until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Title favourite or underdog? How Marquez really looks before Ducati debut

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

After all that - the first hints, the announcement, the Valencia test, the debut in new colours - Marc Marquez heads into the 2024 MotoGP season as... not the favourite. Not quite.

Instead, that tag belongs clearly to Pecco Bagnaia, universally recognised by almost every rider on the grid as not just the default 'man to beat' but as the rider in the strongest position ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix - with a 2024 Ducati that he says is an upgrade in every area and combines the best parts of the two predecessors he'd already won titles on.

But neither is Marquez out of it, and if you were to list the likeliest riders to win the title this year Marquez's name really probably shouldn't go any later than third.

Which is not to say that he starts the season third-fastest. He might be that, he might be fifth- or sixth-fastest, but even if he is there's still a plausible outcome where 10 rounds into the season he has that championship-level speed once more.

Over the two 2024 pre-season tests, he has shown just enough glimpses - while leaving just enough plausible deniability - to keep the intrigue as high as it could be coming into his competitive Gresini Ducati debut in Qatar in two weeks' time.

The rivals to beat

For all of that intrigue though, it's not as if Marquez himself is being particularly cryptic in his answers. On evidence of what he had seen in Qatar, he set out his expectations in a more precise manner than you might expect.

"I mean, realistically for Qatar... if the race was right now, I think we can fight for the fifth-sixth position, more or less," he told MotoGP.com.

"But the race weekend is different. These guys, especially Pecco, [Jorge] Martin, [Enea] Bastianini, they know very well the bike and they just go out and they push and they are super fast from the beginning.

"Still I am far from them but I try to learn the riding style, try to learn how they manage problems. And yeah, step by step, I have to be closer and closer.

"If it will be enough, I don't know, but at the moment still a bit far."

To the print media, Marquez reckoned there were "three or four or five" riders faster, three of them "especially" so.

Those three are, again, Bagnaia, Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini - the riders in possession of that shiny new Ducati Desmosedici GP24.

As for the others, though Marquez didn't name them, it's probably a safe bet that he was considering riders like Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia), Fabio Di Giannantonio (VR46 Ducati) and maybe the still-concealed-seeming potential of KTM and its lead rider Brad Binder.

The intrigue remains

Top-five/top-six performance baseline isn't necessarily the basis for a title charge - but there are caveats to mention here even beyond the obvious 'this is Marc Marquez we're talking about'.

For starters, his long-run pace was perfectly competitive at Sepang and there are some question marks over what it actually was at Lusail- given his transponder was apparently acting up.

Then there's the single lap, a relatively late improvement by Marquez that lifted him up to fourth overall, 0.383s off Bagnaia's record-smashing effort (and with just Bastianini and Espargaro also ahead).

Considering qualifying trim was Marquez's big worry coming out of Sepang, ending the test as the fastest rider on the 2023-spec Ducati has to be a positive development and maybe even a pleasant surprise.

But then there's also the matter of it being Qatar, the Lusail International Circuit, with which - like with Sepang - Marquez has a complicated relationship.

Marquez has averaged 0.329s off pole here in his MotoGP career. Remove the first year, a bit of an outlier as it was his debut qualifying (and he really didn't nail it after topping practice), and you still have an average gap of 0.253s.

In other words, there will be a baked-in deficit here relative to Marquez's baseline - which is evidenced also in the fact that, of his post-injury outings there, the 2022 Qatar Grand Prix was arguably the only weekend in their time together at Honda that he was legitimately second fiddle to Pol Espargaro.

First crash

One argument for big untapped reserves of pace that no longer holds water that no longer holds water is that Marquez hadn't yet crashed the Ducati - because on his sixth day on the Desmosedici he finally did, with a minor fall that didn't prevent him from getting the bike back into pitlane.

"Of course you never want to crash and you want to stay on the bike,” he said. “But it's true that, for example, when I crashed - I saw that I was going wide, I was going too fast in, but I said 'OK, where is the limit of this bike'? 

"I had done a long run of 12 laps, the plan was to arrive to 18 laps more or less, but I said 'OK, now five laps remain, I will try to increase one step'. Maybe I increased in the point that we cannot do with this bike."

It was part of Marquez's ramp-up, too, the fact he was "never attacking in the last tenth" before the final day of the pre-season.

"Always we saw in racing, the last three tenths are the most difficult ones. So it's there where I am now. I am two, three tenths - even four sometimes - behind the top guys, and now I need to understand how to be closer."

Now, one crash isn't exactly a lot for Marquez - but in what is now a 21-round calendar following Argentina's exit, posting Honda-esque crash numbers would be unsustainable for both championship aspirations and basic health.

But it's that calendar size - with every round featuring a sprint, too - that, as daunting as it is in terms of the strain on riders and their bodies, as well as all the other personnel, only adds to the mystique of Marquez's impending campaign.

How much can he learn over, say, the first 10 rounds - a huge amount of racing yet not even half of the season?

"Still sometimes I forget to disengage the [ride height] device - because it's working differently," he says as an example.

"In the long run, when I was thinking to change the [engine] maps I forget to disengage the device...

"Still I will do some mistakes in the races, because it's part of the process. But I need to be calm, and just follow what I did this pre-season.

"There will be races that I will suffer a lot - but if it's time to suffer, it's time to suffer. There will be days that will be more difficult, but let's see."

The "let's see" implies that there will be days that are more easy, too - but we knew that already. The Circuit of the Americas and the Sachsenring await their hero with outstretched arms.

But it's that balance of difficult days versus good days that remains the tantalising, season-defining question mark.

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