport and its position in the broader motorsport landscape.

Watch every practice, qualifying and race of the 2023 MotoGP World Championship live and ad-break free during racing on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >

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While some see it as a response to the burgeoning popularity of Formula 1, which is in the process of expanding its selection of sprint races after their introduction two years ago, MotoGP is taking its own approach with the in-vogue format.

Not only will sprint races appear at every round, but they’ll be standalone events that won’t influence Sunday’s grid.

While that will at least save the sport the unnecessary argument over who gets credited with pole, it will create a new column in the history book for sprint victories, which won’t count towards the historic tally of grand prix wins.

That is, a rider won’t be able to rack up 42 race wins in a season; 21 victories and 21 sprint wins will be treated as separate statistics.

Making the sprint a truly separate event is designed to deliver a better spectacle.

Every sprint will run to around half the distance of the grand prix, but riders will get a little more than half the fuel allowance, meaning fuel saving won’t be a problem. There’s also consensus that the soft tyre will be the default too given wear and degradation won’t factor in most races.

That means that for around 20 minutes riders will be incentivised to push flat-out, free from race strategy and management.

It also means sprints are going to be physically demanding with narrow margins for error, particularly on circuits that already require a high level of focus.

Only the top nine riders of the sprint will score points in a 12-9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 pattern. Grand prix winners will continue to score the full 25 points on Sunday.

The trade-off is that practice has been reduced from four sessions to three, which means there’s a smaller window for riders to qualify directly into Q2. Only the two practice sessions on Friday will count.

Saturday free practice will be for bike set-up and lead immediately into qualifying — which sets the grid for the sprint and the race — with the sprint later in the day.

The warm-up has also been shortened on Sunday before the grand prix.

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JAPAN’S PRESENCE DWINDLES AS RNF DEFECTS TO ITALY

Suzuki’s departure from MotoGP is the most significant change to the grid this year, with the number of bikes reduced to 22 as a result.

It leaves Yamaha as the sport’s only operator of an in-line engine, with the rest of the field now dominated by V4 motors.

In fact just two bikes will run the I4, with the other significant change being RNF’s switch of allegiance from Yamaha to Aprilia in a blow to Japan’s presence in MotoGP and a win for Italy. It’s now down to just six along with Honda’s quartet of machines.

RNF team boss Razlan Razali said part of the reason for his switch was Yamaha’s reluctance to offer him a long-term supply deal. Aprilia’s ascendancy last season while Yamaha languished would’ve progressed things, one would think.

It’s a boon for Aprilia, which now has double the number of bikes gathering data as it attempts to close the gap to Ducati for a championship battle, albeit it’s still well shy of Bologna’s count of three satellite teams.

By that same token it leaves Yamaha with just its two bikes — one of which is ridden by Morbidelli, who is yet to show signs that he’s broken out of his year-long funk — to direct development.

NO NEW RULES, BUT SOME BIKES LOOK DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT THIS YEAR

The bikes will look different this season, but not because of any new regulation.

The pursuit of downforce continues at an alarming rate in MotoGP, and throughout pre-season testing the teams were busy affixing all sorts of aerodynamic appendages to their bikes in pursuit of more performance.

The best was saved for last, with Yamaha trialling a miniature Formula 1-style rear wing on the back of the bike, though Quartararo was noncommittal about whether it would be raced. Aprilia likewise unveiled a T-shaped rear wing.

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But it wasn’t just the comically overt aero devices that caught the eye. Virtually every part of the bike is now considered a canvas for aerodynamicists, whose sculpting of the bodywork comes not only at great expense but also at the risk of degrading the quality of the racing by making passing difficult.

Every car racing series in the world understands the problem. Both F1 and even the Supercars have used recent rule changes to reduce downforce or alter the way it’s generated. There’s concern MotoGP is yet to grasp the opportunity to put the aero genie back in its bottle.

Tyre pressures will also be a talking point, with the sport monitoring and enforcing front tyre pressures for the first time ever this year from the third round onwards. Riders already frequently complain about high tyre pressure, especially when racing in packs; expect plenty more of that this season.

Teams will also be banned from using front ride height devices during the race on safety grounds. Ducati, which pioneered the mechanism, was the only team that objected. The sport is still seeking consensus on banning the rear ride height device given all teams now have a version of their own.

NEW RACES ON THE HORIZON

A record 21-race calendar wouldn’t be complete without new venues, and this season the sport is expanding to Kazakhstan and India.

The first Kazakh Grand Prix will take place at the Sokol International Racetrack, around 60 kilometres northwest of capital Almaty, which is in the nation’s southeast near the mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan

September will see India host its first motorcycle grand prix when MotoGP arrives at the Buddh International Circuit, near New Delhi. Buddh is best known internationally for being the short-lived host of the Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix, which collapsed due to a tax dispute.

The circuit needs upgrading to host motorcycle racing, and the Times of India has reported that the track is embroiled in a legal and financial dispute between its owner and the promoter of the race that could threaten its readiness to host the grand prix.

In exchange for the new circuits, Aragon has been dropped from the calendar in a rotating deal with the other four races on the Iberian Peninsula, including Jerez, Catalunya and Valencia in Spain and Portimão in Portugal.

MOTOGP 2023 CALENDAR

1. Portuguese Grand Prix (24–26 March)

2. Argentine Grand Prix (31 March–2 April)

3. Americas Grand Prix (14–16 April)

4. Spanish Grand Prix (28–30 April)

5. French Grand Prix (12–14 May)

6. Italian Grand Prix (9–11 June)

7. German Grand Prix (16–18 June)

8. Dutch TT (23–25 June)

9. Kazakh Grand Prix (7–9 July)

10. British Grand Prix (4–6 August)

11. Austrian Grand Prix (18–20 August)

12. Catalan Grand Prix (1–3 September)

13. San Marino Grand Prix (8–10 September)

14. Indian Grand Prix (22–24 September)

15. Japanese Grand Prix (29 September–1 October)

16. Indonesian Grand Prix (13–15 October)

17. Australian Grand Prix (20–22 October)

18. Thai Grand Prix (27–29 October)

19. Malaysian Grand Prix (10–12 November)

20. Qatar Grand Prix (17–19 November)

21. Valencia Grand Prix (24–26 November)

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