The inaugural Indian Grand Prix delivered a fascinating grand prix and twist in the championship battle — not bad for a race that only a week ago appeared in doubt to even go ahead in the first place.
The sport’s eventual arrival at the Buddh International Circuit, around 45 kilometres southeast of New Delhi, was dominated by talk of delayed visas and unfinished track work, but it left full of praise for the challenging track and the value that it’s brought to the expanding grand prix calendar.
And then of course there were the title permutations.
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Francesco Bagnaia has had his once hefty title lead slashed to just a few points after his latest mistake, this time from second place. It’s handed all the momentum to chief pursuer Jorge Martin and given race winner Marco Bezzecchi a ticket back into the fight.
There won’t be much time to dwell on India, with the sport flying directly to Japan for its next race in Motegi this weekend, but Buddh’s debut will live long in the collective memory of the 2023 season.
LOSER: FRANCESCO BAGNAIA
Did we just glimpse the old Bagnaia beneath the veneer of the reigning world champion?
So much of this season has been defined by the new-spec calm and collected Pecco, who’s flexed his title-winning muscle without the silly mistakes that put him almost 100 points down in last year’s championship chase.
After some early-season mishaps this year, he was just about flawless through the European season.
Then he had his monster highside at the Catalan Grand Prix. Third in the sprint and the race in Misano were gutsy returns, but any hint of momentum has been crushed by another unforced error in India while running a comfortable second.
The anatomy of the crash is interesting.
Bagnaia had been losing points to Martin and, to a lesser extent, Bezzecchi in the last two rounds, but his lead had held up at 36 points and 65 points respectively arriving in India. At a new circuit in debilitating conditions, there was no need to take risks in India when a swath of better known circuit would close out the season.
But rather than peg it on overambition — or even his preferred protest that he did nothing wrong and that the crash was fundamentally mysterious — Bagnaia put the error down to his use of the hard front tyre rather than the medium favoured by most others.
He hadn’t been able to get the mediums working for him during practice — partly down to rear chattering Ducati hasn’t been able to cure — whereas he found the hard more rideable. It’s wasn’t a pursuit of extra performance per se, just consistency.
It had appeared at the time like a conservative risk-reward trade-off, but the Italian fell on the wrong side of that equation.
So it’s perhaps not quite fair to assume Bagnaia has succumbed to the pressure of the tightening title picture.
But with Martin now within striking distance and the in-form Bezzecchi only one more Bagnaia mistake away from being a genuine challenger, it’s an open question as to whether the reigning champion will be feeling that pressure now with seven rounds to go.
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WINNERS: JORGE MARTIN AND MARCO BEZZECCHI
Of course the two biggest beneficiaries of Bagnaia’s mistake were his championship rivals, who until this month had looked out for the count.
After the Catalan Grand Prix sprint at the end of August Bagnaia led Martin by 66 points and Bezzecchi by 75. The championship outcome seemed inevitable.
But Martin has captured the momentum. Starting from Sunday at the Catalan Grand Prix, Martin has outscored Bagnaia 85-32. Bezzecchi has been close behind, collecting 63 points in that same period.
Martin is now just 13 points adrift — comfortably closable in a single weekend — while Bezzecchi is back in the hunt at 44 points adrift.
MotoGP has been waiting for Martin to really fire in a championship battle, and we’re finally seeing his potential turned into results. It’s pleasing too that he’s no longer just a single-lap specialist but a rider capable of grinding out results on Sunday.
But Bezzecchi is the real surprise on his year-old VR46 Ducati. While last year’s title-winning bike is obviously no slouch, his tenaciousness to keep dragging himself into contention with a series of truly standout rides has been nothing short of spectacular.
He was the form man of the weekend in India, clicking superbly with the track’s high-speed section in the particular. From pole position he would surely have swept the weekend had it not been for teammate Luca Marini cleaning him up on the first lap of the sprint — he recovered from the back of the grid to fifth, generating most of the afternoon’s overtakes — and was peerless in the race.
It’ll take some convincing to believe a customer bike can be a title contender, but Bezzecchi is mounting an influential argument.
WINNERS: MOTOGP’S FALLEN GIANTS
On a weekend dominated by yet more innuendo of Marc Márquez’s potential defection to Gresini and Fabio Quartararo’s disappointment with Yamaha’s proposed 2024 machine, we got a timely reminder of what these world champions — and their former titanic teams — are capable of when conditions are right.
In this case it took the vast variables of a brand-new circuit in some of the sport’s toughest climatic conditions to bring them back into the fight.
Fabio Quartararo scored his second podium of the season as well as just his second sprint pointscoring finish. Franco Morbidelli, similarly, collected his best result since Argentina, the second race of the year.
Over at Honda, Joan Mir also enjoyed a badly needed confidence-boosting weekend, racing from fourth to fifth in the race, his highest finish since last June. It was just his second points-scoring race of the year and his third — yes, third — finish of the entire campaign.
But among them it was Márquez who arguably had the best race, albeit without the best result. He’d qualified sixth and was running high in the order early before washing out at the first turn and tumbling to the back, but an epic recovery restored him to ninth.
Following on from his third place in the sprint, it was comfortably his best set of results for the season.
But fans of the Japanese marques would do well not to get too excited about the apparent correlation between the Misano test two weeks ago and the sudden upturn in form.
Márquez pointed out that the last time Honda was competitive — indeed the last time a Honda bike won a race — was in Austin, where the Circuit of the Americas has a similar emphasis on stop-start corners that allow the rider to pick up the bike before opening the throttle rather than long sweeps that bring out the RC213V’s wild unpredictability. Even the long turn 7-8 loop wasn’t so punishing given the positive camber that had the effect of lessening the true lean angle.
The same is largely true of Yamaha, with Quartararo’s last podium also coming at COTA.
But while it mightn’t be a sign of a rapid change of fortunes, it is a welcome boost to the morale of both factory teams and their riders — those that will be staying next year at least. That’s no bad thing.
WINNER: IS BUDDH IS GOOD
Finally, a word on the Buddh International Circuit, so maligned by rider speculation over unsafe conditions ahead of the weekend but so praised in the aftermath.
It took only one track walk on Thursday for fears over insufficient safety work to be dashed, replaced instead by several riders praising the track as potentially the most fun on the calendar.
It proved more technical than anticipated, which put the onus on riders to really nail their laps. That delivered an unusual qualifying result, which in turn gave us an interesting grand prix classification.
And then there were the physical demands — less about the track layout and more about the climate.
MotoGP races in some difficult environments — Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are all coming up — but India took the conditions to a new level of oppressiveness, with ambient temperature in the mid-30s and humidity above 80 per cent.
The sport responded by broking an agreement between riders, teams, tyre suppliers and the race organiser to shorten the races for all classes. MotoGP lost losing one lap in the sprint dropped three laps from the grand prix.
Some felt the effects more keenly than others. Jorge Martin was physically finished after taking the flag second, unable to even take part in the post-race interviews owing to dehydration. Several others, particularly those who spent the race behind another bike, spoke about the stifling heat.
But not everyone was so badly affected.
“It was kind of like Townsville in the middle of summer,” Jack Miller wrote on this website. “So no complaints from me!
“Yeah, it was hot and Sunday was hard for 21 laps, but we could have done the 24 laps we were originally scheduled to do. Three more laps would have been no problem.
“It was like doing motos in the middle of January at home.”
Originally published as The logic behind champion’s costly blunder as Buddh makes big debut: Winners and losers