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Marquez isn't COTA MotoGP favourite anymore - so who is?

by Valentin Khorounzhiy, Simon Patterson
4 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Marc Marquez's first day as a Ducati rider at the Circuit of the Americas showed he is still a force to be reckoned with at the Texan venue - but he did not look a dominant force.

Marquez has a famously terrific MotoGP record at COTA, having won every race there between 2013 and 2018 before crashing out of a comfortable lead in 2019.

Marc Marquez, Honda, MotoGP

COTA was off the calendar amid the various COVID calendar disruptions the next two years, and Marquez would've probably won (on an already much-declined Honda) in 2022 if not for an issue at the start, while last year he was absent through injury.

It is, therefore, highly uncommon for Marquez to be heading into MotoGP race action at COTA as not the overwhelming favourite - but that is the picture that Friday practice has painted.

Marquez was third-fastest over a single lap, four tenths off, and did not demonstrate dominant race pace either. He had started the day with a "not-so-good feeling", although turned it around by the end.

Marc Marquez, Gresini Ducati, MotoGP

"As I expected - not the people, maybe, but as I expected - there are two or three riders who are super-fast and are faster than me," he said.

"At the moment I'm able to fight for that top five. Let's see if tomorrow we can be in that top three - but it will be difficult."

His previous employer Honda's particular affinity for the circuit was part of that dominant COTA streak - it also won there with Alex Rins last year, although the 2024 RC213V looked uncompetitive on Friday - and Marquez acknowledged he wasn't yet maximising the Ducati at the circuit's long and complicated layout in the same way.

"Honda was super good in those stop-and-go corners but the thing is that with the Ducati you need to understand, ride in a different way, find the time in another point. I've started to understand, and the laptimes were coming better and better."

Marc Marquez, Gresini Ducati, MotoGP

He also pinpointed sector one, with the rapid changes of direction in the esses, as his worst sector - which he admitted was unusual for him, attributing this to the fact it was a place to exploit the past Hondas' strengths but also that he was simply "more fresh" back in the day, a turn of phrase referencing his career-altering injuries.

"I need to try to understand how to be fast in other sectors. In that one, I know why I'm struggling. Let's see if tomorrow I can improve a bit the lines, but be faster in other parts."

But if Marquez suddenly looks uniquely beatable at COTA, who is in the best position to beat him?

The candidates

Jorge Martin, Pramac Ducati, MotoGP

If it's not Marquez, the obvious leading contenders in terms of race pace are the top two men of the day, championship leader Jorge Martin and factory Aprilia racer Maverick Vinales - yet there are other riders who Marquez may have also had in mind when talking of those who have an extra step of performance compared to him right now.

The pace of 2022 COTA race winner Enea Bastianini turned some heads in the morning’s first session, with the factory Ducati racer placing fourth with an effort on 16-lap-old tyres.

His team-mate (and reigning world champion) Pecco Bagnaia was able to deliver more during the afternoon’s outing though, claiming afterwards that it had been his best Friday in months and that he would go into Saturday’s sprint race more confident than he’s felt in some time.

“I think this morning Enea was really strong,” Bagnaia acknowledged at the end of the day. “The strongest.

Enea Bastianini, Ducati, MotoGP

"This afternoon, it was more difficult to understand. Martin and Vinales are for sure more strong for the time attack, but I think for the pace Vinales is the strongest.”

That’s a sentiment to some extent backed up by Martin, too, who admitted that, despite obliterating the existing lap record to end the day fastest, he is very aware of the Vinales threat.

“For the moment I saw Maverick [as a rival],” he explained, “but I think also Pecco and Marc will be the toughest of the weekend.”

For his part, coming off the back of perhaps his best weekend ever for Aprilia at the last round at Portimao (even if a "human error" created a gearbox issue that cost him a podium and maybe more in the actual grand prix race), Vinales has remained somewhat bullish about his hopes at COTA.

“Since last year in Qatar,” he explained, “when we really identified what we were missing, we’ve been very strong. Always in the front.

"And I feel this is a good moment. This is how you build the confidence.”

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