Jorge Martin may have been MotoGP’s fastest rider in 2023 but eventual World Champion Francesco Bagnaia always made it count when the big points were on offer.
All championship successes merit acclaim. But some are deserving of more than others. This year was a case in point as Francesco Bagnaia reached new levels of riding and performance. He withstood near incessant pressure from chief rival Jorge Martin in the final months to become one of only 13 champions to retain a premier-class crown.
On the face of it, leading the factory which amassed a colossal 700 Constructors title points from a possible 728 across 20 feature races and 20 Sprints doesn’t sound like the most startling of achievements. But just how Bagnaia repeatedly bounced back from positions of peril in Indonesia, Australia, Qatar and Valencia was a sign of champion material.
“He did the most difficult thing for a rider – defending a championship,” said Marc Marquez, who offered his congratulations to the new champ in Valencia. “Winning a championship is super difficult. But defending one, keeping the pressure, is even more.”
And keep the pressure he did. Jorge Martin’s epic comeback from September on was awesome to watch. But Bagnaia reacted when needed and showed himself to be the calmer, more mature figure, even if he wasn’t necessarily the quicker of the two.
“Starting from Barcelona, Jorge was for sure faster than him in many circuits,” explained Ducati general manager Gigi Dall’Igna. “He can take the pressure quite well and this is something very important.” How he dealt with Martin – and Marquez’s – repeated attempts to get under his skin was commendable.
The dramatic final round of the year, where the title was decided, was a snapshot of the two contenders’ respective challenges. Despite the Spaniard’s superior speed, Bagnaia was the cooler customer, his mettle in high-pressure situations telling. The three days followed what became a recognisable pattern for this year’s No 1: weak on Friday, inferior to Martin in the Sprint but outperforming his great rival the one day when it really mattered.
“Pecco is one of the fastest riders, but he’s also capable of thinking throughout the race and making the right strategy,” said Ducati’s sporting director Paolo Ciabatti. “Sometimes we didn’t come to the perfect situation for the Sprint race. But he has a very close connection with (crew chief Cristian) Gabarrini, (electronics engineer Tomasso) Pagano and the rest of the team. They analyse the data and they almost always come up with a solution for Sunday.”
A glance at this year’s results underlines just how that approach held. Bagnaia won seven times on Sunday and racked up 15 podiums. On the five occasions he wasn’t there, he twice crashed out of the lead (Austin, Barcelona), twice fell from second (Argentina, India) and once out of the victory fight (France). In other words, the man carrying the No 1 plate in the premier class for the first time since 2011 was always there.
This is no coincidence. His four years of previous premier-class experience have honed his technique and working method.
“One thing I’m always really focused on is to improve my feeling in terms of the race pace, used tyres,” the Italian explained to AMCN.
“If you look at the lap-by-lap analysis after a session (on Friday), you’ll see that just me and Fabio (Quartararo) are using very old tyres all session long. I prefer this.
“It can be difficult if you don’t see your name up front, you lose a bit the line. But I’ve worked a lot on that and it’s helped me to be stronger for the Sunday.
“In the last races I was always struggling a bit on the first days in the weekend. But then on Sunday I was always competitive again. It’s a strategy that needs more time.
“The bike last year suited everywhere we went. This year the bike is completely different in terms of setting and feeling, so we have to change it, and change our mind to that.
“I needed more time to understand it, but then in the races it’s so competitive. I’m always working on myself and this always helps for Sunday.”
Too often he was written off after the Sprint. In Indonesia, when he limped home to an underwhelming eighth, Marquez landed a jibe, stating: “Pecco’s finding out just how hard it is to defend a title.”
After becoming the first rider to win from lower than 12th on the grid since April 2006 the following day, Bagnaia spent the cooldown lap cupping his ear to the grandstands.
“Some people talk too soon,” he smirked openly at the time.
That experience was crucial at Valencia, where he arrived with a 21-point advantage and then had to defend a 14-point lead in the final race.
“Last year (at Valencia) I was under a lot more pressure,” he said. “This year I managed it quite well because I was always thinking just about the race. I think I’ve done a big step in front, in terms
of being calm in some situations… to manage
“My team has helped me a lot, too. I think I will continue trying to understand, try to learn from my mistakes. Last year I think that I was ready. But this year I started and in the second and third races I made the same mistake as last year. I think every year it’s a process to improve ourselves and myself. So we have to keep going like this.”
THE ENEMY WITHIN
In 2022, Bagnaia’s chief opponent was on a visibly inferior machine. While his 91-point reversal made history as MotoGP’s greatest ever comeback, Quartararo and his aging, underpowered Yamaha YZR-M1 couldn’t really offer up much resistance once the Ducati rider had found his groove.
Yet this time around his nemesis was closer to home. And as Martin was on the exact same equipment all year long, with aerodynamic and start device upgrades arriving at the same time, Bagnaia had no excuse. The threat of getting beaten by a rider in a satellite outfit heightened the stakes. And with Ducati pooling the data of all eight riders at the close of every day, there was no place to hide.
“Last year Fabio started very well, but as soon as I started to win, he was in trouble,” Bagnaia recalled. “He was so fast, but his bike was not giving to him the possibility to fight against me. We were in a different situation.
“This year after Barcelona Jorge started to take much more confidence in himself. He started gaining points every weekend and he was difficult to stop. Then I crashed in India when I was in front of him, which for sure was a plus in his comeback.
“So, this was a more difficult year, honestly. Sharing data is useful but also more stressful sometimes. I remember many races that I was more competitive, or both sides, or he was more competitive. I saw his data. He was seeing my data. We were improving in the same way. For sure, it was very difficult.”
The pair faced off in thrilling fashion on various occasions throughout the year, their head-to-head at the Sachsenring a first sign of what was to come.
“In the end, they were basically at the same level,” said Ciabatti. “That race would’ve been super boring without the two of them having that fantastic battle.”
While Martin got one over him in the Thai GP, as well as the Qatari and Valencian Sprints, Bagnaia still found ways to outscore his adversary in each of the final three rounds.
While Martin’s late-season speed was unquestionable, it’s worth pointing out the No 1 was recovering from what could have been a career-ending crash in the months of September and October. His swift return to action five days after a horrifying smash at Barcelona, where Brad Binder ran over his right leg, showed he had the grit to match the speed.
So, rather than a particular win this year, it was this remarkable comeback that caught Ciabatti’s eye.
“The following races, he had to cope with a very difficult situation physically,” he said. “We didn’t see the full potential of Bagnaia. When you come to Misano one week later after that crash, completely battered and bruised and you had a KTM on your leg, I think it’s already a miracle he could do both races and finish third.”
Recalling the experience, Bagnaia said: “ In Barcelona it was tough, very tough. It was already a big, big crash, but then Brad rode over my legs and it was even more scary. I was lucky that Enea (Bastianini) crashed in the first corner and took out another five riders… so I was very lucky.
“I prepared everything to be ready in Misano but, even still, I wasn’t prepared. I couldn’t move the knee but luckily I managed to race and the two podiums helped me to try and be focused only on the championship.
“It was a very difficult moment but it was a good lesson to improve myself.”
And that wasn’t all. In October, Bagnaia revealed he had been carrying niggling injuries for months before the Barcelona fall.
“In the Le Mans crash, I broke the (talus bone in the right) foot and the wrist. When you take pain killers you don’t feel anything, but in the days after you start to not feel so good. I raced in Mugello and everything went okay, but we arrived at Sachsenring – all left corners – and I started to have problems with the ligaments in my hand. That was also a problem.”
Only in Indonesia did he feel fully recovered. Another reason to argue why he had fully earned it.
MARGIN TO GET BETTER
After his success in 2022, crew chief Gabarrini said he had only unlocked half of Bagnaia’s potential. And there is more to come, especially as his second championship-winning year in MotoGP was far from perfect. The title could have been out of Martin’s reach long before Barcelona, had it not been for careless crashes in Argentina, Austin and France, showing the 25-year-old can still iron out a few weaknesses, mainly unforced errors, which had also affected the start of his previous MotoGP campaign.
Bagnaia believes those early crashes were perhaps the reason why he took time to get going at certain tracks later in the year.
“If you remember Martin in Indonesia, what happened to him, he was so confident,” he said. “He was pushing, gaining gap and three seconds ahead. Then without knowing why, he crashed.”
“This was what happened to me in Austin. I was riding, feeling unbeatable. Then I came to Turn 2, I was a bit wider and lost the front without understanding why. I still don’t understand why, honestly. Now I know it’s better to be calmer, understanding better the situation with the tyres and then pushing. Because the first part of the year was a great lesson.
“For next year I will have to improve. But in the last races I did a big step in front. We just had some misfortune. I’m very proud of my team. Very happy with everything. I think they did an amazing job. I’m very proud also of my crew at home: my family, girlfriend, who are always helping me in any situation and let me understand how happy I can be.”
This latest achievement brings Bagnaia into exalted company. Only 12 riders had successfully defended a premier class title before him. And he joins Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez as only champions to win back-to-back titles in MotoGP’s four-stroke era.
“It’s fantastic,” he said of the achievement. “I thought about it many times this season in all the races we were struggling that the only two riders able to win two years in a row were Marc and Valentino. Even more so because [I was running] the number one. Finishing second would have been a very bad result. The number-one plate means you need to demonstrate you are number one.
“I think we did everything perfectly to be considered this. Even more in the second part of the championship, because we were faster many times, but we managed to always be competitive, faster and stronger in the main race.
“Last season was a year to be very proud, but this season even more so because with the No 1 plate, with many mistakes, bad luck in some situations, we still won the title.”
– WORDS NEIL MORRISON PHOTOGPRAPHY GOLD&GOOSE