Ducati Lenovo’s Pecco Bagnaia has gotten his 2023 MotoGP World Championship title defence off to a magnificent start with a formidable Portuguese GP win at Portimao.
Having made history with victory in Saturday’s inaugural MotoGP Sprint Race, the reigning champion made sure of a maximum haul of 37 points with a smooth run to victory for the factory Ducati team.
His calm, measured afternoon was in stark contrast to the early chaos just behind him when Marc Marquez triggered a big crash that eliminated himself, Miguel Oliveira and Jorge Martin.
Maverick Vinales ran Bagnaia close for the first half of the race before settling for second place, the Aprilia rider having been the big beneficiary of the race-defining accident at the start of lap three, while Marco Bezzecchi kept his nose clean to record a second career MotoGP podium as the best-placed satellite rider.
However, the big news from the season opener was Marquez’s error that denied Oliveira the chance of a famous home win.
Indeed, the local favourite had gotten the fans onto their feet with a tremendous getaway that saw him get the hole-shot into Turn 1. Though Martin proceeded to get the better of him on the exit, Marquez previewed his issues under braking for Turn 3 by scurrying too fast up the inside of the Spaniard. Sending them both wide, Martin recovered his balance, but not before giving his rival a thump that forced Marquez to put a foot down to stop tipping over.
Their fracas gave Oliveira the room to move back into a lead he’d hold into the second lap from Bagnaia, before the Ducati Corse rider surprised him with a neat pass for first at Turn 13.
However, as the leaders entered lap three, the race was turned on its head when Marquez got his braking all wrong behind Martin on the run to Turn 3, forcing him into the back of the Ducati.
Unable to control the Repsol Honda as he scraped up alongside the Pramac bike, Marquez T-boned the unawares RNF Aprilia of Oliveira as it was turning in ahead.
A sickeningly hard body slam - similar to Alex Marquez’s crash into Jack Miller at Phillip Island last season - the impact threw both Marquez and Oliveira off their bikes, dashing the home crowd hopes and prompting widespread boos the moment Marquez tried to assist his stricken rival.
Clearly in discomfort in the wake of the incident, Oliveira was taken to the medical centre but early diagnosis shows no broken bones for the Portuguese rider. Marquez, meanwhile, is being treated for a hand injury.
Though he was able to stay upright, Martin was forced wide in avoiding action to force him back down the order, leaving a very different looking top ten behind Bagnaia come the end of lap three.
Up at the front, Vinales now led the chase to Bagnaia, a task he took up with enthusiasm as he quickly worked his way onto the back of the Ducati GP23.
However, despite repeatedly getting the better exit out of the final corner, Vinales had no answer to his rival on the brakes into Turn 1. Prompting a repeated game of ‘cat and mouse’ with each lap, eventually Bagnaia was able to break the resolve of Vinales by slowly pulling a margin over the Aprilia man in the closing stages of the race.
With Bagnaia putting in a champion’s performance to not make a single mistake, he was able to take the flag by a comfortable 0.6secs over Vinales, who gets his second full season with Aprilia off to a strong start with a ‘silver medal’.
Behind them, Bezzecchi made the most of an early pass on Jack Miller for third on lap six to break clear of an almighty scrap behind him, the Italian collecting his and VR46 Racing’s second MotoGP podium in third place.
Despite battling with a sickness bug this weekend, Johann Zarco came on strong in the closing stages to pass three riders in the final two laps and secure an unlikely fourth place finish.
The Frenchman spent much of the race with a front row seat for a breathless battle for fourth between Alex Marquez, Jack Miller and Brad Binder that repeatedly changed hands, but in doing so held themselves up.
Ahead of the final lap it appeared Binder - producing some heroics from 15th on the grid despite a neck injury - had finally won out against Marquez, only for the Gresini Ducati rider to get the place back down the home straight as it so often does.
Prompting a charge by Binder to get back through on the last revolution, it instead welcomed Zarco - having dispatched of Miller the previous lap - to challenge, the Frenchman snaking his way past before immediately pouncing on Marquez at the penultimate bend to grab fourth at the death.
Marquez had to settle for fifth, though it marks his best MotoGP finish since 2021, ahead of disgruntled KTM pair Binder and Miller in sixth and seventh.
Behind them, Fabio Quartararo once again paid the price for a poor start that left him 16th on the opening lap, though the 2021 MotoGP World Champion - a runaway winner in Portimao last season - never looked to have exceptional pace at any stage.
Similarly, his 2022 title rival Aleix Espargaro also suffered for a bad getaway as he laboured to a disappointing ninth place finish.
With Marquez’s antics ruining Honda’s chance of a good result in the feature event, Alex Rins at least picked up a top ten on his debut for LCR Honda, ahead of former team-mate Joan Mir on the Repsol Honda bike, the Spaniard having been forced to take a long-lap penalty after colliding with Quartararo in the sprint race.
Takaaki Nakagami followed his Honda counterparts in 12th, with Augusto Fernandez picking up points on his main MotoGP debut for GasGas in 13th.
With only 14 of the 20 starters reaching the finish, Franco Morbidelli once again brought up the rear for what has been a chastening start to the season for Yamaha.
Indeed, with Enea Bastianini and Pol Espargaro already out of contention due to injury, another six riders would fall foul to issues in Sunday’s main event.
In addition to Marquez and Oliveira, Martin - despite recovering ground - ended up falling at Turn 11 with six laps to go, while Raul Fernandez and Fabio di Giannantonio also failed to make the flag.
Neither did Luca Marini, Valentino Rossi’s brother enduring a torrid weekend strewn with more crashes in one event than he managed during the entirety of the 2022 MotoGP season.