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Neil Morrison speaks to people in the know to see just how battler Jorge Martin was MotoGP's fastest rider in 2023…

Whether you’re a fan of the bullish swagger and fast talk or not, few could deny that Jorge Martin was MotoGP’s fastest rider in 2023, making him the breakout star of the season.

Midway through last year, MotoGP was in danger of cruising to a snoozy conclusion before the Spaniard stepped up to take the fight to reigning world champion Pecco Bagnaia. Even though he eventually fell short, with some justification he could call himself the fastest rider in the world last year.

All set to go racing under lights in Qatar in 2024

As well as the victories, Martin’s riding at certain races bordered on otherworldly. A total of 13 wins (including Sprint and feature races) propelled him to touching distance of claiming a first MotoGP championship victory by a rider outside a factory team since 2001. “What we achieved from being in a satellite team… we made history and I’m happy about the 13 wins,” he said at Valencia, reflecting on his finest season to date. “It was an outstanding job. The target was to be in the top three and we did much more than that.”

Insane cornering ability

Martin’s blinding talent stood out from his early days in the grand prix paddock. Contesting the Red Bull Rookies Cup for the second year in 2014, his ability to carry barely believable corner speed pricked the ears of the-then double world champion Jorge Lorenzo. “It was 2014, he was in Rookies Cup,” recalled Albert Valera, Martin’s personal manager. “He was doing Mugello and I was watching the race with Lorenzo and he told me, ‘Wow, that guy is super-fast – look at his corner speed.’ That day he won the race by three or four seconds.” Valera quickly signed him up. Martin won the talent promotion series in 2014 before stepping up to the world championship in 2015. And soon Valera had moved Martin to Andorra and introduced him to a clique of riders living there, including Aleix Espargaro.

The tyre gamble in Australia was costly to his 2023 title tilt

From his days in Moto3, when the Madrid native recorded a staggering 20 pole positions in two seasons, it was clear the 26-year-old had the pace to go to the very top. Martin’s explosive speed has always gone hand-in-hand with a precocious ability to learn on the job. Having stepped up from Moto2 to the premier class at the start of 2021, it didn’t take him long to convince the experienced Pramac Ducati team of his talents. “This rider is different to the guys I worked with in the past,” crew chief Daniele Romagnoli told AMCN. “He was and still is so quick at learning. When I first checked the data with him, I explained something and it looked like it was really easy to understand. He would say, ‘Okay, I’ll do that next time.’ And he did!”

Martin took this to a new level in 2023. His insane lean angles and other-worldly technique regularly wowed Ducati’s other men who were privy to his data. “It’s difficult to compare with him,” admitted Luca Marini during the Thai GP. “Every time you look, he can turn the bike (on a sixpence).” The lean angles and high corner speed he carries are traits that really stand out when Romagnoli analyses his data. “He’s very fast, especially in the fast corners, and when entering, carrying high corner speed. His riding style is quite different from the riders of five years ago. He’s leaning off the bike so much, this helps him have good turning.”

Martin shows off his cornering prowess at the 2024 Sepang test

Honing his aggression

A cursory glance at the 2023 Constructors’ Championship showed just how dominant Ducati was. It gained 700 points from a possible 728, racked up 17 wins and 17 pole positions from 20. And Martin immediately gelled with Ducati’s GP23, a massive step up on what he rode in the previous season, when he regularly cursed the fact he (as well as teammate Johann Zarco and Luca Marini) were left to ride Ducati’s peaky 2022 engine (while the eventual champion made a last-minute switch to a ’21-’22 hybrid).

“When we started working in the winter tests (for 2022) we had a couple of devices on the bike, which took us a lot of time to figure out,” said Romagnoli. “We were wasting some time to make the system work. This took out some focus and there were some parts of the bike we didn’t have time to understand if it was good or not. We went to Jerez to test, it was okay, then we went to Sepang and we struggled with the rear grip. We worked all season to find the best set-up, especially the grip on the rear on gas and in braking. “But at the end of (2022), his comment after the first run was, ‘Wow. This is what I needed!’ Martin likes the rear grip so much, and the ’23 bike had that.”

Shadowed by Marc Marquez, a rider whom Martin says taught him to never give up

Even still, Martin repeatedly failed to deliver on clear potential in the first quarter of 2023. The difference in how the 25-year-old dealt with a group fight at Jerez and later in the year was pronounced. At Jerez he was the fastest rider but couldn’t get past the late-braking KTMs, something which eventual winner Bagnaia capitalised on. And a race-long duel with Marc Marquez at Le Mans, which he eventually won, taught him the value of digging in. “Watching how Marquez never gave up was incredible,” Martin later admitted.

Those lessons, plus a setting tweak at the Barcelona GP resulted in combative Sprint victories as thrilling as those produced in Indonesia, Qatar and Valencia. “He’s always been fast riding alone,” said Romagnoli. “But we weren’t as good as Pecco in the braking area. So, we worked very hard on that. It took a couple of races but Barcelona was a good step. And from then on, we kept that base setting. The biggest step was in braking and once he got that confidence, he could pass riders like he’s doing now.”

Team player

Learning from mentor Aleix Espargaro, Martin knows the value of forging bonds with all those in his garage. Despite desiring a spot in Ducati’s factory team for 2023, he repeatedly talked up the family atmosphere in the Pramac box, and repeatedly appeared at home jibing at the lack of pressure he felt when compared to his factory rival. And, as Romagnoli explained, the Spaniard is responsible for creating that dynamic. “Inside our garage we work really smoothly with him. Most of the time, he’s positive. He makes the team feel comfortable, talking with the mechanics, making jokes, and he can take a joke, as well. Sometimes we ask him, ‘Why are you so slow? You’ll go nowhere if you’re like that!’

Post-race debrief with Pecco Bagnaia at Valencia

“Also, when we celebrated the victory in Austria (in 2021) he took all of us to Punta Cana (in the Dominican Republic) at the end of the year. This was a first for me: the rider bringing all the team on holiday and we didn’t talk about motorbikes at all – just hanging out like friends. He’s really good at making this positive atmosphere. In this garage it’s incredible – the best I’ve ever worked in.”

Boosted fitness

Even through 2022, Martin still felt the niggling effects of a massive practice crash in Portimao the previous year. Finally in 2023 he had a clean bill of health. And there were steps forward with Martin’s fitness over the off-season last year as well. This was where Espargaro came in.
“In the last three seasons we became close friends. Now it’s difficult to judge whether we’re best friends, or he’s like my son,” said the factory Aprilia rider. “Many things that he’s experimenting with right now, I’ve already gone through. I try to give him some tips. I love to be in good physical shape, but I was not like this at his age. I try to help him to not do mistakes and be in good shape earlier than me.”

Cycling has helped Martin’s endurance and overall heart rate

“He’s very social, but sometimes too much!” said Valera. “He likes to have fun with his friends as this is his booster. I try to keep him more at home because he needs to rest.”
And a key moment came early in 2023. “Aleix took him to Tenerife to do seven days of bicycle. Then in the tests he realised he could keep a better heart rate and was calmer. That helped him a lot during the season.”

Aside from a troubled outing in India, when he collapsed in parc fermé post-race, Martin regularly spoke of how his fitness levels had never been higher. “He proved that you can have a lot of talent, but you have to work hard, and he worked really hard this year,” said Espargaro in the autumn of last year. “He’s been very serious, living almost alone without friends in Andorra, training very hard. He changed his preparation quite a lot. He cycles a lot more, does a lot more cardio work, a lot more gym, so he’s really, really focused. In the end, it’s paying off.”

Professional Pride

Another issue that hindered Martin in 2022 was the pressure of vying for the factory seat for 2023 with Enea Bastianini – a far from ideal working environment. But losing out to Bastianini in that regard was a reason why Ducati expected a reaction last season. “I was pretty sure he’d do extremely well mainly for two reasons,” said Ducati sporting director Paolo Ciabatti. “First of all, he was on a full GP23 bike. Also, knowing his very proud character, he wanted to prove a point that he was deserving a factory ride, meaning the factory team. Jorge knows he doesn’t miss anything in order to fight, win and prove all his talent.” That desire to prove to factory bosses was one thing that spurred him on.

Martin’s style is all about high-speed cornering, says Daniele Romagnoli

This chip on the shoulder has been present through most of his racing career, as Jorge wasn’t born into racing royalty. While the MotoGP world centred around Catalunya in the late 2000s and early 2010s, he plied his trade around the tracks outside the unfashionable Madrid. Then in 2008 came the financial crash, which cost father Angel – working in the finance sector – and mother Susanna – a kitchen seller – their jobs, meaning Jorge had to rely on his uncle to continue racing. When he first moved to Andorra, he was reliant on Espargaro to provide him with training equipment – a far cry from a number of names in the paddock who have never truly felt the anguish of financial struggle.

“He was like a kid back then,” said Espargaro. “Albert asked me to help him, to train with him. We started meeting each other at the track. We had a good relationship.” Noting Martin’s modest means at the time, Aprilia’s current captain was only too happy to provide equipment for his young compatriot. “He has always welcomed me into his house, fed me, given me material to train when I had nothing,” noted Martin. “I come from a very humble family and he helped me a lot.”
Yet this pride and desire to show everyone who was king were ultimately Martin’s downfall in 2023. When performing at his best in October, he didn’t just try to win; he wanted to do so by humiliating his rivals.

Crashing out in Malaysia last year

“Maybe being too good at that point gave me overconfidence,” he recalled in Valencia. “I said, ‘Okay, I can pull away and win by five seconds (Indonesia). I can win with another tyre to the others (Australia).’ But we’re in MotoGP and you have to be really conscious about where you are and try to always be with the same tools as your rivals.”

Where to from here?

After a sterling second place in the world championship, surely 2024 offers the perfect chance to go one better. To do that, however, Martin acknowledged he must handle pressure in a better way than he did toward the tail-end of last year. “The Japanese GP was the point where I said we can win the championship. (But) then the pressure arrived. I didn’t enjoy from Thailand until Qatar. I struggled a lot mentally. It was my first time feeling this kind of pressure and I struggled and I didn’t enjoy. I think when I’m enjoying like (I did in Valencia), I am the fastest. So hopefully (this) season I improve, I learn and I can enjoy since the first race.”

Martin and the Espargaro family

But one thing could get in the way: Martin’s feeling Ducati has shunned him. Comments at Valencia last November indicated he still feels bitter that he is not wearing the factory red.
“If I didn’t show yet my potential for them to put me in red, I will never be in red because, doing more than (I did in 2023) is quite complicated. And arriving to the last race (fighting for the championship), finishing second, I think if they haven’t put me there (in the factory team) they never will.” After his recent feats, there will be more than one factory looking to secure his signature for 2025.