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#PECCOvsMARTIN: the duel for the crown arrives in the desert

#peccovsmartin: The Duel For The Crown Arrives In The DesertAfter 18 Grands Prix offering a maximum of 654 points, 74 are now left in play as we head into the final two Grands Prix of 2023 – and Championship leader Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) leads pretender to the throne Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) by just 14.

This is it: two contenders, two weekends, two Sprints and two races remain, and it all starts at the Qatar Airways Grand Prix of Qatar. So choose your team, because the duel for the crown is now #PECCOvsMARTIN.

Bagnaia was confident ahead of track action in Sepang that it would be a good weekend for him, and he was proven very much correct. On Saturday morning he took pole for the first time since Barcelona, and in the afternoon he ceded only two points to Martin as neither won the Tissot Sprint. On Sunday, he went toe-to-toe with the number 89 in a fight to decide who was taking 16 points or 13, and this time he came out on top and in some style. Once the attack was repelled, the reigning Champion then simply rode off… something Martin has been a little more accustomed to of late. For #TeamPecco, that likely felt like quite a statement.

Martin himself said he was a little disappointed with that, but if his calling card over the latter half of the season has been pure pace, getting his elbows out as the instigator of that spectacular duel in Malaysia was a good reminder that he’s far from a one-tricky pony. As was his awesome win at Buriram. For #TeamMartin, too, there’s the simple fact that the number 89 was 66 points behind Pecco after the Sprint at Catalunya, and now he’s only 14 off with two GPs to go.

In short, it’s going to get interesting. Settling for a sensible 13 points in Sepang is a different ball game to being able to do so in Qatar or Valencia. Giving up two points on Saturday could quickly become a fast track to coming home runner up. There’s no margin for error for either rider, and what makes the tightrope even more tense is that this isn’t suddenly a race of two riders. 20 more will be joining them on track.

The first to mention this time around is Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team). The Beast + the question of team or manufacturer orders is a storyline you’ll likely remember from the 2022 Malaysian Grand Prix and, surprise! It came back this year. Bastianini was truly in beast mode at Sepang to take his first front row of the year, harry his teammate in the Sprint and then simply disappear on Sunday. We’ve seen it before, but what a time to get back on the top step. Given his maiden premier class win came at Qatar last season… watch this space, and how he plays it.

Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) is another who came out swinging, and one who has a little less concern for the title fight. He’s riding a Ducati but so are both the contenders, and neither are his teammate. He’ll be one to watch again. It’s one of the most interesting conundrums of what lies ahead: this year, the Borgo Panigale factory already won the riders’ crown. They just don’t yet know who they’ll be celebrating it with.

This year, it won’t be Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), but he’s likely to be a frontrunner and wants to get back on the podium as a minimum. Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) too. Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) also had a tougher weekend at Sepang and will want more, and he’s already had a fair amount of limelight in the past week talking about his future, another watch this space. Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) had a solid weekend in Malaysia but the meaning of that has been redefined since Phillip Island… in the Ducati ranks, there’s serious competition.

Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) also gave a few of those names just that on Sunday at Sepang, charging to another top five and dispatching Ducatis on the way. Teammate Franco Morbidelli, meanwhile, shot from P15 on the grid to seventh too, equalling his second best finish of the year from India. What can they do in Qatar?

Augusto Fernandez and GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3 teammate Pol Espargaro also got back in the points for the first time since Japan, and Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) was right in the mix at Sepang after a difficult Thai GP. Fortunes went the other way for Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) as he crashed out in Malaysia, but the South African was likely the most annoying person in the world for the two title contenders on Sunday at Buriram. Binder is nearly always a threat for those just ahead of him in the standings and very much does not ride for Ducati. He’s in the business of racing them. Hard.

Meanwhile, Aprilia will want a lot more from Qatar. For Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing), Sepang was simply one to forget. Teammate Maverick Viñales got some points from the weekend but considering his record at the track, he likely expected more. He’s also won at Qatar before, however, and it may be a game changer once the sun goes down and the heat cools off a little. Miguel Oliveira (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) and teammate Raul Fernandez also had a tough one on home turf for the team in Malaysia, and will want more from Lusail.

Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), meanwhile, did take some points at Sepang but it was a tougher one for him, and Honda. At the moment, the headlines remain centered on who will partner Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) next season. But there are points up for grabs once again in Qatar, and Marquez, Mir, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) and Iker Lecuona, who again steps in at LCR Honda Castrol, all very much want some.

The fight for the crown is two riders, but the grid is 22-strong and each and every one of them has a very good reason why they’re fighting it out in the world’s most exciting sport. If Bastianini’s tough season plagued by injury before finding his feet again with an absolute masterclass at Sepang proves anything, it’s exactly that. So make sure to tune in for both a duel in the desert and a 22-rider showdown under the spectacular floodlights of Lusail International Circuit! All or nothing? It will be soon!

We’re underway at 20:00 local time on Saturday for the Sprint, before the GP race on Sunday fires up at the very same 20:00.

Tissot Sprint: Saturday 20:00 (GMT +3)
Grand Prix Race: Sunday 20:00 (GMT +3)

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