Shortly after the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, controversy erupted surrounding statements Pecco Bagnaia had made during his media debrief on Sunday evening. Bagnaia had crashed out of the race on lap 5 after a collision between himself and Maverick Viñales.
Though the crash had been a racing incident, both riders conceded, Bagnaia raised a recurring theme in the 2023 MotoGP season, especially since the introduction of sprint races on the Saturday of a grand prix. With the field so close together, and overtaking so difficult, it was becoming ever more imperative to be aggressive at the start of the race, and try to pass as many other riders as possible before your front tire pressure became too high to risk a pass.
"A rider behind you that doesn't have the potential is looking to pass six riders in one lap," Bagnaia told the Italian media, as seen in a video on MotoGP.com. "And it doesn't work like this. Because we're all on the limit, looking for the maximum. And if I'm braking on the limit, especially in the first part of the race, it's wrong to try to brake further than this limit. If you look, the incidents are mainly in the first part of the race, because there's a lot of turmoil."
Bagnaia said this was becoming dangerous. "We should be trying to think about how to improve this situation. Because it's not safe like this. But it's like this at the moment."
The factory Ducati rider laid the blame for the situation on just how close the racing currently is. "One thing that I think is that everybody can win, from the first bike to the last bike," That was very different to the previous era of MotoGP. "There is no longer a gap of six or seven tenths between the factory and the satellite bikes."
That gap in performance made it easier for the best riders to escape the clutches of the satellite riders behind. "That was useful, honestly, because the Four Aliens happened because they were the strongest riders, but they also had factory bikes," Bagnaia pointed out. "Meanwhile, the others were further behind because they didn't have the potential, but they also didn't have the technical level. Now the level is extreme."
Testing the hypothesis
It was this argument that kicked off the controversy in the media and online. In part, perhaps, because of the four-week break between Le Mans and Mugello. But also because he seemed to be demanding that factory bikes regain that advantage they once had.
Before we address that, however, we should check to see whether Bagnaia is right. Did the factory bikes really have that much of a gap over the satellite riders in the previous era? The best way to test that is to go back and actually look at the data.
As Bagnaia referred to the MotoGP Aliens, or "Fantastic Four", we have to assume he meant the heyday of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner, and Dani Pedrosa. So let's compare the gaps between the riders in 2008 and 2022/2023.
The reason for picking 2008 is fairly simple: it was the year when all four Aliens had entered MotoGP, though it was Jorge Lorenzo's first season in the class. The Ducati was still competitive, though not quite as good as the year before, when Casey Stoner won a championship. Valentino Rossi was at the height of his powers and had just switched to Bridgestone tires. The 2008 Honda was a lot more competitive than the bike had been in 2007.
Crunching the numbers
I have mostly used 2022 for the sake of comparison, as that was the last full season. Given the diversity of tracks – Brno, Donington Park, Estoril, Indianapolis, Laguna Seca, and Shanghai have disappeared from the calendar, Aragon, Austin, Buriram, Mandalika, Portimão, Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, and Termas de Rio Hondo have been added – averaging over a full season is better than the five rounds held so far in 2023.
I have kept comparisons with 2023 in, however, though in comparing qualifying times, I have omitted Argentina, which was a wet qualifying.
For the qualifying comparisons, I have also used the 10 closest results, to exclude outliers due to weather or other factors. For the race comparisons, I have used the full results, 18 races in 2008 vs 20 in 2022 (and 5 in 2023).
As Bagnaia referenced the "Fantastic Four", I have taken 5th place in both race and qualifying comparisons. For the race, I have added the gap to 10th, and for qualifying the gap to 12th – basically the last spot in Q2, as there was still a single qualifying session in 2008.
Having said all that, how much closer has the field become from 2008 to 2022? Here's the qualifying comparison: