Great occasions deserve great celebrations. Running a series like grand prix motorcycle racing, Dorna has a lot, but not everything in their control. What they did have in their control was the timing of the 1000th grand prix, and the choice of which circuit it would be held at. A massive number like 1000 needs a grand stage, so holding it at Le Mans, with its packed grandstands, seems like a good idea. If the Finnish Grand Prix at the KymiRing hadn't been canceled, then it would have been at Jerez. That would have worked too.
The stage was perfect. The 2023 French Grand Prix at Le Mans saw the largest ever attendance of the MotoGP era: a total of 278,805 spectators counted over four days. And on Sunday, the biggest ever crowd for a MotoGP event at Le Mans: 116,692 spectators packed the grandstands, the grounds, and every spare scrap of space.
Those are spectacular numbers. 116,000 is almost certain to be the biggest crowd of 2023, and is bigger than any crowd going back a decade or more. Which brings me to a couple of gripes with attendance figures. Firstly, the crowd numbers at Le Mans are almost certainly legitimate: that looked like 116,000 people packed the grounds surrounding four kilometers of asphalt.
Lies, damned lies, and attendance figures
But MotoGP journalists are always wary of attendance figures, after the official attendance figures at Jerez dropped from 122,000 in 2015 to 63,000 in 2016, despite the crowds looking pretty much identical to people who have attended a lot of races there. Whatever the real number of fans were at Jerez – and 2023 was the busiest it has been in years, despite official figures of 78,000 – it is impossible to see how the crowd could have halved between 2015 and 2016.
Secondly, and this is more of a pet peeve than anything else, that number of 278,805 spectators over four days? There's a lot of double counting going on there. There is certainly a nonzero number of fans who will turn up on a Friday or a Saturday, then head home to watch the Sunday race on TV. I have done that myself. But the overwhelming majority of the 58,894 who attended on Friday were among the 88,319 who were at the track on Saturday. And also among the 116,692 where packed the circuit on Sunday.
Don't get me wrong, those are genuinely astonishing numbers. The Saturday crowd at Le Mans was bigger than the Sunday attendance at all but five races in 2022 (and one of those, Sepang, was only larger by 300 fans). But 280,000 individuals did not attend the Le Mans circuit. Perhaps as many as 120,000 did (again, a genuinely breathtaking number of paying fans), but the multi-day attendance figures flatter to deceive. This practice is not unique to MotoGP – it is pretty much standard industry practice for multi-day events – but to someone as badly afflicted by the pedantry gene as I am, it is deeply irritating.
Putting that aside, Le Mans is the most popular MotoGP round by a comfortable margin. What is the secret to its success? The answer is glaringly obvious when you think about it. Firstly, ticket prices are affordable: €98 got you three-day general admission. The same ticket at the Sachsenring will set you back €120, at Assen €122 (or €99 if you buy directly from the circuit), €160 at Mugello, or £100 (roughly €115) for Silverstone.
Secondly, that €98 general admission ticket for Le Mans is incredible value for money. The entertainment at Le Mans is pretty much nonstop, to the point where the racing almost becomes a sideshow. There are fairground rides, bands, fan track laps, stunt shows, and a million other things to do. While Neil Morrison and Adam Wheeler were recording the Paddock Pass Podcast notes show, Neil paused briefly to announce that a tightrope walker had suddenly appeared outside the media center window on a tightrope strung between the two grandstands across the main straight. The fans were treated to another tightrope show just before the start of the Sunday race. One year, my work of an evening was disturbed by the sound of a rocket-powered drag car doing runs up the main straight.
It helps, of course, that France has two riders on the MotoGP grid, one of whom is a MotoGP champion, the other a former Moto2 champion. But even without Fabio Quartararo and Johann Zarco, Le Mans was drawing crowds of over 90,000. Le Mans serves as a template for Assen, for example, where the circuit is working with local and regional authorities to expand the already impressive list of activities surrounding the Dutch TT MotoGP race. No wonder, then, that Assen, like Le Mans draws a crowd of over 100,000 each year.
That was the stage upon which Dorna chose to set its 1000th grand prix. And MotoGP delivered: in an exhilarating race of attrition, there was action and excitement all the way to the end. The racing is the one thing that Dorna does not control directly, though the changes to the rules over the past 15 years have gradually leveled the performance of the bikes and raised the quality of the riders. That paid off in spades at Le Mans.
So much happened that I am going to have to spread this out over a number of days. With a four-week gap between Le Mans and Mugello, there is time to consider things more carefully, and in more depth. So I will get to topics such as Bagnaia vs Viñales, the Alex Marquez penalty (no, not for that crash, for the first-lap incident), how a switch of medical service providers affected the race, and much more besides later in the week.
But first, to the winner. Marco Bezzecchi took his second grand prix victory of 2023, and second win of his MotoGP career on Sunday at Le Mans. In doing so, he closed the gap to championship leader Pecco Bagnaia by just a single point, now with 93 points to Bagnaia's 94. They both have two Sunday victories, Bagnaia at Portimão and Jerez, Bezzecchi in Argentina and Le Mans, the difference being that Bagnaia has two wins in the Saturday sprint races.
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that Bagnaia has three zero scores – two DNFs in Austin and Le Mans, and a 16th place at Termas de Rio Hondo after crashing out of the race – to Bezzecchi's two DNFs.
Bezzecchi's victory at Le Mans was impressive. His start was adequate, good enough to put him in with the leading group of six or seven riders in the opening laps. Bezzecchi profited from the attrition ahead of him, the collision between Pecco Bagnaia and Maverick Viñales moving him up to fourth. Teammate Luca Marini lost the front on the exit of the chicane, allowing him through and able to avoid the horrific crash between Marini and Alex Marquez, from which both luckily emerged almost unscathed.
With Marc Marquez doing everything he could to attack Jack Miller, Bezzecchi closed the leading pair down, while Jorge Martin caught up from behind, passing Bezzecchi and Marquez to get onto the tail of Miller. Bezzecchi pushed Marquez wide at Garage Vert after missing a braking point, and was forced to give the position back by the FIM Stewards – for once, a good decision which seemed fair to both onlookers and those involved.
Getting it right
"First of all, I agree with the penalty," Bezzecchi told the press conference after the race. "I expected that because honestly I didn’t want to pass, but I made a mistake in braking. I braked just three meters later, and once I saw that I was not going to stop, I had to go to the inside to not hit Marc in his back. So, I pushed him wide and I also went outside the curb. I expected the penalty and I was already with my mind saying for sure in one or two laps I have to drop the position."
It didn't make much difference. Bezzecchi was up to speed and on a charge. He was past Jorge Martin and into second at the Dunlop Chicane, then received the message to drop a position. He let Martin through between Chemin aux Boeufs and 'S' Bleus, but the front four were by now very close. Bezzecchi was harrying Martin again by the time they hit the Dunlop Chicane, enough for Martin to run a fraction wide and allow Bezzecchi through. He made short work of Jack Miller at the Dunlop Chicane on the next lap, and was away to the races.
Bezzecchi had a gap of over a second within two laps, and from there, there was no one who could follow his pace. By the end, the Mooney VR46 rider had a gap of over four seconds. It was an incredibly comfortable win.
The key for Bezzecchi had been sticking close to the front group from the start. He knew he had the pace, but he couldn't afford to let anyone get away. "Honestly this morning I didn’t expect to have this kind of race," the Italian told the press conference, "but already yesterday I felt very good on the bike. I knew that with a good start I could make something more. Obviously I didn’t expect a win, but anyway a good race."
Bezzecchi's biggest concern was that he didn't want to get stuck behind other bikes for too long. "Today when I started, I saw that I was faster than the guys in front of me. I was a bit afraid for the front tire temperature, because with the soft, I was a bit on the limit for my riding style. But I was able to overtake them." That had been the key to victory, he explained. "Once I got in the lead, I was able to put a good pace. I was feeling very well with my bike and I was able to escape lap by lap always a bit more. Very, very happy for this. Also, with a lot of crowd and in the dry finally, it was okay."
That last comment, taking a win in the dry, was important. His previous victory had come in the wet at Argentina, which riders still take as extenuating circumstances. A win in the dry means you were just plain better than everyone else. And on Sunday, that was definitely true of Bezzecchi.
Does this mean that Marco Bezzecchi is now a title contender? "It’s good to be close to Pecco for the moment, but honestly I’m still not thinking about the championship," Bezzecchi said. "First of all, because we saw that having the sprint and the big GP in the same weekend it’s very easy to lose everything very quick. So, I just want to continue like this, thinking about weekend by weekend, race by race, enjoy with the bike and with my guys that are fantastic."
Bezzecchi has a point. The sprint race has complicated the championship picture, but even without that, the championship picture looks a lot like last year. Pecco Bagnaia wrapped up the 2022 title with a total of just 265 points. Prior to the pandemic, titles were won with 300 points or more. But more equal machinery and a wider spread of talent have made for much lower point scores.
Pecco Bagnaia leads the championship with 94 points. That looks respectable until you glance at the Moto2 championship, where Tony Arbolino leads with 99 points after taking an impressive win ahead of Filip Salac and Alonso Lopez.
The unspoken difference here is that Moto2 doesn't have a sprint race. Arbolino's haul of 99 points is out of a maximum of 125. Bagnaia's 94 points are out of a maximum of 185, five weekends where there is a maximum of 37 points on offer – 12 on Saturday, 25 on Sunday. Arbolino has almost 80% of the maximum points. Bagnaia (and Bezzecchi) have just over 50% of the available points.
Lowballing the title
Comparing this championship to previous years will get you a good sense of how low the average points tally is. After the first five races of 2015, Valentino Rossi had 102 points out of a maximum of 125. In 2016, Jorge Lorenzo had 90 out of 125, in 2018 and 2019, Marc Marquez had 95 out of 125. In 2017 Maverick Viñales had 85 out of 125, In 2021 Fabio Quartararo had 80 out of 125. Quartararo's 2021 score was still 64% of the available points.
The nearest equivalent is the 2022 championship. Fabio Quartararo led the title chase with 69 points out of a maximum of 125 last year after five races. That is still a points haul of 55%, 5% more than Bagnaia's performance in 2023.
To put it another way, there are still a numerically pleasing 555 points still on the table, if no more races are canceled (and the news out of India is that the race at the Buddh International Circuit will go ahead as planned). If Bagnaia were to carry on at this rate, scoring between 50-51% of the points on offer each weekend, then he would nab another 283 points, giving him a grand total of 377 points at the end of the year.
That is 43 points less than Marc Marquez racked up on his way to his sixth MotoGP title in 2019. And Marquez did that in a season which had 19, rather than 20 rounds, and when there were only 25 points on offer at each weekend.
Pick a rider
What conclusions are we to draw from this? That the championship is still completely wide open. With so many points on offer, so many riders capable of getting on the podium, and such a tight field, it is very hard to make a prediction.
After the fifth race of 2022, the eventual champion was in tenth place, Pecco Bagnaia 38 points behind Fabio Quartararo. In 2023, there are 12 riders within a 31% points margin of Bagnaia, as Bagnaia was to Quartararo last year. Anyone making any predictions about the outcome of this championship is either very brave, very foolish, or both.
"It's a knife edge, this championship," Jack Miller explained after the race on Sunday. "Everybody is so good, all the bikes are so competitive, if the rider is not feeling 98%, then it's a s*** day. Really, if feels like that. I can't explain it. The championship's in great form, as you've seen there's some great racing. OK, there's a lot more contacts, and there's this and that. But it's all a part of it. It's so high level. Everybody's under so much pressure. So much to take and lose. It's nice to be a part of it."
Pressure, contacts, and great racing? Much more about that tomorrow, and in the rest of the week. For now, the 1000th grand prix produced some outstanding racing, worthy of the long history of the greatest sport on earth. We are lucky to be living in such a remarkable era.