The rise of Marco Bezzecchi to consistent MotoGP front-runner has been one of the stories of the first half of 2023
Even for a rider with as much hype behind him as Marco Bezzecchi, it’s fair to say 2023 has exceeded expectations so far. The gangly 24-year-old with a big smile and bigger hair has been the revelation of this year’s MotoGP world championship, scoring two wins and just about placing himself in the title fight.
There can be no doubting MotoGP in 2023 has a different feel to it. Aside from the addition of Saturday’s Sprint races, Fabio Quartararo (ninth) and Marc Marquez (19th) – two of the class’s leading names – are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Ducati has tightened what was already a vice-like grip on proceedings. And along with Jorge Martin, it’s Bezzecchi that has quickly become reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia’s most regular foe.
Eight races in, the eight-time GP winner sits 36 points back of the championship summit. At the recent Dutch TT, he stamped his authority on the weekend to the extent it was a surprise he only finished as runner-up on Sunday. The last few months have indicated the latest prodigy of Valentino Rossi with a hairstyle similar to another Italian legend – Marco Simoncelli – can go the distance.
“He’s a dark horse,” warned Team Manager Uccio Salucci earlier this year.
Impressive reading, not least for a rider in a satellite team on a year-old bike. Was the 2022 Rookie of the Year expecting these results?
“Honestly no,” he told AMCN on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix. “I expected to be fast, of course, but not to be winning two races, honestly. My target was to win a race this year but it came earlier than I expected.”
Crew chief Matteo Flamigni recently told veteran journalist Mat Oxley Bezzecchi rode his first year in the premier class “on instinct”. Now “he’s more considered”. Does Bez agree?
“It’s quite true,” he said of Flamigni’s sage comments. “I still have that part of instinct I need to have to go fast. But gaining more experience, I can manage better myself, my riding style, everything when I ride during races or qualifying, any kind of session.
“The experience always helps because on the MotoGP grid there are many riders with more than me. Also knowing the bike more is fantastic because I have more confidence on it now. I can be more – not aggressive – but with more decision in the beginning, and also the end of the race. This was a big change.”
The rise of VR46 Ducati
Bezzecchi’s current performances are all the more remarkable considering his team. A stalwart of Moto3 from 2014 to 2020 and Moto2 from 2017 to 2022, the VR46 team only stepped up to the premier class officially last year. Yet as soon as one runs an eye over the machinery – Ducati occupies five of the current championship top six – and the personnel in the squad, it’s far less surprising.
The operation is run by Salucci, an eternal presence as Rossi’s best friend throughout a 24-year stretch in the paddock. Flamigni, formerly Rossi’s data engineer for 18 seasons, is the crew chief. Plus, Bezzecchi has been a member of the set-up since 2020. With all this accumulated experience, the atmosphere is just right.
“(Matteo) is a fantastic guy first of all,” said Bezzecchi. “We are very close friends beside the rider-crew chief relationship. So, I feel the ambience, the mood in the box is great because he’s very calm and he always keeps the team calm in the difficult moments. He’s kept me calm because at times I get a bit nervous. I have to say that not only Matteo makes this, also Uccio. He’s very, very good at keeping the relationships, the mood in the box in a fantastic way.
“With my team I have such a good relationship because we’ve been together for so many years, my mechanics, my data guy, Matteo is new but this is the second year together, and we are really like friends. Sometimes, me and my mechanics, we go out together, we go to dinner – the Italians, obviously, because the Spaniards are too far. We see each other outside the races and speak about everything else. With Matteo I know his family, and we have a very close relationship. For me this is very important to have.
“It’s good because we don’t just speak about bikes. During the weekend the bike is obviously the centre of everything. But in the evening when the job is done, we stay anyway in the box, with the mechanics. I look at the bike, I like the mechanical side. I chat with the guys and spend time with them.”
Unlike Bagnaia and Martin, Bezzecchi is not on the latest Ducati Desmosedici GP23. That’s not to say his ’22 spec machine is lacking in performance; but the gangly Italian follows his mentor’s example. When Rossi has come to a race since retiring at the close of 2021, “he’s in the box, checking the data with the Ducati engineers,” according to Salucci. “He’ll be in the box for three hours: one hour and a half with (Luca) Marini, one and a half with Bezzecchi.
Bez is no different. During a race weekend, he can usually be found in the garage, spending hours with his technicians, poring over data, finding ways to extract more from himself on the bike.
“I try to work a lot in the box to improve the riding and not only the setting,” he said. “Of course, that’s helping but for the riding even more so. I try to study a lot how to improve myself and ride better. I also like staying in the box just to stay with (my team).
“I prefer that to being alone in the motorhome. Honestly, I spend all day inside the box. I only go to the motorhome when I need the toilet!”
But for a chance meeting, Bezzecchi’s position as one of MotoGP’s next superstars wouldn’t have been possible. Growing up in Rimini, 20 kays from the Misano World Circuit, he was exposed to the minibike scene from the age of four. But as the son of a truck mechanic, his family wasn’t in the position to spend the big bucks on securing a ride in the Spanish championship. Thankfully, a cousin’s acquaintance generated sufficient hype when encountering Carlo Casabianca, physio for the VR46 Academy, set up by Rossi in 2014 to bring through Italy’s next generation of stars.
“My cousin had this girlfriend,” Bezzecchi recalled. “She was from Pesaro and she broke her knee. She started to go to a gym to do physio where Carlo worked, who is our trainer. She started to bother him, saying: ‘My cousin is a great rider, you have to go see him!’ Finally, he listened to her and brought all the other guys from VR46. He spoke with Vale, he came to see me.
“I was in the Italian championship in Moto3, in 2015, winning the championship at that time. I was a Mahindra rider. But it was difficult, because it’s tough to arrive to the top. All my family had to make sacrifices. So, without VR46 it was almost impossible to arrive to the world championship. I was so lucky to meet them.
“Then when I had the wildcard (at Mugello in 2015) I spoke with Vale for the first time. They invited me to the ranch. From that moment, everything started. We got to know each other, and kept in touch until I was finally signed into the VR46 Academy. It was a crazy story, but I was very lucky!”
Rossi may have retired; but he’s never shy when offering advice.
“Vale is always present,” Salucci told me regarding how often he speaks with his riders. “Always.” And after Bezzecchi’s maiden win in the rain in Argentina, he revealed Rossi had told him in no uncertain terms that then was his time to deliver. Is it normal for the Italian master to be so direct, almost tough – with his fledglings?
“He has a lot of experience. He’s able to give us a lot of advice. His way of telling me something is always very clear,” Bezzecchi explained. “He goes direct to the point where he wants to arrive. I like this way because I’m also like this. For me, it’s easier to understand and to learn from this type of advice. It’s a very good approach, I really like it.”
So, there’s never a time when his advice can be a bit too abrupt? “Sometimes it hurts,” Bezzecchi conceded. “It depends. But at the end he does it for me, to see me in a better way.”
While the VR46 Academy has always been made out to be a dream-like haven for racers (Bagnaia once described it as “like the island in Peter Pan”), I’ve often doubted the claims that they are all best friends. These are, after all, ruthlessly competitive athletes completely focused on the same prize. Bezzecchi’s repeated attempts to wind Bagnaia up during the Dutch TT – he joked on camera “I’d have f***ed you like (Saturday’s Sprint race)” if he had made a different tyre choice – came across as one pal trying to get a rise out of another. But surely there are times when certain members of the Academy are at each other’s throats?
“Honestly, no, (we’re not always friendly),” Bezzecchi admitted. “It’s normal to sometimes have some hard moments. (But) it’s more at home, at the ranch, training or at the gym. Sometimes we get into some arguments. But now we’re men so we have to understand that we have to try to live together in a good way. At the races it’s easier. But yeah, it’s normal for every kind of relationship to have hard moments. In a relationship like our one, fighting for the same target and being together every day is difficult, but we manage it very well.”
Not as outgoing as his mentor Rossi, Bezzecchi is still worthy company. Often quiet and unassuming in front of cameras, he can also be forthright in his dealings with the media. “He’s a fantastic guy,” said VR46 boss Salucci. “When you speak with him, he looks you in the eye and says, ‘okay!’ It’s special to work with him.”
Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer. Apparently bored by a persistent line of questioning from one journalist at Mugello, Bezzecchi was asked what if it was to rain the following day.
“Then it will be wet,” came the deadpan response. And when stirred, he’s not afraid to share a few home truths, either. After being nerfed wide by Aleix Espargaro on the first lap of the Portuguese Sprint in March, he was in no mood to hold back when he met with journalists.
“Some riders that cry in the Safety Commission for so many overtakes, like a baby, then they make something that is completely stupid and destroy your race.”
His career has been a fairly straight progression since he graduated to the world championship with Mahindra in 2017. But two years later – his rookie campaign in the intermediate class – was the exception. He scored points just four times aboard a KTM chassis that was hopelessly uncompetitive. Only a move to the VR46 team the following year revived his career. But Bezzecchi still looks back to 2019 as a year that shaped him.
“It was a difficult season for me,” he said. “The bike wasn’t so bad. Some other riders could go fast. But honestly, I didn’t find myself very well and I wasn’t able to ride fast. At the end of the season, I could improve a bit but in the end something always went wrong. Once they made me crash. Once the bike was broken. Then I couldn’t go fast anyway. In that period of my life, I was really sad.
“Anyway, I tried to not give up because my passion was more than the hard moment I was living. Fortunately, with the people I had around me – my family, in the Academy – I had a lot of help to stay positive to try and come back. I learned a lot, (mostly) by trying to change a lot with my riding during the year to be more adaptive to everything I could find in my way. My personality, just to not give up and really fight.”
Those lessons have held him good stead in recent years. With an eye on the season’s second half, there is a feeling he can fight for something really interesting. Yet unsurprisingly, a rider surrounded by this much experience isn’t getting carried away.
“The chance is there because until now I’m close,” he said to a suggestion he is a worthy rival for the title with Bagnaia. “But it’s a little too early to think about it.
“I prefer to arrive to a point of the season thinking always race-by-race. Also, to continue to improve because there are some tracks where I struggled more last year.
“The target is to be constantly fast all the time. Then if I can be in the same position I’m in now toward the end of the season, of course, it will be normal to think about it. But for the moment, I don’t want to stress too much.”
Interview Neil Morrison + Photography Gold&Goose