Although Ducati anticipated by one day the news that Pecco Bagnaia, winner of the MotoGP title in 2022, would race with the number 1 on its website, the fact was finally confirmed on Monday morning at the Italian brand’s launch event on the Dolomites. And so the debate on choosing to use the #1 continues: Some fans argue that the world champion should wear the number 1, as if it were a sort of birthright, or, like the writer, they don’t care at all.
The number 1 hasn’t appeared on the front of a MotoGP bike since 2012, when Casey Stoner rode what would be his last season in the series with the number to mark his second world title. It is therefore right that Bagnaia – who last season ended 15 years without Ducati since Stoner’s first world title in 2007 – chooses to put the number one on his 2023 Desmosedici.
The arguments for and against are persuasive in themselves. Those in favor point to the fact that not everyone can be world champion and that race number 1 is an affirmation of one’s status as the driver to beat. They also say it’s best for the viewer to identify who the champion is. Maybe that would have been the case in the 1990s, but in a world where you can Google anything you want with your mobile phone, it’s not easy to immediately figure out who is the world champion of a series.
On the other hand, it can be argued that brand awareness goes down the drain when a regular full-time issue is replaced by the #1 issue. Whether we like it or not, in the modern world, athletes are their own brand and their fans love to have a unique identifier to hold onto. One example above all is that of Valentino Rossi, who in his Grand Prix career never raced with a number other than 46, despite his nine world titles.
Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing
Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images
The symbolism of a unique number is powerful. Just as the #46 will always be associated with Valentino Rossi, the #44 with Lewis Hamilton, the #23 with Michael Jordan and the #99 with Wayne Gretzky, it stands to reason that the #63 will have meaning for Ducati fans in the future too .
This is an aspect that Bagnaia underlined – in a somewhat contradictory way – during the Ducati launch event on Monday: “63 means many things to me and I’m very close to that number. It’s true that on my bike there are it will be number 1, also on the pit board, but otherwise I will stick with number 63. For many things the number 63 will be the reference number. For many things the #63 will be my number all the time, because I think people identify with the #63”.
In a further contradiction, Bagnaia says it would be a mistake for him to consider himself world champion in 2023 if he hopes to defend his title. It will be hard to ignore this fact with the number 1 next to your name in the entry list. “I think I won’t have to make the mistake of thinking I’m a champion, because that’s something he can relax you,” he said. “I will therefore try to have the same approach, the same mentality as last year and all the years of my life”.
“I think this year I learned the lesson from the mistakes I made, so I can start better next year. The new bike is very similar to the one in 2022, so I think we can start well from the first day of testing. The program weekend is very different, so things can change. But I’m sure if we work as well as last year we can be at the top.” Regardless, Bagnaia will race with the number 1 in 2023 and will try to do something no rider has done in the modern era of MotoGP: retain the crown with that number.
Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team
Photo by: Ducati Corse
Of the 29 riders who have won premier class titles since 1949, only 12 have successfully defended a crown. In the modern era of MotoGP, starting in 2002, only Nicky Hayden (2007), Casey Stoner (2008 and 2012) and Jorge Lorenzo (2011) raced with the number 1 to defend their titles. Lorenzo has won three, but in 2013 and 2016 he used his traditional #99. When he tried to decide which number to use for 2016, Lorenzo said “it would be nice to use the number 1, but the number 99 represents me”.
None of these riders has since won the title with the number 1. After Stoner in 2012 and before Bagnaia in 2023, Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and Fabio Quartararo have used their standard race numbers. Not a premier-class rider had successfully defended the number 1 since 1998, when the Australian legend captured the fifth and final 500cc title of his career.
If Bagnaia can defend his title in 2023, it will be another piece of history – after becoming the first driver ever to overcome a deficit of 91 points and five retirements in one season to win his maiden crown – to strengthen his heredity. And perhaps he will initiate a change of mentality for the future champions when it comes to managing the number 1. For the moment, at least, Bagnaia has managed to get a good result. For the time being, at least Bagnaia fans can hope to pick up last year’s heavily discounted number 63 shirts in January, now that room has to be made for new stock of the number 1!
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