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MotoGP Catalan GP

10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Catalan GP

MotoGP's visit to Barcelona threw up some significant talking points, with rider aggression being questioned following Turn 1 carnage that saw both factory Ducati riders taken to hospital. Here’s what we discovered at this year’s Catalan Grand Prix

Jorge Martin, Pramac Racing

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A dramatic and historic Catalan Grand Prix is in the books as Aleix Espargaro led a first-ever Aprilia 1-2 in MotoGP. After taking victory in the sprint, Espargaro led team-mate Maverick Vinales in Sunday’s main race to score his second grand prix win of the season on home soil after April's Spanish GP at Jerez, capping a remarkable weekend for the Noale factory.

It was almost overshadowed by a horrific accident for Ducati’s Francesco Bagnaia, whose leg was run over by Brad Binder on the opening lap of the grand prix after highsiding out of the lead at Turn 2. The ordeal made for uncomfortable viewing, but Bagnaia somehow managed to escape without any serious injuries.

His championship lead took a hit, as it was closed by Jorge Martin – who was third in the GP – from 66 after the sprint to 50. But that mattered little in the grand scheme.

Bagnaia's Ducati team-mate Enea Bastianini wasn’t so fortunate, as he suffered fractured to an ankle and hand after triggering a multi-rider pile-up. This once again raised the discussion about aggressiveness in modern MotoGP and what can be done about it. Elsewhere, there were more struggles for the Japanese marques, while rider market talk dominated the off-track news in Barcelona.

With nine more rounds remaining this season, here is everything we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Catalan Grand Prix.

1. MotoGP rider aggression must be checked after second-straight Turn 1 pile-up

For the second week running, there was carnage on the opening lap

For the second week running, there was carnage on the opening lap

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

For the second year in a row, the Catalan Grand Prix featured a multi-rider pile-up at Turn 1 on the opening lap. Though not uncommon to the circuit, it’s something that is becoming a bit too familiar in MotoGP in 2023.

In the sprint race in Austria, Pramac’s Martin triggered a pile-up at Turn 1 as he tried to recover ground from a poor qualifying. In Barcelona, Bastianini was doing the same, having been slapped with a three-place grid drop for impeding in practice.

This left him 14th for the grand prix, and as he tried to brake up the inside of the field into Turn 1 he lost the front and clattered into Johann Zarco, wiping out Marco Bezzecchi, Fabio Di Giannantonio and Alex Marquez in an unfortunate display of Ducati friendly fire. Bastianini suffered fractures to his left hand and ankle, and will almost certainly be out of the San Marino GP as he awaits surgery (though Ducati is yet to confirm this).

We’ve seen a number of early-lap collisions this season. And while this is part of racing, it has repeatedly been pointed out that the difficulties in overtaking and the new tyre pressure rules are forcing riders to be much more aggressive at the start of races.

Some riders in Barcelona suggested that the startline should be moved closer to Turn 1, given the speed everyone approaches off the line there. But Aleix Espargaro and Marc Marquez disagreed, claiming the onus is on the riders.

“I think that we are good enough to try to brake in the right point, not to try to overtake 25 riders in the first corner,” Espargaro said. “So, it’s not about where you put the start – it’s about who rides the bike. It’s not that difficult. We have to be a bit more relaxed in the first corner.

“Eight riders crashed today in the first corners, it’s dangerous. It’s difficult to learn, but believe me it’s not about where you put the start. If you put the start in the corner but somebody doesn’t want to brake, he will not brake.”

Bastianini was hit with a long lap penalty, initially to be served at the restart before it became apparent he was too beaten up to take it. And so the stewards have reissued the penalty for the next grand prix he contests.

This punishment is consistent; Martin got the same thing in Austria. But a long lap is quite light for something as major as causing a major multi-rider incident. If this kind of thing is to be better avoided, harsher punishments – Espargaro suggested a double long lap, though a ride-through would be much better – to provide genuine deterrent. 

2. Television approach to violent crashes still bordering the offensive

Bagnaia's lucky escape was shown by broadcasters on repeat well before the extent of his injuries were known

Bagnaia's lucky escape was shown by broadcasters on repeat well before the extent of his injuries were known

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The debate around what is and isn’t appropriate to be broadcast to the masses is something that has raged ever since the television was first invented. In motorsport, the topic revolves around how serious incidents are shown. Bagnaia’s horrific incident with Binder is case in point of how not to do it.

While the initial live incident is unavoidable, Dorna’s world feed was quick to show replays of it before Bagnaia’s condition was known. Constant arial shots of him being attended to were crass; the repeated shots of his worried team, his sister and his teary-eyed partner were just plain offensive.

Riders have complained repeatedly about this in the past, not least when they’re forced to keep seeing a big incident moments before being sent back out onto the track. It seems to be forgotten too often that these are human beings.

MotoGP must do better.

3. Aleix Espargaro is to Aprilia what Bagnaia is to Ducati

Espargaro is the man of the moment for Aprilia

Espargaro is the man of the moment for Aprilia

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The unpleasantness of Sunday’s incidents should overshadow the brilliance of Aprilia at the Catalan GP. Up until Q2, when Bagnaia fired in a lap record to snatch pole, an Aprilia rider had led every session to that point. Aleix Espargaro then went on to win the sprint, before leading home an historic first Aprilia 1-2 from team-mate Vinales in the full-distance grand prix.

There were several factors behind Aprilia’s surge in Barcelona. The track is very low in grip and traction was a problem for many riders. The Aprilia has excellent traction, largely because it can carry so much corner speed that roll through the turns without having to spin the rear tyre as much as its rivals.

But Espargaro was brilliant, his riding style very well-matched to that RS-GP. Ironic, really, as he admitted during the weekend that he doesn’t actually like the way he rides, and the high wind on Sunday meant he “didn’t enjoy” his time on the bike. But it’s the style that suits the Aprilia, which he has effectively built to be this way.

Much like Bagnaia is on the Ducati, Espargaro is the perfect Aprilia rider. Clearly, the bike still needs to advance to be able to do what it did in Barcelona everywhere. But when that day comes, Aprilia has the rider for its bike.

4. Vinales returning to the rider he always “bet on”

Vinales is finally scoring results after a turbulent period in his career

Vinales is finally scoring results after a turbulent period in his career

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

And, so it seems, it’s finally getting another. Vinales’ move to Aprilia midway through 2021 following his acrimonious split from Yamaha was questioned by a lot of people, not least before he was trading the bike winning that year’s championship for one that hadn’t – at the time of his deal – even reached the podium.

Last season wasn’t exactly standout for Vinales either. Flashes of brilliance, like his podiums at Assen and Silverstone, promised a lot. And even for much of this year, he failed to flourish.

Bad starts continually plagued Vinales, who – as he always did at Yamaha – insisted he had frontrunning pace. After two Austria starts in which he plummeted from second down the order and came away without the podium he had pace for, the choir of ‘yeah rights’ swelled.

As it turned out, those bad starts really weren’t anything to do with him. Since Jerez, Aprilia has effectively created a working group to improve its clutch. At Barcelona, that bore fruit as Vinales made great launches from fourth in both starts.

Leading the grand prix for a long time, the pace of Espargaro proved just a bit too much for Vinales to hold at bay. But he cut the happiest Vinales we’ve seen in a long time afterwards.

“I bet on myself, not on anyone else. I know what I’m able to do, how I can ride the bike,” he said. “I think the mental power is something unbelievable. I felt something today I was missing in the races and I think Misano is going to be different.

“I want the people to understand that in this sport a rider has to feel valued,” he said. “And in this team I feel a lot of value, I feel a lot of respect. And this is very important because I wasn’t treated in a good way in the past. And to have this kind of feeling with the team… I realised today I had the best day of motorcycle racing in my life.”

Aprilia’s belief and perseverance with Vinales is being vindicated by the rider. Long may it continue.

5. Bagnaia avoids championship disaster despite horror crash

Despite fears of a broken leg, Bagnaia remarkably escaped without any serious injury from his lap one crash

Despite fears of a broken leg, Bagnaia remarkably escaped without any serious injury from his lap one crash

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“Today I can only say thanks.” To whom Bagnaia was referring in an Instagram post following Sunday’s grand prix is open to your own denominational interpretation. 

But there is no doubting that the 2023 Catalan GP was very nearly a major turning point in the championship battle. Bagnaia’s massive highside – which he couldn’t really explain – and sickening tangle with Binder somehow left him with no fractures to his leg.

Though needing crutches to hobble out of hospital, Bagnaia sensationally is heading back to Italy with his team and will likely head to Misano to at least give it a go. He has a healthy enough championship lead of 50 points that he doesn’t need to force himself.

Unfortunately, we are now in the throes of 10 rounds in 13 weeks, and so any absence would be critical.

Regardless of all of this, the main thing is his wellbeing. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in the paddock who wasn’t breathing a sigh of relief upon news that Bagnaia – for the most part – was ok.

6. Marquez proving why Honda can’t lose him as crunch week begins

Marquez appears to be the only rider capable of dragging the Honda to any form of strong result

Marquez appears to be the only rider capable of dragging the Honda to any form of strong result

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The bleakness of Honda’s situation really shone through at the Catalan GP. After Friday’s running, the bottom four places on the timesheets belonged to HRC. The traction issues the Honda has were only magnified by the low-grip Barcelona surface.

A brief spurt of speed in qualifying, sailing into Q2 by shadowing Jack Miller, offered Marc Marquez a mental boost. As did his brief run in seventh in the sprint, before he tumbled to 11th. Thirteenth in a grand prix that was a “drive to survive” for the Spaniard wasn’t much, but he was still top Honda.

Takaaki Nakagami was the only other Honda in the points in the GP in 15th, while the rest aside from Marquez couldn’t even crack the top 18 in the sprint.

This week is the beginning of a crucial one for Honda and its hopes of retaining Marquez long-term, with its first 2024 prototype being wheeled out at the post-race test at Misano.

HRC had better hope its engineers have truly redefined its motorcycle, because Marquez at the very least made it look less in trouble than it currently is with his flashes of speed.

7. Bezzecchi’s decision speaks to the team VR46 has created

Bezzecchi will remain with the VR46 Racing Team for another season

Bezzecchi will remain with the VR46 Racing Team for another season

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Ahead of the Catalan GP, Bezzecchi’s future was signed, sealed and delivered as he elected to remain with VR46 for another season. With a factory bike on offer at Pramac, a step up seemed like a no-brainer given the choice. But, given the choice, Bezzecchi felt remaining with a year-old bike in 2024 for his third season in MotoGP was right for him.

It’s no secret that Valentino Rossi was “pushing” to retain his protégé. Bezzecchi, who penned a one-year deal, cited the human element of VR46 that swayed his decision. That’s a mature decision for a 24-year-old sophomore to make, but he is right to be wary of replicating the team atmosphere he has now at a new outfit – not least one where he is having to adapt to a new bike.

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Bezzecchi also rightly noted there are factory team seats up for grabs in 2025, which he is more likely to be putting himself in the frame for at VR46 with a package he knows well. After all, Bastianini got the nod to join the factory squad for this year over Martin, as the latter struggled to adapt to the works bike he had.

Twice a grand prix winner already on a year-old bike, Bezzecchi won’t be at a major disadvantage in 2024 – even if the Catalan GP weekend showed a bigger gap between his bike and the factory Ducati, having finished eighth in the sprint and 12th in the GP having been caught up in the Bastianini tangle. This left him no choice but to run the soft front tyre due to a lack of new mediums, complicating his afternoon no end.

But, clearly, Bezzecchi has a competent team around him to help him make the right decisions for his career, and it speaks volumes of the professionalism of the outfit Rossi has created.

8. Nakagami has earned his expected Honda renewal

Honda could do a lot worse than retain Nakagami

Honda could do a lot worse than retain Nakagami

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Yet to be officially announced, but probably not far off, another piece of the 2024 rider jigsaw is almost in place. Nakagami said during the Catalan GP weekend that he is “99%” certain to sign an extension with Honda to remain with LCR, where he will partner Zarco next season.

While the Catalan GP was hardly a standout for Nakagami, as he scored just one point in an extremely difficult weekend for all Honda riders, the Japanese has gotten his head down this year and made sure he’s gotten to the chequered flag more often than not to gather valuable data for HRC.

At the German GP, he was the only Honda rider present as injury claimed Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and LCR team-mate Alex Rins. His haul of 34 points isn’t much, but Honda needs some continuity in its line-up and experience. Nakagami has that in abundance.

Insight: The forgotten trooper of Honda's MotoGP misery

And perhaps he is looking at longer-term job security. Moto2 frontrunner Ai Ogura has been linked to Nakagami’s seat for some time, but looks like he is about to step away from the Honda bubble to join Ajo KTM next year. For the immediate future, at least, Nakagami deserves another shot and Honda could be doing a lot worse.

9. Mir’s determination to avoid Honda “failure” is admirable amid bleak year

The season can't end soon enough for Mir

The season can't end soon enough for Mir

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

There was absolutely not a thing to write home about from Mir’s Catalan GP weekend. Only on two occasions – in FP1 and the GP, as the last classified runner – did he find himself inside the top 17.

Weeks on from admitting he thought about retiring amid his miserable year as a Honda rider, the 2020 world champion was left fuming at just how bad his bike was in Barcelona, noting after the sprint on Saturday: “Honestly, it’s hard for me to be in front of you and speak about the race because I had the worst feeling of my life on a motorbike.

“It is something unbelievable. I was losing on acceleration even with the other Hondas. I don’t really understand what happened. I know that our grip is not fantastic. There are a lot of corners here that expose our weak points and we are trying to survive with it. But honestly I was not able to control that spin.

“I was just opening the throttle and wasn’t moving. I was losing two or three tenths minimum in the last corner compared to the other Hondas. I need answers because everyone knows how to open the throttle. The other things is to brake, going into the corners, where I think we are strong. But what happened in the race was unacceptable.”

His outlook didn’t really improve after Sunday’s GP, in which he was last in 17th, 33.9s off the win and even 5.1s behind LCR Honda stand-in Iker Lecuona having suffered with massive tyre wear.

With a couple of plum Ducatis up for grabs at Pramac and Gresini still, and admitting he has had contact from other teams, Mir says leaving Honda now would be a “failure” he doesn’t want to commit. While you could consider this foolish, you can’t not have admiration for Mir’s determination to make his Honda move work.

10. Quartararo uses set-up he won with in 2022 to finish seventh in 2023

Quartararo moved back to his 2022 race-winning Yamaha set-up on race-day and enjoyed improved fortunes

Quartararo moved back to his 2022 race-winning Yamaha set-up on race-day and enjoyed improved fortunes

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

A year ago, Quartararo was standing atop the podium at the Catalan GP and about to make it back-to-back victories the following week in Germany, after which he would lead the standings by 91 points.

In 2023, the Yamaha rider struggled to 18th in qualifying and couldn’t advance on that in the sprint, once again revealing his lack of enjoyment for riding the M1 right now.

As he has done at various points already this year, Quartararo once again went backwards to go forwards in the Catalan GP, reverting to the settings he used to win last season’s GP for Sunday’s full-distance contest.

Something evidently clicked, as he managed to finish seventh in the grand prix. Not only that, but he was considerably closer to the win than he was in the sprint: 10.821s versus 17.1s.

“For me, it was a good day, especially we go back to last year’s bike’s base in warm-up,” he said. “It was pretty good, the pace was there. And we decided to follow this for the race and it was a bit better. I could make a great pace and maintain a 10s gap to the front guy, [in the sprint] we finished within half a lap, so 17s.

“So, I think [Sunday] was not too bad. Not really the first time, but at this track on Friday and Saturday basically every exit on track I was doing with a different bike, different set-up. And this morning we decided to go with last year’s base and if my feeling was better we’d use it for the race, and I think it was a good step.”

It shows how much of a struggle being a Yamaha rider is right now. But Quartararo’s primary focus for the rest of 2023 is to rediscover his joy of riding. So if this is the solution to that, more power to him.

The 2023 Catalan Grand Prix will be remembered for a historic 1-2 for Aprilia as Espargaro led home team-mate Vinales

The 2023 Catalan Grand Prix will be remembered for a historic 1-2 for Aprilia as Espargaro led home team-mate Vinales

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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