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New tracks, new formats, new rivals: Champion ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia returns to a transformed MotoGP

The 2023 MotoGP season gets under way in Portimão, Portugal, this weekend and reigning world champion Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia is steeling himself for a grueling defense of his hard-won crown. This year’s championship will be the longest in MotoGP history with 21 races on the calendar, as well as a completely new element to the racing weekend – half distance “sprint” races. Bagnaia admits he is unsure what to expect.

“The new schedule is a totally different thing compared to past years, so it will be important to discover, as soon as possible, the way to improve the strategy to work for the race weekend,” the Italian told CNN Sport ’s Patrick Snell. “I tried two sprint races in the test, and they were quite tough, but I think we have worked so well at home to be prepared physically, my physical condition, and with my team we have worked well with the bike.”

The announcement of the Sprint races last August caught some riders off guard.

Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo, who relinquished his title to Bagnaia in 2022, was less than enthusiastic, telling reporters that he thought they were a “stupid idea.”

Bagnaia takes a more positive view. “I think it’s something that for us could work well,” he said. “But I have to try before saying something because it’s totally different, and maybe for the first part of the season you will not notice anything for your conditioning, but the second part of the season will be very tough considering the amount of races per month we have,” Bagnaia explained.

“But I’m saying that I’m a fan of it because it’s something different and it’s something fans here [at the track] and fans at home can enjoy.”

The Ducati rider does acknowledge that the physical demands of the new season format are a daunting prospect, however. “You don’t have time to relax before the main race because, during the sprint race, you have to race like in qualifying, so pushing 100%, [whereas] in the normal race you have to control the rear tire, to control the gap, so it’s a different way to work,” said Bagnaia.

“We have more races than the past years, so 21 – plus 21 sprint races – so you will finish the season with 42 races and that will be very demanding, for sure. “Before saying something about it, I have to try it, and I’m looking forward to testing it on Saturday, but let’s see. I think this year will be more tough mentally than physically, but it’s too soon to say now.”

Two completely new tracks have also been added to the 2023 calendar, with visits to Kazakhstan and India in prospect.

“[They] will be something different, something new, but normally I like the new layout. I like to discover a new country and new tracks,” Bagnaia said. “We have just to see if the tracks are ready to have us as a guest, but we have to be prepared for everything.”

The Turin-born rider has had a busy winter, announcing his engagement to his long-term partner, Domizia Castagnini, on Christmas Eve. He also made a renewed commitment to an old motor racing tradition, deciding to exercise his prerogative as world champion to place the number one on his Ducati.

“Using number one on track again is something great,” the 26-year-old smiled. “I’m sure the pressure will be high on it, but I think we can be proud of it, so it’s better to have it on there.”

History has not been kind to those carrying the number in the MotoGP era: no rider has managed to retain the crown with one on their bike. The methodical champion is aware of past failures.

“Since I was young, the only two riders to repeat the championship were Marc (Márquez) and Valentino (Rossi), so I choose number one because I think it’s very important and [should] be mandatory that the world champion uses number one, so I’m very proud to have it, but now I have to work a lot to continue riding with number one, so I’m very honored for it.”

One man standing in the way of his success is now very close to home.

Fellow Italian Enea Bastianini joined the Ducati factory team in the winter, replacing Bagnaia’s devoted teammate, Australia’s Jack Miller. Bastianini’s uncompromising style ruffled his compatriot’s feathers on several occasions last season, and the atmosphere between the two did not always appear cordial. Bagnaia referred to his rival as “a bastard,” and while it was clearly said in jest, the comment underscored an, at times, visibly testy relationship. “In this moment, all the tests and at home, we have a good relationship because we’ve known each other for a long time,” said Bagnaia.

“In the last races, the battles with him were intense, but I think we can enjoy everything. We are quite smart to understand that if we work together we can improve ourselves to be in front for the race, so we don’t have to use our strategy to have a bad relationship in the box because we need to focus on the race and we need to focus on working to be together in front in the race.”

Another threat could come from a rejuvenated Márquez.

The six-time MotoGP champion is finally back to full health after overcoming a series of debilitating injuries. The Honda rider told reporters in Portimão this week that he and his team are “not title contenders,” but Bagnaia disagrees. “For sure, Marc will want to be in front because he will want his revenge,” he said. “He will be in front for sure from the first race and will be a tough rival, but we are tough too.

So we have to have a great battle, we have to work hard to be in front, and let’s see who will be the main contender.”
© 2023 Cable News Network. A Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All Rights Reserved. CNN Sans ™ & © 2016 Cable News Network. Credit – CNN

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