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A tightening championship, a scorned Spaniard and some long goodbyes: Four Misano storylines to watch

Fabio Quartararo leads the championship, but he’s a rider on the defensive.

It’s not because he isn’t riding well enough to hold the lead or that he’s attempting to play for time. It’s simply that the championship finally feels like it’s finally clicking into gear, and the run to the final race in November is just long enough for his rivals to make a fight of it.

Aleix Espargaró and Francesco Bagnaia are poised — just — to make serious inroads into Quartararo’s lead, and given both are riding quicker bikes and will start this weekend’s race with a better run of form, the San Marino Grand Prix will test the dynamics of the title just two races before the sport embarks on its potentially decisive flyaway leg.

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But it’s not just the championship that’ll be worth watching this weekend.

Rimini will be last race of Andrea Dovizioso’s long and respected career, with the Italian choosing to bow out at home rather than in Spain at the end of the season. It’s a fair enough move given the difficulties he’s experienced this year — not to mention he’ll have the chance to say goodbye surrounded by home support rather than run the risk of his last race coinciding with the possible return of long-time title rival Marc Márquez.

It’ll also be Jack Miller’s last Ducati ride in Italy, an undeniably special feeling, particularly given the machinations of the rider market have ensured a happy parting of ways for both rider and team.

But not all riders got away from the silly season unscathed. While Jorge Martin is certainly better off than some others, the Spaniard’s factory Ducati snub will be a major motivator for the former rookie of the year as he attempts to prove his employers wrong.

A TIGHTENING OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP

The MotoGP season has been typically unpredictable. Just when it looked as though Fabio Quartararo was set to walk away with a second title, Aleix Espargaró closed the gap, followed by what looks like the start of a roaring comeback by Francesco Bagnaia.

With seven rounds remaining Quartararo leads Espargaró by 32 points, with Bagnaia at a deficit of 44 points.

Espargaró needs a turnaround of five points per race to close the gap, or the difference between first and second. Bagnaia needs seven points, a little less than the difference between first and third.

It’s all still very much in play, and in many respects Quartararo will be on the defensive for the next month or so.

Despite the perception of Espargaró spluttering in recent weeks as the weight of the title comes to bear on him — and he spoke earlier in the year about the exhaustion of his first title campaign — the Spaniard is adamant his recent results have been more about the circuit than himself.

Sixth in Austria while Quartararo and Bagnaia shared the podium was, according to him, a strong result given the peculiar nature of the track. All hard braking and acceleration, it played largely to the RS-GP’s weaknesses.

But Misano and it’s more open and flowing layout will better suit the Aprilia and give Espargaró — and Maverick Viñales, who was building a head of steam before Spielberg — a renewed chance to fight for major points.

And given his dogfighting style for points and new-found consistency, he’s certain to figure among the heavy points paying places.

Bagnaia, meanwhile, is the form man of the series, with the most wins of any rider this year. All five of his last finishes have been victories; it’s just that three costly retirements are interspersed among them, explaining his points deficit.

He’s also on a three-race victory streak — or, more important, three-race finishing streak — just as his Ducati finally appears to have overcome the worst of its early-season rideability issues.

Bagnaia also has a relatively successful recent record here, having won last season’s San Marino Grand Prix and having led the follow-up Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at this circuit before crashing out — which handed Quartararo the championship.

And that encapsulates the challenge perfectly. Bagnaia has the momentum to win the title so long as he can stay on the bike.

The question really is: can either challenger continue the run? Because if either stumbles, Quartararo’s consistency and in-race momentum is sure to deal a blow, and neither campaign can afford a gut punch so close to the finale.

ANDREA DOVIZIOSO TAKES HIS FINAL BOW

The San Marino Grand Prix will be Andrea Dovizioso’s 248th and final MotoGP race, after which the Italian rider will hang up his helmet for his good.

It ends not only a decorated motorcycling career but also a deeply protracted final campaign

Virtually since it began there have been question marks hanging over his ultimate tenure in the premier class, with the year’s lacklustre results confirming a significant drop in competitiveness for the only rider who’s proved capable of taking on Marc Márquez in his pomp, having finished runner-up to the Spaniard three times.

The Italian will record his least competitive full-time season since he started racing internationally when he takes the flag this weekend. He’s never scored fewer than 42 points in a year; he has a tally of just 11 after recording taking just his fifth points-paying finish last time out.

Only once, in his rookie campaign, has he finished lower than eighth in the individual standings. He’s currently 21st only just ahead of straight-from-Moto3 teammate Darryn Binder. He heads only rookies Binder, Remy Gardner and Raúl Fernandez among the full-time grid.

It’s a far cry from his 2017–19 runner-up finishes and his fourth place in 2020.

It’s in that context he’s decided to call it quits, and after such a long and decorated career featuring 15 wins and 62 podiums in the premier class plus a lightweight title in 2004, it’s fitting that he’ll bow out in Rimini, just 60 kilometres down the road from his hometown of Forlimpopoli.

“It will be very unusual and strange after all my career,“ he said. ”Yet I’m very happy to finish in Misano with all my friends and fans.

“I hope it will be a great weekend. It’s going to be very important to be competitive, trying to score some points, and I think we’ll have a good four days there and a great party.”

Speaking to MotoMatters, Dovizioso said he no longer had the motivation for competition and said stepping away from motorcycling completely, at least at first, was likely.

“After 20 years, and living what I’m living, at this moment I don’t have that fire inside of me to do something,” he said. “I’m receiving a lot of proposals, but in this moment I think I need a bit of time to not work in this world.

“When you decide to do something, you need to believe it. You have to feel it. You have to feel something inside, that you’re doing something because you want to do it. So I don’t know.”

Dovizioso will be replaced for the rest of the season by fellow old hand Cal Crutchlow, while Raúl Fernandez and Miguel Oliveira have been confirmed at RNF for next season, with Darryn Binder set to lose his seat.

MILLER’S LAST DUCATI HOME RACE

In his fifth season racing the Desmosedici, Jack Miller will farewell Ducati’s home fans for the final time in red leathers this weekend before switching to KTM from 2023.

Miller’s Ducati career is an odd one to consider, somehow simultaneously not living up to expectations yet also keeping the Australian on the clear positive career trajectory that’s seen him clock personal best campaigns year after year.

It’s something that’s frustrated Miller over the last 12 months in particular. He was promoted to the factory team for last year and scored five podiums, including two victories, for his best-ever points haul, but a strong end to the season by teammate Francesco Bagnaia nonetheless shaded those results and effectively sealed his departure from the team 12 months later.

But Miller has been clear the situation hasn’t affected his relationship with the team, particularly with his mechanics, and with his KTM future secured, his sole focus has been on finishing the season with a high.

And Ducati’s finally struck the kind of consistent form that might facilitate that. Miller’s scored three podiums from the last four rounds, while teammate Bagnaia is on a three-race victory streak. Even the swath of satellite bikes are constantly in the mix.

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But the question is whether that’s enough to counteract his lukewarm record in Misano, While he’s historically got on well with the track, his highest premier-class finish is just sixth, scored last year, though he did take third in his title-contending Moto3 campaign.

“I‘m excited to race at Misano this weekend,” Miller said. “Our team is going through a really positive moment, so I hope we can give great emotions to all our fans here at our home track.

“In general I‘ve always been quite competitive on this track. In the last few grands prix I’ve felt more and more comfortable on the Desmosedici GP, so I’m confident I can find the same positive feelings here”

There’s also the question of whether Ducati’s title hopes for Bagnaia needs or even wants a particularly quick Miller. Ideally it needs him to sit between Pecco and the field to maximise his points haul. But with no formal team orders in place, that’ll come down to whatever happens on track on Sunday.

THE END OF THE RIDER MARKET

The rider market has finally shaken out, and while the winners will be pleased to have their futures confirmed, the losers will be fired up with a point to prove.

Remy Gardner emerged as a late and sudden loser from the rider market, confirming on Thursday that he’s to be ousted for a new KTM rookie despite him being the reigning Moto2 title in KTM colours. Darryn Binder is also set to lose his seat to newly confirmed Raúl Fernandez and Miguel Oliveira.

Both dropped riders will need to make the most of their final seven races as a pitch to prospective employers next season. Despite the disappointment, these will need to be the best races of their seasons.

Joan Mir has also confirmed his port of refuge from Suzuki’s withdrawal will be alongside Marc Márquez at Honda.

But the biggest change in riders, long though they’ve been foreshadowed, was the confirmation of destination for Ducati riders Enea Bastianini and Jorge Martin.

The former finally go the nod for promotion to the factory team alongside Bagnaia, despite the latter having been tipped for the ride for the best part of 12 months.

Martin will stick around at Pramac next year alongside Johann Zarco, where he’ll undoubtedly be carrying the baggage of a factory shot lost.

His outstanding rookie campaign in 2021 gave way to a more difficult 2022, and though that turned out to be at least in part injury related — for which he underwent rectifying surgery shortly before the mid-season break — Bastianini’s three wins this season, including spells leading the title, were enough to sway the decision.

What that will do to Martin’s mindset will be fascinating to watch.

While both he and Bastianini will enjoy factory-level support, there’s no dressing up that Martin has been overlooked for the prestigious manufacturer leathers. Will it be a blow to his confidence, or will it fire him up to prove his Bologna bosses wrong?

And given Ducati’s tendency to rotate their riders — Miller lasted only two seasons despite decent results, after all — he wouldn’t be misguided to keep up the pressure for that eventual promotion.

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