The 2022 MotoGP season is now getting a whiff of the inevitable, with world champion Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha) currently a slender leader in the 20-round title race, 8pts in front of the extremely consistent Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing), followed by Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Ducati).
However, here’s where it really gets spicy. It’s no surprise that Quartararo – who’s just signed a contract extension that will tie him to Yamaha until the end of 2024 – and Espargaro are the pacesetters after logging four and five podiums respectively in the opening eight rounds, but it’s the man lurking in fourth position who has the potential to cut a swathe through the balance of the season – Francesco Bagnaia, the teammate of Aussie Jack Miller in the factory Ducati Lenovo squad.
The gifted Italian did the business in last Sunday’s round at Mugello, blending searing speed with resilience when Quartararo was threatening to challenge in the final stages. Bagnaia still didn’t have the fastest Ducati, though, with that honour going to Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac) who set an all-time fastest MotoGP speed of 363.6km/h.
Bagnaia undoubtedly has the strongest claims on being the first Ducati winner at Catalunya since 2018, with Miller and Bastianini also in the mix alongside Martin and Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Ducati).
“Football pundits often say that it takes eight or nine rounds of a season for clear ladder patterns to emerge, which is often the time when the cream starts to rise to the top.”
The recently engaged Miller, who’s eighth in the championship, was on fire at Catalunya in 2021, qualifying in second and then finishing third in the race behind Portugal’s Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Racing) and Zarco.
After a disappointing Mugello when he finished well back in 15th place – the rot setting in early when he ran onto the grass and fell back to last place – Miller is delighted to be returning to a venue he has a strong affinity with.
“I’m happy to be back on track this weekend to put last Sunday’s result at Mugello behind me,” said Miller.
“The Catalan GP will be like a home race for me as I live in Andorra, and I often come to Montmelò to train with my Ducati Panigale V4S.
“I know the track very well, and I like it. Also, I finished on the podium last year, so I hope I can do the same again this year.”
Miller’s also dealing with a chorus of rumours that he could be making a switch to the factory KTM team in 2023 – just one of many potential changes to a MotoGP grid that’s certainly going to look radically different once the musical chairs stops.
Someone who won’t be competing at Catalunya – 25km from Barcelona – is Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda), who’s now at the famed Mayo Clinic in America about to undergo a fourth bout of surgery on the troublesome right humerus he first broke in early 2020.
It’s a line-in-the-sand moment for the embattled six-time MotoGP world champion, who’s only been pushing hard at strategic markers in a MotoGP weekend: the final flurry in FP3, qualifying and then gritting his teeth in the races to just fall across the finish line. Often still inside the top 10, mind you, such is the natural ability of the 29-year-old from Cervera.
But the box office flair has evaporated, so Marquez is now hoping to reset and get his humerus right in one last attempt to have a chance of returning to his steamrolling best.
It’s unclear whether he’ll return in 2022, with Honda test rider Stefan Bradl to deputise for Marquez at Catalunya and beyond.
For Suzuki Ecstar pair Alex Rins and Joan Mir, Catalunya is vital to get their campaigns back on track after consecutive crashes for both riders – Rins blaming Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) for his Mugello DNF after both riders came together.
To compound matters, Rins and Mir are also trying to find new employers with Suzuki set to pull the pin on MotoGP racing at the end of 2022.
Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Ducati) and Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing Ducati) were the most impressive rookies at Mugello – the former an excellent fifth – while Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Ducati) was sixth as he continues to find consistent speed.
Meanwhile, Oliveira would like nothing more than to come out swinging and replicate his victory from 2021, especially with contract extension negotiations with KTM now at a delicate juncture.
Oliveira’s teammate Brad Binder is also a Sunday specialist, so it will be fascinating to see what the Austrian brand can produce on June 5.
Aussie Remy Gardner (Tech 3 KTM Racing), who won at Catalunya in 2021 in the Moto2 class, is hoping to take another decisive step in his MotoGP initiation in front of his family and friends.
“I am looking forward to heading to Barcelona this week because it is my second home. My family and friends will be there to watch me for the first time in MotoGP,” said Gardner.
“There were some positives from Mugello which I can build on, and hopefully we continue the work and have a good race. We are staying for an extra day of testing on Monday as well, so it will be important to stay focused whilst enjoying the atmosphere of the home race.”
Darwin’s Joel Kelso (CIP Green Power) got his maiden Moto3 season back on track at Mugello after a period of wretched fortunes. He’s now 18th in the standings, but with the possibility of sling-shotting his way through the pack with a great result at Catalunya.
Catalunya’s knack for producing premium racing is just about unrivalled in the MotoGP paddock – probably only Phillip Island has consistently produced a better spectacle – so the anticipation is palpable.
Bagnaia and Quartararo are the favourites, but can Aussie Jack upset the apple cart?
2022 MotoGP standings (after eight of 20 rounds):
1. Fabio Quartararo – Yamaha – 122pts
2. Aleix Espargaro – Aprilia – 114pts
3. Enea Bastianini – Ducati – 94pts
4. Francesco Bagnaia – Ducati – 81pts
5. Johann Zarco – Ducati – 75pts
6. Alex Rins – Suzuki – 69pts
7. Brad Binder – KTM – 65pts
8. Jack Miller – Ducati – 63pts
9. Marc Marquez – Honda – 60pts
10. Joan Mir – Suzuki – 56pts
23. Remy Gardner – KTM – 3pts
Mark ‘Mav’ Fattore has been hanging around the motorcycle scene longer than he can remember, but still struggles to contain his two-wheel exuberance. He also eats like a bull-at-a-gate, which is why he once swallowed the prong off a plastic fork stuffing down Chinese takeaway during a frenetic magazine deadline. The digital space is a safer haven, and he’ll turn his writing hand to anything.