Malaysian GP: The Beast is back but MotoGP needs saving from ‘ridiculous’ tyre rule


Bastianini won his first MotoGP race of 2023 and Bagnaia got a tyre warning, so he’s now even with title rival Martin going into the last two rounds, but riders are crying out for changes to the ‘ridiculous’ tyre-pressure rule

Enea Bastianini leads Alex Marquez in 2023 MotoGP Malaysian GP

Bastianini chased by Alex Márquez on Sunday – he never let anyone get near him, which both kept him ahead and controlled his front-tyre pressure


Enea Bastianini’s runaway Malaysian MotoGP win delighted the paddock, because the laid-back Italian is so well liked and because it announced the return of the Beast, whose 2023 season has been blighted by two serious injuries.

However, what the former Moto2 king’s victory didn’t hide was the painfully processional nature of the race and the crisis MotoGP faces due to the championship’s hugely unpopular tyre-pressure rule.

Bastianini badly needed this success because only the day before Sunday’s GP, Ducati sporting director Paolo Ciabatti announced that the factory might replace him with title-challenger Jorge Martin in its 2024 factory team, if the Spaniard wins the number-one plate. In other words, Bastianini might have been finished as a factory star.

Bastianini’s reply was as muscular as it gets: he led from the first corner all the way to the chequered flag.

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How did a rider who had missed half the season through injury (Bastianini broke a shoulder when he was taken out by Luca Marini in the season-opening Portimao sprint and mangled a hand when he caused the first-corner Catalan GP pile-up) and whose previous best finish was a distant eighth at Sachsenring destroy his rivals on Sunday?

Last year Bastianini won four races on a second-hand Gresini GP22, which perfectly suited his riding technique – super-fast corner entries. The GP23 is different and he couldn’t attack corners with the same ferocity, probably because the latest engine has different crankshaft inertia, so it creates different negative torque for different engine-braking, so he wasn’t able to get the bike stopped fast enough to set up his lightning-fast entries.

All that changed at Sepang. Ducati engineers finally created a new engine-braking software/hardware strategy that suited his technique and convinced him to switch from a conventional foot rear brake to a thumb-operated brake, which allowed him to perfectly blend engine-braking with rider-braking.

Rear-end braking has never been more important in MotoGP, because Michelin’s super-grippy rear slick is so effective at stopping the bike, in a straight line and as the rider heads into the apex.

Pecco Bagnaia ahead of Jorge Martin in 2023 MotoGP Malaysian GP

Martin attacked title rival Bagnaia a couple of times but had to give up when his front tyre overheated


Most astonishing is the fact that it took the 25-year-old less than two hours of riding to reprogramme his brain from swapping his right foot for his left thumb. This is quite a feat when you’re trying to slow down from around 200mph and have spent your life relying on your right foot.

On Sunday afternoon Bastianini never let anyone even get close enough to attack him. “The change to the engine-brake and using the thumb brake helps me so much – before I was losing too much time into the corners,” he said.

He crossed the finish line for his first victory since Aragon last September, 1.5 seconds ahead of Alex Márquez, who had his best weekend yet, first in sprint and second in the GP.

But what of the championship duel?

Neither points leader Pecco Bagnaia nor sole title-rival Jorge Martin were in the hunt on Sunday. They had no answer to the blinding speed of Bastianini and the younger Márquez, instead engaging in their own duel for the final place on the podium. Briefly at least.

Martin led into the first corner, hoping to repeat his stunning Thai GP win, but he ran wide and dropped to fifth. That compromised his entire race.

While Bastianini and Márquez disappeared out front, Martin attacked Bagnaia. He twice got ahead but the world champion had his elbows out again and immediately counter-attacked. And that was that: Martin’s front tyre overheated – he was in Bagnaia’s roasting slipstream and track temperature was over 50 degrees – and he had to wave the white flag.

This is one reason the race was so spread out – no one can get close to anyone else without burning their front tyre.

“After six laps I was crashing in all the corners,” he said. “It was really difficult and frustrating because I couldn’t push all the race.”

Which brings us to the point that none of us really wants to talk about, but is currently the most decisive factor in MotoGP, so we must talk about it, if we are to understand what’s going on.

Enea Bastianini and Pecco Bagnaia on podium after 2023 MotoGP Malaysian GP

Bastianini took a few points off Bagnaia – but no one seemed too worried because the Beast was back on top


Staying above MotoGP’s new 1.88 bar/27.3psi minimum tyre pressure is very difficult, especially in the hotter races, like Sepang, without compromising performance. The rule requires riders to start races with a higher pressure than they’d like, to prevent them running under pressure and getting penalised. And once tyre pressure increases too much, the tyre loses grip.

According to which rider or engineer you speak with, the rule is either “ridiculous”, “a nightmare”, “impossible” or “disgusting”. In almost four decades of covering MotoGP I’ve never heard so many people complain so much about a rule, which suggests that something is very, very wrong and that something needs to be done about it. Fast.

“I hate this rule and it’s going to ruin this championship,” said Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaró after crashing out of the GP.

“Every single meeting we only talk about this but they say there’s no chance to change this rule”

So why don’t the riders get together and do something about it?

“We do this every single weekend,” Espargaró added. “We speak to Michelin, to Piero [Taramasso, Michelin’s motorcycle racing chief], to Carlos [Ezpeleta, Dorna chief sporting officer], to Carmelo [Ezpeleta, Dorna CEO] and every single meeting we only talk about this. I have full confidence in Piero, but they say there’s no chance to change this rule. But I’ve been in MotoGP for 14 years and I’ve never seen a problem with a front tyre [disintegrating].”

In fact there was some good news regarding the tyre rule at Sepang. Two weeks earlier at Buriram, Martin had got a warning for running under pressure for more than 50% of the race. According to the regulations his next offence would give him a three-second penalty.

This basically gave Bagnaia a huge advantage going into the last three weekends – Sepang, Losail and Valencia – because he hadn’t yet got a warning, so he could run under pressure at one of those events to get more front grip than Martin, without receiving a penalty.

Alex Marquez stands on his bike with arms raised after finishing second in MotoGP Malaysian GP

Alex Márquez had amazing speed and rode his best MotoGP weekend: sprint victor and GP runner-up


“Being under the limit for all the race you have a great advantage in terms of braking and entry,” explained Bagnaia on the eve of the Malaysian GP. “Maybe in this race it could be good to use this jolly [Italian for joker], but I think it could be better to have that advantage in Qatar, where the night race is cold and the humidity can be quite high.”

But the best-laid plans of mice and men…

One hour after Sunday’s race an FIM stewards sanction sheet was delivered to the factory Ducati garage: Bagnaia had been under pressure and had got his warning.

The reason? In Saturday’s sprint he struggled to third place behind Márquez and Martin because his Ducati was pumping so badly out of corners. But this wasn’t a rear-end problem. It was created by his front tyre running over pressure, hence the reduction for Sunday.

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“The pumping came from the fact that I had a problem with front tyre locking, so I wasn’t good in corner entry, so I went wide on the exits,” he explained.

The warning was bad news for Bagnaia but great news for the championship, because it means the two title fighters go into the final four races at the last two GPs on equal terms: full gas and may the best man win. Hunter versus hunted.

Bagnaia arrived at Sepang leading Martin by 13 points, after losing 13 points to his Spanish rival in Thailand. He left Sepang 14 points ahead, with 74 points to play for. Obviously Bagnaia has the advantage, but the race is far from won.

In theory, the tyre-pressure rule should have less say at the last two rounds, because the Qatar night race and Valencia on 26 November (the latest finish in the championship’s history) will be cooler, so riders won’t need to start races with super-low pressures to avoid going too high.

But of course you never know. It’s not out of the question that the tyre rule might decide the championship, which would be a disaster for MotoGP.

Side view of Enea Bastianini in 2023 MotoGP Malaysian GP

Bastianini’s dominant victory came 13 months after his last success, at Aragon


Therefore the rule demands a little more investigation because, quite simply, MotoGP cannot go on like this. The championship cannot be held to ransom by a regulation that demands as much luck as judgement to get right.

As we surely all know by now, the rule exists to prevent teams running front tyres so low – in search of a larger footprint for more grip – that the tyre may flatten so much that the carcass is damaged and the tyre falls apart. But this has never happened, despite riders winning at way below the limit for years.

Some factories have always abided by the rules more than others. When former Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso returned to Yamaha in late 2021 he asked his new engineers to drop front pressure below the limit for more grip. They refused. He was stunned.

The rule has existed for many years, since the days of Bridgestone spec tyres. “Tyres must be used according to the advised parameters, which are agreed in consultation with the official tyre supplier, the technical director and the organisers,” said the 2014 MotoGP rule book.

The rule is only enforced now because teams that stayed within the advised parameters were fed up with teams that didn’t.

At Sepang I asked Michelin what’s the lowest front pressure any rider has used to win a MotoGP race since the French company arrived in 2015. I was told 1.81 bar, 0.7 bar below the legal minimum. I checked this with several crew chiefs from different teams and they disagreed: racing and winning at 1.8 or 1.7 bar was normal before penalties were introduced. And this never caused problem with tyres disintegrating.

Jorge Martin on the grid ahead of 2023 MotoGP Malaysian GP

Martin lost one point to Bagnaia, but bigger than that is that Bagnaia now has a tyre-pressure warning


The irony, of course, is that this rule, introduced for safety reasons, makes the racing more dangerous, because it demands riders use higher pressures than they want.

And it is almost impossible to stay within the 1.88-2.0 bar sweet spot throughout a race, because teams must guess whether their rider will be alone or in the pack.

Franco Morbidelli told us at Sepang that his data reveals exactly how much front grip he loses when the front tyre goes over pressure

“When the patch on the ground is smaller the performance drops, by a good 40%, so it’s a big deal,” said the Italian. “It becomes more difficult to stop the bike and control the bike when you lean.”

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Brad Binder went further. “For me it’s ten times more unsafe when you’re above two bar,” said the KTM man. “The feeling is that you could hit somebody at any time, because you have these massive [front tyre] locks and when you get to the edge of the tyre you don’t turn, so you see guys going wide, cutting back and they’re all over the show.”

No one wants to think of the consequences of a rider locking the front tyre and crashing while in a pack at 220mph.

“It’s not just me,” Binder added. “I’m sure every single rider would really appreciate it if they’d drop the minimum a little bit. I reckon dropping even another 0.1 bar would make the racing better and make us all safer.”

Martin feels the same.

“We cannot ride at our 100% because of this rule,” he said. “I think they [Dorna and Michelin] need to understand things from our side and make the limit lower because we aren’t seeing real races, we are seeing technical races.”

“100% it’s compromising the racing, so we need to push the organisers to either remove the rule or make it a bit easier for the teams.”

Ducati factory team celebrates 1-3 podium finish at MotoGP Malaysian GP

The Ducati factory team enjoyed its first double podium since since Buriram in 2022


“A change of a few bar would change everything,” said one crew chief. “It would make the racing better and save the championship from becoming a joke.”

“My rider hates the rule, because it’s not racing, it’s managing,” another crew chief told me. “Every time he goes to pass someone, he’s saving the bike on his elbows [due to high tyre pressure]. It’s a disgusting feeling. Drop the minimum to 1.8 or something. Or make a better product [tyre]. Even the Michelin guys here are pissed off. Some politician high up in the company has said 1.88 is the law, because liability is a massive problem now.”

And next year the rule becomes even harsher: no warning, no time penalties, just instant disqualification,

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“Next year you will be out of the race, so I think they are destroying the racing style,” Martin added. “They need to do something because otherwise next year will be a big disaster.”

Finally, a few other points from Sepang…

Reigning MotoGP champions Ducati, which has eight bikes on the grid and has won the last four constructors’ championships, will receive anti-concessions in 2024, reducing its ability to maintain its advantage by reducing its testing and wildcard allocations and so on.

Punishing a manufacturer for its brilliance might not seem like a good idea, but Dorna is desperate to give the other factories a chance, especially Yamaha and Honda who are way behind Ducati, KTM and Aprilia in the constructors’ championship. Honda has 169 points to Ducati’s 626.

Aprilia has had to stop using a trick new starting strategy which contravenes a clarification to the rules.

And Fabio Quartararo deserves an accolade for his fine ride to fifth on Sunday, behind Martin, with some truly beautiful passing manoeuvres over riders using more powerful machines. It’s a shame that action wasn’t happening up front.