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Analysis

The unwarranted Bagnaia backlash risking wider problems in MotoGP

Controversy seems to follow MotoGP’s world champion Francesco Bagnaia.

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

His title-winning campaign was partly overshadowed by a drink-driving offence in Ibiza during the summer break of the 2022 season. Then at the San Marino Grand Prix, Bagnaia made a clunky defence of his use of a Dennis Rodman tribute helmet.

But the latest Bagnaia-centred controversy following the French Grand Prix has been a wholly unfair episode for the Italian.

Asked in a written media debrief after the grand prix on Sunday at Le Mans what he attributed the high rate of early-race crashes we've seen in 2023 to, Bagnaia gave an honest answer.

"From my point of view, we have been trying to win on the first few laps for two years now," Bagnaia said. "And a rider who is behind, who doesn't have the potential to ride at the front, tries to overtake six riders at once. And that's not how it works. We all push to the limit and, if I brake on the limit, looking for something else is a mistake, and even more so in the first part of the races. Most of the crashes happen at the beginning because there is too much turmoil."

He added that this was a result of the field spread being so narrow, with everyone on either factory machinery or a year-old bike that is at a very high competitive level. At Le Mans, the top 12 in qualifying were covered by 0.891 seconds, with pole decided by 0.058s and the front row split by 0.137s.

In the highly attritional grand prix, the lap time spread of each rider's fastest effort (considering only the full-time runners and not the three replacement riders) was a staggering 0.620s from race winner Marco Bezzecchi's 1m31.855s down to Fabio Di Giannantonio's 1m32.475s (which was the 18th-best lap of the GP).

Bagnaia's statement referenced "the Fantastic Four", describing the era of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. Take the 2016 French GP, where three of those riders were still in their prime (Stoner retired in 2012), and the comparison between then and now is stark.

Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Yamaha

Using the same fastest lap for each rider metric, the lap time spread for the 21 riders who registered a time (all of whom were full-time riders) was 2.066s. The same 0.620s lap time gap that covered the 18 full-time riders in the 2023 French GP only covered the top six in 2016 at Le Mans.

The 2016 campaign was ultimately the turning point for MotoGP that has led to this latest Bagnaia controversy. That was the year spec electronics were introduced to narrow the playing field and was the final phase in Dorna Sports' masterplan that began in 2012 with the CRT rules platform, before the Open class regulations came along in 2014. The idea was that, to boost dwindling grid numbers, teams could run cheaper production-based machinery.

The idea of the spec electronics (helped greatly by Dorna's financial aid for satellite teams) was to eliminate the production-based platform so that everyone on the grid could have prototype machinery. The financial aid meant satellite teams could afford much better specs of bike they could lease from factories, to the point where in 2023 all but six bikes on the grid are of current factory-spec (with the rest last year's fully developed model).

This has helped the satellite VR46 team to win two grands prix in 2023 and sit just one point off championship leader Bagnaia on the factory Ducati. Last year, Enea Bastianini on a 2021-spec Ducati fought for the championship and won four grands prix, while in 2020 Franco Morbidelli on a 2019-spec Petronas SRT Yamaha was runner-up in the championship.

But, the trade-off for the narrowing of the performance gap has been an increase in crashes. In 2023, there has been an early tangle of some description in three of the five sprints and all of the grands prix. Bagnaia was taken out in a collision with Maverick Vinales in the French GP on lap five, while Luca Marini and Alex Marquez had a sickening incident on lap six that both thankfully walked away from.

Bagnaia concluded his point when asked what needs to be done by saying: "Now, the level is extreme, everything is pushed to the limit. It would be necessary to recover a bit of that difference between factory and customer bikes, or to find a solution to avoid certain situations."

This information was relayed by French media to Tech3 boss and president of the teams' association Herve Poncharal, who called Bagnaia's comments "bullshit". On Thursday, Bagnaia spoke exclusively to Motorsport.com to clarify what he meant after his words were taken "out of context".

Marco Bezzecchi, VR46 Racing Team

Marco Bezzecchi, VR46 Racing Team

Photo by: Marc Fleury

What Bagnaia said was true. Something has to be done and a bigger gap between the factory and satellite bikes would make a difference. But it's not what he was calling for.

It's hard to determine exactly who is to blame for this unnecessary pile-on. Bagnaia's quotes were in an Italian media debrief, then relayed to Poncharal in French. Perhaps something has gotten lost in translation, while subsequent stories focused on Poncharal's quotes and Bagnaia's debrief obscured the reality of the situation even further. This raises a bigger point about the perceived role of independent media.

The main issue here, however, is MotoGP's world champion now feels very aggrieved about his innocent quotes being twisted into a narrative that isn't true to what he said. And he's had enough of it.

"Unfortunately, we are entering a dynamic in which some people prefer to look for controversy rather than talk about who wins or the beautiful battles that take place on track," he told Motorsport.com.

"Lately there has been too much talk about things that are not of my competence. I am a rider, I am in love with this sport and my only goal is to win races and work with my team. From now on I will only talk about the sport, which is what I know best, and I will leave the rest to others. I'm tired of having to justify every word that is taken out of context as a pretext to open a controversy."

MotoGP has currently been embroiled in stewarding controversies in 2023. A number of riders have spoken out about this, including Bagnaia, and this is necessary when there are genuine concerns that need to be brought forward. In these instances, a champion's voice lends much more credence.

But if Bagnaia now doesn't feel confident enough to speak out on topics for fear of his words being taken out of context again, critical issues may lose a strong public voice. And if this is the stance the world champion takes, it opens the door for others to follow in the same path.

Of course, riders have the private shield of the safety commission to voice grievances behind closed doors. But that's not to say Bagnaia would be any more willing to voice his opinion, for fear of it leaking out and another storm in a teacup enveloping him.

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