10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Australian Grand Prix

Threats of extreme winds, which ultimately came to pass on Sunday and forced the sprint to be abandoned, forced MotoGP to bring the Australian Grand Prix forward to Saturday. But it proved a memorable one for a paddock stalwart who celebrated his long-awaited maiden win.

Since making his MotoGP debut in 2017, 119 grand prix events have passed without Johann Zarco – a rider brimming with promise when he stepped up as double Moto2 world champion – winning a grand prix. That changed on start 120 in brilliant fashion, as he preserved his rear tyre to come through to snatch the win from Pramac team-mate Jorge Martin on the last lap. It’s a victory that could well have a big bearing on the outcome of the title, but that is of little concern to Zarco.

After a wobbly start to the weekend, Francesco Bagnaia on the factory Ducati was able to extend his championship lead over Pramac by outsmarting his title rival. Martin’s soft tyre gamble raised eyebrows and it backfired spectacularly, as he went from leading almost every lap to finishing fifth as Bagnaia took second.

Completing the podium for the very first time was Gresini’s Fabio Di Giannantonio – a timely result for a rider looking to save his MotoGP career. Elsewhere, Yamaha’s misery continued and came with a disconcerting statement from Fabio Quartararo over its prospects. KTM edged closer to Ducati’s level, while Aprilia’s overseas woes returned.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Australian Grand Prix:

1. Zarco’s first win was a long time coming

It took 120 starts for Zarco to win his first race, but the soon-to-be former Pramac rider delivered in style Down Under

It took 120 starts for Zarco to win his first race, but the soon-to-be former Pramac rider delivered in style Down Under

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

When Johann Zarco led the early stages of the 2017 Qatar Grand Prix on his MotoGP debut, before unfortunately sliding off his Tech3-run Yamaha, little did anyone know it would take another 119 GP starts for him to become a race winner.

Zarco came close on several occasions at Tech3 in 2017 and 2018, but his ill-fated switch to KTM for 2019 stunted his progress. His career reprieve by Ducati for 2020 returned him to a perennial podium challenger, but that win still eluded him.

With an LCR Honda move upcoming for 2024, the prospect of that duck ending seemed remote. Though Zarco has never thought winning on a Honda was not possible, he did concede to doubts about achieving that first win have appeared.

“Just to ride the bike, you have to put in an incredible amount of energy,” he said. “But sometimes you say to yourself, ‘OK, maybe you just have to accept that it’s not going to happen’. But you also take on the mentality of a competitor by saying to yourself ‘in any case, do your job to the full and it’s so tight that at some point, if you concentrate in the present, maybe you can catch the thing at the right moment’.”

Zarco’s tyre-preserving riding style has often worked against him, he admitted, but at Phillip Island it delivered him success. As Martin’s soft tyre gamble backfired in the final laps, Zarco seized his chance with a brilliant scythe on the inside of Turn 4 on the last lap having charged into podium contention in the preceding tours.

His win backed his decision to switch to Honda in 2024 on a two-year deal instead of sticking with Ducati for a season before getting shifted to World Superbikes. Clearly, the 33-year-old still has a lot to offer.

2. Martin is still fastest title challenger, but critical errors remain

Martin led 26 of the 27 laps before dropping to fifth as his soft tyre gamble backfired

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Martin led 26 of the 27 laps before dropping to fifth as his soft tyre gamble backfired

Saturday’s rescheduled grand prix should have been Martin’s day. At one stage over three seconds clear of the field as he shot clear on his soft rubber – one of three riders to do so – it all crumbled to nothing.

Martin is still the fastest rider of the moment, his lap record-smashing pole lap proof of this. Title rival Bagnaia felt Martin was the only one who could have made the soft work, but most didn’t understand it.

From holding a comfortable lead, he ended up fifth and is now 27 points behind Bagnaia after another weekend Martin clearly had the measure of his Ducati rival. He later suggested he perhaps needs more help from Ducati to make decisions, before conceding: “I have learned that when you are fighting for a world championship, you have to fight with the same weapons as your rivals, especially if you are stronger than them.”

Given he has the exact same tools as Bagnaia, Martin really doesn’t need to be taking big risks when his speed has been stronger in recent rounds. But these are lessons that any first-time title fighter must learn. Unfortunately for him, that tends to happen at the absolute worst time.

3. Bagnaia’s intelligence shines through in latest title battle swing

Bagnaia is now 27 points clear in the championship

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bagnaia is now 27 points clear in the championship

Martin’s Indonesia crash presented itself as something of a gift for Bagnaia, and one he was already facing an uphill battle to capitalise on from Friday in Australia.

Once again dropping into Q1, Bagnaia was able to recover to qualify third – but was almost half a second shy of Martin’s pole lap. As Martin darted off into the lead of the grand prix, Bagnaia was seemingly struggling in fourth.

But the factory Ducati rider was simply biding his time. He knew the soft tyre would drop for Martin, and had confidence in what the medium option was capable of having spent most of Friday working on it.

Although it wasn’t enough to overhaul Zarco, Bagnaia tallied a champion’s result as he edges further away from Martin with just four rounds to go.

“Absolutely, but feet on the ground,” he said when asked if this was an important day in his title defence. “We know how things can change. I was 66 points gap after Barcelona [sprint] and we lost the leadership in a moment. So, it’s very easy to start having problems. It’s very important to do weekends like this one, like Mandalika, being fast when you are struggling and always trying to be at the top.”

4. Australia highlights how far Yamaha is from being competitive again

There was nothing positive to come from Yamaha's Australian GP

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

There was nothing positive to come from Yamaha’s Australian GP

Fabio Quartararo wasn’t hugely confident of a strong showing in Australia following his podium form at the Indonesian GP. But the misery Yamaha endured at Phillip Island moved to highlight just how much work is ahead of it to get back to the front.

Neither Yamaha was anywhere near escaping Q1, with Quartararo the best of the pair in 17th – albeit 0.765s off the pace – while Franco Morbidelli was down in 20th and 1.259s off the pace.

In the grand prix, Quartararo was 20.9s down on Zarco in 14th while Morbidelli was miles away in 17th, 37.663s behind the winner. In practice, Quartararo was around six tenths quicker than he was in 2022 when he ended Friday fourth – but in 2023 that was only good enough for 17th.

When asked if this winter would be enough for Yamaha to dig itself out of the whole it has found itself in, he replied: “We need 15 winters to really be like them [Ducati].

“But, like I said, to be like them for me is not the goal. The goal is to get closer, because every year we make one step maybe in one area and we lose two steps in another one. The chassis that we had in the past was magical, you could do whatever you wanted on the bike. The bike was slow, but the bike was turning like hell.

“Now the bike is slow but it’s not turning. Of course it’s faster on the engine, but also [rival manufacturers] improved the engine, so the difference is the same. But they also improved so much also the chassis and aero. So, for me, to reduce the gap, because every year it’s bigger and bigger, but we have to reduce the gap for the others.

“This is the main goal. Of course, I want to always fight for the championship, but to be realistic next year we will not fight for the championship. But to have more opportunities to fight for the podium, sometimes for the victory, this is my personal goal and I hope Yamaha can be realistic in this way.”

5. Organisers deserve credit for preserving grand prix

Bad weather forced a grand prix to be run on a Saturday for the first time since the 2015 Dutch TT

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bad weather forced a grand prix to be run on a Saturday for the first time since the 2015 Dutch TT

Weather disruption at the Australian Grand Prix is nothing unusual, and this year extreme winds prompted a change to the schedule to bring the grand prix forward to Saturday – the first time this has happened since the 2015 Dutch GP, when the Assen weekend ran traditionally from Thursday to Saturday.

Given how much of this year’s marketing has been around how much added value there is on a Saturday because of the sprints, Dorna Sports and the Australian GP organisers deserve a lot of credit for ensuring the main race remained the focus.

Its efforts to make sure fans were properly accommodated were rewarded with another Phillip Island classic. The loss of the sprint is a shame for the fans, but it was ultimately the right decision after the chaos of the Moto2 race, in which 10 riders crashed in nine laps.

It has raised the question again as to why MotoGP persists with its late-season spring slot for the Phillip Island contest. Bagnaia says the riders have been asking for this to be changed.

It won’t for 2024 with its 20 October slot locked in. And with the Australian Grand Prix Corporation tied to a long-term Formula 1 contract to stage the Albert Park event in March/April until 2035 and it not keen to stage two major races so close to each other, nothing is likely to change for a while.

6. DiGia’s form boost arrives at crucial time to save his career

Di Giannantonio's first podium comes as he sits without a ride for 2024

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Di Giannantonio’s first podium comes as he sits without a ride for 2024

Following on from a career-best fourth in the Indonesian GP on the week he knew for certain he would no longer be a Gresini MotoGP rider in 2024, Fabio Di Giannantonio came to play in Australia. Strong throughout the weekend, Di Giannantonio came through for a first grand prix podium in third.

This was no fluke result, no product of circumstance. Moving into the podium places early on in the 27-lap contest, Di Giannantonio’s pace was strong through to the finish to capture third.

He would later compare his situation to that of Bagnaia’s. The reigning champion took a few years to get going in MotoGP, and he added that young guns like second-year rider Di Giannantonio deserve more time to flourish.

Di Giannantonio came into the Australia weekend adamant that his first goal was to remain in MotoGP. While the vacant factory Honda seat is unlikely, should Miguel Oliveira be poached by HRC, RNF and Aprilia could do a lot worse than give Di Giannantonio a home for his third campaign in the premier class.

7. Aprilia frustrations continue in Australia

Aprilia battled traction issues at Phillip Island

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Aprilia battled traction issues at Phillip Island

The Aprilia flyaway curse was alive and well in Australia, as a strong showing on Friday gave way to not a lot for the Noale factory. Maverick Vinales battled traction woes down in 11th in the grand prix, while Aleix Espargaro fell from fourth on the grid to eighth in Saturday’s race with the same lack of grip on the medium rear tyre.

And while Vinales was second in Indonesia, that result is backed by eighth in India, 19th after a crash in Japan and 11th in Australia. For Espargaro, his record so far overseas in 2023 is eighth in Australia, 10th in Indonesia, fifth in the wet Japanese GP and no points in India due to mechanical issues.

Espargaro didn’t mince his words when assessing his grand prix: “It was embarrassing today. We were not competitive.

“We had a lot of [wheel]spin. I never expected to arrive 10 seconds of the victory or the podium. The spin level we had this weekend was insane.

“I tried to manage the tyre. At the beginning I could go faster, sincerely, but I knew that I couldn’t make it to the finish line. So, I decided to start tyre saving, but even [with that] the last two laps [the drop] was dramatic.”

Aprilia has a strong package with the RS-GP, of that there is no doubt. However, it is yet to find true consistency with it.

8. Binder feels KTM is “super close” to Ducati now

KTM's recent steps forward have Binder feeling like it is now

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

KTM’s recent steps forward have Binder feeling like it is now “super close” to Ducati now

The steps KTM have made in recent weeks since the introduction of its carbon fibre chassis were very evident at Phillip Island.

Its long, flowing corners emphasise the need for good rear grip and traction – something the RC16 has traditionally struggled with. Brad Binder was about a second quicker in qualifying this year compared to 2022, putting his RC16 second on the grid whereas last season he was sixth.

He faded to 10th in that race, while he was a factor in the podium battle up to the finish last Saturday, albeit just missing out in fourth. Both factory KTMs also saw out Friday fastest of all, which has Binder convinced KTM is almost there relative to the Ducatis now.

“I think we’re not far off, we’re super close,” Binder said. “For me, clearly at the end they had a little bit more grip than we had, even though I nursed my tyre the whole way. They had a tiny bit extra.

“But anyway, I think it’s a little bit expected because we’re always a bit harder on our tyres than some of our competitors. I know last year I had no tyre left with five laps to go and I made it to the end quite competitive.”

9. Marquez remains cautious of hyping up his Ducati switch

Marquez still has

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Marquez still has “doubts” about his Ducati switch

After the misery of his double DNFs in Indonesia, Marc Marquez is very much reverting to sitting within the limits of the Honda as the season nears its end. That led to a fairly sad declaration that he doesn’t consider a farewell victory with Honda to be realistic in the final rounds.

In Australia, he had nothing to lose and opted for the soft rear tyre as Martin and Pol Espargaro did. It kept him in the mid-pack fight in the first half of the race, but the rubber faded and he wound up in 15th.

As three Ducatis – one of which the bike he will ride next year and one of them from the team he is switching to – locked out the podium, there must be an internal feeling of relief within the eight-time world champion.

However, publicly at least, he is remaining cautious. He knows that his move to Ducati is a big one in terms of just rediscovering his form.

“Still right now I have doubts, and I will have doubts until I try the bike,” he said. “But it’s normal, because it’s a big decision. Of course, when you make a big decision, you are convinced, but you have question marks and doubts in your head. You are thinking maybe, 11 years riding one type of bike, I need to adjust many things about my riding style to adapt to the bike and all these things and it’s not easy.

“They [the other Ducati riders] are riding fast, Martin is super-fast, Bagnaia is super-fast… but right now I’m fully concentrated on my bike. I keep the intensity, because this is the way. Some people say to me I’m cruising, but I don’t want to cruise. I won’t push if I don’t feel [I can] but if I feel [I can] I need to push, because like this I keep that intensity, so that when I ride the other bike I will have [it].

“If I relax for four races and jump on another bike, maybe it’s better but maybe your body is not ready. I need to keep the spirit and I say this to the Japanese. I keep pushing and make my best effort. In qualifying, if I need a slipstream, I will find a slipstream. If in the race I need to take a risk and take the soft option, I will do it because it’s my mentality. I cannot approach the races with any other mentality.”

10. A missed 2023 first continues to highlight heaviness of schedule

Alex Rins pulled out of the Australian GP after Friday practice

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Alex Rins pulled out of the Australian GP after Friday practice

For a brief moment in Australia, it looked like we would get a first for the 2023 season – the entire grid starting a race. With all of the various injury problems stemming back to Pol Espargaro’s awful accident in FP2 in Portugal, the full 2023 grid has only ever been assembled for four practices this year.

Having raced last week in Indonesia, LCR Honda’s Alex Rins suffered with too much pain in his right leg during Friday practice in Australia and withdrew from the remainder of the weekend.

That meant after 16 round the full grid has not raced together. Rins will attempt to race next week in Thailand, but the brutality of this year’s schedule remains evident.

At this rate, don’t be surprised if Valencia comes around and the full 2023 grid never races together.

The full field in 2023 has still yet to race each other

The full field in 2023 has still yet to race each other

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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