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MotoGP

MotoGP is poised for its most intriguing wildcard in years

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

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There were 10 specifically-designated MotoGP wildcard starts – as opposed to starts where test riders serve as injury stand-ins, which are a slightly different kettle of fish even if the distinction is minor – last year. Not a single one yielded even a point.

Such is the MotoGP world right now. Gone are the days where a wildcard could fight for a podium or more, and even test riders with serious MotoGP pedigree – like Ducati’s highly-respected Michele Pirro – aren’t really able to make an impact on the timing sheets.

Last weekend, though Pirro in his role as Enea Bastianini’s replacement scored points and very nearly a top-10 in an attritional Grand Prix of the Americas, you would’ve been forgiven for not knowing he was even present unless you clocked him crash in the sprint.

Michele Pirro Ducati MotoGP

So it would take something special for a wildcard to make a big impact. Something special like, say, a 31-time grand prix winner rocking up at a track he clearly loves and has just tested on, with a much-improved bike?

It’s tempting and probably sensible to preach caution about Dani Pedrosa’s chances at Jerez. MotoGP is now very unfriendly to plug-and-play riders, check. He’s 37, check. His job isn’t to get a result but to try out various bits in race weekend conditions, check.

And yet it would also not be surprising in the least if Pedrosa had a properly good weekend.

Firstly, we’ve already seen a good Pedrosa wildcard. When KTM finally succeeded at convincing him to give it a go at the Red Bull Ring in 2021, Pedrosa managed to split the factory RC16s in qualifying and finish 10th in a restarted race – albeit restarted because he’d crashed and Aprilia tester Lorenzo Savadori hit his bike, causing an actual fire on the track surface.

MotoGP crashed bikes

That looked like it for Pedrosa’s MotoGP starts, given he was already seen as reluctant to race. But just under two years later he’s been convinced to give it another go – something that KTM motorsport boss Pit Beirer suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek but perhaps not, was credit to the new bike being an improved proposition.

Though track-to-track variance and comparisons with the KTM are always a bit of a nightmare, the 2023 RC16 has certainly looked improved, and massively so last time out at the Circuit of the Americas. Last year there, all four RC16s slotted in between 17th and 22nd on the grid. This year they were obviously much more competitive than that throughout – and though KTM works riders Jack Miller and Brad Binder both crashed out on Sunday, Miller had felt, not without merit, that a victory bid would’ve been plausible had he stayed on given he looked to have kept his rear tyre in decent shape while running in third place.

“This bike was, I think the best was 2m03.4s last year in qualifying,” said Miller. “And we’re consistently in 2m03-lows in the race here.

“It just goes to show how much the bike’s improved. I feel like we’re still getting to grips with her, and I love the thing, honestly.

Jack Miller Brad Binder KTM MotoGP

“Every time I ride it, it’s putting more and more of a smile on my face. And the way I can brake on it, the way I can work with it, it’s a fun bike to ride. And it’s going to be a great package- it already is, and it’s going to get better and better.”

“For me, it’s been three very different tracks,” said Binder of the new KTM’s baptism so far at Portimao, Termas de Rio Hondo and COTA.

“We’ve almost raced with three quite different motorbikes as well. So when we get back to Europe, and we get back to normal grip level, it’s going to be interesting to see where we are and what changes we need to make.

“But in general, I mean, in the race today [at Austin] I went about 0.7s quicker than my quickest lap in qualifying last year.

“So, we’ve made a big step forward. We’re in a complete different level.”

Jerez has never been a great track for KTM, but for Pedrosa it has been a veritable ore of silverware, with 10 podiums in 12 MotoGP starts. It will also help that he’s just been testing there with KTM.

 

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A post shared by Dani Pedrosa (@26_danipedrosa)

And while laptimes from his various 2023 appearances haven’t been made public, the rumours circulating have been fairly encouraging. Moreover, the sprint format will help him press home whatever advantage he may have from the extra Jerez mileage given the reduced of in-weekend practice time.

Does it mean he’s a podium or a top-five threat? Surely not, no. It’s way too much to expect, not just because Pedrosa is 37 – as the year-older Alvaro Bautista is currently doing unspeakable things to the World Superbike grid – but because a certain level of MotoGP race fitness seems a prerequisite to anything approaching frontrunning performance in the series as it is right now.

But Pedrosa could very well pop up towards the sharp end of the timesheets for a moment or two and, if whatever development work he’s tasked with doesn’t completely overpower competitive prospects, could make it a weekend to remember in his storied MotoGP career.

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