Ducati has won 11 of 14 races so far in this 2023 MotoGP season, making it the most dominant campaign by a single manufacturer since 2003, when Honda won 13 of 16 grands prix.
Yamaha hasn’t won a race yet; the last time it was held winless was 1997. KTM, the Austrian manufacturer that stood on the top step of the podium seven times between 2020 and 2022, also hasn’t tasted victory this year. Álex Rins’s improbable win at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas in April is the only time mighty Honda has claimed a win since October 2021, while Aleix Espargaró’s Aprilia took the checkered flag first at both Silverstone and Catalunya. Otherwise, it’s been all Ducati.
The Italian marque’s stranglehold on the championship has earned MotoGP a nickname it surely would rather not have: the “Ducati Cup.” Such a moniker induces the sort of indifference that has caused Formula One trouble this season: You probably don’t need to tune in to know that one of the Ducatis — or in F1’s case, the Red Bulls — have won.
The most obvious difference between the two series — and where we’ll leave this comparison — is that while there are only two Red Bulls with the capacity to win on any given weekend, there are eight Ducatis on MotoGP’s grid. There are two seats at the full factory Ducati Lenovo team, another two with the factory-supported Prima Pramac Ducati team, and then two each with customer outfits Mooney VR46 Ducati and Gresini Ducati.
Of that lot, only Gresini has failed to score a grand prix victory this season. The three other teams are vying for this year’s riders’ championship: Ducati Lenovo’s Pecco Bagnaia leads Prima Pramac Ducati’s Jorge Martín by three points, with Mooney VR46 Ducati’s Marco Bezzecchi in third, 54 points off the lead. Not once in MotoGP’s modern era, which began in 2002, has there been two satellite riders challenging for a championship.
Hervé Poncharal owns GasGas Tech 3 Racing, an independent team operating in MotoGP since 2001. For much of that time his riders piloted Yamahas, but since 2019, his team has received factory support from KTM.
“[In those days, manufacturers] were supplying material for us to race, but that’s it. We were completely independent,” Poncharal told ESPN. “The European manufacturers like Ducati, KTM and Aprilia have been listening and understanding a bit better how we could work together, and instead of just supplying, they will say, ‘OK, you’re part of our MotoGP strategy, we will give you the same spec, the same year and model [as the factory team].
“So now we have a bike that is capable of fighting in front. Eventually, if [your team is] good enough and you have a rider good enough, you can win.”
The COVID-shortened 2020 season, which in hindsight looks more like an anomaly with each passing week, was the last time a satellite rider fought for the title, when Suzuki Ecstar’s Joan Mir beat Petronas Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli to the crown.
What made that season such an anomaly? For starters, it featured just 14 rounds, with five of those racetracks hosting doubleheaders. In that campaign, Mir became the only rider in the sport’s 74-year history to win a championship with a solitary win. The 2020 season also boasted nine different race winners, while eight grands prix were won by riders on satellite teams, both records in the modern era.
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It was in that bewildering 2020 campaign that Poncharal finally tasted victory in the premier class. At the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Miguel Oliveira secured Tech 3 its first MotoGP win. “After 22 or 23 years in MotoGP, you think, ‘It’s never going to happen to me,'” Poncharal said. “I have quite a lot of podiums, I have done pole positions, lap records, but I thought, ‘[Winning is] not for me, it’s not for us.
“When we won our first one in Austria, it was like, ‘Wow, tell me I’m awake. Tell me it’s not a dream.’ … When you’ve been waiting for something for so long, when it finally happens, it’s a real dream … That is one of the best moments of my life, for sure.”
Before 2020, the last time a satellite rider put up a genuine fight for the title was Sete Gibernau in 2003 and 2004. In a striking parallel to today, that was also a period of inescapable dominance by one manufacturer, in this case Honda. In 2003, Honda fielded seven of 24 bikes on the grid (two more than any other manufacturer). In 2004, six motorcycles in the field were Hondas (two more than any other manufacturer). Poncharal sees the benefit of producing more bikes for the series, noting the benefits in testing and development, and credits Ducati’s decision to field so many bikes with helping get it to where it is today.
“If you have four riders giving you four [sets of] data, it’s twice more than if you have only two [riders]. If you have eight, it is four times more,” Poncharal said. “So now the manufacturers understand that to have more bikes on track, especially if it’s the same year and model, you can gather much more information.”
In 11 of the 15 seasons after Gibernau’s tilt at the title, full factory riders won every single race. The number of races won by satellite riders in that span? Eleven — out of 268.
Satellite riders have won seven of 14 rounds so far in 2023 and next year, the field of non-factory riders will only grow stronger.
Before Marc Márquez suffered a career-threatening injury that kept him out of the entirety of the 2020 season — another reason that campaign was such an aberration — he’d won the MotoGP world championship six times in seven seasons with Repsol Honda. It was announced last week that he would leave the team after the 2023 season.
Where’s he going next? It was announced on Thursday that he will join his brother, Álex Márquez, at Gresini Ducati. Next season, all four Ducati squads will have riders with genuine aspirations of winning the world championship, and one could argue that the Italian manufacturer’s weakest team in 2023 will be home to its strongest rider.
Marc Márquez isn’t the only generational talent moving to an independent team next year either. Pedro Acosta, the 19-year-old 2021 Moto3 world champion who is on the verge of being crowned world champion in Moto2 this season and is the most highly touted prospect since Márquez himself, will join Poncharal’s KTM-supported GasGas Tech 3 team in 2024.
“Pedro knows that he has a golden future with KTM, but I know that there are a lot of other manufacturers that will be trying to have him after 2024,” Poncharal said. “So we will put zero pressure on him, we’ll help him to learn.
“This type of rider, they put pressure on themselves. He will not be happy with us telling him, ‘Oh, you finished P12, it’s good, it’s your rookie season, no pressure, we’re happy with P12.’ He will tell us, ‘Maybe you’re happy with P12, but I’m not happy with P12 because I can do better.'”
Considering Aprilia’s success this season and KTM’s consistently competitive pace in 2023 and recent race-winning pedigree, there’s an argument to be made that 2024 could see 16 of 22 riders on machines capable of winning on any given Sunday. Ducati may be dominating MotoGP to a degree not achieved by a single manufacturer in 20 years, but it’s doing so with a variety of teams and riders — with challengers nipping at its heels — keeping everyone guessing until the fall of the checkered flag.