The number 21 – for Pecco Bagnaia, it’s one of significance to his past, and one that’s in his shorter-term focus too ahead of this weekend’s MotoGP™ season finale at the Valencia Motorcycle Grand Prix (November 24-26).
Bagnaia raced with number 21 in Moto3™ from 2014-16, choosing to add another 21 to ride with number 42 in Moto2™ in 2017 as Franco Morbidelli was already using his numerals of choice. When Bagnaia graduated to MotoGP™ in 2019, Alex Rins had possession of 42 – so 21 plus 21 plus 21 became 63, the number the Italian used to win Ducati’s first premier-class crown in 15 years last season.
And now? Bagnaia comes to Valencia for the final race of a grippingly unpredictable season with a 21-point lead over Ducati stablemate Jorge Martin, who he’s managed to just keep at arm’s length for the second half of a campaign where the Spaniard has looked faster. With so much on the line, something had to give – and it did in Qatar last weekend, where second in the Grand Prix for Bagnaia and a disastrous 10th for Martin saw a seven-point lead swell to 21, and took some of the tension out of the final round in Spain.
It's not impossible for Martin to win the title in Valencia – there are still 37 points to play for, after all – but it’s going to take an almighty twist to unseat Bagnaia from his strongest position since October’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
Here’s what we’re watching as the season signs off on Sunday.
The maths in play
Bagnaia’s 21-point lead – it could have been 26 but for Fabio Di Giannantonio beating his compatriot in Lusail for a shock maiden premier-class win – means the factory Ducati man needs to only outscore Martin by four points across the Valencia weekend to retain his crown.
It’s a similar situation but with fewer points on offer as 12 months ago, when Bagnaia arrived in Valencia with a 23-point advantage over Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo and needed only to finish 14th to win the title; he came home a nervy ninth to get the job done, and he’ll be far calmer about the task this time around.
It will surprise few if Martin eats into that deficit on Saturday, as the Pramac Ducati man has won six of the past seven Sprints and has quite clearly been the fastest rider in MotoGP’s shorter-format contests. But given Bagnaia has 13 podiums from 18 Sprints himself – the same as Martin – the series leader isn’t likely to be far away.
Ducati riders have locked out the top six spots on the grid in the past two events in Malaysia and Qatar (the first time a manufacturer has done that in 25 years), meaning any fire Bagnaia finds himself under might be friendly-ish. Which brings us to …
Who could get in the way?
Di Giannantonio – in what might be his penultimate MotoGP™ start for now given he still doesn’t have a ride sorted for next year – became Ducati’s sixth different Grand Prix winner this season in Qatar, leaving just Gresini teammate Alex Marquez (who has won two Sprints) and VR46 Ducati’s Luca Marini (who was on pole in Qatar and finished third in the Sprint and Grand Prix proper) the only Ducati riders yet to win a long-form race in 2023.
KTM’s Brad Binder will inevitably find himself somewhere near the front, while Aprilia’s mercurial Maverick Vinales could have an ‘on’ weekend (17 points in Qatar) or an ‘off’ one (10 points combined over Australia, Thailand and Malaysia). But if it’s not Bagnaia or Martin winning in Valencia, short odds are that it’ll be one of their stablemates.
A Marquez or Marini win, incidentally, would be historic for a couple of reasons. One, either would be the ninth different winner this year – matching 2016 and 2020 for the most different victors in one season. And two, because it would help extend one of more curious stats of this curious season – 19 races in, we’re yet to have the same rider win consecutive Grands Prix. The last (and only) time that’s happened? Back in 1949 – the very first season in the history of the world championship, one that consisted of only six races.
The last dance
We’ve known it’s been coming for a while, but Valencia is the final chapter of one of MotoGP’s most successful marriages – Marc Marquez and Repsol Honda. It’s hard to imagine seeing the 30-year-old riding in anything other than orange, and while we won’t have to wait long to see just that – he’ll throw his leg over a Gresini Ducati for the first time in Tuesday’s post-season test – Valencia will undoubtedly be emotional for a rider who has listened to his head rather than his heart.
The stats tell us one thing: 168 starts for Repsol Honda ahead of Valencia have produced six titles, 59 wins, 64 poles and 101 podiums. Those last four numbers have been zero, three, two and six respectively since his 2020 accident in Spain that changed the course of recent MotoGP™ history, but that inglorious conclusion will be largely ignored this weekend.
There’ll be presentations, some firecrackers to light, a few tears, a likely rival to get a tow from to drag his Honda into Q2 one final time and a middling points finish at best for Marquez in Valencia, if his recent weekends are any guide. But this is a weekend to acknowledge one of the great partnerships, no matter how dark the final four years of it have mostly been.