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MotoGP

Four key title fight moments in MotoGP 2023's best race yet

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

MotoGP title rivals Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin can both be reasonably satisfied about the outcome of Sunday's Thailand Grand Prix, which in the end represented just a five-point swing towards race winner Martin after two grands prix in Indonesia and Australia that had had much bigger impacts.

But the spectre of the championship battle was keenly felt in virtually every lap of the Buriram blockbuster, and there was no shortage of opportunities for both of MotoGP's 2023 standouts during the 26-lap race to either deal a crucial blow in the title duel - or suffer a crucial blow.

Here's a closer look at the four decisive moments that impacted the outcome of the Thai GP and thus the championship fight, but could've also so easily gone the other way.

1. Bagnaia gets roughed up

Bagnaia had made a bit of a mess of his getaway from sixth on the grid on Saturday - not hugely so, but enough to get boxed in on the run to Turn 1, which cascaded into effectively ruining his sprint.

No such trouble on Sunday - he got a great launch and worked his way around fourth-placed Alex Marquez through the hairpin-like Turn 3.

Suddenly, it's lap one, and there are just the three riders up ahead. At that point, Bagnaia - knowing his race pace has been superb all weekend, and that he was likely stronger on Sunday's rear tyre of choice, the hard, compared to Saturday's medium - would've had every reason to believe he's going to win the race.

He would've surely worked his way around Luca Marini and Aleix Espargaro with relative ease, given the pace-management Jorge Martin was doing up front, and then would've been in a great position to try to force Martin to use up his rear tyre.

But before any of that could materialise, Bagnaia got a slightly iffy run through Turn 8 - and, with Turn 9 coming up immediately after, here was Brad Binder on the inside.

It meant Bagnaia had to more or less bail out of the corner, which also resulted in letting Alex Marquez through. Marquez was then a big pain over the course of the second lap, and his brother Marc briefly relegated Bagnaia to as low as seventh with a Turn 5 move that squeezed Bagnaia much more towards the long-lap loop than Bagnaia would've been comfortable with.

All of that lost ground would be regained, starting with an absolutely ruthless (and perhaps even dubiously legal, given no room at all was left on the outside) Turn 4 overtake on Marquez the following lap - but Bagnaia was well aware after the race the laps spent in the mid-pack dogfights had been costly.

"I was honestly very happy that my start went perfect, and I was there already considering that I would be able to do a race of control, controlling the rear tyre," Bagnaia said.

"But before the first lap finished already the battle commenced. I started to have a lot of contact, a lot of battles.

"It was quite intense, I didn't have time to manage the rear tyre, I had just to push a lot to close the gap every time.

"Unluckily I arrived to the [lead] group not in the best shape with the rear tyre."

Considering he was eventually classified second, the implication there may well be that this was indeed Bagnaia's race to lose had he just kept that fourth place on the opening lap. And that, honestly, feels truthful.

But unlike with his annoyance on Saturday about the Ducatis battling ahead of him and costing him race time, on Sunday Bagnaia was sanguine about the whole thing.

"I think it was normal. I think it was one of the most fun races this year. Not for the result, because finally I lost another four points - but it was fun."

2. Third time's the charm for Binder (but may have been too late)

Both Martin and Binder seemed very content with how the race was panning out over the first 60% or so, but with Bagnaia bearing down on them and the lap count ticking up it was finally time to settle the score.

Given Binder showed more pace longevity on Saturday than Martin, it was fair to wonder whether it was only ever going to go one way - and that feeling only increased when Binder started divebombing the Pramac rider.

Lap 20 at the Turn 8 right-hander was the first attempt, Binder managing to keep a decently tight line but Martin just getting a good enough exit to remain level while now having the inside line into Turn 9, which kept him in the lead.

Turn 3 on the next lap was a real lunge and was probably never going to work, although Martin was probably quite fortunate that Binder's move didn't compromise him more given Bagnaia was lurking.

Then, a bit of a gasp in the final corner - though it probably looked closer than it was - as Binder overcooked the entry slightly and had to take a very wide line to avoid a potentially championship-deciding collision.

But given how easy it was for Binder after that to close in again on Martin and this time pull off the Turn 8 move - seemingly going slightly tighter, his exit just good enough to keep Martin from committing again to the inside of Turn 9 - it looked like game over.

"I was a bit on the limit at that corner on the tyres, so I thought he had more grip than me," said Martin.

"But as soon as he overtook me, and he was in front, I saw he was on the limit also with the rear grip, no? So I tried to keep that distance for one lap and then overtake him back, because I didn't want my front tyre to get really hot."

Indeed, it didn't take Binder long to realise he was in trouble. The lap after the overtake, he felt some "pumping" and some rear vibration and realised he must've worn the rear tyre down to the hardest base layer.

"From then on it was just surviving," he said, although Martin's eventual counter-overtake - a penultimate lap Turn 3 move in which Martin showed his inside wheel, both ran wide and Martin was faster getting on the throttle, cutting off any advantage Binder may have had from a wider line - was far from a given.

3. Bagnaia's highlight reel moment

Had he pulled off this overtake, Bagnaia said post-race, it would've probably gone down as the best in recent years in MotoGP.

He's completely right. It was impossible not to hoot and holler at the sheer audacity of what the Ducati man had tried there at the final corner of the penultimate lap, though ultimately the failure of the move effectively ended his victory bid.

Bagnaia had got a puzzlingly good run through Turn 11 and the helicopter shots immediately made it clear - not only was he going to clear Binder on the braking at Turn 12, he was going to challenge Martin, too.

And he went further and further into the corner down the outside, drawing ahead of Martin - who, though it is hard to say exactly from the positioning of his helmet, must've seen a red bike all of a sudden in his peripheral vision, a jump scare to rival any horror classic.

Whatever exactly Martin realised in that point, what happened next seemed pretty clear - he seemingly released the brake a little, went much further into the tight final corner than he would've otherwise and nudged Bagnaia onto the outside kerb, ensuring that Binder got back past the points leader too.

Speaking to MotoGP.com's After the Flag show, Bagnaia pinched his fingers to show how close he felt he had been in making the move stick (and indeed, it looked for all intents and purposes like, despite his hard braking, he was going to take a great line through the corner before Martin ran him wide).

"When you're on the outside and you have a guy on the inside, it's easy that the guy on the inside releases a bit the brakes and touches you a bit," he said.

"I would've done the same if I was in his situation.

"Happy, because it was a nice attempt."

4. Binder's gift to Bagnaia

But what would've been a painful nine-point swing towards Martin - removing exactly half of Bagnaia's pre-race lead - was then mitigated by Binder getting over-eager in his attempts to clear Martin on the final lap.

"On the last lap, I tried to carry a little bit more roll speed through [Turn] 4, just to get onto Jorge's wheel and try to snip up the inside," he told After the Flag.

"But I had a little lock when I had the bump there, and I ended up finding myself half a metre wide. "

Under MotoGP's rules, that run over the track limits line effectively consigned him to a post-race loss of position. Martin wasn't to know that, however, and Binder was still incentivised to overtake him.

Martin hit his marks over the rest of the lap and took a very defensive line into the final corner that nevertheless allowed him to pretty comfortably keep the lead.

Hilariously, had they both known the full extent of the situation, it would've suited both for Martin to wave Binder through in the final corner.

But it's not something that the championship pursuing Spaniard, on the heels of what he described as the "best race of my life" apart from his Moto3 title-clincher, is likely to lose any sleep over.

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