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MotoGP

What we learned from Marquez's debut in Gresini Ducati colours

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
9 min read

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Marc Marquez's gradual, months-long unveiling as a Gresini Ducati rider went through arguably its most striking chapter yet with the team's 2024 launch.

Even though - or perhaps because - the actual Gresini colours did not look meaningfully different to the previous year, Marquez's first public appearance in those colours was still quite the sight for the brain to process after 11 seasons of him dutifully representing Honda and its title sponsor Repsol.

So even in motion, not to mention the studio shots, there was a certain 'this isn't Photoshop but it feels Photoshop' aura to Marquez rocking Gresini overalls alongside his brother Alex.

Beyond the visual impact, however, it also marked Marc's first appearance in front of the international media without still being a Honda employee limited contractually in what he was able to discuss.

That didn't necessarily mean he changed tack, but he did offer more detail - and set the scene nicely for his hugely-awaited first Ducati season.

NOT PLAYING ALONG WITH THE HYPE

Given Marquez's status as MotoGP's Galactus before his Jerez 2020 injury, and given he'd still looked an otherworldly rider at many a point afterwards, the understanding is widespread both in the MotoGP paddock and outside of it that he really should be expected to fight for the title this year.

But Marquez has repeatedly emphasised in late-2023 that he was going to Gresini to rediscover "fun" as a MotoGP competitor, and he did not stray from that talking point in this first official appearance, even one imbued with the knowledge of his extremely assured debut on the Ducati in last November's post-season test.

"Of course expectations are super high, from the people, but my work is to try to forget about all these expectations, to try to work in my garage," he said when asked, rightly, why fans shouldn't just expect him to be at the front immediately given all the evidence that suggests he will be.

"Because I need to be calm. Especially in the beginning. 

"'Calm' doesn't mean not fast. Of course I will try, and I'd like to be fast. But I can't pretend to fight for the victory from the beginning, because the last four years were a nightmare for me, the last two years I wasn't able to win a race."

Now, 'fun' for Marquez is indeed fighting at the front, but he seems to be drawing a line between what the Gresini move is intended to bring - regular silverware contention - and what many of us think it is intended to bring - MotoGP title number seven.

"I've said it many times, and I will repeat it - if I'm here, it's because I feel that I will have the chance and the level to fight for those top five positions. I mean, I cannot say that I will fight for the championship. To fight for the championship, you need to be extra in many points.

"But still I feel that I can fight for that top five positions, top six positions. So, yeah, I decided, I chose that direction, to prolong my career. Only this.

"Of course the easy way was to stay at Honda - less pressure to myself, more money in my bank account. But that's not the target."

REVERENCE TO THE DUCATI ESTABLISHMENT

Part of Marquez's logic for playing down expectations is the form and bike familiarity of Ducati's two 2023 title contenders.

Both champion Pecco Bagnaia and runner-up Jorge Martin will have 2024-spec Ducatis next year, as opposed to Marquez's 2023 bike. But while tech guru Gigi Dall'Igna claimed Ducati was seeking a bigger step with the GP24 compared to what the GP23 was (as good as the GP23 was, it was also not infrequently beaten by the GP22), this isn't Marquez's primary line of thinking.

"I arrived to a bike that, especially two riders, Bagnaia and Martin, have spent many, many years with, and won many races, and many championships.

"They are super fast and they will have the 2024 bike... we can say 'the same bike' [as me].

"But you arrive there and you can't pretend to be on the same level. It would not be the normal thing, to be on the same level straight away with them."

'WEAK' TRACKS WILL BE THE PROOF

Marquez was fourth-fastest, just a couple of tenths of a second off the pace, on his sole, 49-lap day with the Ducati so far at Valencia last November.

Even if programmes varied massively up and down the pitlane and many of the established works riders had no reason to chase a laptime, there is still no shying away from how credible a showing it was - and Marquez acknowledged once again that he "felt comfortable".

But he emphasised that the Ducati required "a different way to approach the lap" compared to the Honda, that he could no longer lean on the Honda strong points - which, on corner entry in particular, still clearly existed even in its generally-uncompetitive 2023 version - and that he had to remake his riding to figure out how to use Ducati's extra power and grip on corner exit particularly.

What Marquez also suggested, though, is that Valencia, a track he has an affinity for, could've painted a slightly too rosy picture, which may well be altered come the pre-season tests in Malaysia and Qatar.

Now, Marquez has won twice at both of those, but in his general body of work they do probably qualify as 'bogey' tracks, even if that word feels ridiculous to use.

"I'm more curious to try the bike in the Malaysia track, the Qatar track, circuits where I am struggling more. Because at Valencia I'm normally very fast every year," Marquez said.

And when asked whether he or Alex was more likely to win a grand prix first, Marquez said: "Well, the first one is Qatar - I think Alex has more chance than me! I'm not in the mindset to think about victory now."

BUT THERE ARE OMINOUS HINTS 

At the same time, Marquez just couldn't resist throwing in a couple of details that suggested he actually should've been faster in that Valencia test.

Detail number one: "Of course also I was calm. I had only one bike in the garage. And, I mean, I was used to having four bikes [provided by Honda] in the Valencia test, and this time I had only one, and they told me 'if you crash, the test is finished'.

"So I was calm. I was step by step. Feeling the bike."

Detail number two: "In Valencia I was riding very smooth. But still we don't know, and I don't know, if it will be my riding style with Ducati. 

"It was the first test, I was riding with a set-up that I didn't know, just I told them 'put on the set-up from the others and don't touch anything, I just need to adapt'. They touched very small things to give me more confidence with the front, but I was riding smooth, because I didn't feel [ready] to ride aggressive and to find the limit of the bike."

So, to recap, Marquez rode in a style arguably unnatural to him, and rode knowing he can't crash, which is obviously unnatural to him. And he was fourth-fastest anyway.

MARQUEZ + MARQUEZ IS VERY DIFFERENT TO TAKE ONE

Marc and Alex Marquez were team-mates at Repsol Honda in 2020, but it barely counted, because of Marc's injury and nearly full-season absence.

And that sucked. It sucked even more in retrospective, informed by their self-produced documentary that further drove home just how close the bond between the two is, how much they feed off one another, and how much a proper season together would've meant.

But here's a second chance at that proper season, and the conditions are there for it to be better, more synergetic, more enjoyable than that first one ever could.

"It's really, really special, to share your team with your brother," the younger Marquez enthused. "It's already special when you're both racing in the world championship, even more in MotoGP. So you can't imagine being in the same team. I need to take profit from that situation.

"The great atmosphere and the magical atmosphere that we can create, out of the track, with the team and all that, hospitality and crew, will be so important. I've been with many teams, but the Gresini team has something different in that. For sure he [Marc] will feel really comfortable on the track - but that atmosphere off-track will be so important."

But for Alex, and for his brother, too, it's also a matter of them starting on a more even footing - rather than one Marquez being the quickest rider in MotoGP and the other being a rookie on a difficult bike.

"We were in really different situations," Alex said. "I was a rookie, I had many points to improve, I didn't have the opportunity to take a lot of information from him. He was super fast, I was arriving step by step. We are in a different situation [now] and I think we can both take more profit."

Team adaptation is no excuse

While learning the Ducati is a task the elder Marquez has no interest in playing down, he is clear that the team in place at Gresini is a strong one - and that while it is "strange" to no longer work with the Honda crew he had worked with so long, this cannot be an issue hampering on-track performance.

Marquez only took one Honda staffer with him to Gresini, and it wasn't his long-serving iconic crew chief Santi Hernandez - but his equally long-serving mechanic Javi Ortiz.

Instead of Hernandez alongside Marquez, though, will be another title-winning crew chief - Frankie Carchedi, 2020 MotoGP champion with Joan Mir at Suzuki and also the crew chief who oversaw Fabio Di Giannantonio's transformation from MotoGP no-hoper to genuine stud last year.

"We had the chance only to work one day in Valencia but already yesterday we spent a very nice time to try to understand the way he works, the way I work, and of course to try to adapt my style to him, he will try to adapt his style to me," said Marquez of Carchedi.

"They're different people, but two very good technicians. Santi won a lot, Frankie won a lot.

"I will not compare, I hate the comparisons. Everybody has their style, and yeah, the most important, as I say, is the performance. Doesn't matter how, why, what you do, the most important is to try to find the results."

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

For all the buzz about Marquez's arrival at Gresini, though, you wouldn't know he was there just looking at the bike.

Take the 2024 livery design and compare it to last year's versions, and while there are subtle differences in how various decals are arranged, the overall list of ingredients - read, sponsors - seems virtually identical.

Marquez's big backer Red Bull is on his cap, and on Alex's cap, too, but it is not on the bike. Bike supplier Ducati remains arguably the most prominent of the brands represented on the livery.

However, that doesn't mean that Gresini isn't benefitting from its high-profile signing. Speaking to The Race at the launch, the team's commercial chief Carlo Merlini made it clear the programme is in rude financial health, and was clearly giddy at the amount of extra attention and reach evidenced, as if it was ever in doubt, by the loud and well-attended event kicking off a momentous campaign for Gresini.

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