The VROOM Blog: Pecco kicks off 2023 with a perfect weekend in Portimão

 In Blog, MotoGP, News

MotoGP was back with a bang this weekend as the biggest season ever got underway at the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve with the Portuguese GP. When I say the biggest season ever, I really mean it – there are 21 rounds to be raced between the season opener in Portugal and the Valencian finale at the end of November. And for the first time ever, MotoGP will see two races per weekend with the introduction of the Sprint race on Saturday afternoons, meaning that MotoGP riders will have to race 42 races this season.

The introduction of the Sprint races means that the weekend format has changed – there is now only one Free Practice session, with the others becoming Practice sessions. Presumably because there is now more importance than ever on these sessions. P1 and P2 on a Friday are now the only sessions that count towards securing passage straight through to Q2, meaning that whereas before riders could perhaps ease themselves into a Friday morning, they now must be working towards a fast lap time from the very start of the weekend.

FP will be on Saturday mornings and replaces FP4. This session was traditionally used by riders to work on set up and race pace, but with the session now taking place in the morning, it won’t be as useful as it isn’t close to the same time as the actual races.

Following FP, the riders are straight into qualifying with Q1 starting 10 minutes after the chequered flag in FP, and Q2 following afterwards. Qualifying will set the grid for both races (except for any penalties / injuries ruling riders out).

The Sprint race will take place on Saturday afternoon after the Moto3 and Moto2 classes have qualified, and riders will be awarded ‘half’ points for their efforts over a race distance that will be half of the full race distance – this weekend the Sprint race was 12 laps as the full race was over 25 laps. The winner of the Sprint race will earn 12 points, with 2nd and 3rd place being awarded 9 and 7 points respectively while the remaining finishers down to 9th place will receive 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 point.

As we head into the 2023 MotoGP season, we do so once again with a grid of highly decorated riders. The 2023 grid sees 13 GP World Champions, with 24 World Championships between them. 13 of them have won a premier class race, with 116 wins between them – Marc Marquez has 59 MotoGP wins, which is two more than the rest of the grid combined as the season kicks off. All of the riders this year have won races in at least one of the MotoGP classes and have 326 GP victories between them.

2022 Moto2 World Champion Augusto Fernandez is the only rookie on the grid this season.

There have been a few changes in the line ups this season – the biggest of which is arguably the loss of the Suzuki team which has meant that there are two less grid slots this year. The riders who have moved on from MotoGP as we move into 2023 are Andrea Dovizioso who retired, Remy Gardner who has moved to World Superbikes, and Darryn Binder who has moved to Moto2 having skipped the class last season when he jumped to the premier class directly from Moto3.

2022 MotoGP World Champion Pecco Bagnaia remains with the Ducati Lenovo team, and runs the #1 plate. It is the first time we have seen the #1 in the premier class since Casey Stoner in 2012, and no one has successfully defended the title while running the #1 since Mick Doohan. It will be interesting to see how Pecco does this season. Alongside the World Champion is the rider who was quite the thorn in his side last season – Enea Bastianini makes the move from the Gresini Ducati squad to the factory team.

The livery remains mostly unchanged for the Ducati Lenovo team, but I have to say that I don’t like Enea’s pink number on the front of the red bike. The colours just don’t go well together!

Prima Pramac Ducati return with an unchanged line up, with Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin remaining together. They do have a new team boss though, as Gino Borsoi moves from his role as the Moto3 and Moto2 team manager at Aspar to take the helm at Pramac.

Gresini Ducati retain Fabio Di Giannantonio – who now has Frankie Carchedi as his crew chief following the loss of Suzuki. Alex Marquez has escaped from Honda and fills the seat vacated by Enea Bastianini. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Alex goes this season now that he has a decent bike underneath him – the guy is a two-time World Champion and you don’t just lose talent overnight.

The fourth Ducati team this season is the Mooney VR46 team, who will run once again with Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi.

Over at Yamaha, the Monster Energy Yamaha team is the sole entry from the Japanese factory in 2023 after RNF swapped to Aprilia machinery for 2023. Their line-up is another that is unchanged, with 2021 champ Fabio Quartararo continuing to share a garage with Franky Morbidelli.

Following a successful 2022 season which saw them take their first win since returning to the premier class, Aprilia now have two teams with RNF using Aprilias in their satellite team. RNF will have Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandez on board this season, while the factory Aprilia team retains Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales.

KTM is the most changed in terms of rider line up – and appearance – for 2023. Brad Binder is the only rider who stays on, and he will be joined in the factory team by Jack Miller who will be bringing a wealth of Ducati experience with him. The Tech3 squad – now rebranded as GASGAS Factory Racing KTM Tech3 – has two new riders and a bright red livery. I say new riders, but technically Pol Espargaro is a returning rider. Joining Pol at Tech3 is Augusto Fernandez as he makes his debut in the premier class. Fingers crossed for Augusto that he doesn’t join the long line of riders to be given one year in the Tech3 squad before being punted out to pastures new…

Honda have also seen changes in their line up this year, with 2020 MotoGP Champion Joan Mir joining Marc Marquez in the Repsol garage, while Alex Rins steps into the LCR squad beside Taka Nakagami. Honda will surely be hoping for a vast improvement this year – last season they were the only manufacturer not to take a race win in the premier class.

MotoGP 2023 got underway with P1 on Friday morning in slightly sketchy conditions following light rain towards the end of the Moto2 session. The few riders that headed out did so on slick tyres, and Franky Morbidelli had a high side crash at turn 8 that saw him become the first MotoGP crasher of the season. Franky was ok, but with not a lot to gain in these conditions many of his competitors remained in their garages.

Jorge Martin ventured out on wet tyres but didn’t set a time, and 10 minutes into the session the only riders to have set lap times were Luca Marini, Marco Bezzecchi and Johann Zarco. The weather soon dried up and riders began heading out on track. Fabio Di Giannantonio crashed at turn 5, bringing out yellow flags that cancelled Fabio Quartararo’s first flying lap.

The final few minutes of the session were frantic, with many riders setting fast laps, but it was Alex Marquez who topped the first session of the season, with Joan Mir and Luca Marini in 2nd and 3rd. Brad Binder ended the session in last place and 2.2 seconds off the pace. It turns out he was suffering neck pain following a crash at the Portimão test.

P2 is now a 60-minute session, and is the final opportunity for riders to set a time fast enough to leap-frog the Q1 session. The first 10 minutes of the session saw crashes for Pol Espargaro and Joan Mir before the red flag was thrown due to “technical issues”. There was a power outage in the paddock area that was causing issues with the timing equipment. The session resumed after a delay of almost 25 minutes, and there were two more crashes in quick succession as both Marco Bezzecchi and Augusto Fernandez crashed.

By the midpoint of the session, it was Alex Marquez who held the lead (on combined times) ahead of Maverick Viñales and Pecco Bagnaia. With 14 minutes to go, there was another spate of crashes with Raul Fernandez crashing at turn 13 before Miguel Oliveira and Pol Espargaro crashed within seconds of each other at turn 10. While Miguel was quickly up on his feet and walking away, Pol looked to be hurt.

Miguel headed over to check on Pol before being escorted away by a marshal as Pol was treated by medics in the gravel. Pol was treated at the side of the track for close to 15 minutes, and in that time we saw several shots of the scene despite the fact that the marshals were using sheets to shield Pol from the crowd, as well as a shot of Aleix in the garage as he waited for news on his younger brother. I know I’ve said it before, but it is just unnecessary to a) show shots of a fallen rider when his condition is unknown, and b) to send cameras into the garages to get shots of their teams / family members who are obviously worried.

It does make sense to me to continue to film the scene of an accident – that footage could be used for reviews / safety improvements etc… but there is no need for it to be streamed live to the world.

Pol was eventually taken to the medical centre by ambulance before being airlifted to Faro hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken jaw, lung contusions and fractured dorsal vertebra. Pol has since been transferred to hospital in Barcelona where Aleix says he has had surgery on his jaw. It clearly remains unknown how long the recovery period will be for Pol, but I wish him all the best going forward.

The session resumed with just under 14 minutes on the clock, and the riders would have to be straight on the pace if they wanted to secure a slot in Q2. Luca Marini crashed while on a fast lap before Jorge Martin set a time fast enough to secure him the new all-time lap record. For now, at least. It wasn’t long before the lap was bettered by Pecco, Maverick and then Jack Miller who surprised many people by topping the times and heading in to Q2 as the fastest rider. I don’t mean any disrespect to Jack, but I certainly didn’t expect that from him during his first weekend on the KTM!

Jack celebrated his fast lap in true Jack Miller fashion, pulling wheelies and stoppies before jumping the crest of the hill as he headed towards turn 9 of his in-lap! Joining Jack in heading straight through to Q2 would be Maverick, Pecco, Marini, Jorge Martin, Quartararo, Zarco, Bezzecchi, Aleix and Bastianini.

Free Practice on Saturday morning was another session that saw several crashes, with Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini and Pecco Bagnaia all suffering crashes in the 30-minute session and giving their mechanics extra work before qualifying. Marco Bezzecchi topped the session ahead of Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro.

Q1 got underway with Marc Marquez immediately getting up to his usual tricks and following a faster rider – this time it was new team mate Joan Mir who towed Marc to a time faster than his own. With 4 minutes remaining on the clock, most riders headed out to try for one more fast lap, but Marc waved ‘no’ to his team and went and sat back down, confident that his current lap time would not be beaten.

While Alex Marquez and Miguel Oliveira were both on fast laps as the chequered flag came out, neither of them was able to better Marc’s time. Miguel pipped the younger Marquez to 2nd place and would join Marc in Q2.

After the first flying laps in Q2, Jack Miller was leading from Pecco and Zarco. With 5 minutes to go riders were heading back out on fresh tyres, and Marc was once more looking for a tow, hooking himself in behind Enea Bastianini. Jack Miller crashed with 3 minutes remaining as Maverick pulled himself up to 2nd place.

Marc Marquez made the most of his tow from Enea and claimed pole position ahead of Pecco and Jorge Martin. Home hero Miguel Oliveira, Jack Miller and Enea Bastianini would make up row two on the grid, while Maverick, Bezzecchi, Marini, Zarco, Quartararo and Aleix would round out the top 12.

While everyone seemed to be praising Marc for pulling a lap time out of nowhere (did they not see him behind Enea?!), Marc did at least have the decency to admit in parc ferme that this wasn’t a true reflection of his pace.

Anticipation was high as the riders lined up on the grid for the first ever Sprint race. We are just supposed to call them Sprints rather than Sprint races, but I’m not having that, I will be referring to them as Sprint races!

Surprisingly, it was Marc Marquez who grabbed the holeshot (I thought the Ducatis would have swallowed him up) ahead of Enea and Pecco. Pecco quickly shoved Enea wide and Jorge Martin followed, bumping Enea back to 4th place. Joan Mir’s race ended early with a crash and turn 13, and Fabio Quartararo dropped down the timing tower like a stone. It turned out that Joan Mir had crashed into Fabio, causing him to run wide and drop down to 19th place. Not an ideal start for two former champions.

By lap 2, Pecco had taken the lead, with Martin and Marc Marquez close behind. Luca Marini crashed at turn 5, and took Enea Bastianini with him. Enea looked hurt as he walked away, and it has been confirmed that he will miss the next round having fractured his right shoulder blade.

Back on track, Fabio Quartararo was fighting his way back through the pack and was now in 13th place as Marco Bezzecchi crashed out. The race was quite frantic, with Martin taking the lead from Pecco on lap 4 as Jack, Marc and Miguel had quite the battle behind. By lap 6, Jack had made his way past former team mate Pecco for 2nd place, and a lap later the Australian was into the lead. The lead didn’t last long though, with Martin using the power of the Ducati to his advantage and passing Jack on the start/finish straight.

Further back, Fabio Quartararo was up to 10th and lapping faster than the race leaders. On lap 10, Pecco made his way through on Jack for 2nd, as further back Aprilia team mates Aleix and Maverick were having quite the battle for 6th place. On the penultimate lap, Miguel passed Jack into turn 1 before Marc made a move that saw him sail past both of them for 3rd place.

The final lap saw Miguel get briefly back in front of Marc, while Pecco passed Martin for the lead, before Marc passed Miguel back for the final podium spot behind race winner Pecco Bagnaia and 2nd place finisher Jorge Martin. Well, there wasn’t actually a trip to the podium for the top 3. Instead, they brought their bikes to a halt on the straight in front of the grandstand and stood on individual platforms that had been put out. Riders were awarded medals instead of trophies, and there was no national anthem played for the winner of the Sprint race.

Sunday morning saw a warm up session for MotoGP – the session has been cut to just 10 minutes, and Moto2 and Moto3 no longer have a warm up session which I assume is to allow time for the new rider parade. It doesn’t make sense to me not to have warm up sessions for the smaller classes – what if someone crashed during qualifying, when are they supposed to double check that everything is working with their rebuilt bike?

Anyway, MotoGP warm up was topped by Alex Marquez from Fabio Quartararo and Marc.

The starting grid for the race on Sunday was changed slightly by the injury sustained by Enea Bastianini who had already flown back to Italy for checks on his shoulder, while Joan Mir would have to serve a long lap penalty for being ‘overly ambitious’ and impacting Fabio Quartararo during the Sprint race.

Jorge Martin grabbed the holeshot ahead of Miguel Oliveira, and the crowd went wild when Miguel took the lead of the race from the Spaniard. Marc took the lead from Miguel but it wasn’t for long as Miguel was soon back through into the lead of his home GP.

Pecco Bagnaia took the lead into turn 13 on lap 2 before all hell broke loose on lap 3 as Marc came barrelling into the corner, bouncing off Jorge Martin’s Ducati before smacking into the back of Miguel Oliveira and sending him flying. If the crowd was loud when Miguel was in the lead of the race, they were even louder now.

Miguel was clearly hurt and the marshals were just clearing him from the side of the track as the remaining riders came back around. Marc did go to check on Miguel as he was lying trackside, and has since issued an apology, but really, I think he needs to be more careful on track. I know it’s racing; I know it can be dangerous, and I don’t by any means want MotoGP to become a procession rather than a race, but how many times can he ride like that and get away with it?

I also know that his bike isn’t what it used to be and so he is having to over-ride it in order to keep up with the others, but surely there comes a time when you realise that you perhaps shouldn’t be pushing so hard that you are like a bowling ball to those around you.

Things had settled down a bit on track, and Pecco was leading from Maverick and Jack, although Jack lost out on 3rd place to Bezzecchi on lap 6. The race was fairly dull for the next few laps – Di Giannantonio pulled into the pits with a bike issue, and Pecco held on to the lead of the race despite Maverick’s best efforts.

By lap 20, Fabio Quartararo had made his way back up to 9th place before Jorge Martin crashed out of the race at turn 10. Elsewhere, Brad Binder was living up to his ‘Sunday man’ reputation and was running in 5th place ahead of team mate Miller, having started the race in 14th.

Luca Marini – by far the most consistent race finisher in 2022 – suffered his second race crash of the weekend at turn 10 on lap 22. Raul Fernandez also crashed out of the race on lap 24. The final lap of the race saw Johann Zarco sail past both Brad Binder and Alex Marquez for 4th place, before Pecco Bagnaia took the chequered flag to become the first MotoGP rider in history to win ‘the double’ of the Sprint race and the feature race in one weekend.

Pecco was joined on the podium by Maverick Viñales and Marco Bezzecchi. With Johann Zarco in 4th, the top 10 was rounded out by Alex Marquez, Brad Binder, Jack Miller, Fabio Quartararo, Aleix Espargaro, and Alex Rins. With so many crashers, the final finishers Joan Mir, Taka Nakagami, Augusto Fernandez, and Franky Morbidelli all scored points.

Race winner – and championship leader – Bagnaia said that he and the team had done an ‘enormous job’ throughout pre-season and that he has started the season how he wanted to, while Maverick Viñales said that he tried very hard in the race, but Pecco had a little more pace than he did.

Post-race, Marc Marquez was handed a double long lap penalty for Argentina, and there were questions asked about that as he will not be racing at Argentina due to a hand injury sustained in the crash with Oliveira. It has since been announced that he will serve the penalty in the next round that he participates in. It’s all a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? Issuing a penalty and then having to issue a clarification of said penalty.

Regardless of the clarification, I don’t think the penalty is harsh enough. I’m not sure if the stewards are going for a new season / blank slate approach which might see repeat offenders hit with bigger penalties as the season progresses, but even if that was the case then we have to ask where the consistency is. Ivan Ortola was hit with a double long lap penalty during the Moto3 race that I honestly didn’t think was fair – I don’t think it was a penalty at all. But even if it was a penalty deserving of a double long lap penalty, then Marc Marquez’s penalty should have been much, much harsher.

Either way, Marc is out of the Argentinian round due to injury and will no doubt be looking to return at COTA to regain his crown as the ‘King of COTA’.

Also out of the Argentinian round next weekend are Pol Espargaro and Enea Bastianini, and while initially Miguel Oliveira was declared fit, further checks have ruled him out of the next round as he has ‘tendon injuries’ to his right leg. He says he will not require surgery, but plenty of rest to allow the injury to heal.

That’s four riders out before we have even reached round 2, which gets underway on Friday in Argentina.

Aleix Espargaro will surely be looking for a return to glory as he revisits the circuit where he earned his first GP race win last year, while Pecco Bagnaia will aim to continue his perfect start to MotoGP 2023.

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