We might be about to have the longest season ever, with 22 rounds and 44 races, including the Sprint races, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wait between the end of last season and the start of this year is interminable; March still seems like a long way away.
It promises to be a fascinating season, which only adds to the impatience. The prospect of seeing Marc Marquez on a Ducati is something to savour: we all know the troubles of previously dominant riders jumping onto a machine from Bologna – Rossi and Lorenzo spring to mind – but the modern Ducati is a completely different beast to five or ten years ago and there is no doubt that Marquez is an other-worldly talent, but how he will fare on a bike that has not been tailored around his riding style is another matter. There will be many fans who will rejoice if he doesn’t make the grade and walks away with his tail between his legs but I won’t be one of them: MotoGP needs Marquez to be fighting at the front.
Actually, MotoGP needs all teams and riders to be fighting at the front, even though it has rarely happened throughout the history of the sport. But there’s the possibility that 2024 could see another season with multiple winners – we had eight different winners in 2023, nine in 2020 and 2016 – and another title fight that goes down to the wire.
It’s fairly safe to assume Ducati will be dominant again, with KTM hopefully keeping Ducati honest. KTM has mercurial talent Pedro Acosta on its strength, riding for GasGas, which is, of course, a KTM in different colours, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts once again in the short period that has been his career in top-flight racing. The KTM/GasGas has been getting better and better every year but lacking that final leap required to challenge Ducati at every circuit, which is doubly difficult to achieve given Ducati’s rate of development. Could Acosta come in and embarrass the factory KTMs? Now, that would be worth seeing and would really shake up the riders’ market in 2025, with a lot of contracts up at the end of 2024 (only Binder, Marini and Zarco are guaranteed a seat in 2025, Binder for 2026 also).
But there is also strength in depth in the factory KTM team. Brad Binder remains with KTM, as does Jack Miller. Binder had a solid season in 2023 and it would be easy to point to Miller’s lack of success on a bike that is a proven winner in the hands of his teammate (and Miguel Oliveira) and express disappointment. The suspicion was forming that he might not be as good as we all like – and want – to think but listen to the insiders at KTM and they have nothing but praise for his talent and work ethic and he is universally loved at the Austrian manufacturer. As his team boss pointed out, he was faster at every circuit in 2023 than he was in 2022. It’s just that other riders had also improved, thus putting Miller’s achievements slightly in the shade.
Sometimes he ran at the front but other times he languished down the order, unable to display his talent, but to take his 2023 performance without understanding what was going on in the background at KTM would be to do the man a disservice.
Elsewhere, we have Alex Rins jumping onto the Yamaha from LCR Honda, riding alongside Fabio Quartararo. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, given Yamaha’s dire 2023 but, as Cal Crutchlow, Yamaha’s test rider, said, neither Yamaha nor Honda have forgotten how to build a good motorcycle and they will do so again. If you listen to those who can be reliably said to be in the know, it is the Japanese way of working that is to blame, with decisions about radical changes taking too long and the factories not being flexible enough in terms of the speed of design thought necessary. If that is true, then both Yamaha and Honda are aware of this and it is hard to believe they won’t be making changes in order to catch up.
There is no doubt Honda paid the price for concentrating too much on Marquez’ input into the RC213V’s development which bit them in the arse when he was sidelined by injury in 2020. In the three years that followed, Honda looked completely at sea, failing its riders hugely. Have they done enough for 2024 to address the problems around the bike? Joan Mir is joined by ex-VR46 rider Luca Marini and, whilst it has to be tempting to accept a factory seat, you have to wonder how many questions are running around Marini’s head.
It’s the same for Johann Zarco, who leaves Ducati, after scoring his maiden victory in Australia, to jump onto the LCR Honda seat vacated by Alex Rins. There’s no doubt it was a big money move and perhaps it was that that swayed the Frenchman’s mind, given his age and the fact that he doesn’t have all that many years left in MotoGP. It seems ridiculous to talk of a sportsman’s career being almost over at the age of 34 or 35 but that’s just the way of it. Rossi competing into his 40s was the exception rather than the rule but even the most ardent Rossi fan would admit that he was past his best when he finally retired and was no longer the force he once was.
Rossi being Rossi, however, he still had a reputation as a rider who wasn’t very far off the top of his game when he retired, a stark contrast to some sportsmen throughout history who have carried on long after they should have hung up whatever sports kit they wore. The other factor, of course, is – and always has been – just how much punishment the body can take in a sport that is relentlessly hard on it as bike racing is. There must come a point where you’re simply not prepared to risk your life or, at least your mobility, if all you can expect is to be finishing way down the result sheet. James Hunt was the perfect example of this: he was only excited and enthused about racing if he knew he had a chance of winning, otherwise, he wasn’t interested, for exactly that very reason.
Anyway, I digress. Zarco is at LCR, while Fabio DiGianantonio was thrown a last-minute lifeline (it was all rather distasteful how he was made to feel very much like a second choice after Acosta was signed to KTM and Marini went to Honda) to take Marini’s seat at VR46. If Ducati has a lot of bikes on the grid, they’ve also made sure they have some brilliant talent riding them: mixing the experience and race-craft of Marquez and Bagnaia, into the same performance pot as Alex Marquez, Bastianini, Bezzecchi, Martin, Morbidelli (from Yamaha) and DiGianantonio can only mean fireworks.
Let’s not forget Aprilia, either. If they can continue the upward trend in the efficiency of their design and engineering, then I would love to see them mount a proper, consistent challenge for the title: don’t mind which rider is leading the challenge – I just want to see that team winning more races.
On that basis, it’s going to be a great season of racing. I can’t see Honda or Yamaha getting it right just yet so it’s up to KTM and Aprilia to challenge Ducati. It could be that there is so much infighting in the Ducati camp in the races, with all of their eight riders snatching points away from their stablemates, that consistent podiums could see a non-Ducati rider right up there in the championship table. You’ve got to admit it’s unlikely and that, really, wins are the only way to guarantee being in the top three or four but it’s happened before.
As usual, the only thing we do know for certain is that, despite the predictions, we don’t know anything: we actually have no idea until the lights go out for the first Sprint race in March. And that’s still a bloody long way off!