Not only are we getting a fantastic battle for the title heading into the final three rounds of the MotoGP World Championship, but we are also being treated to some of the best races of the season: far from playing the percentage game, Jorge Martin and Francesco Bagnaia are going for broke, as they know they must. What they didn’t need – but we certainly did – was that pesky Brad Binder getting in the way and threatening to spoil their day…!
After the nightmares of Indonesia – sprint win then crash out of the main race – and Australia – no sprint race but where at least he finished the main race, albeit in fifth after leading the whole race apart from the last eight corners – Martin knew he couldn’t afford any more mistakes and he didn’t put a foot wrong the whole weekend in Thailand. Pole position and two victories were as much as he could do: it was up to Bagnaia to mess up and, in the sprint race, it looked like he was going to do just that: the seventh place was all he could manage after a poor start and seemingly unwilling to take too many risks to make up for it.
Thailand isn’t the most inspiring track but we were treated to some epic racing in the Sprint – between Binder and Marini, who completed the podium in that order, and Espargaro and Marc Marquez, the latter snatching fourth at the last corner. Bagnaia could only manage seventh. But the sprint races are breathless and over far too quickly for any rhythm to establish itself, even if the action is great: could the main race be anything other than Martin streaking off into the distance?
Oh, yes, it could! Again, Martin took the lead at the first corner but, this time, he didn’t streak off into the distance, tyre life was obviously on all the riders’ minds and it seemed as if no one was willing to pull the pin. The danger of this, of course, is that Martin was at risk, first from Espargaro, then Marini and then Binder and Bagnaia, who had had another bad start and had to fight past Marc Marquez, but was gifted more places when Espargaro faded and Alex Marquez fell off.
Soon, it was a straight fight between Martin, Binder and Bagnaia and it was intense. Binder tried a couple of times to pass for the lead but always ran it in too hot, letting Martin back through but managing to keep Bagnaia behind. With four laps to go, Binder passed and held the lead, only for Martin to pull a stunning pass out of the bag at turn three and re-take the lead. Again, Binder managed to lose just one place and we all held our breath as the last corners were negotiated. Over the line for the last time, it was Martin, Binder and Bagnaia, quicker than you can say it, the fourth closest podium finish ever!
Of course, it was all a little too good to be true and Binder was demoted one place for running wide on the last lap. This time there was no doubt – unlike Assen – but still a podium. That makes nine for Binder, making him the most successful in premier class history for a South African. No victories this weekend, but a double podium will have been welcomed with open arms.
Those are the bare bones but, as usual, there were many moments and subtexts that made up the story as a whole.
The Buriram circuit is extremely hard on tyres so not only did Martin have to ride as fast as he could to keep Binder and Bagnaia behind him, but he also had to manage tyre wear, all the time making sure no one passed him, which would mean having to follow and overheat his front tyre. So Martin had to know when to push and when to hold back. Also, he had to know when to brake super late and hard and when to brake a bit early and not punish the front tyre too much.
Martin’s expertise is in corner exit speed, not braking, but it shows how much you have to learn to improvise and push your own personal limits in MotoGP, that he was able to out-brake two of the best late-brakers in the business, all the time looking after the front tyre. Think about it; you’re riding as fast as you know how, being pushed relentlessly, making the bike do what it doesn’t want to do, all the time trying to do it as smoothly as possible while working out where you have to do it harder and where you can take it (relatively) easy. This has become the thinking man’s game, not merely the bravest.
Binder managed to get past and led for three laps but he was suffering with a worn rear tyre, which was harming his acceleration out of corners. Martin re-passed Binder but the fight was by no means over and, on the penultimate lap, heading into the penultimate corner, Binder’s bike was trying to shake itself off the track and he had to back off the throttle. Bagnaia jinked to the left to pass Binder, putting him right on the curb. With Martin just in front of Binder, Bagnaia then proceeded to put his nose in front of Martin, who was taking a defensive line against Binder. It was an incredible piece of riding but, ultimately, it stuffed up his corner entry and he was back in third as they streamed onto the pit straight to start the final lap, which they finished in line astern – Martin, Binder, Bagnaia. It was breathless and brilliant.
After the race, there was a heart-stopping moment for Pramac Ducati when Martin was told his front tyre had been under pressure for more than half the race and therefore liable for a time penalty. As this was his first transgression, he merely received a warning: next time it would be a time penalty. It doesn’t bear thinking about the consequences of that on the championship and only serves to show how fatuous the rule is, just because Michelin can’t make a tyre that can handle the aerodynamic loads that are being transferred through to the tyre or, if they have, they’re not prepared to stick their necks out and say that the tyre will stand being run under pressure, which may increase grip but also increases temperature in the carcass, potentially leading to tyre failure. If the championship is lost through such a penalty, then everyone will lose: the riders, the teams and the fans. Dorna needs to sort this out as soon as possible.
The upshot of all that is that Bagnaia’s lead is down to 13 points over Martin with 201 points still up for grabs, always supposing we manage to start all the races. Martin is on a roll but no one is foolish enough to count out Bagnaia just yet. Last corner of the last lap of the last race to decide the championship, anyone?