until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Protected? Popular perception of Bagnaia title 'help' is wrong

by Simon Patterson
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Coming out of Saturday’s sprint race at the season-ending Valencian Grand Prix, it was perhaps not a surprise that many were left wondering if joint strategies were at play, thanks to the queue of Ducatis stacking up behind reigning champion Pecco Bagnaia in fifth place.

But while it might have looked that way, the reality is that it’s pretty clear that team orders or even particular loyalties are far less likely to have been a factor than multiple other well-discussed issues in modern MotoGP.

That’s even despite the insistence of Bagnaia's main rival and fellow Ducati rider Jorge Martin, who had a considerably tougher race at the hands of Honda rider Marc Marquez and the KTM of Brad Binder, and who repeated his somewhat-routine comments after the race implying that Ducati (or at least individual riders in its wider set-up) was very much working in favour of its factory racer.

"I think they won't enter into the battle with him," Martin said when asked by The Race about Bagnaia coming under pressure on Sunday from fellow Ducatis. "Let's see. I cannot control that, so I don't have to think about that."

His good friend Aleix Espargaro articulated this feeling further - though he also said he saw no issue with the situation.

“We saw that Jorge used his weapons [on Friday] to try to make Pecco nervous and try to destabilise him, and today Pecco was a bit lucky because the two riders behind him didn't attack him,” said Espargaro.

“So at the end this is fair. He got lucky to get some extra points because Diggia [Fabio Di Giannantonio] and Bezz [Marco Bezzecchi] didn't attack him. But for me it's OK! If I was in the position to attack Jorge tomorrow, I would not do it. 100%. It's fair and it's racing and it's part of the championship, that's it.

“Marc today attacked Jorge OK, but believe me, Marc had the position. Marc had the position. If it wasn't Jorge [in front], if it was Binder, impossible that Binder stays in front. No way. But Marc decided to respect - it's fair, I mean, this is part of the game.

“It's because he [Martin] is fighting for the title. If I had the chance [to overtake]... Jorge is my friend; to finish fifth or sixth, for me it doesn't change, for him it changes quite a lot. It's part of the championship, it's not a problem.”

In my view, however, the reality is more complicated than outlined by either Martin or Espargaro - and one influenced by a combination of factors that have plagued MotoGP for quite some time.

The first of those is the fact that it’s not easy to overtake on a MotoGP bike in the current era, a complaint that riders have been voicing for some time, in large part thanks to the rise of aerodynamics and ride height devices.

It’s an issue that’s compounded by the nature of the Valencia circuit, which is no easy place to pass at under the best of circumstances - unless you’re willing to stick in the sort of hard and aggressive move that both Marquez and Binder were looking to stick on Martin before he shook them loose and cleared off to win the sprint.

“Everybody is doing their race,” Marquez insisted afterwards. “Remember, in the past I was fighting for the championships and I finished with my leathers completely black from the tyre of, for example, [Johann] Zarco I remember in Phillip Island, I don't know which year [2017].

“But in the end for example in Qatar in the sprint race the first laps I didn't attack Pecco and in the end I didn't attack Martin, because there was no podium [up for grabs], I didn't have the rhythm. Today I had the pace, I was able to do it. Even I lost time with [Maverick] Vinales, but then I was able to recover the time against them. Tomorrow I will do the same.”

"I had every intention of catching him and trying to pass," said Binder of chasing Martin for the win. And asked by The Race if there was any hesitation in fighting Martin due to the title picture, he was nonchalant: "To be honest, bud, the only time it crosses my mind is when you guys bring it up!"

But while Martin might have had the harder time of it thanks to the Honda and the KTM, it was perhaps Bagnaia who came closest to disaster during the half-distance race when Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo crashed out while overtaking him and nearly took the reigning champion with him.

“I don't care who is playing for the championship,” Quartararo too insisted afterwards. “Like in Qatar I overtook Martin pretty close, today it was Pecco. It's really important, I think, that we do our own race.

“I don't really care if it's Pecco or Jorge that wins, I just want to give my best and try to extract the maximum of our bike.”

And in these comments lies the reality of the situation Martin found himself in as he fought against bikes from rival manufacturers willing to get down and dirty with scant regard for the championship.

That’s in contrast to Bagnaia’s position, where those racing against him were perhaps more willing to keep their hands clean regardless of which of the title challengers they were fighting - just like Martin himself experienced a week ago in Qatar as he dropped through the field while team-mate Johann Zarco sat behind him unwilling to make an aggressive move of his own.

“Honestly, the goal today was to make a podium,” said Gresini rider Di Giannantonio, who while he isn’t fighting for a title is trying hard to secure himself a job for 2024.

“I really tried. For sure I was trying to overtake Pecco - but I would've had to risk too much.

“And in my position - for sure, as everybody saw in Qatar, if I can do a move for myself, I'm here to race for myself. I'm here to do the best for my team, that in the end is the team that's paying me.

“I have to do the maximum for myself and for my team. The maximum today was just the sixth position.

“Honestly, I was trying so hard. But was too risky. For sure in the long-distance race - I saw that Pecco was dropping a lot, for sure would be easier to overtake him. But in this half-race distance it was just too risky.”

"I think I could've done maybe a little bit better - but also to risk was difficult," added Bezzecchi. "Once I was with Fabio, I said, 'OK, I will try to pass them both [Quartararo and Bagnaia] and go on with my race' - but when Fabio crashed, I got overtaken by Diggia."

A pair of Ducati riders deciding that discretion was the better part of valour does not make Bagnaia protected - both maintained that they would, contrary to Espargaro's insistences, claim the position if it was possible to do so in a confidently clean way.

Martin cannot expect them, or many of the other riders potentially involved, to be willing to compromise Bagnaia on Sunday, either.

But with riders like Binder, Quartararo and Marquez having already shown a certain degree of irreverence towards the title battle, whatever 'protection' Bagnaia might have will anyway offer precious few guarantees.

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