Spaniard Marc Marquez scored twice. By setting the fastest qualifying time on the wire, after a balancing act of which he alone has the secret, on the morning of Saturday March 25, he won, as is customary, the pole position of the Grand MotoGP Portugal Prize – contested on Sunday.
If the Italian Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati), defending champion, and the Spaniard Jorge Martin (Ducati Pramac) complete the first line, the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve circuit in Portimao did not smile on Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha ), world champion in 2021. The Frenchman will only leave in 11e position in these two events, just behind his compatriot Johann Zarco (Ducati Pramac).
Marc Marquez, six-time world champion and driver for the Honda team, will also be on the front line of the “sprint” race on Saturday (4 p.m. Paris time), an innovation incorporated into each race to spice up the championship.
This is “the” great novelty of the season in the premier category of speed motorcycling: each of the twenty-one meetings on the calendar is now preceded by a sprint event. Contested over a distance equivalent to half that of the main race, it must last about twenty minutes and contributes 32% of the points in the world championship standings.
Only the first nine riders in the sprint score points – against the first fifteen for the Grand Prix: the winner pockets 12 points; his runner-up, 9; the third of the day, 7; the fourth 6… the last point awarded being allocated to the driver who finished ninth. To sum up: each weekend will therefore represent an opportunity for 37 points to be scored: 12 for the sprint race and 25 for the Grand Prix.
More spectacle, more risk
This new racing format is a factor of uncertainty for the teams. “No one really knows what to expect, says Francesco Guidotti, manager of the Red Bull KTM team. What is certain is that Saturday is going to be very busy and we will have less time to prepare the bikes for Sunday’s race. We will have to take bets on the settings, but it is quite exciting to have two races per weekend. »
Designed to make the championship more attractive, this new event is not unanimous among the drivers. Like Marco Bezzecchi, from the VR46 team, many are divided. “The sprint race format is very short, explains the best rookie of the past season. Added to the stress of qualifying on Saturday morning is the stress of a race on Saturday afternoon. That’s a lot of emotions to deal with. The first two, three weekends are going to be tense. »
While Brad Miller, Marc Marquez and Johann Zarco believe this is a good thing for the show, others, like Fabio Quartararo and Pol Espargaro, point to the additional risks that the new format. And many riders resented being presented with a fait accompli by MotoGP promoter Dorna as they risked their lives on the track.
Occurring Friday during the second practice session, the serious accident of Pol Espargaro, personality appreciated in the paddock, came to remind us how much MotoGP is a dangerous discipline. Waiting for her news, the pilots’ faces were dark in the evening. The Spanish veteran (31) escaped with a pulmonary contusion, a broken jaw and a fractured dorsal vertebra. If the worst has been avoided, the pilot of the Gasgas Tech 3 team should not get back on a motorcycle for many months.
“Regularity will be essential”
The tension is real in the paddock, as the new format is likely to encourage drivers to take more risks in qualifying, as this becomes more decisive than ever for the final result. “Whoever misses qualifying or their Saturday start can say goodbye to the sprint race podium”, predicts Hervé Poncharal, the boss of the Gasgas Tech3 team. This promises some serious tussles at the first corner of sprint races, because a distanced driver will find it difficult to catch up.
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Paradoxically, the introduction of sprint events could also encourage teams to modify their racing strategy by favoring regularity over speed. “With forty-two races on the calendar this year instead of twenty-one, consistency will be essential. Sometimes it’s better to finish 4e or 6e rather than taking excessive risks to win”believes Maio Meregalli, Yamaha team manager.
An opinion shared by Gigi Dall’Igna, the boss of Ducati Corse, the competition division of the Italian manufacturer, which aligns eight machines in MotoGP this year – out of twenty-two competitors -, including that of Francesco Bagnaia, the outgoing champion. “The strategy will be different, not only for the riders, but also regarding the technical choices, because more emphasis will have to be placed on the resistance of the machines”confides the transalpine manager, whose formation is the great favorite of the 2023 season, both for the individual title, by team, and for that of the constructors.