During Sunday morning warm-up at Termas de Rio Hondo his engineers made crucial changes to the set-up of Bagnaia’s bikes. This was a setting they’d first used at COTA last year, which created more weight transfer to give Bagnaia the same front-end feeling he had used to win four of the last six races of 2021.
At Termas Bagnaia came through from 13th on the grid to finish fifth. At COTA he qualified on the front row for the first time this year and at Portimao he came through from last on the grid – after highsiding on slicks during Saturday’s damp Q1 session – to finish eighth. Not a great result but much better than it looked.
“I’m happy because my feeling with my bike was incredible,” said Bagnaia, who was badly beaten up in his qualifying fall.
“I am calm about the championship. I will stop thinking about the championship when there’s no more possibility and this isn’t the case now. I am 38 points behind the leader and last year I was 70 points behind with six races remaining, so I will never give up, always thinking about the championship and always pushing. You only lose faith in the championship when you have no more possibilities.”
Bagnaia attributes the difficulties he had at the start of the season to the direction that Ducati took following last November’s first post-season tests at super-grippy Jerez.
“The new bike worked so well there, because when you have a lot of grip everything is great, but I could already feel a big difference with the GP22. From this year’s first race in Qatar we tried to better understand the new bike and we understood in Argentina.
“We were trying to have the same feeling as last year, we were still missing something and finally we found it. The front of the new bike felt a bit higher, so the front wasn’t there for me. When you are on the limit, little differences can make big differences, which was the reason I was struggling to understand what was going on.
“I wasn’t in the best shape – my shoulder was hurting a lot and it was very difficult to ride”
“On Sunday morning in Argentina we made a big step. We balanced the bike in a different way. I prefer it like this – I really like more weight transfer because I can feel the front better and you get more turning, so I was able to recover the gap in braking compared to the riders in front of me and my corner speed was higher.”
In other words, Ducati has turned Bagnaia’s GP22 into a GP21.
After a chaotic start to the year – Mandalika and Termas were particularly messy for various reasons – Bagnaia was hoping for a return to normal at Portimao, where he took pole and race victory at last November’s Algarve GP. But Portimao was even worse than Mandalika and Termas, with both days of practice a washout, thanks to heavy rain, strong winds and very low track temperatures.
Therefore instead of a return to normal Bagnaia had that thumping highside in Q1, which claimed so many riders who gambled on slicks on the drying track and paid the price. His right shoulder took most of the impact and he was only passed fit to race on Sunday morning.
“I wasn’t in the best shape – my shoulder was hurting a lot and it was very difficult to ride,” said Bagnaia who nevertheless rode the fourth fastest lap of the race, behind by winner Fabio Quartararo, third-placed Aleix Espargaró and fourth-finisher Álex Rins, who also came through from the back. “In the first part of the race I was waiting to see if the shoulder was OK, because I was struggling in braking and changes of direction. Then I started feeling better and my pace was quite strong.
“I had to use my legs and my left arm a lot more because it was difficult to force the bike with my right arm. The last five laps I was struggling a lot because the bike was shaking and I had no power to keep it stable. The most important thing today was the feeling I had with the bike.”
“It’s a bit of everything – not only me, not only the bike – it’s a consequence of everything”
If Ducati and Bagnaia were able to solve their problems by reverting to last year’s settings, this is not an option for Honda with its all-new RC213V.
Honda is the only factory with a completely redesigned motorcycle and went into the new season after the shortest pre-season testing programme in many decades: just five days, in fact less, because half a day at Sepang was lost to rain and much time was wasted at Mandalika due to the deteriorating asphalt.
Marc Márquez may have been able to work miracles at COTA – where he came from dead last at the first corner to finish sixth – but there was none of that magic at Portimao, where he had another crunching highside in rain-soaked FP3 and two days of rain prevented HRC from doing any useful set-up work in the bike’s first visit to Portimao, so essentially he went into the race blind.
He started from ninth on the grid, slipped back to 11th, then trudged forwards to finish sixth, beating young brother Álex and team-mate Pol Espargaró by fractions of a second, the usual Márquez fireworks noticeably absent.
“Even I expected more,” he said. “I tried in warm-up but the feeling wasn’t good. For the race we made small changes to the bike that helped me but it wasn’t enough. From the first lap I was riding uncomfortably, so the speed was not there. I tried to build my rhythm but I didn’t have the speed to recover positions and we finished 16 seconds behind the leader…
“It’s a bit of everything – not only me, not only the bike – it’s a consequence of everything. When you’re in your sweet moment everything works but obviously I’m not in my sweet moment and I need help from the bike. Even like this I try to take 100% from the bike, but my target is not to be the best Honda rider, my target is to fight for the top positions. At the moment we are not ready to fight for victories.”
Just as with Bagnaia and Ducati, Márquez feels that last November’s tests at Jerez, which he missed due to the diplopia sustained in a dirt-bike crash, might be to partly blame for the 2022 RC213V’s current difficulties.
“Honda riders said it’s an amazing bike, but I said be careful, because during testing you have lots of rubber on the track [which gives grip] but at the races the conditions are different
“Also, I’m using a completely different riding style compared to last year because at the moment it’s the best way to ride this bike.”
Some might be tempted to write off Márquez, following his multiple injuries and comebacks, but it is too soon to even think about that. Whatever his issues, the first post-race test of 2022 happens at Jerez the day after this weekend’s Spanish GP and that will be a huge day for HRC.