For the new N.1 on the grid - a number he chose after winning his first crown in the premier class in November - all the conditions are there to start the season with a bang on the Portimao track: "It's a circuit I like and where, in general, I'm fast," says the Italian.

Fast, "Pecco" Bagnaia is certainly in the Algarve region. With Ducati, the 26-year-old finished the pre-season boss at the end of the last winter test here in Portimao, two weeks ago.

He set the fastest time – and better: he broke the lap record he had held since 2021.

However, beware of Frenchman Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha), winner of the last edition of the GP. On the Portimao track, the advantage is for the 2021 world champion who has won twice in MotoGP - against one for Bagnaia.

Demoted last year to the rank of vice-champion, Quartararo will certainly want to establish his authority again for this first of the year, after giving up the title to his rival. But for the time being he will have to deal with a Yamaha that he still does not consider up to his ambitions: "We have progressed at the engine level (...) But it's not enough (...), we are still far from what we need to have on the bike," he lamented on Thursday.

22 pilots

In his first season riding a factory Ducati, Bagnaia teammate and compatriot Enea Bastianini is also expected to stand up to the favourites even if the Portuguese circuit has never really smiled on the 25-year-old. The Italian has never done better than a 9th place in MotoGP.

Eight-time world champion Marc Marquez (Honda), who returned to the track last September after three dark years marked by injury and health problems, will be keen to snatch his 60th victory in the elite.

"Back in great shape", according to Honda, the Spaniard is not yet totally convinced by the performance of his machine.

"Some of the things that the team expected to work on track didn't work," he said after pre-season testing. "We are currently not in a position to challenge for the title," he also admitted on Thursday.

Yamaha French rider Fabio Quartararo in front of the press in Portimao, March 23, 2023 © PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP

Nor should the KTMs of South African Brad Binder and Australian Jack Miller, Bagnaia's former Ducati teammate last year, be dismissed. Nor the Aprilia of Spaniards Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro, 4th surprise of the championship in 2022.

Aprilia will also have two more bikes in its ranks this year with the RNF team (ex-Yamaha), now equipped by the Italian brand. For this first race in the Aprilia fold, the team will count on the regional of the stage, Miguel Oliveira (ex-KTM), winner in Portimao in 2020.

Due to the departure of Suzuki at the end of last season, 22 drivers (compared to 24 in 2022) will be on the starting grid this year which, thanks to an important game of musical chairs between the teams, is quite turned upside down.

The sprint, a first

This is the first time since 2006 that the MotoGP World Championship has started in Europe. The Qatar GP has traditionally opened the season since 2007 but the Lusail circuit is currently under construction.

Another revolution, the championship will test in Portimao the sprint, a race format contested on Saturday during each Grand Prix weekend.

In concrete terms, the sprint represents the distance equivalent of half of the Grand Prix held on Sunday and will also offer up to 12 additional points in the championship, in addition to the 25 points awarded the next day to the winner in the main race.

In Portugal, the first laps will therefore be crucial according to Bagnaia: "We will have to work as best we can from the start (...). We will have to get used to approaching the weekend in a different way," in order to collect as many points as possible from the first races. And cultivate the hope of retaining its world crown.

© 2023 AFP