Three months. Nine races. Twenty-one points.
The unlikely battle between reigning champion Fabio Quartararo and challenger Aleix Espargaró comes down to this.
When MotoGP packed up in Assen for its mid-season break the title race had developed a major wrinkle. Quartararo had started the race with a 34-point lead, and after qualifying second, he was favourite to extend it beyond a debilitating 40 points.
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But then he did the most un-Quartararo thing and crashed — not once but twice. With Espargaró. Just five laps into the race.
Espargaró responded with a top-shelf ride to fourth, closing the gap to 21 points and well inside the magic 25-point threshold for a clear race win.
The title was still alive.
But there’s so much more than just the championship at stake in the final nine rounds starting with this weekend’s British Grand Prix. While Quartararo and Espargaró are locked in their exclusive duel, Ducati still has a decision to make about the identity of Jack Miller’s replacement on the factory Desmosedici.
And that’s far from the only unresolved contract, with eight bikes still up for grabs.
MotoGP will inevitably say goodbye to some riders at season’s end. The battle is on to be sitting when the music stops.
Here’s where the 2022 season stands on the eve of its mid-year resumption.
IS THE TITLE FIGHT REALLY ON?
At just 21 points — or a little more than two points per race remaining — closing the gap is comfortably achievable for Aleix Espargaró and his plucky Aprilia team, at least on paper.
Espargaró has been the season’s most consistent rider, arguably behind only Quartararo. He hasn’t finished lower than fifth since April, and his four-podium streak between Portugal and Italy is the longest run of rostrums of any rider this season.
He also ended the first half of the season on a high, charging through the field in recovery from his Quartararo crash to finish a superb fourth, including that double overtake on the battling Jack Miller and Brad Binder through the final two corners, thoroughly earning the 13 points he made up on the championship lead.
Combined with teammate Jorge Martin’s first Aprilia podium, it even projected Noale to the top of the teams title standings. Not a bad day’s work.
But it’s only this weekend that the real work starts.
Espargaró’s composure this season has been impressive to the point it’s almost out of character. He’s finally fully at one with the bike, which he’s been building up since 2017, and riding freely.
This weekend, however, the pressure starts to ramp up. The end is in sight, and the mental arithmetic to make it there starts to creep into the consciousness.
Already going into the break Espargaró hinted at the toll the title challenge was taking on him.
“Sincerely, I’m very tired. I’m super, super exhausted,” he said in Assen, per Autosport. “I need rest.
“Especially mentally this year for me it’s completely different to other years, which I suppose is normal; I’m fighting for the title.
“I really need rest for my mind, to disconnect.”
It’s a weakness unlikely to be afflicting Quartararo, who’s been there and done that now. As the reigning champion, the title’s being fought on his turf.
And Fabio’s still the favourite. He’s scored more podiums than anyone else this season, and his complaints about the bike earlier in the campaign have long been forgotten to the point that even he’s since admitted he needed to stop complaining and knuckle down.
Even so, this weekend’s British Grand Prix is something of a danger race for him. For one, last year’s victory was just the second time in his entire racing career he’s scored points in Britain.
But more pertinent is that he’s carrying a long-lap penalty for his crash with Espargaró he’ll need to serve early in the race.
It really is a free punch for Aleix. Not only will Quartararo drop back early in the race, but this season the Yamaha has struggled particularly badly with tyre pressure while lapping in traffic. If he’s caught in the pack early in the race and then drops behind even more bikes, the way will be clear for Espargaró to make up even more ground.
The British Grand Prix is unlikely to be defining of the second half of the season with a catastrophe for one of the two contenders, but it will set the tone for what’s to come.
WHO’LL CLAIM JACK’S FACTORY DUCATI?
There’s a duel for a prize of a different kind happening a little further back of the championship fight.
At stake is Jack Miller’s factory bike once the Australian departs for KTM next season.
The belligerents are three-time 2022 race winner Enea Bastianini and 2021 top rookie Jorge Martin.
The two have had contrasting seasons.
Bastianini burst from the blocks with a victory at the opening race, another win at the Americas Grand Prix three rounds later and a third triumph in France three rounds after that.
Martin, meanwhile, was struggling with what he later revealed to be nerve issue that would sometimes numb his right hand and crashed out of four of the first seven races.
It was a strong enough twist enough to shatter the expectation that Martin, a rookie winner last season, was the heir apparent to Miller’s bike.
But Bastianini’s form has tailed off since, and allied to his serious inconsistency even between his victories — he’s yet to finish a race higher than eighth when he hasn’t won — late question marks started to form over his presumed promotion.
Martin ended the first half of the season with a podium and two strong top-seven finishes.
So Ducati chose to reserve judgment until after the mid-season break, turning the next two races, in Britain and Austria, into a de facto shootout before a likely announcement at the team’s second home race at the San Marino Grand Prix.
“The break was very useful to reset and focus on the mistakes made in the first part of the season,” Bastianini admitted. “We’ve vacillated too much too so far, and in the second part [of the season] we want to be more consistent.
“I really like Silverstone, and it’s where I absolutely want to get a good result to get back to our levels.”
Martin was buoyed to be carrying in the better momentum to the crucial upcoming rounds.
“The last few races have been good for me,” he said. “Now we have to recover for the next two races. I felt better and I think we can do a great job.
“These two races that follow are very important for me to decide my future, and I will give my 100 per cent.”
WHO’S STILL WITHOUT A CONTRACT?
While Bastianini and Martin are battling for the plum seat, some riders are still fighting for any seat at all.
Whichever of the Ducati two misses out on the factory ride will land at Pramac alongside Johann Zarco, whose extension hasn’t yet been announced but has been heavily hinted at.
VR46 is likely to remain unchanged, with rookie Marco Bezzecchi thought to be on a two-year deal and Luca Marini picking up the pace before the break to steady a shaky start to the year.
The big players are the soon to be ex-Suzuki riders — not only are they shaking up the market, but the absence of the Suzuki team has shrunk the list of available rides.
Álex Rins confirmed his landing at LCR next season following Alex Márquez’s switch to Bastianini’s Gresini bike. Rins will race with a Honda factory contract. Takaaki Nakagami is expected to lose his ride to Honda-backed Ai Ogura, who’s one point off the lead of the Moto2 championship.
Joan Mir, meanwhile, has long been expected to move to Honda. The deal is yet to be confirmed, but his manager has said it’s Honda or a year on the couch, suggesting it can’t be far away from being locked in.
Pol Espargaró’s displacement is practically an open secret, and the Spaniard is hoping to land a spot at Tech3 KTM alongside either Raúl Fernandez or Aussie Remy Gardner.
Fernandez remains most heavily tipped to leave to take up one of the new satellite Aprilia bikes at RNF after Andrea Dovizioso retires. Miguel Oliveira, who’s been knocked off his KTM factory bike for Miller, is likely to join him there, demoting Darryn Binder to Moto2.
That’s a lot of contract to finalise in only a few weeks. And given the changes this season already, there’s a long way to go before expectations could turn into reality.
WHO’S GOT THE MOST TO PROVE?
It might sound strange to say, but if there’s one rider who’s failed to meet expectations this season, it’s Francesco Bagnaia.
Yes, he’s won the three last races he’s finished, but he’s finished only three times since the start of May. At 66 points adrift, realistically he’s out of championship contention, but the 25-year-old Italian is targeting the second half of the season as a chance to build momentum to roll into 2023.
“There were ups and downs, some bad luck and my mistakes,” Bagnaia told GQ. “I’ve either won the last few races or I’ve crashed, so it’s not exactly the best.
“But the important thing is to know that we are so fast and in the second half of the season it will be important to find continuity.”
Franco Morbidelli is similarly secure thanks to a pocketed contract, but his form has been woeful since returning from injury last season. This year he’s been outscored 172-25 by teammate Quartararo to sit 19th in the standings.
There were signs of cracks earlier this year, particularly as Quartararo hit his stride and the rider market was most fluid, but more recently management has come out in defence of its rider, in part as it embraces the idea that its bike might be playing a significant role in his problems.
“At the moment Fabio is really the only one who can exploit the good points of the Yamaha, but we are really working hard to try to get back Franco where he was in 2020,” Yamaha manager Massimo Meregalli said, per Autosport. “We all know his capability and we will never give up until we reach this target. We are convinced about the speed and the performance Franco has.”
Key will be improving his qualifying form. Just as Quartararo has discovered even from his substantially loftier grid spots, the M1 is troubled running in the dirty air of the pack, and with Morbidelli now a Q1 regular, the problem is exacerbated dramatically.
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“I‘m quite convinced with a better starting position for sure his results in races will definitely be better,” Meregalli said. ”It’s not easy for us to recover positions during the race.
“So, for the moment we will achieve the goal to take him to starting more towards the front we will start seeing Franky back on his speed.”
But perhaps under the most pressure is Pol Espargaró, who’s without a contract for next year and widely tipped to lose his factory Honda ride to Joan Mir.
Espargaró’s Honda tenure hasn’t amounted to anything approaching his expectations. The bike has proved incredibly difficult to ride for anyone not named Marc Márquez despite major changes made to its key characteristics during the off-season.
In many ways his very strong opening-round podium is more frustrating for the fact it was clearly a false dawn in Honda’s development and Espargaró’s progress.
Now he finds himself on the outer and attempting to manoeuvre himself back into KTM’s orbit with Tech3.
Espargaró badly needed the break too. In the last four rounds, he failed to finish twice, finished once outside the points and withdrew from the last with a rib injury, cementing a dreadful few weeks for the once dominant Honda team.
He should be back to full fitness this weekend ahead of a crucial run of races to secure his future.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
The British Grand Prix is live on Kayo and Fox Sports.
First practice starts tonight at 6:55pm (AEST) ahead of FP2 at 8:45pm.
Pit lane opens for third practice on Saturday at 6:55pm, with final practice at 10:30pm before qualifying at 11:10pm.
Pre-race coverage starts at 9:20pm on Kayo and Fox Sports before lights out for the British Grand prix at 10pm.