until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


MotoGP’s most interesting rivalry is now a 2024 rehearsal

by Matt Beer
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The prospect of Ducati utterly dominating the 2023 MotoGP season didn’t seem so bad for neutrals over the winter given the potential for something explosively entertaining to develop within its new factory line-up.

Champion Pecco Bagnaia had lost his supportive wingman Jack Miller, replaced by Enea Bastianini – who was fresh from making Bagnaia’s run to the 2022 title uncomfortably hard at times during a remarkable season on Gresini’s year-old Ducati in which he won four races and only fell out of championship contention himself at the penultimate round.

There had been enough tense moments between Bagnaia and Bastianini when Bastianini was way down the Ducati pecking order. Now he had his big factory break and ambitions of his own. That talent, that penchant for amazing late-race charges after remarkable tyre-nursing runs versus Bagnaia’s confidence as reigning champion and established Ducati king.

Sounded entertaining, didn’t it?

But it didn’t happen. Or at least it hasn’t happened yet.

Prior to Mugello last weekend, Bastianini had only managed one racing lap in 2023. It was on lap two of the inaugural MotoGP sprint at Portimao back in March that VR46 Ducati rider Luca Marini clattered into him and left him with a broken right shoulder blade.

Two and a half months and five missed MotoGP weekends later, Bastianini was back for the Italian Grand Prix. And he was fairly quick – as quick as Bagnaia on single-lap pace in practice, and though lacking in qualifying and over race pace, still good enough to get ninth places in both the sprint and main race.

The number of abortive comeback attempts Bastianini made – most of them called off after Ducati superbike runs, though he made it as far as Friday practice on the MotoGP bike at Jerez at the end of April – was evidence enough of how serious the injury was.


Though he said there was “not a lot of pain” until a “little bit” at the end of the GP, the combination of his recovery still being ongoing and a long period without any meaningful physical training heavily compromised him at Mugello.

“That track is so physical in general for the body and especially the final sector, the fastest chicanes, it was so difficult for me to be fast and to be reactive,” Bastianini explained.

“I’m slower on the changes of direction because I’m not at 100% generally and my riding style is so physical generally. My style is not my natural style for the moment. I’m outside on the right, normal on the left. The bike doesn’t follow me.”

But it’s not just that. He’s also now nearly three months behind his opposition. He was still finding the sprint format’s demands quite novel while it’s now a way of life for his rivals. More importantly, he’s not actually up to speed on the works Ducati yet.


Bastianini’s hopes of a 2023 title tilt were already faltering pre-season.

There had been a school of thought that he’d been slightly flattered last year by being on the very well-proven and user-friendly 2021-spec Ducati while the factory and Pramac riders lost some initial momentum when the 2022-spec bike proved to be a bigger change than anticipated and ended up running a variety of engine set-ups amid a few last-minute decisions.

This winter Bastianini had his own equivalent of that experience, unsettled by the degree of difference between his 2021-vintage Gresini Ducati and the 2023 works version. He admitted he was going into the racing season only “70-75% ready”.

The question – perhaps the biggest question for the 2023 MotoGP title battle once the scale of Yamaha’s strife made clear this was likely to be a Ducati runaway season – was how long Bastianini might need to find that missing 25-30% and how far ahead Bagnaia might have been by the time he did. Given Bagnaia’s early-season shunts, the answer may well have been: not very.

But he certainly is now – 123 points clear of his team-mate nearly one-third of the way into the season and having won half the year’s grands prix so far. And the puzzling stumbles now seem well behind him. Unlike his Termas de Rio Hondo and Austin errors where he seemed surprised by the Ducati’s behaviour, Bagnaia’s Le Mans crash was a racing incident. He’s at one with the bike itself and surely now poised to walk away with the rest of the season.

Bastianini is conscious it’s not just his physical condition that means he’s not in that situation yet.

“The bike is competitive and I have to work with the guys in my team to do a step because the other riders have more races compared to me and we have seen during the race that Ducati was on top and I was behind,” he said on Sunday night at Mugello.

“That probably doesn’t depend only on the shoulder.

“But I need a little bit of time, probably I’ll be at 100% after the summer break, and probably it would be difficult for me to go on the podium in the next two races.”

He’s come back for the Mugello-Sachsenring-Assen triple-header that takes place between MotoGP’s spring and summer breaks, and then with the cancellation of the Kazakh race he’ll have six weeks off before the season resumes at Silverstone in early August.

And that’s where this is going to start getting really interesting. But more with 2024 in mind.

Assuming Silverstone is the point at which Bastianini’s back to full fitness, that still leaves him with 12 grand prix weekends to go in 2023.

Twelve grands prix with absolutely no pressure to fight for a title or particular expectation of results. Twelve grands prix to properly figure out this bike, properly get into the swing of how the factory Ducati team works. Twelve grands prix to perhaps get under Bagnaia’s skin a little bit. After all, it’s unlikely Bagnaia will be needing to call on team orders much to seal this title. It ought to be a free-for-all on track.

Bestia 1 Uc521920 High

There was a risk that Bastianini’s 2023 season might come across as a disappointing factory Ducati debut if he spent it settling in and getting beaten by Bagnaia, given it would be a loss of momentum after all the glory of 2022. It would’ve raised questions about how much of last year’s brilliance was down to that well-proven bike.

Missing the first third of the season and carrying a draining injury for a whole triple-header certainly isn’t a scenario Bastianini would’ve chosen. But there really is potential to now turn August-November into a positive. One big pressure-free rehearsal for 2024.

Yamaha and Honda need to reimagine their whole MotoGP approach to get back on the pace. KTM and Aprilia haven’t proved they can sustain championship campaigns. Ducati can rule MotoGP for a few years yet. With little threat from outside, the battle inside is going to be everything – and might even be allowed to rage without team order interference if Ducati isn’t having to worry about rival manufacturers in a title fight.


“Now after these two races is the summer break and I can work well,” said Bastianini.

“For three months I never trained really hard. For MotoGP this can be a problem.

“For August, I’ll be 100%.”

By March 2024 – which is when it’s really, really going to matter again – Bastianini’s 100% is likely to be pretty fearsome if he uses the run of 12 GP weekends that begins at Silverstone in the right way.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks