Ducati threw a Marc Marquez-sized cat among the pigeons – their world champion could be the victim

Marc Marquez of Gresini Racing MotoGP team at the Pre-Event Press Conference for the 2024 MotoGP of Qatar at the Lusail International Circuit
Marc Marquez, the eight-time world champion, has joined Ducati satellite team Gresini Racing for the new MotoGP season - Shutterstock/Noushad Thekkayil

MotoGP has racked up record viewers and record speeds (now a head-whipping 227mph) but as the 75-year-old series opens the throttle this weekend at the Lusail International Circuit in Qatar, an internal struggle could disrupt the current powerhouse in the sport.

Ducati head into the 21-round campaign as defending champions for the second year in a row courtesy of the composed Pecco Bagnaia and looking to extend their ‘Triple Crown’ status (rider, team and constructors’ titles). The Bologna-based MotoGP firm have ranked as the best manufacturer for the past four seasons largely thanks to the technical supremacy covering four teams and eight riders from the 22-man grid.

For all their might in numbers and prowess in engineering (they won 17 of 20 grands prix in 2023 with six of their eight riders, another record by a brand) Ducati are potentially holding a very hot slick in their hands for 2024. Bagnaia is expected to resume his 2023 duel with Jorge Martin; the spiky Spaniard has the same equipment as the champion, but is based in the satellite Pramac squad and was overlooked for a berth in the factory team alongside Bagnaia for 2023.

Francesco Bagnaia smiles on track during the build-up to the MotoGP of Qatar this week
Pecco Bagnaia is going for a hat-trick of MotoGP world titles for the Ducati factory team - Getty Images/Mirco Lazzari
Bagnaia rides the Ducati Leonovo bike during testing for the Qatar MotoGP at the Lusail Circuit last month
Bagnaia rides the Ducati Leonovo bike during testing for the Qatar MotoGP at the Lusail Circuit last month - Getty Images/Qian Jun

Then there is the ‘other Spaniard’. Eight-time world champion Marc Marquez caused one of the biggest shocks since Valentino Rossi’s defection from Honda to Yamaha two decades ago when he prematurely ended an 11-year association with HRC that had delivered six crowns. Marquez elected to leave the uncompetitive Repsol Honda to join another Ducati satellite team, Gresini Racing, and to steer Bagnaia’s 2023 machine.

Ducati have amassed a force that includes the best rider with their technology in Bagnaia, the hardest challenger from 2023 in Martin and now arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all-time. How they stir and digest this cocktail of speed and egos will be a test of their resolve as tacticians. Hardly helping matters is the departure of several notable technicians to KTM and Yamaha, while Ducati Corse sporting director Paolo Ciabatti, the man who helped build the grand plan of bikes and contracts, left the programme during the winter to head the company’s new off-road division.

Bagnaia, 27, from Turin, last week signed a fresh two-year deal with the factory Lenovo team that will bring his Ducati stint up to a total of eight seasons in red. He headed both pre-season tests in Malaysia and Qatar, smashing the lap records at Sepang and Lusail. “We were all in the same direction, I wanted Ducati, Ducati wanted me, so it’s something that comes together,” he said on Thursday in Lusail on the eve of round one. “We are here to fight and to discover who will be the main contender. So, let’s see,” he added on the looming prospect of the Martin/Marquez threat.

At the end of 2023 there were rumours that Martin was dissatisfied with his lot at Ducati. In Qatar he insisted his preference was to stay on the Desmosedici bike but to displace Bagnaia’s team-mate, Enea Bastianini, for 2025.

“I think that I’m in… well, maybe not the best seat possible at the moment, or I would have signed already for two seasons for Ducati factory [team], but it’s not on me. They know what I want… but for the moment I feel super-good here.”

Jorge Martin sits on a Prima Pramac Racing bike during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain on February 28, 2024
Jorge Martin of Prima Pramac, another Ducati satellite team, is a spiky competitor - Getty Images/Eric Alonso

All but four riders face contract decisions for 2025. Martin is near the top of the market and has never been in a better position to make demands.

Then there is Marquez. The 31-year-old led the crash charts in 2023 and has not won a grand prix in more than a year as a sustained spell of injury frustration and four operations on a right arm broken in 2020 meant Honda trailed their peers.

Now, for all the potential of the best bike with the greatest rider, the Catalan insists he needs time to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the Ducati and its limits. “I feel comfortable but not ready to fight for the podium, not ready to fight for the victory,” he modestly claimed at Lusail on Thursday.

By having Marquez in their stable, Ducati have boosted their own stock and nullified part of their competition, but what if Marquez starts to use a year-old bike to rustle the Bagnaia/Martin dynamic?

Marquez claims he has the backing of Ducati management, whatever the outcome. “If you don’t feel the support, you don’t take the decision,” he explained on his reason to sacrifice a rumoured €18 million annual contract for 2024 to join a Ducati satellite effort.

“It’s true that I’m in the Gresini team. It’s true that I’m riding with the 2023 bike, but this is something that I already knew. Always I feel a lot of respect, and this was and is important for my confidence.”

Full coverage of the 2024 MotoGP season can be seen on TNT Sports. The British Grand Prix takes place at Silverstone on Aug 2-4

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