The 2023 MotoGP season is ready for lights out ahead of what is set to be a spectacular year following a crucial new addition to the schedule: sprint races.
The Portuguese Grand Prix is the first event of the 21-race season - which features debuts in Kazakhstan and India - but the sprint races are the headline new addition. The events are 12-lap shootouts, similar to those added to Formula 1, to take place on Saturdays with half the amount of points available ahead of the epic Sunday Grand Prix.
British former motorcycle racer Neil Hodgson is ready for engines to rev ahead of what is set to be an exciting and innovative season. Speaking exclusively to Mirror Sport, Hodgson said: “We are in for such a cracking year. Now, I say every year and the last four or five seasons have been fantastic - but this year, especially because of the sprint races on Saturday being added, it’s a new level of excitement.
“If you are absolute fanatic, you enjoy watching the free practice sessions and qualifying and then the race on Sunday - but for your your average or casual viewer, they want to watch people line up and have a good scrap and that's what we're going to have this season. The sprint races provide essential a 12-lap race, where the beauty is everyone has to be aggressive throughout. We’ve never had sprint races before and it’s each and every round of the world championship. Whoever wins the world title in 2023 must be good at the sprint races.”
While the move to add sprint races to each round of the championship is somewhat controversial, Hodgson is all for it, adding: “Everybody is desperate for instant entertainment and gratification. It’s similar to LIV Golf - they hold shorter events with more razzmatazz around it. I understand purists want things to stay the same, but I want our sport to grow. I want young kids and teenagers to get into it, and adding things like the sprint races is positive. The sport will grow because of it.”
In terms of the championship contenders on the eve of the new season, Hodgson believes reigning champion Francesco 'Pecco' Bagnaia (Ducati) and team-mate Enea Bastianini (Ducati) will be frontrunners along with 2021 world champion Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha). Quartararo will continue his growing rivalry with Bagnaia at the top of the grid, while the Italian will be looking for back-to-back titles after a turbulent season where he overturned a 91-point deficit to claim his maiden championship.
Hodgson acknowledged Ducati are set to be the dominant force once again, although their greater presence on the grid will still make for entertainment on the track. The 2003 Superbike world champion said: “Francesco Bagnaia won the championship last year under maximum pressure going down to the final round. I think the fact that he managed to keep his cool and win that World Championship - it looks like Ducati actually made even more of a step forward - makes him the clear favourite going into round one. I think he learnt a lot from last year, when he started on the back foot, but this year is very different. He’s the favourite, definitely.
“All the other Ducati riders are in the mix. There's not one slow rider. The other manufacturers still appear to be slightly behind and playing catch up, although Yamaha have found some top speed.
“The disappointment for me is that Honda still look lost; I still believe they've got the fastest rider in the world riding their motorcycle. Marc Marquez, for me, is still number one but unfortunately I don't think he's going to have the tools to win a world title.”
Marquez is one of the most successful motorcycle racers of all time but the six-time MotoGP champion has suffered concerning injuries in the last few years. The Spaniard suffered a broken humerus in 2020 and further surgery - a fourth, in fact - on the injury sidelined him for some time in 2022.
Marquez is often considered a pioneer of modern MotoGP racing due to his relatively exaggerated cornering technique of appearing to lean so far over the bike - which leaves him constantly on the edge of crashing out. Hodgson believes his health and nagging arm injury won’t play a part in Marquez’s campaign, but insisted the 30-year-old will crash ‘quite a few times’ this season which could create problems as the Spaniard looks to build momentum.
“Marc will crash big because he will do whatever it takes, and my fear is more the issue with his eye and the diplopia that he suffered a couple of times. His body arguably is as strong as it was, but if he has a big impact on the head and he gets diplopia again, his season is done.
“I think Marc is mentally ready to win a championship again, but physically he is not quite there. If he bangs his head, then he could be in trouble.”
BT Sport will show all the live action from every race weekend during the 2023 MotoGP season, starting with the Portugal Grand Prix from 24-26 March on BT Sport 2. Fans can also watch Sheene, the latest film in the BT Sport Films series, which premieres on 26 March on BT Sport 2 from 10pm.