It was very fitting that the Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship clicked off its 1000th GP during the 2023 French MotoGP at Le Mans.
The annual visit to France’s rural ‘midlands’ regularly draws vast crowds and while there might be a ‘little’ fiddling of figures to grab some headlines, by attracting a record 280,000 fans over the weekend - almost 117,000 on race day - it’s safe to say it was positively heaving down at the Bugatti Le Mans course.
And they were treated to a memorable race. I say memorable, whether or not you class something of a penalty-sprinkled, crash-strewn, demolition derby as a classic comes down to whether you watch MotoGP for the barging rather than the brilliance, but either way it created some talking points.
The event marked Round 5 of the season, which means - now Kazakhstan has (surprisingly……) been chopped from the schedule - we’re a quarter of the way through the year.
Ask any rider about their title aspirations right now and the oft-trotted line ‘it’s still to early…’ will be the answer. But we are getting into the business portion of the year when the cream starts rising to the top. So, after Le Mans, are we seeing a frothy whip of contenders or is it still a bit curdled and confused?
For the most part, the rhetoric suggests that this is Bagnaia’s title to lose. The Italian put in a sprint finish to clinch the 2022 title, he has arguably the fastest and most rounded package on the grid, plus a harem of seven team-mates to wedge between himself and any rival.
He’s been a class act so far this season, but then also negated it with sloppy errors - it leaves him largely with a net zero, which in MotoGP’s competitive arena might actually be enough.
But, is Bagnaia considered so odds-on because he is the best rider on the best bike, or is it because it’s hard to agree exactly on where his biggest challenge comes from?
Is Bagnaia just the default MotoGP title pick?
Remove Bagnaia from the equation as though he is Enea Bastianini, whose hopes of a title challenge appears to have been left in the gravel trap at Portimao three laps into the year, and pick your title winner. It’s not easy, is it?
Maybe it is a symptom of the new Sprint Race format which, with its less valuable points format, acts like a trick of the mind, or perhaps it is because a glance at the detailed results table reveals an alarming lack of race finishing consistency.
Indeed, while Fabio Quartararo’s lacklustre campaign to date has drawn scrutiny, he is the only rider in the overall top ten to have finished all five main GP features so far. Opened out to the entire field and only two more riders can say the same, that being Franco Morbidelli and rookie Augusto Fernandez, while not one rider has finished all ten races (Sprint and Feature).
It means there is no thread to speak of as yet but while there is time for this to form over the next few rounds, the current ‘last one standing’ theme does raise the question as to whether we’re seeing the best of the best right now.
So where is Bagnaia’s biggest competition likely to come from?
Well, pre-season arguably the most likely candidate would have been Quartararo but Yamaha has gone the wrong way on the M1’s evolution. A rider of Quartararo’s calibre ‘could’ potentially ride around it, but the pessimistic rhetoric coming from the Frenchman suggests he is reaching his limit trying to make up the difference. In short, he’s done his bit and now it’s more hassle than it is worth.
Indeed, given Jerez and Le Mans were probably the best short-term shouts for Yamaha to prove the M1’s handling-over-power set-up is the right way, it comes away looking very lost instead.
With Suzuki exiting stage left, Honda in the doldrums (or the repair shop) and Yamaha heading in the same direction, it leaves KTM, Aprilia and Ducati itself as Ducati’s biggest rivals. Which basically means we’re in uncharted territory here.
Aprilia showed potential as a title contender last year but this year appears to have let its biggest strength - its consistency week in, week out - go weak. That said, out of all the factory riders out there, Maverick Vinales has shown flashes of the pace needed to tackle Bagnaia on a level playing field.
KTM's best shot at a MotoGP title?
If he can’t, then it leaves KTM as Ducati’s biggest other rival… and there is great potential here. Going in the other direction to Aprilia, KTM seems to have solved its rollercoaster levels of consistency with Jack Miller proving the RC16 can be lightning quick over a single lap and Brad Binder being rock solid over a race distance.
If KTM could somehow blend Miller and Binder into one rider - Brack Midler? - and it could have the greatest MotoGP rider in history.
Alas, we get a bit of column A and column B - Jack Miller can override the RC16 to turn in the quick laps, while Binder is the slow burner who hits his sweet spot around 2.15pm on a Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately, for Miller - as we saw in USA and France - he still asks too much over a long distance, while Binder can sometimes find himself looking for his talent in qualifying..
That said, of the two Brad Binder is very much the dark horse bet worth chucking some betting money at. A wily race day fox - few riders are as consistently quick over a race distance than Binder, who showed in Jerez he can rise to the occasion and is willing to get his elbows out.
What held him back before was his lacklustre qualifying, a trait that still needs work but is improving. Indeed, his rivals are no doubt hoping he doesn’t find that Saturday morning breakthrough because Jerez showed exactly what he can do when he is up there on the grid…
Can Martin come of age... and will Zarco show his age?
Elsewhere, Bagnaia isn’t Ducati’s only hope, as demonstrated by Bezzecchi who has come of age in 2023 but - as with Bastianini last year - perhaps needs a touch more refining to step up into a title contender.
Instead, Ducati should find its other great hopes over at Pramac Ducati with Jorge Martin and Johann Zarco. A noticeable change of tact from Martin to focus on more consistent race pace appears to be paying dividends, the Spaniard perhaps considering Bastianini’s absence to prove himself to Ducati - not that he is quick, they know that, but that is a rounded racer who can go the distance. He may never get a better chance to prove this than now.
Zarco, meanwhile, is a rider who should - by all accounts - be considered a title contender. It is quite frankly remarkable, given the broad unpredictability up and down the field, that Zarco is still without a win in 109 attempts, 17 of which have taken him to the podium.
There is the sense that he remains just on the cusp of a genuine title challenge - but we’ve been saying that for a long time now.
So, in conclusion, no conclusion. It is of course early days, so while many are writing Bagnaia’s name on the trophy again, as Joan Mir showed in 2020, the signs are that the winner of this year’s championship might not be the quickest out-and-out rider, but the one that strings a longer stretch of solid results.