Portuguese MotoGP 2023: the two big stories in among the madness


That was a crazy, painful start to the 2023 MotoGP season but in among the madness were two big stories: KTM on the way up and Yamaha on the way down

Jack Miller leads team-mate Brad Binder in 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Miller and Binder weren’t in the podium fight but KTM seems to be moving forward again


Lots of weird and not so wonderful stuff happened during the first weekend of the 2023 MotoGP season, but mostly everything happened just as we had expected.

No surprise that Ducati won both races convincingly, with Pecco Bagnaia hammering home his title-favourite status, while Aprilia was also strongly in the mix. And no surprise that Saturday’s first-ever sprint race was a convention of axe-murderers, while Sunday’s Grand Prix was mostly a follow-my-leader procession.

Like a desert after the jungle: Bagnaia… then Maverick Viñales… then Marco Bezzecchi. Occasionally Viñales inched closer to the leading Ducati, which overheated his Aprilia’s front tyre, forcing him to drop back to cool the tyre before going through the same process all over again. No wonder there wasn’t a single overtaking manoeuvre between the top three in the last 19 of 25 laps.

Miller broke the all-time Portimao lap record to top FP2. No one had expected that, not even KTM.

And despite all the winter hype of Yamaha’s faster engine, MotoGP’s only inline-four on the grid drowned in a sea of more powerful V4 rivals.

If I was Dorna I’d be worried. This was the first season-opening grand prix open to fans in Europe since March 2006, at Jerez. Portimao is a great track in a lovely part of the world – cheap to fly to, close to hundreds of cheap hotels by the beach, offering some nice southern Europe sunshine at the end of a long winter, but only 67,000 fans turned up on Sunday.

So was there anything we didn’t we really expect?

Yes, three riders hurt and out of this Sunday’s Argentine Grand Prix: Pol Espargaró with a fractured vertebrae, a broken jaw and much else, Enea Bastianini with a broken shoulder and Marc Márquez with a broken finger sustained soon after the start of the main race, when he T-boned Miguel Oliveira, who thankfully was only battered and bruised and not broken. It’s almost like the ‘good old days’ of the 500s.

But let’s not be like that. Opera legend Luciano Pavarotti once told a reporter that, “When a journalist writes about the positive he writes five lines; when he writes about the negative he becomes a poet”.

Pecco Baganaia holds winning trophy on the Portimao podium at the 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Bagnaia won both races at Portimao, chased home by Viñales (left) and Bezzecchi in Sunday’s GP


So let’s turn away from the darkness and shift our gaze towards the sunshine that’s glinting over the horizon.

Which right now means Jack Miller’s debut weekend aboard the Red Bull KTM RC16.

Pre-season testing had mostly looked like a disaster for the Aussie, unceremoniously sacked by Ducati halfway through last season, and new team-mate Brad Binder. Miller ended the final pre-season tests at Portimao in 17th place, one place better than he had managed at Sepang the previous month. Of course, testing isn’t racing, we all know that, but when someone is that far off the pace it doesn’t usually bode well.

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Miller turned that around on Friday, breaking the all-time Portimao lap record to top FP2 on Friday afternoon. No one had expected that, not even KTM.

“After the tests here I never dreamed we’d do a 37 and when Jack did that 37.7 the first jaw to hit the floor was mine,” said KTM/GASGAS engineer Paul Trevathan, who has been deeply involved with the RC16 project since the beginning.

The following morning Miller went even faster to lead Q2, ending up on the middle of the second row.

“When he did that 37.5 it was like, f**king hell,” added Trevathan. “It opened up my mind – there’s still so much more to learn. Maybe we’re missing a bit of technical knowledge, but we’re young and we’re building.”

“The sprint race was heaps of fun – full contact sport!”

Miller might have done even better than fifth on the grid if he hadn’t crashed at Turn 3 during his second run.

“That was simply my fault,” he added. “The footpegs on this bike are really grippy, so I can’t slide my feet around on them. As I came out of Turn 2 I went for the rear brake but positioned my foot too far forward, so I couldn’t pivot my ankle, so I just laid the bike down into Turn 3, kind of Norick Abe style, and she said, No more!

“But the bike is giving me lots of confidence in the front – you could see in the sprint race that I could charge forward and make some overtaking moves – that alone is awesome. The sprint race was heaps of fun – full contact sport! My heart rate was 190 the whole time!”

Side view of Jack Miller KTM MotoGP bike

First time racing the KTM, Miller was much stronger than most people expected


Miller’s second-row start was hugely significant for KTM, because the RC16 has always struggled to extract extra speed from softer tyres in qualifying. Last year both the KTM and Tech 3 teams managed only two starts on the front two rows from 20 races!

On Saturday Miller briefly led the sprint race, ending up a super-close fourth, just behind Marc Márquez. On Sunday he battled in the top three, finally coming home seventh, just behind team-mate Brad Binder, who was in such a bad way – following a huge highside at the end of Portimao testing – that he was taken to Faro hospital on Friday evening to make sure he hadn’t broken his neck.

Of course, one race doesn’t make a season, but Portimao suggested KTM has made an important step towards catching Ducati. So what’s changed?

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Well, Miller came from Ducati, along with his crew chief Cristhian Pupulin and former Andrea Dovizioso/Enea Bastianini crew chief Alberto Giribuola, who have joined numerous other former Bologna staff at Mattighofen, most of them seeking a different working environment.

“The good thing is that not only have we got a rider who knows what that bike [the Ducati] does, we’ve also got the back-up to understand it,” added Trevathan. “If you really want to follow a path you need to know where that path is coming from and where it’s going, otherwise you can get lost very quickly, so I think we’re now able to follow that path.”

Miller was buzzing after the sprint race and after Sunday’s grand prix, despite battling a disadvantage which during his previous five seasons had been an advantage: Ducati horsepower.

“To say I’m happy with seventh would be telling porky pies [Cockney slang for ‘lies’], simply because we were there running with those boys at the front for a long way and I felt like I could continue at that pace,” said Miller. “Then I made a small mistake – I just missed a shift going into Turn 5, which allowed Alex [Márquez] to come through.

Jack Miller talks to Alberto Giribuola

Miller with Alberto Giribuola (right), KTM’s new performance engineer. Giribuola is the latest member of the Ducati exodus to join KTM


“Then it started getting a bit frustrating – it was weird being on the other side of the table now, with that Ducati power, but that’s how it goes and that’s what we’re dealing with. I was trying everything I could to pass him and put some daylight between us to lead into the first corner but I just could not manage to do it.”

“Most of all Sunday’s race was great for me in terms of learning and understanding the bike, because that was the most laps I’ve put on the thing, so it’s understanding what are its strong points and what are its weaknesses.

“I really understood a bit more about the aero. The bike’s got really good power, so it was coming off the last corner really well, but once you’re into the top cog, even at the end of fifth gear, especially with with the headwind we had today, it drags a whole heap in the wind. You can almost feel the rpm drop as you pull out of the slipstream.”

“When you’re behind a few bikes for the whole race your front tyre is cooking”

Miller was right about the headwind. Winner Bagnaia had pretty much the slowest bike in the race – at 207.9mph (334.8km/h) – because he was out in front, with no one to slipstream. Pramac Ducati’s Johann Zarco, who had the benefit of a good draft through much of the race, had the fastest bike, at 215.4mph (346.8km/h). Even Fabio Quartararo’s M1 was faster through the speed trap than Bagnaia’s Duke, at 213mph (334km/h), but he too was getting sucked along by faster bikes as he made his way through the pack.

Binder was amazing on Sunday, considering his physical state, undertaking his usual race-day charge, all the way from 14th on the grid to take Miller for sixth on the final lap. Most importantly the South African had learned plenty by studying his new team-mate’s data.

“It’s a massive help having Jack as my team-mate, so we could have a look to see where we needed to improve,” he said. “Today we made a step in his direction and it really helped. He’s done a good job – he’s super-fast, not only over one lap but also over race distance.”

Marco Bezzecchi and Alex Marquez lead two KTM riders in the 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

The two KTMs chasing Márquez and Bezzecchi on Sunday – Miller found out what it’s like to be on the other end of a Ducati’s horsepower


Perhaps both Binder and Miller might’ve been able to get past Márquez but they were restricted, not only by the Ducati’s speed but the usual front tyre temperature and pressure issues.

“When you’re behind a few bikes for the whole race your front tyre is cooking,” added Binder. “So it’s so hard to stop the bike and feel what’s going on with the front tyre to try and get past people.”

Trevathan also saw that problem. “Jack and Brad couldn’t pass Alex – if they’d been able to do that and had a lap of freedom I think they could have been closer to Bezzecchi.”

Of course, Miller, Binder and Márquez all got zapped by a flying Johann Zarco in the final few laps, the Pramac Ducati rider often running the same pace as the leaders.

“Johann had the Ducati torque and he had plenty of rear tyre left,” explained Miller. “So once he was able to get past Brad and me he made short work of Alex, whereas Brad and I were stuck behind Alex for more than half the race.”

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Both Miller and Binder used KTM’s new seat aero, which was like the unit tried by Yamaha during the tests, although KTM says it was already working on its rear wing.

“I was hesitant to use it because it’s so f**king ugly,” laughed Miller. “But when I did fit it I noticed a massive difference – once you hit a certain speed you can feel it really push the rear tyre into the ground.”

Trevathan believes that Miller’s arrival – along with more Ducati engineers – will continue to pay dividends.

“We’re making steps and it’s a bit of everything,” he continued. “It’s putting all the pieces of the puzzle together – all the electronic guys are working really hard and all the engine guys are working really hard [with KTM’s new big-bang engine], which puts you in a different window. We’ve got new people bringing new knowledge and new ideas, so we’re trying to get that sorted.”

Paul Trevathan and Pol Espargaro in Red Bull KTM garage

Trevathan (right) when he was with Pol Espargaró at Red Bull KTM – now they’ve been reunited at GASGAS


One of Ducati’s big advantages is how the Desmosedici stops – by not pitching everything onto the front tyre, but by squatting the entire bike, so that riders can really use the rear tyre to help them brake later and harder. This helps them decelerate the bike to the right speed for corner entry, so they’re not in a panic as they fly into the corner. Then they can focus on getting the bike turned quickly, then picking it up onto the fatter part of the rear tyre, so they can open the throttle harder and sooner.

“You have to stop the bike in a nice way, so you can prepare the corner and the exit,” Trevathan explained. “The rear tyre has got the grip but if you overspin it too early you carry that spin all the way through the acceleration phase.

“We hear riders say, ‘We haven’t got exit grip, we haven’t got exit grip’, but if you stop the bike well you can turn it and make the exit calm, so the rider can really feel the rear tyre. It’s a combination of all that and the stopping part has come good for us.

“The way we ride our bike it isn’t possible to fight with the guys in front”

“Ducati were the people who worked fantastic at that last year – the whole bike stopped because they could use both tyres. That was our target to get the bike to do this and get the riders to understand. It’s a combination – you’ve got to work on the bike and you’ve got to work on their style. The key is to make sure that the rear tyre helps in braking.”

A few garages further down Portimao pitlane the mood was very different. The much talked-about engine boost that was going to help 2021 MotoGP champion Fabio Quartararo get the YZR-M1 back to the front of the pack wasn’t much help, because horsepower isn’t the Frenchman’s main problem.

His main concern is the difference in cornering dynamics between his inline-four and the 20 V4s he must do battle with. Not only do V4s have more horsepower, they also corner differently, using more aggressive V-shaped lines, which interfere with the more arcing, flowing lines used by inline-fours.

Fabio Quartararo in 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Quartararo spent much of his race fighting with faster V4s – here’s he’s ahead of Honda first-timer Álex Rins, Aprilia’s Raul Fernandez and Pramac’s Jorge Martin


“We have strong points but we can’t take profit of them,” said Quartararo. “We have a lot of edge grip but where you make the lap time in MotoGP is not with corner speed, it’s about when you pick up the bike and open the throttle. And that’s where I’m losing so much to all the guys in front.

“So the main thing is that the way we ride our bike it isn’t possible to fight with them, so we need to find a solution for the fight.

“We are totally different to all the others. When they pick up the bike their grip is totally different to ours, so maybe we catch them on the brakes, but then they go away, then we catch them again and then they go away again, so we can’t stay with them to try to overtake, that’s the main problem.”

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Of course, Quartararo did move forward on Sunday, from 15th at the end of the first lap to eighth, but he was mostly overtaking less talented riders, not the riders he needs to fight for the championship.

“Maybe the next track in Argentina is more flowing but the grip there is super-low. It’s difficult to know what we can do. I was behind all the different bikes today and we had the same problem with all of them everywhere. We have a great potential, we can be fast, but we cannot fight.”

Last season Yamaha was already adapting Quartararo’s chassis set-up to help him use V4-style cornering lines, but while Yamaha may have made steps forward in this area, so have its V4 rivals.

It’s a worry for Yamaha. Does Yamaha stick with its inline-four configuration, switch to a V4 or what?

And what should Dorna do? Replace Sunday’s GP with another crowd-pleasing sprint race, or maybe even two sprint races? Basically a World Superbike format?