It is good to be back and when things are poised to be a bit different from the old norm, one can only be a wee bit more thrilled than usual. Case in point, the era of Sprint Races is upon us and if what we witnessed is anything to go by, we are in for an interesting season, but not exactly for all the good reasons. The first-ever MotoGP sprint race during the ongoing PortugueseGP round was everything we had hoped it would be. It was thrilling, and intense and had some stellar and unexpected performances to get the fans excited.
From the first laps on Friday to the lap after the chequered flag was waved after Q2, the riders had undercut the previous lap record set by Bagnaia in 2021 by over 1.5 seconds. In a sport where tenths of seconds are hard to come by, such staggering reductions in times leave one in awe while also being forced to ponder upon if the bikes are getting a bit too fast for anyone’s benefit.
It is ironic yet fitting that Marc Marquez, riding what is perhaps the most underdeveloped motorcycle of the paddock, would start on the pole for the first-ever sprint race. Riding around issues is probably the biggest differentiator that Marc Marquez has over his rivals, and combine with it his ruthless focus on winning, makes his mere presence elevates the beauty of this sport. Snatching tow from Bastianini and shattering the lap record to smithereens and achieving a historic pole, as he said, might not have been the polite way of doing it but he used what was on offer to the fullest.
The Sprint race start saw Marquez pull off well from the pole while Bagnaia from second did not have that great a start, however, Martin was stellar like he always is. By the time the first corner arrived, Bastianini, who also had a great start, had overtaken Bagnaia already but not for long. He would be taken out shortly after by Marini who would slide out on Lap 2 taking Bastianini with him. The crash, a reminder of why more racing isn’t exactly a great idea, meant Bastianini has suffered a shoulder fracture and might well miss the second round at least.
Pecco Bagnaia eventually went on to win the first-ever Sprint Race of MotoGP and looked at most ease among the riders out on the track. Baring the strong gusts of wind hampering his progress for the initial few laps his race was flawless. The way he could increase his pace at will and the way his GP23 behaved underneath him is an ominous sign for the rest of the paddock. The main race on Sunday looks like it would be a strong case of who would come second behind him.
Martin has been excited (along with Miller, understandably) about the new format as it seems to directly suit his style and early pace. He was always on the hunt for the historic first-ever sprint race win but in the last lap, a small mistake meant Bagnaia could pass him easily. The reigning world champion was putting consistent pressure from behind and had a better rear-front grip to push into the corners.
The Pole man, Marc Marquez started well but in the middle part of the race was easily overtaken by Miller and Oliviera however, he produced what would already be the contender for the best overtake of the season when on the penultimate lap he picked pockets of both Miller and Oliviera in the turn 1 to earn the final podium position.
Among the more notable performances of the day was of Jack Miller, his first race with KTM in MotoGP and showed blistering speed in the early part of the race, he looked in proper control of his RC16 and could match the Ducati’s in terms of pace. He eventually finished the race in 4th place while always in the hunt for a podium. This bodes well for KTM and Jack both and has added another dark horse to the season. We expected Miller to be there in the mix eventually, but not this soon and it is an exciting thing to watch.
Oliviera, the homeboy was also in the hunt for the podium and almost matched the four in front of him at all times. Just like Jack, he is also on a new bike and with a new team and he proved by he is being considered to be the dark horse of this championship and might turn up with some stellar results this season. His performance should have spiked interest within the Aprilia camp and should serve as a booster for the likes of Vinales who are now expected to perform at race-winning levels. He would have finished as the highest placed Aprilia in fifth just behind Miller, but a small mistake saw him relegated to 7th, behind the factory Aprilia duo who both benefitted from it.
The factory Aprilia duo of Aleix Espargaro and Maverik Vinales had a strong race and would have featured toward the top had they not been hindered by the Mir-Quartararo incident. The Aprilia’s are looking strong and should offer a good challenge to the Ducati onslaught.
The last two point positions went to Zarco and Alex Marquez, respectively, points being awarded to only the top 9 riders in the sprint format. Zarco has largely been flying under the radar throughout the pre-season and for most of the race weekend. He also started with the soft front but did not seem to reap many benefits. This is another proof why qualifying higher is a most urgent need for everyone. Alex Marquez has been strong throughout but is still getting the hang of his Ducati, he is yet to understand the limit on his GP22, especially in the braking part. He would have finished higher if his qualifying went a few tenths better as he was beaten by Oliviera for a Q2 place by a whisker in the qualifying. That Alex Marquez is going to be a regular podium (or top 5) contender is only a matter of when not if.
Now on to Fabio Quartararo, starting a sprint race from 11th on the grid, there is not much you can do. His chances were made even worse when Mir tried a slightly enthusiastic pass on the inside on Lap 2 but lost his front hitting Quartararo in the process. Though this led to the end of Mir’s race, he had nudged Quartararo to 15th place from where Quartararo could only manage 10th place in the end. This means he was out of points and already 12 points behind his main rival, Bagnaia.