With the summer break over, MotoGP is set to resume at Silverstone. Was a five-week break a long time? “It was short!” Pol Espargaro insisted.
He would say that, though, having ended the first half of the season with a cracked rib and a couple of disastrous weekends.
“I think it was the first time I enjoyed a break so much, because I was mentally and physically quite injured, and I needed to stop, to take a deep breath.”
The rest of the field were not quite as emphatic as Espargaro, but they all said that having a proper break, rather than just three weeks instead of two between races, made a difference. They returned refreshed, motivated, and genuinely keen to get back on a MotoGP bike.
So how did we get here? A five-week summer break means a quick recap is in order. The first half of the 2022 MotoGP season is a story of development: a lack of it, too much of it, and of mistiming it all.
After the Sepang test, MotoGP headed to Mandalika, where what was tested was how quickly riding 24 MotoGP bikes around a filthy track could remove a layer of filth and grime that had built up due to ongoing construction at the track.
Unfortunately, the bikes were quickly found to be removing the aggregate from the track surface along with the dirt, the riders covered in bruises as bikes ahead of them. The track committed to resurfacing in the five weeks between the test and the race.
The loss of track time at Mandalika meant that some factories, notably Ducati, turned up at Qatar with a lot of testing still to be done, leaving an annoyed Pecco Bagnaia to spend free practice still working on items such as the front ride-height device.
Bagnaia and Jack Miller had already abandoned the 2022-spec Desmosedici engine, returning to an intermediate 21/22 spec for the season.
They weren’t the only factory to take a step back. Yamaha had already abandoned its new, more powerful ’22 engine to return to the engine used in 2021 (which, given the development freeze for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, meant it was basically a 2020 engine).
The new engine had more power, but less reliability, and Yamaha wisely decided to choose finishing races over being forced to park the bike while in the lead.
Elsewhere, Suzuki had made excellent progress on finding the horsepower they were missing in 2021, though getting it to the ground was not always as easy as it had been. KTM had a host of new parts to test, but seemed to be going round in circles rather than forwards.
Honda seemed to have finally produced a bike that had rear grip out of corners, though getting it stopped and turned was a little trickier. It didn’t stop Pol Espargaro topping the Mandalika test on the Repsol Honda, however.
Aprilia consolidated their efforts of the last two years, producing a bike that was quietly looking very threatening.
But during testing, we only had the results of Aleix Espargaro to go by, as Maverick Viñales continued his transition from the Yamaha to the Aprilia.
The first four races confirmed the truism that the MotoGP season only really begins once the paddock returns to Europe. The first three races saw not just three different winners, but nine different riders on the podium.
A Ducati won at Qatar, but it was Enea Bastianini on the GP21 for the Gresini satellite squad, a welcome and refreshing victory.
Then we went to the resurfaced Mandalika, where the mixture of heat and fresh tarmac meant the surface wasn’t bedding in properly and was coming apart again, and we had to wait for the monsoon rains to subside (with the help of a local shaman, and under the watchful gaze of the Indonesian president) to allow racing to commence. Here, Miguel Oliveira took victory for the Red Bull KTM squad.
Drama continued as we traveled from Indonesia to Argentina. Or rather, didn’t travel: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia for starting the war meant a massive shortage of freight aircraft, as well as exploding fuel prices.
Two cargo planes involved in flying freight across the Indian Ocean and then across the South Atlantic broke down, meant freight arrived late, forcing Friday to be scrapped and two days of practice compressed into Saturday, and leaving some teams working late into Saturday morning, ready just in time.
The track delivered, though, Aleix Espargaro taking the first victory for Aprilia, and the Spaniard’s first victory in grand prix racing, after 266 starts across all classes.
At Austin, we had the first repeat winner, in Enea Bastianini, and repeat podium, in Alex Rins. Bastianini led the championship, from Rins and Aleix Espargaro, while Joan Mir was fourth.
All six manufacturers had scored podiums. And all was chaos in the championship.
A Pattern Emerges
That continued in Portugal, where it rained all throughout practice on Friday and Saturday, the track only drying on Sunday for the race. There, Fabio Quartararo laid down the law and took control of the championship.
The lack of development by Yamaha was starting to pay off for reigning champion Quartararo, who had honed his M1 to a fine point, and was extracting every gram of potential from it. He led the championship leaving Portimão.
The season started in earnest at Jerez. Like Quartararo at Yamaha, Pecco Bagnaia’s insistence that he stop testing parts and setup and just focus on riding started to pay off.
Last year’s runner up held Quartararo at bay – in part a result of leading the Frenchman, so the M1’s front tire overheated every time he got too close to the Ducati ahead, a theme which will continue into the second half of the season.
Bagnaia’s resurgence has been rather halting. After winning at Jerez, he crashed out of Le Mans while battling with Enea Bastianini for the lead.
He won a magnificent victory in Mugello, though his trifecta went unappreciated in an eerily empty Tuscan amphitheater, a massive contrast with the packed Le Mans grandstands of the previous race.
Then he was taken out by Takaaki Nakagami in the first corner at Barcelona. At the Sachsenring, he compounded his woes by losing the rear in the early part of the race, before going on to triumph at Assen.
Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro have been paragons of consistency, by contrast. After an up and down start with just one podium in the first four races, Quartararo seized his title defense by the scruff of the neck and was only off the podium once from Portimão to the Sachsenring, scoring a win, second, fourth at his home round of Le Mans, second at Mugello, and two wins at Barcelona and Germany.
Aleix Espargaro had a dip after his win in Argentina, crossing the line in 11th in Austin, before finding his feet again.
A run of four fourth places, from Portimão to Mugello, then a boneheaded mistake at his home race in Barcelona, where he misread the lap counter on the massive scoring tower at the end of pit lane and celebrated what would have been a second place a lap too early, eventually taking fifth. Then two more fourth places at the Sachsenring and Assen.
That fourth place at Assen could have been so much more, though. On lap 5, as Fabio Quartararo struggled to get past Espargaro to chase the leader, Pecco Bagnaia, the Frenchman tried just a little too hard to force his Yamaha M1 underneath the Aprilia RS-GP at the Strubben hairpin, losing the front and wiping both himself and Espargaro out.
Espargaro remounted, and put on an astonishing charge through the field, including one of the most memorable passes in several season, diving up the inside of Jack Miller and Brad Binder to snatch fourth.
Punishment Fitting the Crime?
Quartararo had paid a heavy penalty for his mistake, crashing out of the race a second time after remounting, pitting, and being sent out again in the hope of a point. He will pay a second penalty at Silverstone, where he was punished with a Long Lap Penalty for the crash.
Riders, media, fans have all complained of the inconsistency of the penalties being applied – another theme of MotoGP 2022 is the standard of stewarding.
Quartararo was punished for a low-speed crash that was slightly overambitious at Assen, while Takaaki Nakagami’s wildly optimistic first corner braking maneuver which broke Alex Rins’ wrist and wrecked Pecco Bagnaia’s race went completely unpunished.
It could have been worse for Nakagami: he had headbutted the rear wheel of Bagnaia’s Ducati and still walked away relatively unscathed.
Notable dissenter here was Pol Espargaro. The rest of the field felt Quartararo should not have been given a Long Lap Penalty, but Espargaro believed it should always be given when one rider takes another out.
“When you are overtaking and you are crashing, it means you could not do that overtake,” Espargaro said. “So it’s a big mistake. You need to pay for it. I understand that Fabio is pissed off with this, but it’s the only way to avoid these kind of things, especially in the last laps where everything counts.”
The Assen incident also allowed Maverick Viñales to get his first podium on an Aprilia, making it three brands the Spaniard has podiumed with, and marking the point at which his transition is nearly complete.
It proves beyond doubt that the RS-GP is a weapon, arguably the second best bike behind the Ducati.
So we arrive at Silverstone, a fast, open, flowing track, where every bike can be competitive – the top six last year were on six different manufacturers.
Fabio Quartararo has a sizable, but not commanding lead over Aleix Espargaro, leading the Aprilia man 172 points to 151.
Johann Zarco, who has been solidly reliable without ever threatening to win a race, follows in third with 114 points, while Pecco Bagnaia’s inconsistency puts him in fourth with 106 points, 1 point ahead of early leader Enea Bastianini.
What of the rest? Suzuki’s early promise has gone missing, in no small part due to the Japanese factory’s decision to pull out of MotoGP at the end of this season.
That announcement came as a bolt from the blue, and has had repercussions for the rider market and beyond. 2020 world champion Joan Mir is now down in eighth, his teammate ninth.
Honda have had an even worse slump, helped in no small part by Marc Marquez’ physical tribulations. The Spaniard has struggled with the 2022 Honda RC213V, not finding the balance between front and rear that he needed.
He spat himself into low earth orbit at Mandalika, suffering a third bout of double vision, which caused him to miss the race in Argentina.
Then at Mugello, he called an early halt to his season, as he revealed that his right humerus, broken at Jerez in 2020, had regrown with a 30° rotation, and he needed urgent surgery to fix it.
It is telling that Marquez has basically been riding with one arm since last season, and was still managing to get close to the podium. He is likely to return before the end of the year, his focus being on being able to test, rather than race.
KTM have had a strange year, kicking off with two podiums before suffering the qualifying doldrums and being forced to rely on the brilliance of Brad Binder to charge his way forward in a class where it is said to be impossible to overtake.
Miguel Oliveira is leaving, to be replaced by Jack Miller, while Pol Espargaro is headed to the satellite Tech3 squad, his teammate yet to be determined.
Too Many Zeroes
Ducati may be betting on Pecco Bagnaia, but they have talent in abundance.
Jorge Martin has been frustratingly inconsistent, Johann Zarco has been consistent but not quick enough to win, Marco Bezzecchi has taken a surprise rookie podium, Enea Bastianini has faded after winning three races, and Fabio Di Giannantonio took pole as a rookie at Mugello, conditions helping. Jack Miller has racked up three podiums, but not done enough to keep his seat over the young Italian talent coming up behind him.
Ducati’s big problem is they cannot get their riders to finish races consistently. Bagnaia has four DNFs. Bastianini has three no scores. Miller two, Martin four. Even Johann Zarco has two zeroes to his name, though he sits third in the rankings.
Then there’s the enigma that is Yamaha. We are firmly back in Casey Stoner territory with the M1, as Fabio Quartararo has dominated the championship while outscoring his three stablemates by nearly four times, 172 points to a combined 45 for Franco Morbidelli, Andrea Dovizioso, and Darryn Binder.
Dovizioso has failed to adapt to the Yamaha – and indeed, to MotoGP in 2022 – and is calling it quits early, set to retire after Misano. Darryn Binder is a rookie, drafted in directly from Moto3.
But Franco Morbidelli is a mystery. He denies having issues with the knee that he injured in 2021, and that saw him miss a big part of the season.
Yet he cannot push the M1 the way it needs to be pushed to go fast, trying to be too smooth and ending up going too slow. That is radically different to the way the Yamaha used to need to be ridden. But it works for Quartararo, and so it will not change.
A Fine Setting
What can we expect in the second half of 2022? There are still a lot of races left – a total of nine, including this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
It looks like coming down to a straight fight between Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro, with Pecco Bagnaia a possible spoiler if he can stop crashing. But at this point, anything can happen.
Silverstone first. Fast, flowing, with a bit of everything, and a real MotoGP track. “It’s a fantastic circuit, Silverstone, because with a MotoGP bike, you can feel the power of the bike,” Luca Marini explained.
“This track is very wide, with a good level of grip and I remember the first time in FP1, that I rode a MotoGP here, and I felt so different compared to the other tracks.”
“Because at the other tracks, the bike is, you have to use the correct amount of power for the track, for the conditions, for the tires, while here, it looks like everything is bigger, everything fits a MotoGP bike. I don’t know, it’s something special for this. I feel more speed, more power, and it’s nice to have these feelings on the bike.”
The racing at Silverstone has always been special. And with the weather set fair for the weekend, there is no reason to expect anything else.
Photo: © 2019 Tony Goldsmith / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved