MotoGP Valencia: Title scrap goes down to the wire

| | MotoGP
Picture: GeeBee Images

And so it begins. The final weekend of the MotoGP season. The decider: two riders, one crown, and an incredible year of ups, downs, thrills, spills, wins and defeats.

23 points split Ducati Lenovo’s challenger Pecco Bagnaia from Monster Energy Yamaha’s incumbent Fabio Quartararo, and for the crowd watching on that makes it an easy enough equation: the only thing Quartararo can do is win. If he doesn’t, Bagnaia need not even finish, such is his advantage, but this is motorcycle racing. It ain’t over till the chequered flag waves (ask 2006).

In the red corner, Bagnaia has a stunning seven wins and has overcome a deficit of 91 points to sit 23 clear. He’s broken more than a few records and stands to become the first Ducati rider to take the crown in 15 years – something that would also see the Bologna factory complete the Triple Crown of Constructors’, Teams’ and Riders’ titles. He won at Valencia last year on a historic day for Ducati too as they locked out the podium, so the track will not be an unwelcome venue for the decider. But that was then, and this is now – with history beckoning with open arms. No longer the chaser, Bagnaia is now the rider in the hot seat.

In the blue corner, Quartararo’s year has largely been a study in consistency. Few mistakes, some impressive victories and, until late on, the sole Yamaha scoring constructor points every weekend speak to an incredible achievement of a season. A tough Thai GP and then another nil points in Australia seemed to see the tide turn, but El Diablo wasn’t done. As Sepang staged the first match point for his opponent, Quartararo pulled out a much-needed podium for his final stand, and stand he did as the fight rolls on. Valencia would likely not be his venue of choice, but for Yamaha it’s been a solid one… so with zero pressure now the weight of expectation has shifted to Bagnaia, can Quartararo come out swinging?

The decider, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It exists on a grid of the fastest riders and machinery in the world, all of whom have their own targets to hit and glory to chase. Some of whom also have loyalties. With history on the line for Ducati, the message is, as a bare minimum: do not get anywhere close to being the reason for a last-minute heartbreak. And that message goes out to a third of the grid: Lenovo teammate Jack Miller, Gresini’s Enea Bastianini, Prima Pramac’s Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin, Mooney VR46 duo Marco Bezzecchi and Luca Marini and Gresini rookie Fabio Di Giannantonio.

Some, like Zarco, have already said they’ve made sure to keep risk under control. Some, like Martin, have said it’s not much to do with him, for which read, most probably, “I’ll make up my own mind”. Miller has already been a team and constructor hero, as well as a teammate pep talker to get Bagnaia feeling confident in the wet. Bastianini, meanwhile, remains staring at the camera with the hint of a smile and an eyebrow raised, leaving many wondering how the Italian will take on the decider.

Ducati, for their part, has been vocal about having sent out no team or constructor orders before this point in the battle. Bagnaia has also stated he wants to win on track, not by order from above. And amid all the talk wilfully eager to create months of Borgo Panigale factory puppeteering, the results actually do speak to the riders being able to #GoFree: Miller’s wins and podiums ahead of Pecco, Bastianini’s challenges for his compatriot. The order to not jeopardise history in the making may simply prove another way of saying: “Don’t do anything silly”, and that’s just common sense. We’ll find out on Sunday…

For Quartararo, meanwhile, the allies have been a little further back this season. Teammate Franky Morbidelli showed a step forward at Sepang in terms of pace though, and he has known glory at the Spanish track before. But what about the rest of the field? Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro is now out of the title fight but looking for much more as the paddock returns to Europe, as is teammate Maverick Viñales. While Red Bull KTM’s Brad Binder is still mathematically in the fight for a place in the top five overall, such is the South African’s record of Sunday heroics and consistency.

There are plenty more names with little to lose in engaging full attack mode, too – as well as those facing their own last tangos in 2022. Suzuki Ecstar’s Alex Rins and teammate Joan Mir, the latter a winner at Valencia, will want to leave the Hamamatsu factory on a high. WithU Yamaha RNF’s Cal Crutchlow will be stepping down from competition once again, as rookie teammate Darryn Binder also prepares for a last dance on the way to Moto2. LCR’s Alex Marquez heads from Honda to try a Ducati, while Repsol Honda’s Pol Espargaro switches back to Austrian machinery. Tech3 KTM’s Remy Gardner sets sail for WorldSBK as teammate Raul Fernandez prepares to greet the Noale factory, Miguel Oliveira likewise kissing goodbye to KTM in favour of the satellite Aprilia outfit. Miller does the same to Ducati, too, and it speaks well of the Australian that that’s not become a headline ahead of such a pivotal weekend for Borgo Panigale.

Last but not least, we didn’t forget him and the rest of the grid, the protagonists of #TheDecider and the fans in the stands shouldn’t, either. Ahead of every anti-clockwise track, the Marc Marquez klaxon must be sounded. It’s a requirement given the number 93’s incredible record. It may have been a long, tough time of late to get that glory back, but Marquez already has a pole and a podium since his return to the Repsol Honda squad – a return where time is on his side as every new race and week adds a little more strength to his recovery. Can the eight-time World Champion steal the headlines this weekend? It would be quite a gauntlet to throw down ahead of 2023, where Marquez has his eyes set on more than just the occasional prize.

You don’t want to miss this! #TheDecider hits the history books from 13:00 GMT on Sunday as the lights go out for the final time in 2022, ahead of a new era for the FIM MotoGP World Championship. Will it be a new era under a new champion? We’re about to find out…