MotoGP 2023 Has Begun
MotoGP kicked off its 75th Anniversary - and longest ever - campaign this past weekend at the glorious rollercoaster circuit that is Portimao, in the heart of the Algarve region in Portugal. With another pair of races set to commence this weekend in Argentina, hot on the heels of the season-opener, what have we learned from Portimao and what will the teams and riders be looking to achieve this weekend?
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Sprints Show Off the Best and Worst of MotoGP
In a bid to recover dwindling TV and trackside audiences, MotoGP is going full steam into an F1-like approach for its sensational two-wheeled product. New for 2023 is the introduction of 'Sprints.' Unlike F1's tentative six 'Sprint-Weekends' approach, MotoGP has slapped a Sprint into each of the 21 Grands Prix in 2023. Also unlike F1, the MotoGP Sprint in Portugal was an all-out slugfest with riders pushing to the limit, giving fans an enthralling spectacle. However, this extreme approach had its pitfalls, with riders taking the brunt.
Pol Espargaro, reunited with the Tech3 team that gave him his premier class debut, was thrown clear from his GasGas during an out-lap in free practice. This was arguably symptomatic of the pressures put upon riders to secure a decent time in the opening two practice sessions in order to advance straight to Q2 in Saturday's Qualifying, all due to the Sprints shaking up the format [in 2022, riders had three combined sessions to set a time to secure a Q2 slot].
Next up on the injury block was factory Ducati's new man Enea Bastianini. Bastianini was wiped out by Luca Marini's VR46 Ducati, early on in the Sprint. Another rider guilty of being over-zealous in the Sprint was Honda's Joan Mir, who collected 2021 champion Fabio Quartararo in what could only be described as an ambitious lunge. Mir got a long-lap penalty in the GP for his troubles and poor old Fabio astride his troublesome Yamaha could only 'sprint' home to a pointless 10th place finish in Saturday's event.
Four riders are missing the Argentine round and with one omission confirmed to be caused by Sprint antics and another closely linked, perhaps a rethink from the Stewards is needed to avoid further injuries. However, the racing was fantastic and should be preserved as much as possible to ensure the product achieves its goal, attracting more fans.
There's Hope for Honda, but Marquez's 'All or Nothing' Approach Needs a Rethink
Preseason testing gave clear evidence that Honda are set for another difficult year - with two new rides in Mir and Alex Rins needing to adapt to a difficult machine that looks way off the pace of its Italian rivals Ducati and Aprilia. Despite this, Mir showed promise in practice and Marc Marquez stunned the paddock with a sensational pole lap and third place finish in the Sprint. Then it all went wrong.
Having previously stated he was 'over-riding' his bike in the Sprint, Marquez employed the same tactic in Sunday's Grand Prix, with devastating affect. Desperate to keep pace with the leaders in the early stages of the race, Marquez out braked himself heading into Turn 3 of the Portimao circuit, narrowly avoiding Pramac Ducati's Jorge Martin, only to clatter into Portuguese home hero Miguel Oliveira aboard his RNF Aprilia. Both riders will miss Argentina with injuries and Marquez has been handed a double long-lap penalty for his next outing. In his hands, the Honda could trouble the podium, but is the risk worth it?
KTM Show Promise
KTM new boy Jack Miller and the rest of the Austrian manufacturers four riders [GasGas is merely a KTM re-badge job] were worried after a difficult preseason. However, Miller was fastest in Friday practice, backed it up with 5th in qualifying, before finishing 4th and 7th respectively in the Sprint and Grand Prix. KTM's favourite son Brad Binder battled with his new teammate Miller in Sunday's race and finished just ahead of him in sixth. The results weren't scintillating, but finishing just 8.2 seconds behind the peerless reigning champion Francesco Bagnaia aboard his all-new Ducati will give KTM plenty of confidence moving forward.
Yamaha Are in Trouble
A former race winner with bags of potential, sadly Franco Morbidelli is a shadow of his former self and his struggles continue aboard the factory Yamaha as he finished Sunday's GP 14th and last of the finishers. His teammate, the freakishly talented Quartararo suffured a difficult weekend aboard a bike that can't cope with the competition. 10th and 8th isn't the return the Frenchman would have wanted, but it looked like the best man and machine could acheive. It will be a long season for Yamaha and their two bike entry.
Is Vinales Back?
Maverick Vinales is one of the most perplexing riders in modern MotoGP history, but he's started his second full season aboard the factory Aprilia in marvellous form. His pace throughout preseason and practice - normally something that hasn't translated in year's gone by - was on full display in the main event on Sunday. Better yet, Vinales managed a rare decent start and converted it into a comfortable second place finish. He will be full of confidence now, given this week's race is in Argentina, the venue for Aprilia's solitary win in 2022.
Can Anyone Stop Bagnaia and Ducati?
The reigning rider/constructor champion combination looked in devastating form in the MotoGP season opener. Calm, calculated and exacting a phenomenal pace, Bagnaia took maximum points from both the Sprint and Grand Prix in Portugal. It's a combination that looks tough to beat and with a handful of talented Ducati riders littered throughout the MotoGP grid, expect to see 'Bologna Bullets' on the top step of the podium on many more occasions this year.
There was a lot to unpack from a glorious return to action for MotoGP in Portugal and this season looks to be another enthralling instalment in its long history. What storylines will emerge this weekend in Argentina?