Ducati Lenovo’s Pecco Bagnaia has emerged triumphant in the inaugural MotoGP Sprint Race after pouncing on Jorge Martin for the lead on the final lap of a thrilling - and at times chaotic - 12 lap encounter at Portimao.
The first time a MotoGP race has been held on a Saturday, while the move by Dorna to transform each event into a double-header for 2023 has proven divisive among riders and teams, it nonetheless put on a brilliant show of no-holds barred action from the off.
In the end though it was the defending champion coming out on top, the Italian keeping his cool amid some frantic action around him to ease his way onto the rear of long-time leader Martin on the final lap and snatch the initiative when the Spaniard ran wide getting onto the power at Turn 5.
Behind the Ducati 1-2, pole sitter Marc Marquez scored a somewhat fortuitous podium in third place at the behest of Miguel Oliveira, whose error at Turn 10 on the final lap denied him a famous home podium on his debut with RNF Aprilia.
Fewer laps, more action in Sprint Race crash-fest
While Bagnaia never strayed lower than third at any stage in the race, his victory credentials only came alive in the closing stages, the Italian showing maturity to maintain his momentum amid some frantic activity around him.
From the lights it was pole sitter Marquez who got the hole-shot into Turn 1, followed up by the fast-starting Enea Bastianini from row two. However, the Italian’s keenness to squeeze past Marquez into Turn 3 instead baulked him, allowing Bagnaia and Martin to slice back ahead in second and third.
Having benefited from his infamous towing tactics in qualifying, Marquez looked vulnerable coming back onto the home straight for the first time, with Bagnaia and Martin both using the strength of the Ducati GP23’s power to scythe through on the run to Turn 1.
Further back, meanwhile, Oliveira was past Bastianini for fourth, dragging Jack Miller with him at Turn 3. Prompting a loss of momentum for Bastianini uphill into Turn 4 and onto Turn 5, he found himself swamped under braking for the left-hander.
However, as Luca Marini dipped into the bend, he lost the front of his VR46 Ducati, taking a hapless Bastianini with him. Even worse, the impact led to an awkward semi-high side for Bastianini, the change of direction slapping him hard into the ground on his shoulder.
Clearly in discomfort as marshals ran to his aid, Bastianini was taken to the medical centre for checks, with an early diagnosis revealing a right scapula fracture.
Marini and Bastianini were not the only riders to be eliminated early on either, with Augusto Fernandez the first to retire on his debut to compound a woeful weekend so far for the rebranded GasGas Tech 3 Racing team, while VR46 Racing’s day ended on lap three with an off for Marco Bezzecchi.
Elsewhere, Joan Mir’s first outing with Repsol Honda came to a sticky end on lap one, the Spaniard’s attempt to slither up the inside of Fabio Quartararo pitching him into a low-side at Turn 12. Despite Mir washing out into the side of Quartararo, the Yamaha rider stayed upright but dropped to last as he untangled himself from the downed Honda.
Bagnaia bides time for late sprint charge
Back at the front, Martin wrestled the lead from Bagnaia at the start of lap four, the Spaniard - who many predict will be a significant threat in the Sprint Races this year - quickly attempting to put some air between himself and the competition.
However, with high winds affecting the ultimate pace, the lead group of three quickly swelled to five as Miller and Oliveira hauled themselves into contention.
Of the quintet, it was Miller on the move, the Aussie settling well on his KTM to lever Marquez out of the way for third - in turn taking Oliveira with him - before quickly getting the better of Bagnaia for second on lap six of twelve.
Turning his attention to leader Martin, with Miller recognising he was unlikely to out-drag the Pramac Ducati down the home straight, he instead adopted the element of surprise for his daring pass at the slow Turn 12 left-hander to take the lead for the first time.
Alas for him, it meant Martin was still well placed to complete the re-pass on the home straight, an easy overtake to undo all of Miller’s hard work to get there.
Indeed, it appeared to knock Miller’s subsequent confidence as a gap quickly built between himself and Martin up front and invited Bagnaia back into second with four laps remaining.
With the lead group having now grown to seven to include the fast-circulating factory Aprilias, Bagnaia got to work on closing the gap to Martin, the pair nose-to-tail coming into the final lap.
While Martin successfully resisted Bagnaia on the run to Turn 1 for the final time, in effect eliminating his rival’s best chance to pass, he proceeded to get out of shape on the exit of Turn 5, opening the door for his factory stablemate to sweep through.
It was the only invitation Bagnaia needed, the Ducati Corse rider holding firm over the remainder of the lap to get his title defence off to an excellent start with a full 12 points for victory.
Martin trailed him home in second position, with Marquez somewhat surprisingly emerging on top in the battle for third place.
Indeed, the Repsol Honda rider had looked to be going in the wrong direction mid-way through the race but was able to haul himself back into contention when Oliveira’s robust pass for third on Miller at Turn 1 with two laps to go instead forced both wide and opened a gap for Marquez to jump both.
Despite this, a frisky Oliveira put himself back on target for a much desired home podium by re-taking third from Marquez coming into the final lap, only to get his braking all wrong coming towards Turn 10 and being forced out wide and down to seventh.
As such, Marquez took back the position, with Miller shadowing him across the line in fourth place having just resisted the close attentions of Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro.
Engaged in their own fierce fight for factory Aprilia supremacy, Espargaro led Vinales for much of the race before the latter managed to claw his way through via some light contact. With Oliveira ruining RNF’s chances of getting top Aprilia status on its debut with the RS-GP, Vinales capitalised in fifth, with Espargaro sixth and Oliveira seventh.
Well adrift of the lead battle, Johann Zarco finished a lonely eighth, with Alex Marquez picking up the final points’ paying position in ninth place.
Behind him, Quartararo recovered ground from his early skirmish with Mir but couldn’t crack the points in tenth, with Raul Fernandez, Brad Binder and Alex Rins - who was briefly seventh through the first turns - ending up 11th, 12th and 13th.
With just 16 of the 21 riders reaching the flag, Franco Morbidelli, Takaaki Nakagami and Fabio di Giannantonio brought up the rear.