“Swinging, Splitter, Strikeout”.
Welcome back to EVEN MORE Season Review action here on Motorsport101, because Season Review Season isn’t done until I say it’s done. And it’s time to hit up the two-wheeled world as I talk all about MotoGP’s 2023 season, and in part 1, we’re breaking down the year Japan’s wheels fell off. Honda and life after Marc Marquez, Yamaha who are staring down the barrel of a similar situation with Fabio Quartararo, and Aprilia as they enter a crossroads for their future.
Part 2 will feature KTM, Ducati and some thoughts on 2024 in general. Until then, enjoy (Unless you’re a Honda fan, in which case, look away now.)
Alex Rins – 19th in Points (54), 1 Win (??), 1 Sprint Podium (??) (7 Races)
Takaaki Nakagami – 18th in Points (56), Best Finish – 8th
This section almost feels… annoying. This feels like the land of baseball, where a lot of fans are now experiencing what I call “Superstar Fatigue” in regards to its biggest star. Shohei Ohtani is a transcendent player, a video game character made real. He has the elite flamethrower pace of a 102mph fastball pitcher, with a 90mph Splitter that forces strikeouts. But then add on top of that the ability to hit 40-50 Home Runs a season as a designated hitter. The two-way phenom, in an even more dominant way than Babe Ruth did 110 years earlier. Earlier this year he won the MVP award for the second time, unanimously with every 1st placed ballot.
And just when people were starting to think that Shohei was taking all the headlines, he hit free agency and broke the sport over his knee with a SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR, 10-year contract to head across the state and join the Los Angeles Dodgers. The largest contract for an athlete in the history of North American sports.
Then he broke baseball again when reporters looked at the contract and realised he deferred 680 of that $700m until after his contract expires, so the Dodgers could skirt the big financial penalties that come with being in the sports “luxury tax”, letting the Dodgers stay aggressive in free agency. Legal, but bitter when the owner of the Dodgers, Todd Bohely, is the same guy who owns Chelsea, who’s spent $1 billion in transfers for a club only marginally better than what it was when Roman Abramovich was forced to sell.
Understandably, if you’re a baseball fan, you might be a little sick of hearing about Shohei. He is a Lewis Hamilton, a Novak Djokovic, a Virat Kohli. The superstar who becomes the news. Now Valentino Rossi is driving sportscars, Marc Marquez has become that guy in MotoGP. And if you want to talk about Honda, you have to talk about Marc Marquez. Here’s some more of that fatigue. So yeah, forgive me for a few hundred more words.
Germany 2023. Marquez had crashed for the sixth time that weekend at the Sachsenring in the Warm-Up on Sunday morning. A track he became the king of after 11 straight Grand Prix victories there across all three classes. Beating two eras of world-class riders. He hung over the barricade and stared into the distance. I think here, right here, Marc knew it was over. He had to walk away. After limping to 11th in the Sprint the day before, enough was enough. It was time to go home.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get confirmation of it, but I think it was at that flashpoint I knew the Marc Marquez and Honda relationship, the greatest in World Championship history, better than Doohan at Honda, than Rossi or Lorenzo at Yamaha, greater than Stoner at Ducati, was over.
Germany was the crescendo of half a decade of Honda’s struggles. A factory that built a bike solely for Marc to ride, until he broke himself, then no one could as their problems were only exaggerated by his replacements who didn’t know how to develop the bike. By 2023. Honda wasn’t a MotoGP team at this point, they were a Greek tragedy.
Don’t get me wrong, Marc isn’t blameless out here. He opened his season with more false hope with a podium in Portimao’s sprint, until in the Grand Prix we all realised the only way he could make up time on his fastest competition was to brake stupidly late… until he clattered into Miguel Oliveira and Jorge Martin and incited a whole debate about riding standards, penalties, and an embarrassment to the stewards as a discovered loophole meant that his injury missing a round meant he no longer had a penalty to serve, and by the time the sport tried to correct itself, it was too late. An embarrassing appeal shut down in the courts. More on the crummy stewards in Part 2 but it was the first of many instances where the Honda was trying to mame all who rode it.
The ramifications of the Marquez effect were felt across Honda’s fleet. Joan Mir, only finished a Grand Prix six times all season. Taka Nakagami chose the other option, ride slowly and not bin it, with only three Top 10s all season. And Alex Rins had one of the most horrific non-lethal MotoGP injuries ever, shattering his leg at Mugello in a crash so violent it wasn’t shown on TV (Which should tell you how bad it was). That was in the second week of June. He finished one other race in 2023 afterwards. And HE WON IN AUSTIN after Francesco Bagnaia tucked the front!
Honda had to rely on Iker Lecuona and Stefan Bradl to do the ambulance chasing, and poor Takumi Takahashi was led into an empty room like that scene out of Goodfellas and didn’t even qualify for Misano.
And after all of this. An uncompetitive bike. Bringing in Ken Kawauchi from Suzuki’s title-winning campaign. Desperate attempts to develop something to give their talismanic leader hope, leasing out their swingarm and frame to Kalex via a whole new frame at Le Mans but failed to ultimately impress enough. Honda NEVER leases out their manufacturing to anyone. It was an admittance of failure. And it still wasn’t enough. Marc had no choice but to break his contract off and leave as much as 23 million euros on the table to escape to Gresini and a Ducati GP23.
The most painful part of it all? It’s more than obvious that Marc didn’t want to leave. He was in tears on Instagram the day the news was made official. He was in tears again during his final weekend in Valencia, where he’d starred in his leaving video. He flew out to Japan to take part in “Thanks Day” to a hero’s goodbye and tribute despite recovering from Arm Pump surgery. The final moments of his Honda career felt like he was about to regenerate into Matt Smith, uttering Ten’s immortal last words of not wanting to go.
Even as I type this out right now, this still feels like a “goodbye for now”, rather than a goodbye forever. But Marc, who’s lost four years of his prime to his arm injury and a Honda factory in free fall, is determined to win again at all costs.
So what’s left? Well, Alex Rins committed the cardinal sin of switching to Yamaha to escape in a hurry, so LCR brings in Johann Zarco, a useful rider to have given he’s the most versatile rider on the grid, having ridden for four different factories. Taka’s still here as a useful test rider even if his upside has largely faded. And at the literal eleventh hour, Luca Marini walks away from his half-brother’s team to spearhead Repsol, without their biggest sponsor in Red Bull, who’s following Marc to Gresini.
It’s not a terrible set of riders by any means. Given where Honda is as a factory right now, they’ve done well to get two Top 10 riders to fill out their roster. We know Mir’s quality and Zarco’s patient approach are likely helpful. Luca Marini is an interesting wildcard. I don’t know whether Zarco’s comments about him being a thinking man’s rider is a genuine compliment given what he’s walking into, or a backhanded compliment when it comes to “lack of talent”. It may be both. In any case, he’s much improved and let’s be frank, the best rider available for November 2023.
And look, one of the stories of the final Valencia Test was genuine approval for their 2024 bike, even if Zarco binned one. As a factory, it might be their brightest day of the year. But it’s a small ray of sunshine on an otherwise very cloudy year.
In a weird sense, this is probably what all parties at Honda needed. Marc finally beat his almost weird sense of Stockholm Syndrome and is off to try and win again as he enters his Age 31 season. The other riders finally get a bigger say in development. Honda has some of the pressure released to try and figure out how to rebuild, especially with a new concession system that gives them even more resources to play with. But it took the fear and then the actual loss of Marquez for the panic button to finally be pushed. And even if they do somehow rise to prominence again, their greatest weapon is now on the other side of the fence.
Good luck to them. Honda is the Los Angeles Angels of MotoGP. And they’ve just lost Shohei Ohtani.
It’s a weird one here. Cal Crutchlow, when deep in the bowels of Yamaha’s testing role said the team needed to focus on the positive attributes of their bike, the smoothness and cornering speed, their strong fundamentals, rather than the aero and engine power, the big red herrings that others had pointed out. Fabio Quartararo in his usual passive-aggressive way pointed out that he wanted more power, thinking he could just handle the percentage increase and crack on.
Turns out it messed up the balance of the bike and it led to a team significantly worse than it was last year. Yamaha had 256 points last season and they dropped to 196 as a manufacturer in 2023. While Yamaha didn’t get the more destructive headlines and the table-topping crash statistics that their Japanese cousins at Honda got, they were only 11 points better than them over the season.
I was lucky enough to interview Fabio himself at Silverstone and by then, he was already looking like a man who had no problem giving Yamaha shit and pushing them into developing something regarding a winning package. By Misano, he was making ultimatums that he was kinda walking back by years end. To be fair to Yamaha, even Fabio admitted that the back half of the year wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, especially given he had a genuine shot to win in Indonesia and duelled with Martin in India for second. But there’s still the overriding feeling that more needs to be done. Losing their customer team to Aprilia wasn’t helpful either.
Yamaha has to be making a convincing argument to keep him around for another two years. Fabio and Marc are seemingly close friends. Fabio has seen what the latter has gone through, respected it, related to it, and struggled alongside it. MotoGP has a huge free agency approaching for 2024 and Fabio will be the biggest name on the market outside of Marc Marquez.
He’s made it abundantly clear to Yamaha that he will pull the trigger and walk if need be. He has the luxury of being nearly seven years younger than Marquez and I’m not convinced he has the same love and loyalty to the brand that MM93 had. But the threat is there, likely a year earlier if we plotted this on the “Marquez Leaves Honda” timeline.
Franky Morbidelli had a strange season. It turns out he’s excellent in low grip conditions, shining brightest when the rain poured down in Argentina en route to fourth in the Sprint and the Grand Prix. To the Brazilian’s credit, early on he was keeping up with Quartararo, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. It’s going to be genuinely fascinating to see what he does at Pramac in 2024. How much of his struggles were down to his reconstructed knee, and how much was down to Yamaha’s struggles? No excuses on the sport’s best bike next year. (Salute to the man’s agent, that 15% must go a long way.)
And let’s be real here, if you’re Lin Jarvis and Alex Rins hits free agency, you sign that man. On paper alone, Yamaha now has arguably THE best single team in MotoGP in terms of rider quality. A World Champion and multiple-time contender alongside a guy who’s won races with two different manufacturers. The sad thing is, if I was still a gambling man, I’d be setting their over/under on wins at 0.5. That says a lot about the state of Yamaha. Not as outwardly catastrophic as Honda, but still far, far behind where they should be.
A frustrating season for the Noale factory squad at Aprilia. This was meant to be the next big push as they put together a spirited title campaign. Maybe not beat Ducati, but certainly give them a bloody nose. And while they were far from bad – This was arguably their best-ever season as a factory, it’s probably going to be frustrating for the reason of just being a better third. They aimed for second, and while they beat Yamaha, they were leapfrogged by a more consistent KTM and left far behind by Ducati. And as a team, they sank to fifth overall despite being the third-best manufacturer.
The Aleix Espargaro win at Silverstone was the best of his career to date. When it just started to drizzle, that low grip Aprilia gave all of their riders confidence. It led to Aleix’s incredible game-winning pass on Francesco Bagnaia on the final lap, a sneaky contender for pass of the year and the best I’ve ever seen live. Maverick was in contention, Miguel Oliviera went on a tear to bring himself into play and Raul Fernandez cracked the Top 10 for the first time too.
Barcelona was hot and sticky, and with Bagnaia taken out of the running, Aprilia had their greatest day as a factory, a beautiful one-two finish and an emotional victory for Aleix Espargaro, one in unison with Maverick, swapping bikes and celebrating with the kids. The weird thing was, they’d only crack the podium again once for the rest of the season.
I don’t think it was a rider problem. Aleix was a bit peakier in his performances, doubling his win count and adding another solid podium at Assen, but his season also tanked a little bit towards the end, not being able to finish higher than eighth across the final six weekends in GP trim. There were probably a few too many crashes too.
But in positive news, 2023 was a marked improvement for Maverick Vinales, coming up to seventh in the standings, improving his consistency after a tough start to the season and being a genuine ally to Aleix to finish just two points behind his elder statesman in the standings. It’s exactly what they needed to make the team a bit more balanced. Last year, I was concerned this team had peaked in terms of riding talent. Now I feel a bit better about them as a whole.
There could be an interesting conundrum coming up for Aprilia. Last year, Aleix said 2024 would likely be his final season as a Grand Prix rider, entering the final year of his contract. He then kind of walked it back later in the year when he changed his approach to racing, hanging around with the VR46 Academy, Jorge Martin and Fermin Aldeguer more outside the track, and he’s liked it.
It might keep him around in the sport a bit longer, which is kind of amazing when you consider that if he stays healthy, he’ll be MotoGP’s second most-tenured top-flight rider (He needs 12 more GP’s to overtake Andrea Dovizioso’s 248). But if Fabio Quartararo becomes available… who do you cut? Aleix, the talisman behind your rebirth, or Maverick, the talented rider but who’s never quite reached his full potential? Tough call. Do you use Trackhouse’s seats to move talent around like KTM has tried? Hmmm.
And then there’s the satellite team, formerly the CryptoData RNF team, who’s had a rough 2023. They picked up last year’s Aprilias, a genuine improvement compared to the previous Yamaha they had. But they had all sorts of difficulties getting the best out of their riders. Miguel Oliveira was banged up all year long. His leg was minced by Marc Marquez in Portimao, he was taken out in the middle of a Marco Bezzecchi/Quartararo sandwich at Jerez and a big highside during Qatar’s Sprint ended his season early. He showed that promise he’s always had a handful of times with three Top 5s, but on the whole, he’s been better.
Raul Fernandez battled arm pump early on and it took him time to adapt to his second big prototype bike in as many years, but he got stronger as the year went on, with some Top 10s in the middle of the season and an excellent 5th at Valencia during the decider. The speed is there, but can it be fully harnessed?
And of course, we have to talk about the fact they’re not Razlan Razali’s team anymore. After years of giving it the big one about needing outside sponsors, he sells 60% of his team to a CryptoBro, who fell through on so many payments, Dorna booted them off the grid and in comes Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing, the NASCAR team expanding into MotoGP.
I LOVE this move for all parties. America is a rich, untapped potential of fandom and heritage in the United States. Justin himself went to the Austrian GP and he was blown away by the experience, but more importantly the untapped potential of global Motorsport coverage the series provides for the relatively cheap cost of entry.
I’ve read interviews with Justin, and saw the presentation they had to announce themselves, with video production that already dwarfs most of the paddocks, and a general impression of “They get it.”. They leaned in hard on the Americana with the Nicky Hayden tribute livery and the video of previous legendary US racers like Wayne Rainey and the Roberts family. They want to connect with MotoAmerica and talk of a dream of getting an American rider into the top class (Hello again, Joe Roberts).
He’s talked glowingly about social media outreach and recording more of the behind-the-scenes of the team process. And I loved his quote of MotoGP being “The only form of Motorsport where you see the athlete play the game.”. Marks sees the same potential I’ve always thought MotoGP could have on the world stage and I’m really excited to see his approach to the sport. It could be a game-changer. Even more so given he’s paying the extra to get 2024 factory equipment off the jump. They’re serious. And that’s a big win for everyone involved.
I think Aprilia would be wise to aim for second again in 2024 and get into Tier B of the concession system. I think that’s a realistic, doable target and line themselves up as Ducati’s main contender. At their best, they can challenge Ducati head-on and need to do that more in 2024 rather than less. And getting Fabio Quartararo would be a statement signing too. They have the riders, they have fresh backing, and they don’t have many excuses anymore.
In Part 2, we talk about KTM and their strange 2023 season, Ducati and their new reign of terror, and where the sports heading for 2024. See you then.