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Reality check or mirage? How to read Marquez's second Ducati test

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

After being the unquestionable leading man on his first appearance on a Ducati MotoGP bike, at the post-season test at Valencia last November, for his second outing 10 weeks later Marc Marquez took on more of a supporting role.

Severely limited by persistent technical gremlins on the first day of three, outside of the top 10 for most of the test, six tenths down on the timesheet-topping Pecco Bagnaia in the end. This was exactly the competitive picture, arguably, that Marquez was setting the stage for in consistently playing down his chances between Valencia and now.

But you'd still be hard-pressed to find many who think he'll actually struggle. Brother and Gresini Ducati team-mate Alex Marquez described him as being already "too close". Jorge Martin said: "He's where I expected. He will be really close and ready maybe for the victory in Qatar."

Of course, those words must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, it's not like even the outspoken Martin would go out there and say, 'nah, you know what, Marc's not cutting it, the only way he'll see the podium in Qatar is through binoculars'.

But also, nobody will say that because, even if Marquez's Sepang test wasn't perfect, it does not seem accurate at all to suggest he struggled.

The overview

Despite the travails of the opening day, which he made up for with a mammoth effort on day two, Marquez logged a total of 174 laps across the test - the fourth-most, just 15 fewer than biggest workhorse Jack Miller (KTM).

That mileage took a toll on a rider who is not only now one of MotoGP's elder statesmen (despite being just 30, like this writer!) but also has had a famously woeful run of injuries in recent years. Marquez looked frankly 'gassed' by the end of the ordeal.

"On the limit", he admitted - but he also said he pushed himself extra, attempting a third-day sprint simulation that wasn't in the plan just because he was desperate to maximise the learning.

"I don't know if in the future I will arrive at the level of those top guys," he said.

"But I don't want to have the doubt. I don't want to have that, 'Ah, you didn't make that'. I will do and I will insist to try."

"The top guys" in the case of the Sepang test were those Ducati GP24 riders - Bagnaia, Martin, and Enea Bastianini. The 2024 bike has been promised to be a bigger step forward compared to Ducati's recent evolutions, but Marquez stressed that, on evidence of the data, it remains "similar" to the 2023 machine available to him, and that his Ducati peers' knowledge of how to make the Desmosedici work is the differentiator right now.

"Still I'm riding too stiff on the bike. Still I can't play with the body like, for example, Bastianini or Martin.

"It's true that Pecco is not playing a lot with the body, and he's fast. But let's see. Still I need to understand, especially the exit of the corner, that is really where you make the laptime.

"For example, Honda was opposite, the time attack [laptime] was more on the entry. With this bike it's more on the exit."

It is an unusual sight to see Marquez not be the top representative of the brand he's riding for on the timesheets - he was only the fifth-fastest Ducati rider in Sepang, also behind brother Alex. Over one lap, anyway.

There was already an acknowledgment on the second day that his longer-run pace was at the level.

"Well, I'm not fast like the top riders - like Jorge, Marc Marquez, Alex Marquez, Pecco," said fellow Ducati rider Marco Bezzecchi in assessing the stints on Wednesday. "They are a little bit faster than me, they were able to ride in mid-1m58s or high-1m58s, I was more in low-1m59s."

And Marquez's subsequent follow-up sprint simulation on Thursday, the one he forced himself to do, looked also competitive (although not as fast as Fabio Di Giannantonio's best-of-the-test sprint sim at a similar time of day).

A single-lap deficit

Regardless, the message from Marquez has been that it's single lap, not race pace, where he's currently lacking.

"Still half a second to the top guys. But they are super fast on the time attack.

"On the race pace, we are closer. But for example, in the sprint simulation, some corners I was faster than my time attack. This was also positive."

Being able to even match the likes of Bagnaia and Martin over longer stints would only be of limited use if he's starting a couple of rows behind.

But even if we take the six-tenths gap at face value, and we probably should given both Bagnaia's and Marquez's efforts were full-tilt qualifying simulations clocking in below the established pole record, it's a number that is not as meaningful as it seems.

Marquez has been on pole three times at Sepang. And yet, if you average out every dry Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying he's had in MotoGP, his qualifying deficit adds up to 0.522s.

This really isn't his kind of track. That has not mattered at all in his championship years. Being six tenths off at Sepang arguably suggests pole by two-to-three tenths at COTA and the Sachsenring and front row contention at most tracks.

But there is one Marquez admission that is cause for slightly bearish sentiment - that it took him too long to get up to proper speed at Sepang.

"In a test it's possible, in a race weekend no. So now I need to understand how to be faster on the good laptimes.

"We need to understand the way to arrive earlier. Like Martin did on day one. He was one second in front of the others.

"Why? Because he knows how to ride the bike. Still I don't know."

The sprint format, of course, does not help in this regard.

The Lorenzo comparison

"When Jorge [Lorenzo] jumped to the Ducati, it looked like in the beginning everyone said he will not adapt, he's far," Marquez mused. "Then he started winning races in the middle of the calendar. You don't know.

"For example, my brother last year, he started not so good and then in the last part of the season was fast.

"Let's see if I'm able to arrive to the top level. Of course the level is [already] there, but not enough."

Marquez's point that brother Alex was "not so good" in the early stages of his Ducati adaptation is debatable - he was arguably pretty quick from the get go, just unlucky and erratic - but the Lorenzo comparison is an interesting one.

The three-time MotoGP champion's first pre-season with Ducati was a relatively decent one. But once it came time to the actual races, he wasn't really the Lorenzo the manufacturer had shelled out for until over a year later.

But Lorenzo before his Ducati breakthrough was arguably being flattered by his single-lap peaks. That really does not seem to be the case for Marquez, and everything he's said suggests there's still plenty of room to improve without needing the kind of bike modifications Lorenzo needed to finally click.

Marquez doesn't love Sepang, nor does he have much affinity for the Lusail track that hosts the next test and the season opener. This past test has proven that this remains a factor even now that he's on a super-compliant, super-versatile, super-refined Ducati.

So he likely won't win every race, and likely won't dominate like in 2019, when everything he touched turned to gold. Even then, Sepang was one of just two tracks where he was roundly beaten that year.

In other words, the quest for a dream seventh MotoGP title at first attempt with Ducati? That's still very much on.

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