Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) is the 2023 MotoGP™ World Champion! Becoming the first rider to successfully defend the #1 plate since Mick Doohan, Bagnaia has also become the first rider to take back-to-back premier class crowns since Marc Marquez in 2019 . And he rounded it off in style, taking his seventh win and 15th podium of the season in Valencia as drama hit for sole remaining rival Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing).
Born in Turin, Bagnaia first found success on MiniMotos before his career took to the international stage in 2011, racing in what was then known as the CEV on a 125. He moved up to the Moto3™ World Championship for 2013, before joining the VR46 Riders Academy and moving to the SKY VR46 the following season. In 2015 he moved to the Aspar team and raced a Mahindra, partnering with none other than Jorge Martin both that season and the year after. Pecco took his, and Mahindra’s, first Grand Prix wins in 2016 – winning him a bet with the team that saw him get the chance to ride their MotoGP™ bike at the Valencia Test too.
2017 saw a new challenge: Moto2™, and back with Sky Racing Team VR46. He took a number of podiums and was named Rookie of the Year, setting the perfect foundation for an assault on the crown the following season. His form was imperious, and he wrapped up his first title at Sepang to become the 2018 Moto2™ World Champion. From there he moved to MotoGP™ with Pramac and despite some serious speed in testing, it proved a tougher rookie season despite a best finish of fourth at Phillip Island. 2020 saw him take a first premier class podium at Misano, before a move to the factory Ducati team for 2021.
That’s when his ascent really began. Three podiums and a pole in the first four rounds were a good start, and come crunch time he was the last remaining challenger to Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) after a late season charge. Incredibly, his first win was a gloves-off duel with Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) at Aragon, and his second victory came just a week later at Misano. He ended the year with victory too, but Quartararo took the crown and the world awaited a rematch in 2022.
Ultimately, that’s what we got. But it was a rollercoaster season for both, first for Bagnaia and then Quartararo. Still, arriving into the final round in Valencia the Italian had reeled in a 91-point deficit to lead the Championship by 23 points, making it the biggest potential comeback in history. And sure enough, he took ninth in the race, enough to secure the crown, and celebrated his first MotoGP™ World Championship as Quartararo fought to the end but couldn’t quite threaten for the win.
2023 began with a headline even before the wheels turned: Bagnaia would run the #1, becoming the first rider to do so since Casey Stoner in 2012. The year began fittingly enough with a masterclass in the season opener in Portugal, with Pecco winning both the first ever Tissot Sprint and the first GP race of the season. But it was a difficult weekend in Argentina with a P6 in the Sprint and a P16 in the race following a crash, ,meaning Pecco needed to bounce back in Austin. It was job done on Saturday as a second Sprint victory was secured, but Sunday saw Bagnaia crash out of the lead. Two zero points scores on consecutive Sundays were an early blow to the Italian and Ducati’s charge to try and retain the crown.
In Jerez, Bagnaia responded. A double podium – including a stunning Sunday victory holding off a KTM assault – saw him banish the Americas demons. But as the paddock descended on Le Mans, a dose of bad luck saw another Sunday DNF rear its head as Bagnaia and Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) collided. However, a stunning run of races would follow as a busy European leg began. Doing the double on home turf at Mugello acted as the springboard, with Germany providing us with a battle for the ages between what would become the two main title protagonists. Martin edged out Bagnaia at the Sachsenring, but Pecco would win a week later as his beloved TT Circuit Assen. At that stage, Bagnaia – having fallen behind in the first three races – boasted a pretty healthy 35-point Championship lead heading into the summer break.
A fourth consecutive Sunday top two result in a fascinating Silverstone encounter saw his title lead grow to 41 points post-summer before a commanding Sprint/race double in Austria meant his advantage climbed to 62 points. Then it was time to head to Barcelona.
P2 in the Sprint behind home hero Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) helped increase Bagnaia’s lead atop the Championship table. The latter was in a confident mood heading into Sunday and starting from pole position, Bagnaia grabbed the holeshot. As drama unfolded behind at Turn 1, Bagnaia’s race would end prematurely with a highside on the exit of Turn 2. Luckily, despite having his leg run over by Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), Pecco escaped injury, but it was a setback. And one that paved the way for Martin to begin to claw back points in the race for the title…It began at Misano. The venue is the VR46 Academy’s backyard but it was Martin who bagged a full-fat 37 points, with two podiums taken through the pain barrier nevertheless seeing Bagnaia’s points lead shrink to 36 ahead of the final leg of the season – eight races in 10 weeks, starting in India.
Bagnaia’s first visit to the Buddh International Circuit was a tougher one, with an unforced error seeing the #1 suffer a DNF on Sunday as Martin finished P2 to back up his Sprint win. Motegi then saw Martin take a clean sweep despite the incredible pressure of heavy rain and Bagnaia on his tail on Sunday. And so, heading to Indonesia, the gap between the Italian and Spaniard was just three points. It was game on.
The pendulum swung back in Bagnaia’s favour in Mandalika though. Martin crashed out of the lead on Sunday as Bagnaia carved his way through the pack from P13 on the grid, not having made it through to Q2, to win his first Sunday race since the Austrian GP. A huge result followed in Australia too. Martin was on course for a runaway victory at Phillip Island but an unforgettable final couple of laps saw Bagnaia finish P2 – with Martin slipping to P5 as his strategy to bolt early didn’t pay off.
Thailand saw the momentum shift back towards the purple corner in what was another epic duel. Bagnaia took P3 on Sunday behind Sprint and race winner Martin and Red Bull KTM’s interloper Brad Binder, but a track limits penalty for the South African then saw Pecco promoted to P2. Heading into the final three races of the season, Bagnaia’s lead was a slender 13 points.
A trip to Malaysia kicked off the triple-header of races that would decide whose hands would hold the 2023 crown. Martin beat Pecco in the Sepang Sprint but it was the red corner who returned the favour in the main event, with Bagnaia finishing P3 and Martin a distant P4.
Qatar was the next port of call. Martin won the Sprint in fine fashion and with Bagnaia struggling to a P5, the points gap was down to seven points ahead of the penultimate Grand Prix race of the season. The tables turned on Sunday though. Bagnaia finished P2 with Martin P10 after a tough race playing defense, and heading to the season finale in Valencia, Bagnaia was defending a 21-point lead – familiar territory for the 2022 title winner.
On Saturday it was a tense Sprint but a glorious display from Martin to pile on the pressure. The Spaniard won it as Bagnaia took only fifth, cutting the gap to 14 points ahead of the final race of the season.
Fittingly, the early stages of the Grand Prix race saw the two contenders locked together at the front, before drama then hit for Martin as he ran on into Turn 1, having been right on Pecco's tail. He got back on track down in P8 and then tried a fight back, but it wasn't to be as he then crashed out after colliding with Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team).
At the front, Bagnaia had his own battle still to fight, despite becoming Champion by default after Martin's crash. After a tense final lap he just held off Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) on the drag to the line, signing off the season with a win and becoming the Champion of our 75th season of racing.