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MotoGP 2024: Catalunya – A Weekend of Highs & Lows

Image source: GASGAS Tech 3

Time to forget all the behind-the-scenes rumour, conjecture and surmise and spend a weekend racing. That is, after all, why we are here.

There was one bit of news that cast a mild pall over the paddock and that was the news that Aleix Espargaro would be retiring at the end of the season. It’s bitter-sweet, really; he’ll be properly missed but he’s a dedicated family man and we can’t wish him anything other than happiness as he gets to dedicate his life to them. Fourteen years of top-flight racing takes its toll on a rider’s family and, if Espargaro can retire healthy, having provided for that family handsomely, then he can consider it a job well done.

Image source: MotoGP

Not only that but he’s developed the Aprilia into a winning machine that is one of the more attractive packages on the grid, repaying his employers many times over. Espargaro will in all likelihood take up a testing and development role for one of the factories and that might include the odd wild-card ride so it won’t be the last that we see of him and that’s good for everyone.

On Saturday morning, he proved that last year’s double victory – Sprint and Main – was no fluke as he powered to pole position, with a new lap record on the way. What a dream it would be for him to race in front of his home crowd for the last time and end the weekend with another pair of wins. Even one would do!

Image source: MotoGP

What a topsy-turvy qualifying it was. At first, in Q1, it looked a shoe-in for the Marquez brothers as they rode in line astern – Marc following, as he so often does, although this time with the permission of his brother – to set the top two times. But from out of nowhere, Raul Fernandez on the Trackhouse Aprilia set a new lap record, beating the one set by Aleix Espargaro in Friday practice.

On his second run, Fernandez then beat his own time, setting another new lap record, before Fabio DiGiannantonio went out and set another new lap record to bump Marquez out of the top two, miring him down in an eventual 14th on the grid for race day.

Image source: Trackhouse

And then, in Q2, Espargaro did it again and set yet another new lap record to take pole in his home race, with Bagnaia and Binder joining him on the front row, although that was later turned into fourth on the grid when Fernandez’ previously cancelled lap was reinstated.

Sprint Race

If Espargaro failed to convert pole position into first on the road as the race started, then at least he wasn’t left behind, sitting in a close sixth. But that in no way explains what was happening at the front, which was a whole load of chaos.

First Bagnaia lead from Acosta and Binder. Then Acosta led. Then Fernandez led and Bagnaia was down to fourth. Then Fernandez crashed out of the lead. Binder now leads. Marquez was up to fifth from 14th on the grid. Then Binder threw it away, so Bagnaia led again. Then things calmed down for a few moments, with small gaps between Bagnaia, Espargaro and Acosta. Then Bagnaia crashed on the last lap, leaving Espargaro in front, while Marquez had got past Acosta. Martin, who had been having a lacklustre race with no grip from his rear tyre, found himself in fourth; proper damage limitation as he really wasn’t in contention throughout the race, profiting from the mistakes of those in front of him. He now leads the championship by 37 points from Marc Marquez.

Image source: MotoGP

It’s hard to choose who was the most disappointed or, conversely, who was the most overjoyed at the end of the race. Naturally, Espargaro, in front of his home crowd, was overjoyed, but Marquez in second had every right to be just as happy, especially as he had been pushed all the way by Acosta; from failing to get through Q1 to a podium is becoming a bit of a habit.

Image source: MotoGP

Fernandez admitted to crying with frustration, Binder was philosophical and Bagnaia seemed simply confused.

Main Race

He might be a two-time world champion, but it’s amazing how inconsistent Pecco Bagnaia can be. I’m racking my brains to think of another rider who crashes out of the lead in one race and then goes on to win the very next race, the next day! Catalunya made it three race weekends in a row where he failed to finish the Sprint race. However, his intelligence in the Main race was unsurpassed as he managed his rear tyre to perfection, dictating the pace in the early stages and not getting caught up in fights with Martin or Acosta when they passed him but saving enough to pass and leave Martin trailing when it was important.

Image source: MotoGP

By recent standards, it wasn’t a vintage race. In fact, if it wasn’t for the rookie and the multiple world champion, it could have been a very dull affair. The rookie, of course, is Pedro Acosta, who ran a close second to Bagnaia and led very briefly, before being demoted to third by Jorge Martin, but then made that second again when he got past Bagnaia, who had been overtaken by Martin. It was a ridiculously strong showing – as we have become used to – but was ultimately for nothing as he slid innocuously off on lap eleven. He remounted and re-joined dead last but still managed to finish in 13th place, with a hugely damaged aero, which will be galling for the four Hondas, who finished in line astern behind him.

Image source: GASGAS Tech 3

The multiple world champion mentioned is Marc Marquez who, yet again, converted a Q1 qualifying position – 14th in this case – to a podium finish, this time at the sad expense of Aleix Espargaro, who was mere metres away from a second podium of the weekend in front of his adoring home crowd. What made it more remarkable – Marquez’ performance, that is – is that he was running a soft rear tyre, to everyone else’s medium; how he made it not only last but had performance left in it at the end of the race to resist a very quick and determined Espargaro is anyone’s guess.

Image source: MotoGP

If it wasn’t Martin’s best weekend, it also wasn’t his worst, either; no wins but still an increased lead in the championship, albeit by only a few points but, still a lead that will need a lot of misfortune to lose. Mind you, MotoGP 2024 has taught us that any slip can be punished mercilessly by the vultures riding right behind you – in both the race and the championship table – waiting to pounce on your carcass. He can crash out of the next Sprint and Main race and still lead the championship but he’ll desperately want to protect that points lead. Given his success rate in the Sprint races, it would be a brave fool who would bet against him adding to his tally in those races.

Image source: MotoGP

As usual, there were a lot of questions and answers. The main questions have to revolve around Marquez and Acosta; when will either of them win a race? Given Marquez’s pace in both the Sprint and Main race, surely he would have been in the fight for the win had he qualified better? As it is, to reach the podium in both races from 14th on the grid makes you wonder what everyone else was doing! On Acosta, we can be a little more forgiving, given that he is still a very raw rookie but, because of his performances, we tend to expect more of him and it is definitely a case of when, and not if, he wins a race. Won’t that set the cat among the pigeons!

The main thing to love about Acosta – and it reminds us of all the greats who have emerged over the years – is that he is a complete natural and no respecter of reputation. He’s got pace and is still finding the limits, which is why he has started crashing in recent races. Marquez said a few weeks ago that he is not crashing so much at the moment because he has not found the limit of the Ducati; god help the rest of the field when he does find the limit, backs off a little and starts winning.

Image source: MotoGP

Oh, and there’s another question; what are the other KTM/GasGas riders thinking when a rookie is out-performing them on the same bike? Brad Binder is doing everything expected of him and would be more successful but for bad luck, but Jack Miller has to feel the cold draught of demotion blowing on his neck. It can’t be a pleasant feeling.

Image source: KTM

Enea Bastiannini did his chances of retaining his seat at the Factory Ducati table no good in Catalunya; even if the team agreed with his decision to ignore the first long lap penalty, resulting in a second being awarded and a 30-second penalty being added to his race time, dropping him out of the points, he was never really in contention, a situation he can’t afford with Martin and Marquez snapping at his heels in the race for a seat alongside Bagnaia.

Image source: Ducati

In terms of that, the likelihood of Marquez joining the factory team might be an administrative nightmare too far. Marquez is a Red Bull contracted rider, but Ducati has ties with Monster Energy. Also, his ties with Samsung, Allianz and Oakley also clash with Ducati’s major sponsors.

With that in mind, one possible outcome would be that Ducati retains Marquez by giving him a factory bike at Gresini. That way, Ducati gets to keep arguably the best talent on the grid, without having to pay him – directly from the factory, that is.

Image source: MotoGP

If Jorge Martin unfathomably misses out on the factory Ducati seat, then he will lose faith in Ducati and depart for new pastures. Quite where that might be is unclear, although there is a seat at Aprilia going spare. KTM/GasGas have a surfeit of good riders, so no space there. Would he really want to go to Yamaha or Honda? Of course, he might be in the pound seat as and when either team hits a rich seam of development, especially coming into the new regulations from 2027 onward, but is that too big a risk?

We’ve only a week to wait for Mugello, which is also the date by which Ducati has promised to announce its decision. It will be a relief to have everything for 2025 settled soon, so we can really concentrate on the racing.

Image source: MotoGP
Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
From an early age, Harry was obsessed with anything that moved under its own steam, particularly cars and motorcycles. For reasons of a financial nature, his stable of fine automobiles failed to materialise, at which point he realised that motorcycles were far more affordable and so he started his two wheel career, owning, riding, building and fixing many classic bikes. Then came the day when he converted his love of bikes into a living, writing, filming and talking about them endlessly. The passion for four wheels never left him, however, and he has now converted his writing skills into singing the praises of cars in all their infinite variety. Bikes are still his favourite means of getting around but the car in its modern form is reaching a level of perfection that is hard to resist. And they're warmer in winter....