Defending the #1: Pecco Bagnaia rules MotoGP for the second year in a row
Again, MotoGP went down to the last, and Ducati Lenovo Team’s Francesco Bagnaia showed that there are few riders that can handle pressure and can hold nerve better than the super-rapid Italian.
A capacity crowd at the sun-kissed Ricardo Tormo Circuit in Valencia, Spain watched yet another world championship title decider for the final tyre-shredding bout of action in the Grand Prix season and it was Bagnaia’s poise and pace that counted when it counted.
The globe’s fastest, most glamorous and gripping motorcycle racing series arrive back in Europe after a brain-and-body melting six races in seven weeks and in three different continents. For the second year in a row Bagnaia felt the burn of the spotlight from fans, media and industry. The 25-year-old had clinched the ’22 crown after hacking away at a 91-point deficit for a remarkable comeback. In 2023 and with the smart #1 beaming wide from the front of the angled Desmosedici, Bagnaia rolled through impressive stats such as 6 wins and 14 podiums, not to mention 4 victories from the new Sprint format that added extra peril and scrutiny qualification and the Saturday program. There had also been mistakes in the United States, Argentina, France and that jaw-dropping smash in Catalunya that left gaps in the scorecard. Instead of Monster Energy Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo, Bagnaia’s opposition came from a Ducati stablemate and Spain instead of France: Jorge Martin.
A resounding performance the previous week in Qatar from Bagnaia and a tire issue for Martin around the spectacular Lusail International Circuit meant that Pecco was primed for Valencia with a 21-point advantage, and with a maximum of 37 left to win between the 12 awarded to the owner of the Sprint on Saturday and the bounty of 25 on Sunday’s 27-lap run. MotoGP blazoned the #TeamPecco and #TeamMartin showdown scenario for the second weekend in succession but Bagnaia’s ‘been-here-done-it’ experience was an obvious asset against the fierce speed and liveliness of Martin, who was bidding to become MotoGP’s first independent team champion.
“Last year I was struggling with the pressure, and I felt more nervous,” Pecco said on Friday afternoon. “I have to say that it is better right now.”
Bagnaia wobbled on Friday. He had to come through Q1 but then rasped through qualification to ace the front row. With Martin in his exhaust trail his first arrow was set to the bow for the 13-lap Saturday Sprint and where a 4-point gain over his rival would close the history books. Martin was not to be outdone. He rattled through the top five to snare P1 and bank his ninth Sprint victory and Bagnaia had his margin clipped to 14 points due to a 5th place finish.
Down to Sunday it went, and another absolutely rammed circuit of fans, spectators and guests helped create the ultimate sporting stage, all illuminated by Spanish sun. Bagnaia’s start was perfect, Martin’s early error at Turn 1 was critical. The Italian weathered more grip concerns and the pressure but Martin folded early and a crash at Turn 11 made the whole affair academic. Pecco was P1 again and slam-dunked a golden basketball as part of his celebration on the slowdown lap. Winning by winning made it even sweeter.
“I feel at the top level of my happiness right now,” the 26-year-old grinned. “The thing is, I’m so happy also because I won the race. It was my dream; a goal that I always wanted to do, winning the title with a win but it was quite scary out there because in the last five laps I started to feel cold on the bike. I was very scared for the front tire. Right now I can breathe. It was not an easy day because I was under pressure…but I’m very happy.”
Bagnaia cited the growing level of maturity and experience as a key ingredient in his 2023 story. “I think I made a big step in terms of being calm in some situations, to manage better situations,” he admitted afterwards. “My team has helped me a lot, too. I think I will continue trying to understand, try to learn from my mistakes.”
2023 was a season of increased races, increased stress and increased speed with lap records more vulnerable than ever but with crashes, injuries and scrutiny over tyres, aerodynamics and the many intricacies of MotoGP behind the spectacle. The result was the same, the journey was more dramatic but true class prevailed.
Impatient for more? From the flag in Valencia to the lights out in Qatar, just over 100 days and counting.