June 20, 2024
What we learned from the final MotoGP pre-season test of 2023

As the flurry of social media posts from the paddock at 5:30pm on Sunday correctly pointed out, it’s now time to go racing in MotoGP in 2023.

Two final days of testing at the Algarve International Circuit brought this year’s pre-season phase to a close, with Ducati maintaining an ominous 100{b037f4174007d005f1ab9cb8d1aafc050eb5d7e8c07298e478acc145e540df6a} hit rate across all test days ahead of the new campaign. Reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia led the field with a lap record effort on the second day of the Portugal test, and there was no hiding who the pack believes is the biggest threat in 2023.

There were standout – for completely different reasons – headlines from the Japanese powerhouses, while the next phase of MotoGP’s aerodynamics war was kickstarted.

So, with just two weeks to go until the 2023 season starts, here’s what we learned from the Portugal test.

1. “Changed man” Bagnaia and Ducati threaten 2023 stranglehold

Bagnaia goes into the defence of his MotoGP crown on top form

Bagnaia goes into the defence of his MotoGP crown on top form

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“I think he’s looking stronger this year than in last year, even in the run he had in the back-end of the season in 2021, the run he had coming back into last season. I think this year’s he seems more of a changed man, a confident man, and he’s riding pretty impressive.”

That was Jack Miller’s assessment of former team-mate and reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia following Sunday’s final day of running at the Portugal test.

Bagnaia topped both days at the Algarve track on a GP23 he feels is now “100{b037f4174007d005f1ab9cb8d1aafc050eb5d7e8c07298e478acc145e540df6a}” ready for the opening round of the season. But it was his test-topping time on Sunday that really hammered home his and Ducati’s apparent advantage. The Italian dipped underneath the existing lap record with a 1m37.968s that led Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo to comment, with a hint of despair, “fucking hell” at the end of his media debrief when he looked at the times.

Ducati’s GP23 isn’t a radical departure from the bike Bagnaia won the championship on last year, but has been refined to deliver him better handling. While his time attack effort (which he wasn’t surprised at) was exceptional, the impressiveness of the 2023 Ducati package was not confined to the glory run.

With the impending sprint race revolution, most of the field opted to simulate that on the final day in Portugal. While MotoGP’s analysis sheets don’t account for tyre age on its individual rider runs analysis, Bagnaia said afterwards that on his second sprint stint his tyre was 12 laps old when he put in his best effort of 1m39.197s at the end of a consistent run.

While he didn’t want to single out any title favourites, nor acknowledge his own position, Bagnaia was clear on the opening day of the Portugal test where the land lies at present: “I saw at this moment that Ducati and Aprilia are unbeatable. They are very competitive. But it’s very difficult to know because sincerely it was easier to understand the tests years ago.”

Of the six official days of testing that have taken place since November last year, Ducati riders have topped all of them. Throw in Michele Pirro’s Sepang shakedown topping effort, and Ducati is on a hat-trick in the testing wars coming to the new season. Given the Ducati’s ability to pull out all the stops over a single lap, this will lend itself to the all-out half-distance sprint races. That married to Ducati’s existing strong form in the full-distance grands prix, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Italian manufacturer will ease to a double victory at the Portuguese GP.

And there’s also nothing to suggest it won’t be Bagnaia doing the honours.

2. Light at the end of the tunnel for one Japanese powerhouse…

Yamaha made a breakthrough on the final day, but not necessarily with its F1-style rear wing

Yamaha made a breakthrough on the final day, but not necessarily with its F1-style rear wing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

As the penultimate day of the pre-season drew to a close, nothing looked like it was going Yamaha’s way. While the top speed gains Fabio Quartararo spent much of 2022 vocally requesting were delivered, the rest of the 2023-spec YZR-M1 was distinctly lacking.

After the Sepang test, the 2021 world champion called his bike “a nightmare” in time attack trim. His best effort on Saturday in Portugal, a 1m39.614s, was almost a second off of Bagnaia’s best of the day. As far as Quartararo was concerned, Yamaha was “not ready” to face the opening round of the campaign as the entire bike – particularly on fresh rubber – was not working.

Last November, Yamaha test rider Cal Crutchlow told Motorsport.com that he had never seen the Japanese marque work as hard as it has been on the 2023 bike. While pleased at the amount he has had to test, Quartararo theorised on the final day in Portugal that this was perhaps the reason it had struggled so much.

“I think basically for four years we have been almost with the same bike,” he began. “But this year we have been changing quite a lot, and I think too much because the others have been going step by step. But for three years we [had] the same, and then completely different and for me we got lost.”

For Yamaha to go forward on the final day of the Portugal test, it had to go backwards. Though its massive Formula 1-style rear wing drew most of the attention, the rest of the bike followed more closely to its predecessor, with Quartararo running 2022-spec geometry settings and aerodynamic package.

This didn’t perfect the bike, but it was “a massive step” that has put Yamaha “back to good things”, according to Quartararo. This is reflected in his time attack run, with the Frenchman finding 1.3s on his Saturday best to produce a 1m38.302s to end the test third overall. His sprint race simulation wasn’t as good as Bagnaia’s, but Quartararo concedes he was “a little too conservative” in the first laps on soft rubber and could have pushed for more given his final tour of 12 was a 1m38.8s.

This is a hateful cliche, but – in Yamaha’s case – a necessary one because it remains to be seen just how meaningful its engine gains are in its ability to be able to actually race other motorcycles. For the time being, Quartararo is adamant Yamaha is “in a better position” than it was.

Crucially, however, Yamaha will not start the 2023 season chasing its tale having made the 11th-hour breakthrough Quartararo was hoping for.

3. …Pain ahead for the other

Honda hasn't made the gains Marc Marquez was hoping for

Honda hasn’t made the gains Marc Marquez was hoping for

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The biggest change from day to day at the Portugal test was Marc Marquez’s outlook on life. After Saturday’s running, he said Honda “cannot be optimistic” about the results of the day. Ending Sunday eight tenths off the pace and not advancing the competitiveness of the RC213V, Marquez took a more pragmatic view of the situation.

“We will see,” he said when asked if there is enough potential in the 2023 Honda to be able to dig the marque out of the hole it has found itself in. “Of course, we need to believe in it and at the moment in the standings everybody has zero points. Then when we pass five, six races you will understand immediately where you are. But it’s true we need to make a step, to keep improving. But you cannot start a season with a negative mentality. You need to start with a positive mentality, trying to find the best.”

Clearly, Marquez is accepting that the situation facing Honda right now will not be resolved in time for the first race.

While his testing schedule wasn’t as hectic as in Malaysia, when he started with four bikes, the eight-time world champion was put to work on Saturday in Portugal. Ending up with a package identical to what he ended the Sepang test with, he focused more on race preparation on Sunday.

There was nothing standout, from any Honda rider, and as far as Marquez is concerned fifth to 10th is the best he could hope for if the grand prix took place on Monday.

“Unfortunately, some of the things that Honda expected would work on track was not working like we expected,” he said. “And then were riding the same bike today as we finished with in Malaysia. It’s true that we changed the set-up a bit, my team organised a good plan and we did a few steps and I was feeling better and better.

“I was able to work on the rhythm, because when you try different things every run it’s more difficult. But now, for Portimao we cannot think about the podium or the victory. We have to think about what we have, try to take the best. Also the conditions will change, the rubber on the track. We will see, but at the moment if tomorrow was the race with the conditions we had on track [in the test] we can fight for fifth to 10th, I believe.”

Joan Mir was the top Honda at the end of the test in 13th ahead of Marquez, LCR’s Alex Rins, with Takaaki Nakagami in 20th. For Mir, understanding the systems on the Honda and its power delivery is proving the big issue right now. With no Honda rider seemingly confident in their bike yet, hopes of ending its win drought will be remote in the opening rounds of 2023.

4. Aprilia’s wings extend, KTM’s remained clipped

Aprilia sprung all kinds of appendages in Portugal

Aprilia sprung all kinds of appendages in Portugal

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

While Yamaha’s rear wing was certainly eye-catching, it wasn’t as radical as the approach Aprilia has taken to its aerodynamic package for 2023.

On the opening day of the Portugal test, the RS-GP was wheeled out with new front fork-mounted wings, strakes hanging off the swingarm and a t-wing on the seat unit. This is an area for Aprilia which is being spearheaded by former Minardi, Benetton and Ferrari aerodynamicist Marco de Luca, who has worked with the Italian marque for four years now.

The aim isn’t to copy what is going on in Formula 1, but to plough a new furrow in MotoGP. Aero has long been the domain of Ducati, but Aprilia’s set-up – which has been designed to offer multiple configurations to suit any given variable – has moved the game on.

It has sparked the debate about the necessity for aero in MotoGP, with Marc Marquez fearing it is “not the best for the show” given the detrimental effect it has on riders being able to race each other properly.

While that warrants its own analysis, for the time being, the aero kit – and everything else – Aprilia has brought seems to be working well. The combined timesheets mask where Aprilia truly lies, as Aleix Espargaro finished up early due to some fibrosis issues, while Maverick Vinales didn’t go all out for a time attack. Thus, 10th and 12th isn’t representative.

What will offer encouragement was an 18-lap long run for Vinales on Sunday which offered consistently quick laps, the best of which a 1m39.683s, while his final one was 1m39.751s. A new engine with a little bit more rpm wasn’t brought to the test, but is expected to be ready for the first round.

Aprilia’s strong form has persisted throughout the pre-season and it looks like it will at least start 2023 as Ducati’s nearest rival.

That can’t be said of KTM, who continued to battle rear grip issues in Portugal having battled with the persistent problem in Malaysia in February. New signing Jack Miller, who was 17th overall, feels the RC16 has “a decent base” now to start the season but needs “some tidying up to do in terms of electronics”.

Team-mate Brad Binder put in a solid time attack on the final day at the Algarve track to end up ninth, 0.512s off the pace. Having only “very, very slightly” improved rear grip, the South African conceded his qualifying lap “was an insane push” – a worrying statement given we didn’t see the true one-lap form of the Aprilias or Marquez on the Honda.

Binder did take solace in the fact the team, he believes, understands what the true issue is now that is causing the lack of rear grip, though he says its “hardware” needed to fix it, rather than electronics as Miller claims, and that he was able to make lap time gains every time he put soft rubber on, which wasn’t always easy to do in 2022.

But, for all of its resources, KTM once again comes into a new MotoGP campaign flying far below where it should be.

5. The physical toll of MotoGP’s punishing new schedule is yet to be realised

Aleix Espargaro was keeping check of his own fitness in the Portugal test

Aleix Espargaro was keeping check of his own fitness in the Portugal test

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

No one is really sure how sprint races will change things for MotoGP in 2023. It’s hoped they will provide an added thrill to boost flagging television figures and race attendance.

All winter riders have spoken about how they have changed their training to meet the expected demands of the new schedule, which will see 42 races run across a 21-round season that features no less than three triple-headers. But for all the talk of riders being at peak physical performance, already one is suffering from an issue that could require an operation.

Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro complained that he had no power in his right arm on Saturday and Sunday in Portugal, which forced him to park up early on both days. What he thought was arm pump, which “worried” him enough, turned out to be fibrosis. He will have had a check-up in Barcelona by the time this has gone to press and could well be on his way to an operation to correct it.

This won’t cause him any issues for the opening round, but it should raise some concerns that numerous riders could well find themselves in operating theatres across 2023 as the physical demands of two races per weekend on savage MotoGP machinery are realised.

MotoGP rider well-being will be in the spotlight all season with the sprint race addition

MotoGP rider well-being will be in the spotlight all season with the sprint race addition

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images