The ‘big slap in the face’ felt by highly rated MotoGP rookies

The ‘big slap in the face’ felt by highly rated MotoGP rookies

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Since MotoGP’s main feeder series Moto2 formally instituted a teams’ championship in 2018, the champion outfits’ winning margins have been as follows – 45 points, 4 points, 113 points, 254 points. It makes all the sense in the world that the two riders responsible for that last number, Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez, were both brought into the premier class right away.

Gardner, the son of 1987 500cc champion Wayne, won the Moto2 title in his fifth full season in the category. Fernandez, his rookie rival last year, probably would’ve won it instead had he not crashed out of the lead at Imola with two races left to run. Together, they won 13 out of 18 races, claimed 10 out of 18 poles and led 232 out of 402 total laps. They were a historically good team-mate duo.

This, so far, has not translated into MotoGP. Despite crashing out a whole lot, it’s Marco Bezzecchi – the third-place finisher behind Gardner and Fernandez in Moto2 last year – who has emerged as the clear initial standout in the five-rider 2022 MotoGP rookie class. Unlike Bezzecchi, neither Fernandez nor Gardner have really troubled the top 10 or come anywhere near doing so. Gardner has just the one point to his name, and Fernandez is yet to open his account.

“I expected a little better if I’m honest with you,” said Gardner of his 2022 so far when asked about it by The Race after a Grand Prix of the Americas in which he was 42 seconds off the winner. “Seeing what other guys have done in the past.

“And I think, how we finished the Moto2 year last year, so dominant – yeah, if I’m honest with you, I expected more.

“It’s been a really tough first few races. Hopefully getting back to Europe can bring a little bit of stability, let’s hope. Still a lot to learn, that was a big slap in the face, that’s for sure – especially here.”

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It is clear, as Gardner alludes to, that rookies have not had as much joy this year as in preceding seasons. In 2021, for instance, it took Jorge Martin two starts to get onto the podium and six starts to win. But the median level of the MotoGP grid – of the equipment, in particular, thanks to Aprilia asserting itself and Ducati upgrading the specs of its now eight-bike fleet – does seem to have risen, which won’t be helping the newcomers.

And there are mitigating circumstances for both Gardner and Fernandez. Gardner had a rib “crack” during the first off-season test and then broke his right wrist while training very early in 2022.

Though the pain from the wrist remains, Gardner hasn’t been keen to use it as an excuse this year, saying at COTA that “honestly at this point in the season, after so much riding… it’s pretty much there, to be honest” – but it’s clear it has already done its part in compromising his preparations.

Fernandez’s preparations were also not without incident, a brutal Mandalika test crash leaving him with a bruised head and a concussion. Beyond that, unlike Gardner’s smooth MotoGP graduation, his was a whole saga – with the impression that Fernandez had his head turned by the prospect of joining Yamaha before KTM activated an option on his services.

And yet, so far this has not really come across. In fact, while this year Gardner has so far given Fernandez a sterner fight than many may have expected given his injury and his quite long Moto2 tenure, it was the Aussie who has seemed much more disheartened by how his campaign is playing out.

Fernandez, for his part, was pretty morose during his Qatar debut but has been increasingly positive since.

“Honestly I’m really happy,” he said at COTA. “Day by day I learn. The problem now is, all the manufacturers are strong, and I think if so many years ago you were in one race at 20 seconds [off the winner], you were minimum in the top 15, taking points. Now you’re 20 seconds [off] and you’re outside the dots.

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“I think that our bike has so many stronger points, one of them is the race, you can see, all the KTMs go one step more and the rest go one step less. For us it’s good.

“Now we need to improve a little bit on the qualifying but the rest, I’m really happy, honestly.”

Asked by The Race how he found it adjusting to fighting at the back after a rookie Moto2 season in which he’d been ultra-competitive right away, he said with a smile: “Honestly, it’s not nice [to fight] for the last place. But anyway we need to analyze more, we need to analyze everything.

“The first race, we lost 40 seconds, more than 40 seconds, with Brad [Binder, lead KTM rider]. Now we’re really closing to them, and day by day I feel good.

“Of course it’s really difficult, I come from last year that I won eight races, 90% of the races I was on the podium, but anyway the job of this year is completely different.

“The important thing is to try to catch the gap with the factory riders, and in this track we are really closing, and this is my target – don’t think too much on the results, my target is closing with the factory riders and I am.”

Raúl Fernandez

At COTA, both Fernandez and Gardner were indeed much closer to the works KTM duo, but the track-specific regression of the overall level of the RC16 bike – which had its worst weekend of the season by a comfortable margin – helped conceal that. And Binder, the benchmark KTM rider in pretty much every dry session this year, still remained a long way ahead.

This year, the Tech3 pair was expected to give the factory riders something to worry about sooner rather than later. So far, this has not come to fruition, and they have not proven a clear upgrade on the line-up that was dispensed to make room for them.

The previous pair, Iker Lecuona and Danilo Petrucci, averaged a combined 2.11 points per race last season, which was clearly not enough – but Gardner and Fernandez are currently putting up 0.25 points per race.

Does that mean they were overestimated, that the quality of the Red Bull KTM Ajo package in Moto2 was the overriding factor – despite them having the same Kalex chassis and Triumph engine as all of their main rivals?

Ultimately, time will tell, but there’s an early-2022 argument in favor of Fernandez and Gardner. Their Moto2 seats have been taken over by Augusto Fernandez (no relation) and Pedro Acosta, two quality riders again providing the team with an impressive combination of experience and youth, yet the pair are currently coming nowhere near replicating the remarkable form of their two predecessors .

So it’s far more likely that Raul Fernandez remains the real deal, and that his team-mate’s comparable early MotoGP form is showing that his Moto2 title was no fluke.

And their relatively slow starts may actually be a blessing for KTM, which – should it desire to do so – may have less difficulty keeping its formidable full MotoGP line-up as is for a while, with its young stars not quite having the results to pressure it for promotions.

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