The final MotoGP round of the 2022 season is being billed by series promoter as "The Decider". The reason for the billing is simple: Pecco Bagnaia arrives at Valencia with a very comfortable lead over Fabio Quartararo, but the title is still up for grabs.
In theory, at least. Bagnaia leads Quartararo by 23 points, and has 7 wins to Quartararo's 3. In effect, this means that Bagnaia needs to finish 14th or better to be certain of the title. But even more reassuring for the Ducati Lenovo rider, Quartararo has to win the race to even have a chance of successfully defending his 2021 title.
What are the chances of both of those events happening? Let's examine each event separately. First, the chance of Pecco Bagnaia finishing 15th or worse at Valencia. His first couple of seasons in MotoGP did not go particularly well for the Italian. Ruled out of the race in 2019 after knocking himself out and fracturing a wrist in 2019, crashing in the first Valencia race in 2020, then ending in 11th in the second race there a week later.
That all turned around in 2021, however. At the last race of last season, Bagnaia qualified in second and went on to win the race, ahead of two other Ducatis carrying Jorge Martin and Jack Miller. With that victory, he consolidated his second position in the championship, and confirmed his role as as one of the title favorites for 2022.
Bagnaia's recent form suggests that Valencia 2022 will be more like 2021 than 2020 or 2019. Since the crash at the Sachsenring, he has turned his season around. The crash in Germany was his fourth of the season (though the Turn 1 incident in Barcelona was the fault of Takaaki Nakagami), and caused him to reflect deeply on what he was doing wrong.
Since then, Bagnaia's results have been outstanding. Five wins, a second, and two third places from nine races, scoring 177 points from a maximum of 225. He has slipped up only once, crashing out of ninth place behind Fabio Quartararo at Motegi, a recurrence of the same mistake he had been making earlier in the year.
Making a similar mistake is likely the only chance of Bagnaia finishing outside the top 14, or even the podium. But even the chance of that is relatively slim. Bagnaia crashed at Motegi when he was still trailing Quartararo by 10 points in the championship, and after a miserable weekend at Motegi. He enters Valencia with a comfortable lead, and very little pressure to do anything other than finish the race.
Bagnaia's finishing position is arguably the least important element in the championship equation, however. Where Pecco Bagnaia finishes matters only if Fabio Quartararo can win the race in Valencia, and here is where things get difficult.
The Frenchman's record at Valencia is mixed. He had an outstanding race in 2019, starting from pole and coming up just short of victory behind Marc Marquez, in the strongest season of Marquez' career. His races in 2020 were troubled, crashing out of both Valencia races, rejoining the first race again to cross the line in fourteenth. And last year, he rose from eighth on the grid to finish fifth, just behind Joan Mir on the Suzuki, and 5 seconds behind the Ducati 1-2-3 led by Bagnaia.
There are a lot of places where the Yamaha can make up ground at Valencia, with a lot of long corners and changes of direction. But the acceleration out of the slow final corner and onto the long front straight punishes the Yamaha severely. Especially this Yamaha, the woefully underpowered 2022 M1 with its engine basically unchanged since 2020.
Looking at recent form isn't good for Quartararo either. The Frenchman's season is the mirror image of Pecco Bagnaia's. He started very strong, but the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring proved to be a crossover point.
That was the last race Quartararo won, and since then, he has crashed out three times (twice on his own and once as a result of running into the back of Marc Marquez), finished out of the points in Thailand when his team got the front tire pressure wrong, and only been on the podium twice. He has been outscored by Bagnaia by 114 points in nine races.
Quartararo's biggest problem, though, is the level of competition he will face at Valencia, and the wall of bikes he will have to pass to get anywhere near the podium, let alone victory. The other bikes and riders, especially the Ducatis, have all caught up to Quartararo on the Yamaha, and all too often surpassed him.
To give you a sense of the scale of the challenge Quartararo faces, see the last eight races. Pecco Bagnaia has finished ahead of the Frenchman on seven of eight occasions, Enea Bastianini has finished ahead on six occasions, and Jorge Martin has beaten Quartararo five out of eight times.
In other words, there are three riders out of the current top ten in the championship who have had a better than 50% chance of beating Quartararo to the line in the eight races in the second half of the season.
That is not all. There are also four riders in the top ten who have finished ahead of him in half of the races since the summer break. Jack Miller, Brad Binder, Miguel Oliveira, and Alex Rins have had a 50% chance of beating Quartararo, and a 50% chance of finishing behind him.
The only two riders in the top ten he has been able to consistently beat on the race track. Aleix Espargaro and Johann Zarco have only managed to finish ahead of Quartararo in the races where Quartararo either crashed out, or in Thailand. But Espargaro has a podium at Aragon, and Zarco had a shot at a podium in Thailand, but decided to play it safe behind Pecco Bagnaia.
As if that wasn't a large enough challenge for Quartararo to face, Marc Marquez is once again coming into his own, as he recovers from the fourth and, for the moment, final surgery on his right arm. Marquez finished second at Phillip Island, and came very close to winning the race the, behind Alex Rins.
Valencia is a left-hand track, and a place where Marquez has a strong record. He has two wins, two seconds, and two thirds out of seven races in MotoGP there, having crashed out only once, in the absolute downpour that forced the organizers to stop and restart the race in 2018. Though the 2022 Honda RC213V is still very much a work in progress and is struggling with rear grip and braking, Marquez is going to be a formidable obstacle at the track.
To return to the point at which we started, yes, Valencia is formally "The Decider". Pecco Bagnaia does not yet have the title in the bag, and Fabio Quartararo still has a chance. But viewed objectively, the odds are stacked against Quartararo, not only does he have to win the race, but Bagnaia has to fail.
Winning is going to be almost impossible for Fabio Quartararo. Though he can be fast at the track, he is hamstrung by the Yamaha M1 at this point in the season. And he faces a veritable horde of challengers, six, seven, eight riders who are easily capable of finishing ahead of him at Valencia.
That doesn't meant that Quartararo will give up, of course. The chance is not zero, and riders never give up until the final checkered flag has fallen, and victory has become impossible. As long as there's a chance, you keep going.
But this is not 2006, the comparison many are trying to draw. Then, Valentino Rossi came to Valencia leading Nicky Hayden by 8 points, after trailing the American throughout the season. At a track which was never Rossi's favorite, a poor start and then a stupid crash cost Rossi the championship, Hayden going on to win the title by 5 points.
This is more like 2017. Then Andrea Dovizioso arrived at Valencia trailing Marc Marquez by 21 points. It was a track where Marquez started favorite, and where the Ducati GP17 – much improved on previous versions, but a much less agile bike than the current GP22 – was always going to struggle. Though Marquez nearly threw away the championship, saving a massive front-end slide into Turn 1 with seven laps to go, Dovizioso was never in a position to challenge for the win, crashing out directly after his teammate Jorge Lorenzo had done the same.
The championship isn't over until the last checkered flag drops. Fabio Quartararo will head to Valencia determined to do everything in his power to keep the title he won last year. But it isn't in his hands, alone, and he will need a miracle if everything is to fall into place for him to win it. And at this level of motorcycle racing, miracles are vanishingly rare.
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