A short time, a good time and a long time? All three are applicable as the MotoGP™ title fight rolls on to Doha this weekend for the Qatar Motorcycle Grand Prix (November 17-19), with Pecco Bagnaia taking a mini-victory over championship rival Jorge Martin from Malaysia last weekend to Lusail.
Third in the Sepang Sprint to Martin’s second, Bagnaia flipped that script on Sunday, the reigning world champion finishing third to Martin’s fourth in the Grand Prix proper to extend his lead atop the standings by exactly one point after a weekend of toil. With a maximum of 74 points up for grabs across Qatar and Valencia, Bagnaia’s 14-point lead is precious; only time will tell if Martin has to conjure the improbable for the final race in Spain, making this weekend one where Bagnaia can turn the screws.
There’s a short time left in 2023, making it a good time to go back to a track where tight racing is almost a given – just one of the past five premier-class races at Lusail has been won by more than one second. And that long time we mentioned? We’ve not been to Qatar since the first round of 2022, way back in March last year, because of renovations to the facilities now the circuit hosts both Formula 1® and MotoGP™.
What talking points are we watching in the wee hours of Monday morning in Australia? These.
Who does Qatar suit?
It’s not often the two riders in contention for a title come to a race where neither scored last time – and we’ll forgive you if you forget why. Rewind to March 2022, and Martin, who had dropped to eighth after qualifying on pole, was fighting Bagnaia, who had started back on the third row. Bagnaia lost the front of his Ducati at Turn 1 on lap 12, and wiped Martin out in the process. Social media might not survive if we get a repeat of that this weekend …
On pace, though, Lusail is where we first learned Martin could fly. In the second race of a Doha double-header to start a covid-compromised 2021 calendar, the Spaniard took pole on just his second weekend in the premier class, finishing third for his maiden podium. Top spot again in qualifying last year means he’ll be at short odds to begin this weekend’s races from the front row at the very least.
Bagnaia, by contrast, has been hit and miss in the Doha desert. He has a big-bike pole and podium on his CV (2021), but has a pair of DNFs as well, in 2019 (his MotoGP™ race debut) and another with last year’s untimely gaffe. Advantage: Martin.
Beware ‘The Beast'
Riders who sit 15th in the standings don’t usually have a part to play this late in a season, but Enea Bastianini is no normal midfielder. The Italian banished some of the bad memories of a bruising first season in Ducati red last weekend in Malaysia, his surprise victory seeing his smile and trademark catch-phrase (“I pushed like a bastard”) make a welcome re-appearance.
Was it a one-off? Doubtful. Bastianini said he’d found a solution to his season-long braking woes at Sepang, and it transformed his riding from Saturday, when he came through Q1 to qualify third and finish fourth in the Sprint, sitting dutifully behind teammate Bagnaia when he looked fast enough to pass. Sunday was even better, escaping to a lead on lap one and never looking back. His famed tyre management came to the fore, and his belief was back.
Qatar was where Bastianini took the first of four victories for Gresini Ducati last year, an unlikely result that propelled him to third in the championship and made him a logical replacement for Jack Miller when the Australian moved to KTM. With his mojo back, don’t be surprised at all to see another beauty from ‘The Beast’ this weekend; how that impacts the title fight between his teammate (Bagnaia) and the man he beat for that full factory Ducati ride (Martin) could be an explosive sub-plot.
The (tyre) pressure mounts
We flagged the prospect of the sport’s mandatory minimum tyre pressure rules playing a part in the race for this year’s championship in our Malaysia talking points last week, with Martin one of four riders to be given a warning after the previous race in Thailand.
That plot got even thicker after Malaysia, where five more riders – race-winner Bastianini, Ducati’s Luca Marini, wildcard Alvaro Bautista, Honda stand-in Iker Lecuona and – tellingly – Bagnaia – all warned for their front tyres carrying less than 1.7 bar/24.6psi of pressure for at least half the race.
Martin and Bagnaia, then, are both on thin ice; a subsequent infraction from here comes with a three-second time penalty, with a third infringement carrying a six-second sanction. Three seconds in Qatar, for the record, covered the top four finishers in 2022, and top six the previous year.
A race in a desert with a brand-new abrasive track surface re-laid since the sport last visited Lusail? In a fight where every point counts for the title protagonists, pressure is presenting itself in several forms…