The #1 curse MotoGP’s world champion hopes to break in 2023

For the first time in a decade, the reigning MotoGP world champion will begin their title defence carrying the #1 plate.

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Though Ducati shot its bolt a day early by accidentally revealing 2022 MotoGP title winner Francesco Bagnaia would be running the #1 on its website, that fact was finally confirmed on Monday morning at the Italian marque’s launch event in the Dolomites.

And thus the debate over the draw of the #1 plate continues: fans either feel passionately that a world champion must carry the #1 plate, as if it were some sort of birth right, or – like this writer – you don’t really care either way.

The #1 hasn’t appeared on the front of a MotoGP bike since 2012, when Casey Stoner rode what would be his final season in the series with the number to mark his second world title. It’s fitting, then, that Bagnaia – who ended Ducati’s 15-year drought last season since Stoner’s first world title in 2007 – picks up the mantle for 2023 on his Desmosedici.

The arguments for and against are convincing in their own right. Those who are in favour of it call out the fact that not everyone can be a world champion, and running #1 is an assertion of your status as the rider to beat.

They also say it’s better for those watching to identify who the champion is. Maybe that would have been the case in the 1990s but, in a world where you can Google anything you want on your mobile phone, not being immediately aware of who the world champion of a series is won’t take you long to figure out.

On the other side of the aisle, it can be argued that brand recognition goes out of the window when a regular full-time number is replaced with the #1.

Whether we like it or not, athletes in the modern world are their own brand, and their fans like having a unique identifier to hold onto. There’s no more a case in point than with Valentino Rossi, who at no point in his grand prix career ran anything other than #46 despite his nine world titles.

Valentino Rossi resisted the allure of the #1 after his many titles, sticking with the famous number 46

Valentino Rossi resisted the allure of the #1 after his many titles, sticking with the famous number 46

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The symbolism of a unique number is a powerful thing. Just as #46 will always be associated with Valentino Rossi, #44 with Lewis Hamilton, #23 with Michael Jordan, and #99 with Wayne Gretzky, it stands to reason that the #63 will hold significance for Ducati fans going forward.

This is something Bagnaia – somewhat contradictorily – noted during Ducati’s launch event on Monday: “63 means a lot of things to me and I’m very close to that number. It’s true that on my plate I will have the #1, also on my pitboard, but for the rest I will remain with the #63. For many things the #63 will be my number as always, because I think people identify me with the #63.”

In further contradiction, Bagnaia says it would be a mistake for him to consider himself the world champion in 2023 if he hopes to defend his title. That will be something hard to ignore with #1 next to your name on the entry list.

“I think I have to don’t do the mistake of thinking I am a champion, because it’s something that can relax you,” he said. “So, I will try to have the same approach, the same mindset of last year, of all the years in my life. I think this year I learned the lessons from the mistakes, so I can start this year better. The new bike is very close to the 2022 bike, so I think we can start well from the first day of testing. The schedule of the weekend is very different, so this can change things. But I’m quite sure if we work well as last year we can be on top.”

Regardless, Bagnaia will race with #1 in 2023 and he will try to do something no rider has done in the modern MotoGP era: retain their crown using that number.

Can Bagnaia retain the #1 in 2023?

Can Bagnaia retain the #1 in 2023?

Photo by: Ducati Corse

Of the 29 riders who have won premier class titles since 1949, only 12 have successfully defended a crown. In the modern MotoGP era, beginning in 2002, only Nicky Hayden (2007), Casey Stoner (2008 and 2012) and Jorge Lorenzo (2011) have raced with the #1 plate in defence of their titles. Lorenzo, of course, won three titles, but in 2013 and 2016 used his traditional #99 instead. When trying to decide on what number to use for 2016, Lorenzo said “it would be nice to use the #1, but #99 represents me”.

None of those riders did win the title again running the #1 plate, with those since Stoner in 2012 and prior to Bagnaia in 2023 – Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and Fabio Quartararo – all sticking to their standard race numbers.

Not since Mick Doohan in 1998 has a rider in the premier class successfully defended the #1 plate, when the Australian legend took the fifth and final 500cc title of his career.

If Bagnaia does manage to defend his title in 2023, it will be another bit of history - after becoming the first rider ever to overcome a 91-point deficit and five DNFs in a season to win his first crown – to bolster his legacy. And perhaps it will usher in a change in mindset for future champions when it comes to running the #1.

For now, at least Bagnaia fans can look forward to bagging some heavily discounted #63 T-shirts from last year in January now that space has to be made for the new #1 stock!

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