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Talking points ahead of the Catalunya MotoGP™

Thursday, 31 August 2023

Ducati has dominated 2023 to date, but if there was ever a race to throw up a tripwire in Pecco Bagnaia's march to a MotoGP™ title defence, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya could be it…

There aren't a lot of boxes Ducati hasn't checked in this MotoGP™ season – after all, the Italian marque has won 16 of the 20 races if you combine the Sprints and Grands Prix in 2023 – but the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, site of this weekend's Grand Prix of Catalunya (September 1-3), is one of them.

Even when it didn't have the best bike, the circuit on the outskirts of one of Spain's tourism hotspots never provided a shock result in Ducati's favour, while pickings have been slim even when its machines have been the class of the field. Just two wins have come since 2007, while Yamaha, Honda and KTM have shared the spoils the past four seasons.

It's hard to see anyone laying a glove on in-form world champion Pecco Bagnaia coming into Spain – the Italian had his most dominant weekend of the year last time out in Austria. But Barcelona has been a graveyard for Bagnaia as well as his team; he's never won a world championship race at the circuit in any class, and never finished better than sixth in MotoGP™.

Does form or history rule the day at Montmelo? That's one talking point to watch this weekend – along with these…

Bagnaia's 'Max factor'

Halfway through 2023, it's hard to imagine anyone making Bagnaia remove the world champion's number 1 from the front fairing of his Ducati; the Italian's series lead ballooned to a season-high 62 points after Austria as closest rivals Jorge Martin and Marco Bezzecchi each had compromised weekends.

The catalyst behind Pecco's perfection? According to his 2022 title rival Fabio Quartararo, it's as much about mindset as machinery, the Yamaha rider referencing another top-tier motorsport category to illustrate his point.

"I think he's a little bit (like F1 world champion Max) Verstappen now, because I think in the previous years he had the best bike (too)," Quartararo said of Bagnaia.

"Right now the combination he has with the bike, the confidence he has, when you are winning you feel you are unstoppable. I don't think anyone can be faster than him."

Bagnaia isn't at Verstappen-levels of domination just yet, but with five wins, five poles and seven podiums in the first 10 Grands Prix, he's on course to shatter his tallies in those three categories from 2022 (seven, five and 10 respectively) with half the season still to go. Breaking his bizarre Barcelona hoodoo – and banishing the painful memories of being taken out by Honda's Takaaki Nakagami last year at the start – is the more immediate goal.

Miller's moment of clarity

For a rider who had plummeted from fourth on the grid to 15th, Jack Miller was remarkably calm after Austria, where his gap to the race-winner was over 25 seconds, a season-worst chasm.

Why? Austria was confirmation for Miller that a direction change he'd made three races ago wasn't working, and it was time to revert to the past in Barcelona to aim at a better future.

"We changed the bike a considerable amount in Assen, trying to go in the direction of all the other (KTM) guys and a little bit away from my normal setting," he explained.

"When the grip is low, we're not able to accelerate well and (preserve) the (rear) tyre, and then I'm not able to carry the corner speed when the tyre is starting to drop. I have a good front feeling and I can brake a little bit harder, but I'm braking too much to rely on the bike to turn.

"The biggest thing is taking a step back, go back to our old setting and find a different direction. I have a particular riding style, and I don't think it's working with this setting. Going back to the other setting, it'll be like putting on an old boot."

Miller has scored just 17 points over the past three race weekends since the set-up shift after amassing 79 in the first seven, so the impact of taking a step back will be something to watch.

Secure Zarco now free to fight

The biggest post-race story after Austria was the news that Johann Zarco would be leaving Pramac Ducati to head to LCR Honda, where he filled in for three races in 2019, from next season.

Statistically, the decision looks questionable – Zarco has four podiums to his credit this season to sit in a very respectable fifth place in the standings, and has scored more points (125) than all six riders who have raced for Honda (110). But with a multi-season offer on the table from Honda, the Frenchman admitted racing year-to-year was affecting his performances.

"I realised that the last two years … having one-year contracts, after five or six races you're already stressing yourself by thinking about the future because you are not sure if you can stay," he said.

"As long as you are competitive, you want to stay. That's why I'm pretty happy to have the interest from Honda. I'm sure that they have the power to try and find solutions and I will be proud if I can find a way with them."

With 10 weekends left on what is the best bike on the 2023 grid – four of Ducati's eight riders have won a race this year – perhaps a clear-headed Zarco can finally end his drought in a premier-class career that has 19 podiums, but no wins. A two-time Moto2 winner in Catalunya and on the podium the past two years in MotoGP, could this be the breakthrough weekend?

Catalunya MotoGP™ fast facts
Circuit name/location: Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Spain
Length/laps: 4.66km, 24 laps (MotoGP™), 21 laps (Moto2™), 18 laps (Moto3™)
Grands Prix held/debut: 27, 1996
Most successful rider: Valentino Rossi (six wins)
2022 podium 1st: Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha), 2nd: Jorge Martin (Ducati), 3rd: Johann Zarco (Ducati)

The 2023 Catalunya Motorcycle Grand Prix will be available to watch live on Foxtel and Kayo. See our What time does the 2023 Catalunya MotoGP™ start in Australia article for timings.