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Analysis
MotoGP Portugal GP

10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

The first round of MotoGP’s bold new era was filled with controversies and dramas aplenty, as Ducati kicked off its title defence in perfect style. Here are the top 10 things we learned from the 2023 Portuguese Grand Prix.

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing Team

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Five days of testing were all the field had to get itself ready for the 2023 season, two of which taking place at the Algarve International Circuit which played host to the opening round of the campaign. Therefore, when bikes hit the track for the first practice of MotoGP’s revised format, the spread was tight and everyone was dialled in.

Though the new format brought about a new way of working – and plenty of criticism – it was the reigning world champions Ducati and Francesco Bagnaia who emerged with a total haul of 37 points to put its pre-season money where its mouth is.

The sprint race drew mixed opinions, while Marc Marquez went from zero to hero in the space of a day and Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo found himself coming up against the same old problems.

1. Jury’s still out on sprint races

Sprint race provided entertainment on its debut, but still left opinions mixed

Sprint race provided entertainment on its debut, but still left opinions mixed

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The biggest format shake-up in MotoGP’s 75-year history drew a mixed reception when it was first announced last August. But sprint races are here, and for the time being they’re here to stay.

The half-distance contest is worth a maximum of 12 points and has no bearing on the main grand prix. What ensued was a fun scrap with a fair bit of action, with Bagnaia emerging victorious after a last-lap mistake from Pramac’s Jorge Martin.

As two days of testing had already taken place at the Algarve track prior to the first round, future sprints in theory shouldn’t be as hectic as the performance spread should be slightly wider

Given the chaos that ensued in the main race (more on that later), it’s hard to know after the first sprint just how much value it has added to a grand prix weekend as – for the most part – the main race looked like it was going to follow not dissimilarly to the sprint.

Opinion on it was split, with the main detractors of it highlighting the safety aspect brought about by what they felt was a heightened level of aggression (again, more on that later).

As two days of testing had already taken place at the Algarve track prior to the first round, future sprints in theory shouldn’t be as hectic as the performance spread should be slightly wider.

Only after a few rounds will we truly see how worthwhile the sprint is to the weekend. But, for the time being, it’s earning its keep.

2. Aggression levels in MotoGP do need checking

Bastianini was injured in sprint crash with Marini, which will put him out of the Argentinian GP too

Bastianini was injured in sprint crash with Marini, which will put him out of the Argentinian GP too

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

One of the key complaints about the sprint race from some riders was the level of aggression that was being offered. As the sprint and the grand prix are decided by Saturday morning’s qualifying, with only the top nine scoring in the shorter contest, starting from behind requires some risk.

On lap one, Joan Mir clattered into Fabio Quartararo as attempted a pass, with the Honda rider falling off and copping a long lap penalty for the grand prix. And on lap two, Luca Marini crashed into Enea Bastianini at Turn 5, leaving the factory Ducati rider with a broken shoulder blade and out of this week’s Argentina round.

Quartararo, who was 10th in the sprint, warned that current aggression levels mean a “big accident” was only a matter of time.

“No, not at all,” the 2021 champion said when asked if he liked the sprint. “There will be a big accident soon. It’s a jungle. We are not in car, we are not in cars that in the end you can touch and it’s not a problem. It’s much safer. I was super far behind, so I tried to do my best. But luckily there was nothing, but there is 20 sprint races missing [this season]. So, let’s see.”

Some of this was put down to first-round ‘nerves’ by those who felt the sprint wasn’t too bad. Sprint winner Bagnaia said riders had to take it upon themselves to realise going all out for 12 points when 25 is on offer in the grand prix is not worth going over the line, while Marc Marquez felt the risk in the sprint was “more or less the same” as in the full-distance contest.

Indeed, if you take Marquez’s controversial Miguel Oliveira crash and various scraps around the field, the sprint really isn’t that different to the grand prix.

“When everyone was saying the sprint race is a jungle, more or less it was the same today,” Bagnaia said after the grand prix. “So, 25 laps with soft and medium [tyres] are not [going] in the same way [as the sprint] to be a jungle or not. It depends on the approach from each rider. This is the biggest thing, I think.”

Given one rider broke his shoulder and is out for a race, another broke his wrist in an incident he instigated which left another with a broken toe and injured another who will miss the next race – after just one round – it’s clear that, sprint or otherwise, deterrents need to get stronger.

3. New weekend format and brutal schedule already taking a toll

Pol Espargaro's crash on Friday as riders put their focus on qualifying preparation was a talking point

Pol Espargaro's crash on Friday as riders put their focus on qualifying preparation was a talking point

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The addition of the sprint has led to a reorganisation of the entire grand prix weekend format. Friday has now become a pre-qualifying day, with the combined times at the end of FP2 deciding who goes into the pole shootout and who has to face Q1 first.

This already claimed its first victim in the luckless Pol Espargaro, who suffered a violent accident in the time attack phase of FP2 and was left hospitalised with fractures to his jaw and back.

Espargaro’s incident was made worse by the safety of the track at Turn 10 where he crashed, which is an important factor to consider when talking about the strain of the new format.

People will point to World Superbikes and its multi-race format. But Superbikes aren’t as demanding to ride as MotoGP bikes

However, a number of riders felt having qualifying on Saturday morning, then fan and media commitments prior to the sprint, left them no time to decompress and was mentally quite draining.

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The risks of the sprint race were made apparent by Bastianini’s incident – something that could well have happened in the grand prix, but definitely wouldn’t have had the old format been in place.

People will point to World Superbikes and its multi-race format. But Superbikes aren’t as demanding to ride as MotoGP bikes, and even with three races per round this season for WSBK, MotoGP will still have more.

With 20 rounds and 40 races still to follow, with the next one in just a few days’ time, the riders are in for a punishing time in the name of entertainment.

4. Bagnaia really is a “changed” man

Bagnaia began his title defence in perfect fashion with sprint and feature race victories, underlining Miller's point

Bagnaia began his title defence in perfect fashion with sprint and feature race victories, underlining Miller's point

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Francesco Bagnaia’s title challenge in 2022 was messy and that was largely through his own mistakes. In testing earlier this month, former team-mate Jack Miller said Bagnaia looked like “a changed man”, which was translating to his riding.

Miller was spot on. Though Bagnaia’s march to both race wins in Portugal wasn’t easy, with his sprint victory coming after a last-lap mistake from Pramac’s Jorge Martin and Aprilia’s Maverick Vinales hounding him all the way in the grand prix, he is clearly operating at a new level.

While admitting he was “in a bit of trouble” with his tyres in the final laps of the grand prix, he didn’t put a foot out of line. Perhaps last year this situation would have seen him throw it at the scenery.

Feeling better suited to the GP23 than the GP22 he won the title on, Bagnaia has done nothing to quash the ‘favourite’ tags placed on him pre-season. Now a sprint race win’s 12 points clear in the standings, Bagnaia heads to Argentina with a solid platform to build on.

5. Marquez’s wild weekend shows limits to his genius

Marquez crashed with Oliveira on the third lap of the Grand Prix and will miss Argentina this weekend as a result

Marquez crashed with Oliveira on the third lap of the Grand Prix and will miss Argentina this weekend as a result

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Marc Marquez’s shock pole got tongues wagging as he went above and beyond on his difficult Honda to snatch top spot on Saturday morning (albeit with help from an Enea Bastianini tow).

He “created a nice hype”, which he converted to a sprint race podium with a brilliant double overtake on Miguel Oliveira and Jack Miller (though it was a last-lap error from Oliveira that ultimately secured Marquez third).

Then it all went wrong on Sunday. On lap one Marquez was aggressive, running wide at Turn 3 as he attempted a double pass on Oliveira and Pramac’s Jorge Martin. Then on lap three he locked up at the same corner, hit Martin and broke his toe, and wiped out Oliveira.

Marquez fractured his hand and is out of Argentina, which means he won’t serve his paltry double long lap penalty now. While the move drew much ire from the partisan Portuguese crowd and the keyboard special forces on social media, Marquez’s crash was a mistake.

Marquez proved with his Oliveira incident that has ruled him out of the Argentina GP that his unearthly talents will only go so far while the bike is as uncompetitive as it is

“I did a big mistake on that Turn 3 in the first part. And this created everything. The first part I braked, and I had a massive lock on the front tyre,” Marquez explained. “That massive lock created [the situation] that I released the brakes. My intention was to go on the left side, but the bike stayed with that lean [angle] and I couldn’t avoid to go on the right side. I was able to avoid Martin but I was not able to avoid Miguel.”

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Whatever you think of Marquez and the penalty he should have received, it must also be considered that the state of the 2023 Honda put him in that position.

That Marquez was on pole and able to fight at the front in the sprint showed his class. But the next-best rider on the grid was Joan Mir in 14th, and in the grand prix after Marquez’s retirement it was 10th-placed Alex Rins.

While Marquez has given up on complaining about the bike as he “gains nothing” from doing so and focused on working with what he’s got, Honda needs to improve quickly.

Happy at some of the tweaks made from Friday to Saturday that ultimately helped him to pole, Marquez proved with his Oliveira incident that has ruled him out of the Argentina GP that his unearthly talents will only go so far while the bike is as uncompetitive as it is.

6. Aprilia proved its 2022 was no flash in the pan

Average qualifying masked Aprilia's potential - it again appears best-placed to challenge Ducati

Average qualifying masked Aprilia's potential - it again appears best-placed to challenge Ducati

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Aprilia’s breakthrough 2022 campaign was one of the most interesting storylines of the year. It came up short in the title race and the big question then became whether it could genuinely close that gap over the winter.

After the sprint, where Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales were sixth and fifth, the former made this statement: “It’s still early, but I have the feeling that we are not as far aways from Ducati as people think. I think Aprilia and the riders, Maverick and me, we are strong. The championship is still long and I think we will be able to fight.”

A better qualifying might have made this more evident, with Vinales seventh and Espargaro 12th. But in the grand prix Vinales did not relent in his pursuit of Bagnaia, even if the Ducati rider ultimately had the edge.

The 2023 RS-GP, by all accounts, is a little bit better in every area and at this stage genuinely looks like the marque best-matched to challenge Ducati for the title this season.

7. Yamaha nowhere again

An average start to the year for Quartararo underlines the steps Yamaha needs to make

An average start to the year for Quartararo underlines the steps Yamaha needs to make

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Fabio Quartararo began 2023 with no points in the sprint and a lowly eighth-place finish in the grand prix as he once again sounded alarm bells at Yamaha.

Pre-season wasn’t the easiest for Yamaha and it only made a breakthrough with its 2023 bike on the final day in Portugal. That did not carry over into the grand prix, however, as after Friday Quartararo felt he was “on the limit” – and that was only good enough for sixth.

Qualifying 11th made his job even harder, as did two bad starts: one due to a launch control issue in the sprint, and the second down to his own misjudgement. While the Yamaha has more engine power to use this year, it seems the rear grip problems of old remain.

With Franco Morbidelli 14th and last of the classified runners in the grand prix, Yamaha looks no further forward than it did at the end of 2022

“The pace was not too bad, but the way we ride the bike, to fight with them is not possible. So, we have to find a solution on the fight,” Quartararo said on Sunday.

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“We have a totally different bike to the others, and when they pick up the bike they have more grip than us. We have no solution right now. You can come back, you are close, but you cannot prepare an overtake. They go, and then you come back. You cannot stay with them to try to overtake, which for me is the main problem.”

With Franco Morbidelli 14th and last of the classified runners in the grand prix, Yamaha looks no further forward than it did at the end of 2022, and if anything has taken a step back.

8. KTM not as bad as first thought

Miller briefly led the sprint as the Australian made a bright start to life at KTM

Miller briefly led the sprint as the Australian made a bright start to life at KTM

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Nobody had much positive to say about KTM when winter testing concluded, as problems with drive grip seemed to persist for the Austrian manufacturer.

Then Jack Miller ended day one of the race weekend fastest of all with a new lap record. Though “surprised” at his own pace, it carried forward. He was fourth in the sprint race and seventh in the grand prix, as team-mate Brad Binder – who was carrying a neck injury from testing – edged ahead in sixth.

KTM threw a lot of new things at the RC16 over the winter, but what seems to have helped in Portugal was simply focusing on fine-tuning what it now has.

“In terms of set-up-wise, coming into this grand prix our plan was to not turn the bike upside down anymore,” Miller said after his debut KTM weekend. “We’d been doing that and kind of got comfortable on the last day [of testing].

“So, our plan coming into this grand prix was just normal race weekend stuff; let’s play with settings, get the bike in a decent position and work on myself riding the bike. I think we’ve been able to do that. We won’t know till we get there, but I really do think that the strategy we’ve got now and the electronics we’ve got in place and the way we’ve got the chassis working, we can make it work in the coming places.”

9. Dorna’s fan engagement should be commended

Fan-friendly measures were a welcome sight

Fan-friendly measures were a welcome sight

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Part of the introduction of sprint races was meant to drive new interest in MotoGP. And tentatively this looks to have worked.

The total weekend crowd for the 2023 Portuguese GP was 123,608 compared to 75,900 in 2022. Crucially, the Saturday crowd had pretty much doubled from the 17,453 who turned up on the same day in 2022.

How much of that drive in attendance is down to Portugal being the season-opener will be known in the coming races. But Portugal showed Dorna is trying to engage fans more, even if some of its ideas are copy-and-pasted from Formula 1, such as the cheesy new theme music, sound-up laps on TV and rider parades.

The hero walk in the paddock was packed out with fans waiting for pictures and autographs, and the riders all duly obliged.

Even so, it was nice to see riders jumping off the wagon ferrying them around the Algarve track on Sunday mornings to fire t-shirts into the crowd. The hero walk in the paddock was packed out with fans waiting for pictures and autographs, and the riders all duly obliged.

Much more needs to be done, especially in how MotoGP can be consumed at home by an audience currently without access. But for now, it’s a good start.

10. Trust in race direction needs an instant boost

Riders were upset that Marini escaped sanction for the crash that injured Bastianini in the sprint

Riders were upset that Marini escaped sanction for the crash that injured Bastianini in the sprint

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Inconsistencies in penalties led to more ire directed towards the FIM stewards panel during the Portuguese GP weekend.

These are not new complaints, but that in itself is concerning. And already it seems trust in those implementing the rules is at an all-time low just one round into the longest season in history.

A number of riders weren’t happy that Joan Mir was given a penalty for his clash in the sprint race with Fabio Quartararo, while Luca Marini escaped punishment. Marc Marquez’s lenient punishment also wasn’t welcomed, with Aleix Espargaro saying he should have been handed a race ban – relating that incident to Takaaki Nakagami’s Turn 1 crash in Barcelona last year that he got no penalty for, showing how long-standing this issue with the stewards is.

What has upset the likes of Quartararo is that the riders were told in the safety briefing pre-weekend that any collision resulting in someone being disadvantaged or injured is given a long lap penalty to begin with. But this wasn’t consistent through the weekend.

“In the past it was the same people working there [in the stewards panel], in the present it’s the same people working there,” Aleix Espargaro pertinently pointed out.

As Formula 1 witnessed after the fallout of its 2021 season, when controversial stewarding becomes the story, change must be made.

Does MotoGP race control risk losing the trust of its riders?

Does MotoGP race control risk losing the trust of its riders?

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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