Super-typhoon blows Bagnaia’s MotoGP title plans off course


It’s been a tough two weeks for MotoGP’s top title contenders: at Aragon it was Fabio Quartararo’s turn to crash out, at Motegi it was Bagnaia’s, while Aleix Espargaró had his own kind of bad luck

Pecco Bagnaia hitches a lift to the medical centre after crashing at 2022 MotoGP Motegi round

Bagnaia gets scootered to the Motegi medical centre on Sunday. At least his rider didn’t crash like Fabio Quartararo’s had at Aragon


Ducati has played a masterstroke over the last decade or so, putting more bikes on the MotoGP grid than anyone else, which brings all kinds of benefits: more fast riders, more data, more money from indie teams and more money from Dorna.

But sharp swords can be double-edged – and if you swing that sword around hard enough you may end up hurting yourself as much as your enemies.

Ducati has eight Desmosedicis on the 2022 MotoGP grid, has already won nine races and wrapped up its third consecutive constructors’ world championship after just 15 of 20 races.

Bastianini’s manager may agree to help Bagnaia. And there will be a lot of zeroes on the end of that deal

On the other hand, the excellence of its tech-bedecked motorcycle brings all kinds of fast, hungry young boys to its yard, begging for a ride.

Ducati provides about one third of the MotoGP grid (for which Dorna is very grateful in this era of waning interest from some Japanese manufacturers) and yet all of a sudden the factory has had its star man getting roughed up by its support actors.

While outgoing Ducati factory rider Jack Miller enjoyed his sunny solo dance around Motegi on Sunday afternoon, the company’s main hope for its first riders’ title since 2007 (even Ducati engineers say ‘Who really cares about the constructors’ title?’) was in a world of pain.

Pecco Bagnaia was basically brought low by super-typhoon Nanmadol, which hit Motegi in spectacular fashion on Saturday – thunder, lightning and torrential rain that brought out the red flags – and swept him to the fourth row. Where – surprise, surprise – he was surrounded by a bunch of other hungry young Ducati riders, who had yet to receive orders to help him in his title quest.

Pecco Bagnaia cornering in the wet at Motegi 2022

This is what it looks like when you’re slow in the wet in MotoGP


Bagnaia was mystified by his relative sloth in rain-lashed qualifying. “Last year I was always competitive in the wet – this year, no,” he said. “I don’t get any feeling from the bike, so it’s difficult to know the limit.”

The 25-year-old Italian came to Japan on a high, from four consecutive wins and one second place at Aragon, where he was beaten on the last lap by Gresini Ducati rider Enea Bastianini, while title leader Fabio Quartararo crashed out. No doubt Bagnaia was closing for the kill, until Nanmadol arrived.

Bagnaia had started the previous ten races from the first or second rows, so he was able to get away with the lead group, find his pace and keep his front tyre cool, just what he needs for his super-fast corner speed.

At Motegi he was fighting just to get inside the top ten, battling back and forth with several rivals including Bastianini, which had factory Ducati team manager Davide Tardozzi marching down pitlane to have a word with the Gresini team. His words fell on deaf ears.

Before the race I had a chat with Bastianini’s veteran manager Carlo Pernat – probably the last man standing from the mad old days of motorcycle racing – about his communications with Ducati management following Aragon.

“Carlo is very strong,” he told me, miming his invincibility. “I am a wall.”

However loudly Ducati may talk to Bagnaia, Pernat will talk louder to his rider and will be heard, because he’s been around race paddocks for almost 50 years, so he knows how things work.

Pernat won his first world championship in 1985, when he worked for Cagiva in motocross. That year’s 125cc world championship went down to the last round in Salta, northern Argentina. Petrol quality was a going to be a problem, so all the big teams brought their own fuel from Europe.

Gresini Racing Ducati of Enea Bastianini in 2022

Bastianini didn’t give Bagnaia an easy time at Motegi either

Gresini Racing

“Like a mafia man, I knew the people at the customs and I paid, so they gave us our gasoline but they did not give Honda their gasoline,” Pernat recalls. “When we arrived in Salta we had gasoline and Honda didn’t. So the FIM asked me to sell some of my gasoline to Honda. I said, ‘Sure, no problem, the cost is $200 a litre’. Honda said, ‘That’s impossible!’. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But I made you an offer’. In the race they broke their engines and we won the race, so Cagiva won its first world title with Pekka Vehkonen and Honda’s Dave Strijbos was second. On the Monday, Honda’s gasoline arrived.”

At some point in the coming weeks Pernat may cut a deal with Ducati management to have his man help theirs. And there will be a lot of zeroes on the end of that deal, because this is a professional sport and people are here to make money, not friends.

By any means necessary. It’s not a game.

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While Miller stormed away out front for his first victory in 18 months, attributing his growing pace at recent races to a major set-up shuffle at June’s Barcelona tests and “having more fun than I’ve ever had on a motorcycle”, Bagnaia struggled with MotoGP’s dreaded front-tyre temperature/pressure problems.

“My front pressure was very, very, very high, so I was struggling to stop the bike,” he said. “This was one of the first times this year I was in a big group, so we weren’t prepared for that.”

For once a Ducati was undone by the technology pioneered by the Bologna factory, which creates heat waves behind the bikes, plus vacuums which make braking in their wake very tricky and create more wheelies for the same reason.

Neither could Bagnaia use the Desmosedici’s awesome power out of Motegi’s many slow turns, which lead onto long straights, making Honda’s home circuit the best track of them all for the Ducati.

While Miller’s bike rocketed out of the corners – the Aussie and others were engaging their shapeshifters five times each lap, more than anywhere else – Bagnaia’s bike didn’t.

Jack Miller with front wheel in the air on the way to victory at 2022 Motegi MotoGP round

Miller was glorious to watch, dancing around Motegi on his GP22


“I wasn’t able to put the power to the ground for a mix of things: spinning sliding and wheelies,” he said. “I prefer not to have so many electronics controls. I prefer to control the bike with the gas and the rear brake, because there’s less filter.”

Once again Nanmadol did him in, because (like everyone else) he only had one dry session on Friday and a dry morning warm-up to work on mappings and settings.

“For sure I needed more time to be perfect,” he said.

With just five laps of the race to go he finally got past Bastianini and set his sights on Quartararo. Going into the last lap they were eighth and ninth, just metres apart, with Bastianini right there, ready to take advantage of any chaos and certainly not staying behind for the good of his fellow Ducati rider.

At Turn 3 Bagnaia lunged to Quartararo’s inside but he was too far back and would’ve collided with the Yamaha if he hadn’t grabbed some more brake to extricate himself from the situation, losing the front in the process. As he went down he missed Quartararo by centimetres, not metres.

When Bagnaia stood up in the gravel trap he started clapping, ironically congratulating himself for his third crash of the year: the first at Le Mans, while chasing – guess who? – winner Bastianini, the second at Sachsenring, while going after winner Quartararo, and the third at Barcelona, when he was taken out by Takaaki Nakagami.

What does this tell us about Bagnaia as a racer? He is mega-fast when he’s alone, doing his metronome thing, but he seems to get rattled in a battle, a bit like Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa sometimes did.

And was his risky attack on Quartararo really worth it for just one extra championship point? (MotoGP awards seven points for ninth, eight for eighth).

“One point can make a difference, so I was trying to do it,” he explained. “I was too ambitious – finishing behind Fabio or waiting for a safer opportunity to overtake would’ve been better, but I’m trying to win the championship.

“The only luck we had today is that I didn’t touch Fabio when I crashed. The race was a big mess for me and I’m not happy about it.”

Fabio Quartararo leads the midfield pack in the 2022 MotoGP Motegi round

Quartararo battled for eighth with Pol Espargaró, Bagnaia and Bastianini. It would’ve been a bad result if his two main title rivals hadn’t failed to score


Quartararo heard Bagnaia’s Desmosedici clattering across the Motegi asphalt, but it wasn’t until he returned to his garage that his team gave him the maths: his title lead had increased from ten points with six races to go to 19 with five races to go.

When the paddock left Aragon it seemed like he was a dead man walking. Now he may just hold on for his second consecutive title.

The reigning world champion wasn’t only lucky that his closest championship rival got too greedy. He was even luckier that his other big title threat had a disastrous Sunday that made Bagnaia’s Saturday woes pale into insignificance.

Aleix Espargaró qualified on the second row and knew this was his best chance to take a load of points off both riders just ahead of him in the championship.

The 33-year-old Italian had ended the only dry practice session just seven-hundredths behind Miller because Aprilia’s 2022 RS-GP was a completely different motorcycle to the machine that contested the last Japanese GP in 2019.

While all MotoGP bikes have changed significantly since then – downforce aerodynamics, shapeshifters and so on – the Aprilia was the only completely new motorcycle at Motegi. And the lap times told the story – while other riders improved around a second from FP1 in 2019 to 2022, Espargaró was two seconds faster.

Last time Espargaró contested the Japanese GP he rode the RS-GP with its troublesome 75-degree V4 engine, which vibrated so badly that it caused chatter and was so peaky that engineers had to gear it so low that it made the bike super-nervous to ride. Already on Friday the RS-GP was using some gear ratios 12mph taller than in 2019, just because the 90-degree engine makes so much more power and torque.

Aleix Espargaro cornering at MotoGP Motegi round in 2022

Espargaró had a grim ride from last to 16th and no points, through no fault of his own


“It’s unbelievable how much the bike has changed,” said Espargaró. “If I could show you the geometry data you’d see that the 2019 bike here was like a motocross bike, super high! Now the bike is longer, with much better power and torque. Also, this track was so bad for wheelies for us, now we don’t even half have that problem, even with much more power.”

Thus the Aprilia garage was all sweetness and light at Motegi, until the riders were waved off for the warm-up lap. Motegi is very heavy on fuel consumption, so riders need to eke their way through the sighting lap.

“We have an eco-map that doesn’t let us do more than 100 kays [62mph] or 5000rpm during the warm-up lap,” said Espargaró later, still distraught because his greatest chance of putting himself into the thick of the title fight had been ruined by the simple click of a laptop mouse, or rather the lack of the click that should’ve disengaged the eco map for the warm-up lap.

“I changed bikes in the pits but the second bike had the soft rear tyre and I can’t ride with that tyre, the bike was pushing the front everywhere. I was also nervous and making a lot of mistakes.

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“It was a huge mistake but we are humans, we’re a team and I will try to win in Thailand.”

Espargaró started the race from pitlane and finished 16th, one place outside the points. He had no doubt what he could’ve done if he hadn’t had to abandon his race bike.

“One hundred percent I could’ve won today,” he said, although Miller may have disagreed. Let’s say he could’ve finished second, beating Jorge Martin into third. If he had managed that he would now be five points behind Quartararo.

Now all three main title contenders have had no-scores at the last three races, with just Buriram, Phillip Island, Sepang and Valencia to go.

In fact Espargaró’s weekend could have been much, much worse that it was. On Thursday evening a fire broke out in the Marc VDS Moto2 garage, between the Aprilia and Suzuki garages. The VDS crew had already left for the evening, locking its front and rear doors when there was an explosion followed by the fire. Quick work by Suzuki and Aprilia staff averted an inferno that couldn’t have taken out the entire pit lane, if the incident had happened hours later when no one but for a few security crew would have been on site.

But the teams were thwarted in their efforts to get the fire under control by fire hoses that wouldn’t reach the source of the fire, because the hoses had to be trailed through the Aprilia and Suzuki garages and then over the dividing walls into the locked VDS garage. Somehow, with no little heroism, they got the fire out.

Dorna needs to have some serious conversations with every circuit to come up with improved fire-prevention protocols.