Marco Bezzecchi's strong rookie campaign in 2022 and the proven might of the year-old Ducati Desmosecidi GP22 he'd be riding for Valentino Rossi's VR46 MotoGP team meant expectations on him were high coming into 2023.
However, no one expected the 25-year-old to deliver a surprise title challenge - not even Bezzecchi himself, as he admits in an exclusive interview with The Race.
That title challenge ultimately only faltered not - as most would've predicted - because his form tailed off relative to riders on the latest bikes, but because of an injury sustained away from the racetrack.
THE BASTIANINI BENCHMARK
There were, of course, hints that the season would go well for Bezzecchi before he even jumped onto the new (to him) bike at the end of 2022.
The biggest was what Enea Bastianini had managed to do in comparable circumstances at Gresini last year, when handed the well-sorted 2021 Ducati. With nothing to do but concentrate on his base setting in testing, Bastianini started 2022 extremely strongly while those on the latest bikes figured out their new equipment, and won three of the season's first seven races.
And while Bezzecchi didn't match Bastianini's 2022 feat of winning the season-opener, he wasn't far behind - his and VR46's first MotoGP victory coming in round two of 2023 in Argentina.
But although many others might have expected race-winning form as a bare minimum in 2023, Bezzecchi was trying not to get ahead of himself.
“I wanted to win a race,” he tells The Race. “This was my main target, my obsession before the start of the season. I only thought about winning one race. This was my mindset before the start of the season, but I knew I could be fast.
“I saw in Portimao [at the first round]. Portimao for me was important, making the podium there [Bezzecchi was third] where normally in Moto2 but also in the previous season in MotoGP I wasn’t really quick. It’s a track where I’ve never been quick enough.
“I don’t know why, but once I made the podium there in the beginning of the season I said to myself that OK, for sure I will be competitive in every race.
“But of course it’s difficult to expect from yourself such a good year. I saw that I was competitive, so after winning my first race, the target was just to win another one and try to be strong.”
From there on, he got stuck right into the thick of things. Bezzecchi spent longer in the championship lead than anyone but eventual winner Pecco Bagnaia after his Argentina win and looked like he'd still be right in title contention even after getting caught up in the opening lap-chaos at the Catalan Grand Prix in September.
THE TITLE BID GETS REAL
That was the point at which Bezzecchi started to believe in his title aspirations more seriously. Second place at Misano a week after the Barcelona pile-up that left him with a hand injury meant Bezzecchi was third in the standings and 65 points behind Bagnaia - compromised by Barcelona crash after-effects of his own - with eight rounds left.
“After Misano, I have to be honest that I said that I have to try at least to arrive close to [the top of the standings in] the end,” he explains.
“Also in Misano I had an injury in my hand after the crash at Montmelo, but I saw that I was competitive.
“Unfortunately not enough for winning, but I was there, and I thought that when I’m suffering and I’m going like this then I can try to fight for the maximum that I can."
He followed it up with a superb Indian GP weekend that combined an epic last-to-fifth recovery charge in the sprint with utter domination of the main race, and the points gap was down to 44.
Ultimately the title shot wasn’t to be, thanks not to a racing incident but rather a fall while training at Valentino Rossi’s VR46 Ranch that left him nursing an injury in the final rounds. At least the way the season ended hasn't taken any of the shine off Bezzecchi's year.
“It was for sure a very nice season for me. Over what I expected," he admits.
"A shame that in the end with the injury I lost a bit of ground in the final part of the season, but honestly I didn’t expect to fight for the championship, even before the injury.
“But also my comeback was very good, so I can’t complain too much. I don’t like to give myself a score, but it was positive and I am happy.”
His shoulder was broken when he crashed while flat-track training, which initially looked set not just to end his title hopes but derail the entire final part of his season. In the end, that proved not to be the case thanks to a heroic return to MotoGP action at the Indonesian GP only days after undergoing surgery to repair the break.
“The injury of course worried me immediately after the crash in training,” he says. “I understood that I had a broken shoulder, and I was desperate because of the championship. Of course.
“As soon as I realised - you feel pain, and I’ve already broken my shoulder once so I knew how it was. I understood immediately. I was really, really desperate, and I said to the staff that was there to call our trainer Carlo [Casabianca] because I wanted to get under surgery that night.
“It wasn’t possible, but on the next morning it was possible. My mind was difficult to describe, but I think my trainer made a wonderful job.
“In the beginning, already before the surgery, he told me, ‘I think you can do it, you can come back at the next race’. So I was really motivated.
“After the surgery he told me he didn’t know, that it would be really difficult, probably I couldn’t do it for the first race - and this made me even more angry and motivated to come back! Not only to try and stay close to the top, but also for the top three, because at least that is a good result to bring home for the end of the year.
"The first thought was to try and come back quick, to continue to be in the fight.
“After Indonesia, where I recovered some points from Jorge [Martin] because he crashed, I was really happy - but the weekend in Phillip Island, I was destroyed.
“I think it was key to work really hard, go over the pain in training in these couple of days and on the race weekend, because I really suffered a lot. It was really painful, but the second one [Phillip Island] was more the fatigue. Pain, plus fatigue.
“Unfortunately, my body was OK but all this part - the neck, the muscles from my arm and my shoulder - was destroyed from the previous weekend. In that point, I thought that if it is like this, then I need to focus on the top three.
“So I tried to survive, I tried to take some points and save myself every weekend to at least bring home the top 10 [each race].”
As Bezzecchi suggested, the crash ruled him out of any serious title contention - he was officially eliminated from the running in Malaysia, two rounds before the Valencia finale - but he's adamant wouldn’t have done anything differently, including taking the risks that come with training on motorcycles even away from the MotoGP track.
“For a motorcycle racer in the end you have to train,” he insists. “You get these sensations on the bike, and every bike gives you a sensation that is impossible to replicate in the gym or anywhere else.
“You try to avoid the very difficult or dangerous training, every possibility to get injured, but unfortunately our sport is dangerous anyway.
“I am of the idea that I could also get injured in the gym, and that would be even more painful inside. I hate going to the gym. I hate training. I hate everything and would just love to always be on the bike.
“So I’ve heard many people speak [about the risks], of course, and that’s normal, but I don’t really care a lot. All the athletes understand.”
REJECTING A 2024 DUCATI
Bezzecchi also made headlines off-track in 2023, with considerable time devoted to his 2024 plans given factory bosses made it very clear that Ducati wanted him on a works bike for next year. That would've been achieved by switching him to the Pramac team with which Jorge Martin fought for the 2023 title, with Bezzecchi replacing Johann Zarco there.
It’s testament to Bezzecchi's mindset - and his faith in VR46 - that he rejected Ducati's advances in favour of remaining with Rossi’s tight-knit team and its year-old machinery.
“It was a difficult decision for me,” Bezzecchi concedes, “because Ducati made me this offer for a factory package. I don’t know if it was a full factory or a step in between my one and the full factory, but for me the difficult part was that right now in MotoGP you have to perform really quick.
“For example, [former Tech3 KTM racer and Bezzecchi’s Moto2 team-mate Remy] Gardner won the [Moto2] championship and then immediately… [was replaced after one year]. I knew that for me, I have built this relationship with my staff and my team, and for me the human side is very important.
“Knowing that I had to perform very quickly, having this kind of pressure that I am changing team, that I don’t know if I will feel the same with, that I don’t know if I will have the same kind of relationship with, the same way to work with my new crew chief because Matteo [Flamigni] probably couldn’t follow me.
“You have to have this feeling. It’s difficult to explain, but for sure you understand it.
“In the end, I said: ‘why do I have to change from a satellite team to another satellite team?’ My target, as every MotoGP rider, is to arrive in a factory team, and the [VR46] Academy is working since I arrived in Moto3 to make me arrive in a factory team.
“They’ve made so much for me, so why do I have to leave them to go to another satellite team?
“Of course, the factory bike, the factory package is really interesting and I would like a lot to have it, even in this team, but I know that in the end I can get quite good results even with a year-old package because the Ducati package is very competitive.
“This was my thinking in that period, and in the end I decided to stay.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there isn’t still room to achieve better things with his current squad - something that you get the distinct impression Bezzecchi would rather work hard on than learning a whole new team.
And, supported by none other than nine-time world champion Rossi within the garage, it’s clearly a team that matches up well with Bezzecchi’s chilled out demeanour - though he wants to find a way to be even more relaxed in 2024 to make him even faster.
“Of course there are a lot of things to improve, always,” says Bezzecchi. “You never stop learning in this kind of sport. In every sport. But in MotoGP right now the level is very high, and really you can make the difference in the small details. There are many small details that I would like to adjust.
“The behaviour during the weekend, trying to always be calm like I did this year but even more so. Trying to be with my mind fully relaxed so that I can be more focused on the important decisions while riding but also while working inside the box.
“Improve my riding, improve my training, everything to be more strong.
“Having Vale is a big advantage, of course, because when he’s here it's fantastic but also when he is at home he gives us a lot of support.
“I can ask him everything that I want and he is always there to try and help me. I can look at the others also, I can study the data to try and improve.”