MotoGP Preview of the Valencia GP: Can Anyone Stop The Ducatis?

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The Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Cheste, a short drive past an endless array of industrial estates heading west out of Valencia, is fairly unloved in the MotoGP paddock.

Unfairly, perhaps: the race is (barring pandemics and other disasters) the last of the season, and comes after the flyaways, a period in which much of the paddock has spent 8 weeks away from home.

The various titles are usually already wrapped up, so the last round feels very much like going through the motions.

Held in November, after the clocks have changed and most of Europe has lost an hour of daylight in the evening, and the weight of winter lies heavily on everyone’s spirits. It is usually cold, often windy, wet, and even after the race is done, there is the test on Tuesday.

At least it’s one day now, rather than the two days it used to be. Those who can (including most of Dorna) head home on Sunday night after the race, hoping not to think about racing again until January.

The layout of the track doesn’t help inspire much passion either. A long straight starting from a slow corner, then hard braking for the right-angled left of Turn 1, then the hairpin of Turn 2, as the riders enter the tight and contorted trail of asphalt folded inside of the bowl the circuit sits in.

There are a lot of left handers (nine) and very few rights, which poses a challenge of its own.

Gently, Gently

Especially at Turn 4 and Turn 12. Turn 4 is the first time the bikes spend any time on the right side of the tire since, well, Turn 12, nearly 2km previously.

It is deeply treacherous, especially in the mornings when temperatures are low and it is hard to keep heat in the tires. That is the reason Michelin bring asymmetric tires, both front and rear. Without that, those corners are terrifying.

Turn 12 is another difficult corner, though for slightly different reasons. It comes shortly after a previous right hander, the slow hairpin of Turn 11, but that doesn’t really stress the tire enough to provide a lot of grip.

And you need to hit Turn 12 hard to set up the entry for the feature which truly redeems Valencia, and makes the entire endeavor worthwhile, almost on its own.

Turn 13 is magnificent. The riders flick the bike hard right in Turn 12, then over onto the opposite side as they climb the hill up over the crest of the corner.

It goes on almost for ever, riders leaned over with the rear stepped out, trying to balance the extra drive and turning from spinning up the rear to get the bike round the corner against wrecking the rear tire early by spinning it a little too enthusiastically.

If you are ever privileged enough to be able to stand on the service road on the inside of Turn 13, watching as the bikes fly past a meter or so from your head, you should take it. It makes up for every negative about the track.

All Set Fair

It helps if the weather is good too. The forecast is set to be every bit as good as anyone could hope for for a season finale, where not one, but two championships can be settled. It looks to be warm and sunny throughout the weekend, with Sunday more than living up to its name.

The weather is helped by the fact that Valencia comes rather early. Normally, this race happens in the second week of November – next year it is scheduled for the last weekend of November – but the schedule means we are here a little earlier.

Though it can stay warm and dry even into December in Valencia, the deeper you go into November, the shorter the days and the cooler the weather.

Titles at Stake

To return to the two championships at stake, I won’t rehash what I wrote about the MotoGP title, and the slim chance Fabio Quartararo has of defending his crown against Pecco Bagnaia, but it is worth briefly touching upon the Moto2 title battle.

It looked like Ai Ogura was set to head into the final race at Valencia with a commanding lead over Augusto Fernandez. But Ogura tried to attack Tony Arbolino and take the win, and crashed out.

So instead of Ogura leading by 12.5 points (half points awarded in Thailand because of the rain), it is now Fernandez ahead by 9.5 points. Fernandez needs just a podium to take the Moto2 crown, while Ogura really needs a win, and for Fernandez to finish off the podium, or a podium, and Fernandez to have a very poor result.

Both riders have been inconsistent, so the championship is still open, but Fernandez is a very strong favorite to clinch the title.

The Big Bad Bologna Boys

What can we expect from the MotoGP race? It is a track where the Ducatis dominated last year. Pecco Bagnaia, Jack Miller, and Jorge Martin locked out the front row, then locked out the podium. With Johann Zarco finishing sixth and Enea Bastianini eighth, fully half the top ten consisted of Ducatis.

This year, the Desmosedici is even better. Gone is the GP19 ridden by Bastianini last year, a fast but flawed motorcycle, replaced by the GP21 with updated aero, perhaps the second best motorcycle on the grid, behind the Ducati Desmosedici GP22. And even then, it is close.

Bastianini has made a big step forward in 2022, earning himself a spot in the factory team. Bastianini has finished well at Valencia, but never really managed to get on the podium in the support classes. But he has blossomed since moving up to MotoGP, and is likely to figure.

Jack Miller and Jorge Martin were a threat at Valencia last year, and can be expected to do exactly the same this weekend. Johann Zarco has lost a bit of form in recent races, but is still capable of being competitive.

Luca Marini has never really figured at Valencia – a trait that runs in the family – though he qualified on pole in Moto2 in 2018. His VR46 teammate Marco Bezzecchi finished on the podium in Moto2 twice in 2020, and is on something of a roll.

Now that the Ducati will actually turn, it is well suited to Valencia. A strong launch out of the final corner, hard acceleration, and a couple of places with hard braking give it a strong base to build on.

Eight bikes, all competitive, with an army of outstanding riders, make the Ducatis the bikes to beat on Sunday. A score of 50% in the top ten might even be something of a disappointment.

Teamwork Made the Dream Work

Who can withstand the Ducati onslaught? The Suzukis are probably best placed to put up stern resistance.

Both Joan Mir and Alex Rins have a solid record here, with Mir having won in 2020, and been close to the podium in 2021. Rins has a fourth place here too back in 2020, and was sitting in fourth last year until he crashed out.

This is Suzuki’s swansong, the last time we will see the GSX-RR, and the last time for Suzuki in MotoGP for the immediate future.

While it may be understandable from a corporate perspective – Suzuki is focusing on its automotive future, and withdrawing from motorcycle racing in several disciplines – it is a tragedy for the sport and the championship.

The Suzuki MotoGP team has been a shining example of what you can achieve if you do everything right. Working with the smallest budget and engineering group, Suzuki made smart decisions about the design of the bike, finding the perfect combination of horsepower and agility.

The GSX-RR could hold its own against the Ducatis on the straight – or at least, stay in the slipstream and not lose out – and outmaneuver pretty much everyone else round the corners. They only lagged behind when Ducati introduced ride-height devices, and forced everyone to catch up.

How to Exceed Expectations

More than that, Davide Brivio built a team, a group of people working inside a positive atmosphere, which allowed everyone in the team to excel. They combined brains and heart to get the best of everyone.

Smart rider choices meant they ended up with fast young riders, who they turned into fast experience riders capable of winning. As a result, Suzuki have been punching way above their weight, winning a world championship against all odds.

Suzuki have one more chance to shine, at a track where the bike goes well. Alex Rins had a podium in Phillip Island and a fifth in Sepang, and has been looking strong. Joan Mir has a score to settle, with himself and his recent results, and wants to leave on a high before he joins Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda.

They will be wanting to go out on a high. Expect both of them to pull out all the stops.

Hoping for Better

What about Yamaha? The odds are stacked against Fabio Quartararo, because of that long front straight, but the Yamaha can go well around Valencia.

Quartararo finished second here in 2019 – though his results since have been somewhat more checkered – and Franco Morbidelli won in 2020. There is no reason not to think the Yamaha can’t be fast around Valencia, it’s just that there are others who are likely to be faster.

Morbidelli is an interesting case at the moment. After a thoroughly dismal 2022 season (even without comparison to his teammate), the Italian is slowly starting to find his feet on the M1. He is still a long way from being truly competitive, but he is back fighting for top ten positions, rather than struggling to get into the points.

Morbidelli’s weakness remains qualifying, and finding speed on new tires. He’s fast enough on old rubber, but that doesn’t help much if you are qualifying on the fifth row or worse.

Bonus Episode

Aprilia arrives at Valencia with Aleix Espargaro lamenting the lack of progress made during the flyaways, and a string of mediocre results under his belt. His chance of a title has gone, and third place in the championship is at severe risk.

This could be a costly affair, as sponsor contracts, such as with suppliers of leathers, helmets, etc, will often pay out big bonuses for finishing in the top three of the championship, and nothing at all for finishing fourth.

The good thing for Espargaro and Aprilia teammate Maverick Viñales is that, now that they are back in Europe, they can get the kind of support they need from Aprilia.

The Italian factory will be looking ahead to 2023, and at the improvements to be trialed at the test on Tuesday. But before that, the RS-GP is a capable enough weapon to perform around the Valencia circuit.

The biggest question mark for Aprilia is that of rear grip. Both Espargaro and Viñales have been complaining of a lack of it in the last few races, and that could be crucial at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo.

How the RS-GP deals with that long Turn 13, and the drive out of the tight corners such as Turn 1 and Turn 11, could make all the difference this weekend.

The Once and Future King?

The biggest wildcard at Valencia is surely Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda. A left-handed track should be almost an automatic podium for the Spaniard, were it not he is still working on his recovery from surgery earlier in the year, and working on a recalcitrant RC213V that needs severe tweaking to get it to be competitive again.

At Phillip Island, Marquez ended up on the podium, and nearly won. At Sepang, a track which didn’t suit the Honda, he was seventh.

What to expect at Valencia? Marc Marquez has finished on the podium at every race he has contested here since 2012, with the exception of the downpour of 2018, where he crashed out.

He has won three times in those eight races, once in Moto2 and twice in MotoGP. But that seems to be wildly optimistic. You can’t rule Marquez out. But he is unlikely to be much of a factor.

That leaves only KTM. It has been a strange year for the Austrian factory, with the Tech3 satellite team entirely invisible, and the factory Red Bull KTM team very up and down.

KTM has two victories to their name, both by Miguel Oliveira in the pouring rain. Brad Binder has been the stronger rider in the dry, but the RC16 still lacks too much turning. That means they are spending more time on the edge of the tire to get the bike turned, and as a result, spinning the tire on corner exit.

That may be less of a problem at Valencia. The bikes spend a lot of time accelerating at an angle, with fewer places where you can pick the bike up and accelerate hard.

Whether Binder and Oliveira can trouble the Ducatis is doubtful. But they might put up more of a fight than you might expect.

Past and Future

The last race of the season also means a last chance of success for those moving on. Jack Miller will want to leave Ducati on a high, before he arrives in the KTM factory team. Miguel Oliveira, the man Miller is replacing, is off to the RNF team and an Aprilia, and will want to make his mark.

The two Suzuki riders are heading to Honda, Joan Mir to the factory Repsol team, and Alex Rins to LCR, and they will want to take the confidence of a good result with them.

Alex Marquez leaves the LCR Honda team for greener pastures at Gresini Ducati, where he will be hoping to prove the problem was the bike.

And Pol Espargaro will want to prove to Repsol Honda that his podium at Qatar was not a fluke, and leave with his head held high as he heads back to KTM’s warm embrace and the Tech3 GasGas team.

Valencia is a time for farewells, and there will be a few tears shed on Sunday night. But it is also a place for new beginnings. The old season ends on Sunday, and the new year begins at the test on Tuesday. The cycle will begin again.

Photo: Ducati Corse