There it is folks; the close to pre-season testing and now just 2 weeks until the 2023 campaign gets underway. So, as we approach lights out in Portimão, what has winter testing told us in terms of progress amongst the manufacturers and riders?

Ducati: It will come as no great surprise to any of us that Ducati hit the 2023 ground running. To recap, Bagnia and Bastianini start the season with full 2023 spec bikes, whereas the 3 satellite teams embark on the season with 2022 title winning spec machinery. No doubt Johann Zarco will resume his test role running hybrid 22-23 bikes but the interesting question here will be how far have Ducati pushed the envelope with development parts for the works bikes. Early indications suggest not too far, with Bagnia consistently at the head of the timing sheets. Bastianini may find life in the works team a slight shock initially but few doubt that he will be ruffling feathers more or less straight away.

What Sepang and now Portimão have shown us is that, not only is the 2022 Ducati a fully rounded package, but the satellite riders and teams are all heading into the first races with top 6 finishes and possibly even podiums in mind. Unlike previous seasons, the satellite teams all have equal and top level machinery at their disposal so surprises cant be ruled out. Jorge Martin will obviously be looking to prove a point, having been passed over by the works squad, but both Mooney VR46 riders are in contention, Alex Marquez is looking super-fast (and super happy) at Gresini and Fabio Di Giannatonio has posted times that make him a contender. Although Luca Marini has been the king of testing so far, any of the Ducati riders could conceivably podium in the first few rounds. Its a testament to the commitment and longsightedness of Ducati that they enter this season even stronger than last, a fact that will be a big worry for most of the other teams in pitlane.

Aprilia: The Noale factory came tantalising close to the championship last year, let down by a combination of mistakes, unreliability and perhaps a degree of fatigue and unfamiliarity at being in the running for the title. This year could prove to be different for 2 crucial reasons. Firstly, the factory team will have learnt a great deal personally and operationally from last year and experience counts for a huge amount. Secondly, although tiny in comparison to the other teams, Aprilia have taken the plunge with the RNF squad and now have a satellite operation that will be vital in collecting data and in preparing its two riders should either or both of the works riders fall short, get injured or call it a day. Aleix Espargaro is, by his own admission, entering the twilight of his MotoGP career and whilst the same cant be said of Maverick Vinales, there is no doubt that 2023 is a make or break year for the Spaniard. Both Aprilia and RNF were incredibly savvy in securing the services of Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandes, both of whom will be capable of podiums and potentially wins if the stars align. The RSGP may not be the best all round package on the grid, but its close enough now that should Ducati underperform, encounter bad luck or just get plain confused with so many riders clamouring for attention, the Aprilia’s will be there to take advantage.

Yamaha: As in 2022, it’s a tale of 2 garages in the Yamaha camp, with Quartararo conjuring performance from the M1 and Morbidelli still all at sea. The Portimão test has probably put to bed any fears that existed over the new Yamaha power plant but questions remain as to whether or not Quartararo, working alone, can overcome the combined might of the European factories. The key for Fabio will be qualifying and, in this regard, the new engine represents a glimmer of hope that he can return to the front row and early race escape acts that allow him to mask the inherent weakness of the overall Yamaha package when caught up in the pack. On his day, Quartararo will be unbeatable, but Yamaha badly need Morbidelli to step up and, more than that, they are going to need more factory spec M1’s on the grid to wade into the fight.

Honda: Like Yamaha, HRC may be leaving Portimão with a bit more of a spring in their step than Valencia or Sepang suggested. The RCV remains stubbornly behind its Italian rivals in many areas but this year Honda have 3 fit and hungry riders. The big question centres on Marc Marquez and what he can do to regain the kind of form and fitness that allowed him to dominate the RCV. He will head into certain rounds (COTA, Sachsenring) as favourite to win, in spite of the bike, and his all out attack style will be magical or disastrous in the sprint race format. For Honda, looking at the longer term, much depends on how quickly and how well Mir and Rins adapt to the bike. At the close of testing in Portimão, Mir, Marquez and Rins held 13th to 15th positions, separated by no more than a few hundredths. Although this suggests the bike is far from where it needs to be, Honda will take comfort from the fact that their stars are extracting the maximum from the package they have. If Honda can develop the bike through the season, they have the riders to maximise the potential, with Nakagami in the background plying his part but essentially keeping the seat warm for Ogura.

KTM: Until midway through Sunday things looked bleak for the Austrian marque. In fairness to KTM, they are still wading through a mass of development parts and now only have Brad Binder as a rider with intimate knowledge of this years bike versus last years. Binder ultimately finished the Portimão test in 9th position but KTM clearly have a lot of work ahead of them. Very simply, if the bike is there or thereabouts Binder will make it work. If KTM can consistently extract 1 lap speed from the bike then Binder become a title contender. Whether Jack Miller, Pol Espargaro or Augusto Fernandez can do the same seems unlikely on the strength of pre-season testing but in a ham fisted kind of way, KTM can take comfort from the fact that waiting in the wings is a deluge of young talent that may even have Ducati looking over their shoulders.

Dark Horse & Surprise: My dark horse choice for the season is Miguel Oliveira. Can he win a race or two; yes, especially if wet weather intervenes. Can he win the championship; in principle yes because he is likely to accumulate a lot of points on a bike as good as the Aprilia. The bigger question is probably whether a satellite rider would be allowed to win the title if one of the works riders is in contention and perhaps more pertinently with RNF, how close to the works team they can stay as the year progresses in terms of parts and support. My bet is that the canny Oliveira is simply looking to make it impossible for the works team to pass him over for a spot in 2024.

Who will be the surprise this season? There are many contenders but I’m going to opt for Alex Rins on the LCR Honda. Let’s be honest, he would be a title contender on a Suzuki this year had the Hamamatsu factory not made the unfathomable decision to pull out of MotoGP. The RCV is a notoriously difficult bike on the front end and Rins at times made a habit of the throwing the much more forgiving Suzuki up the road with front end crashes. On this basis, the move to the Honda is a concern but word is that Rins “likes” the bike and, if testing is anything to go by, in the early stages of 2023 he might be the leading Honda. Like Oliveira over at RNF, Rins is probably playing the long game and looking to reunite with his old teammate if things don’t work out as planned for Marc Marquez.



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