May 22, 2024

Motorcyling’s premier competition returns to action this weekend as Qatar turns host for the season-opening MotoGP race on Sunday.

The Lusail International Circuit will host an 11-lap sprint race on Saturday and the main 22-lap race on Sunday, with Francesco Bagnaia favourite to clinch his third successive title in the competition’s 75th year.

Bagnaia and his Ducati Lenovo outfit will be the team to beat once again in a season that features 21 rounds, finishing in Valencia, Spain on November 17.

This year’s race will mark Qatar’s 21st MotoGP event as it joined the Grand Prix calendar in 2004.

Here are three major offseason talking points ahead of the all-important Round 1 at Lusail International Circuit:

1. Can Yamaha return to winning ways in 2024?

Winless in 2023, Monster Energy Yamaha have worked hard in the offseason to narrow the gap with the dominant Ducati machinery.

This season could be a make-or-break year for the famous Yamaha brand with the team assembling two of the most gifted riders to supercharge their 2024 campaign: Fabio Quartararo and Yamaha newcomer Alex Rins.

Quartararo, who became France’s first-ever premier-class world champion in 2021, endured a brutal 2023 season, finishing the campaign winless. It was the first time Yamaha failed to win a single Grand Prix since 2003.

Rins’s season was derailed by injury – but not before the Spaniard pulled off an on-track miracle for his underpowered LCR Honda team bike, securing the Japanese manufacturers’ only 2023 victory at the US MotoGP in Texas.

Monster Energy Yamaha were the last team to beat Ducati for a MotoGP world championship during Quatararo’s iconic 2021 title run.

In 2024 pre-season testing in Qatar and Malaysia, there have been positive signs for Yamaha – but so far they still lack the raw, one-lap pace of the Ducati.

During the Qatar Grand Prix, Quartararo and Rins will likely rely on Yamaha’s nimbler handling and braking advantages around the Lusail circuit to challenge the more powerful Ducati bikes. Yamaha is the most successful manufacturer at the Qatar Grand Prix, with 10 MotoGP victories.

Monster Energy Yamaha last won the Qatar MotoGP in 2021.

Fabio Quartararo (screen left) and Alex Rins at the 2024 Monster Energy Yamaha M1 bike launch at Gerno di Lesmo, Italy on February 3, 2024 (Photo courtesy: Monster Energy Yamaha Factory Team)
Fabio Quartararo (left) and Alex Rins at the 2024 Monster Energy Yamaha M1 bike launch at Gerno di Lesmo, Italy on February 3, 2024 [Courtesy of Monster Energy Yamaha Factory Team]

2. Can anyone stop the MotoGP world champion?

Just as he did last year, world champion Francesco Bagnaia heads into a new MotoGP season as the clear title favourite on the back of his 2022 and 2023 world riders’ championships.

Two weeks ago, Bagnaia’s GP24 Ducati was the class of the field in Qatar pre-season testing with the Italian smashing the one-lap record at Lusail.

Now 27, Bagnaia is entering the prime of his career on a spectacular Ducati machine – a frightening proposition for his fellow competitors heading into the 2024 season.

But he won’t have the riders’ championship all his own way.

His Lenovo Ducati teammate, Enea Bastianini, put an injury-ridden 2023 season behind him to record the second-fastest time in Qatar pre-season testing and is primed for a breakout season.

The 2023 MotoGP runner-up Jorge Martin is also riding the same technical specification Ducati as Bagnaia at the satellite Pramac Racing team. Last season, the Spaniard relentlessly battled Bagnaia right through to a final race title showdown in one of the closest MotoGP rider championships ever.

If last season was any guide, then the 2024 MotoGP campaign might turn out to be one of the most competitive title fights in recent history with several highly-talented riders entering the championship mix.

2023 MotoGP World Champion rider Francesco Bagnaia of the Ducati Lenovo Team celebrates after the Valencia Motorcycle Grand Prix, the last race of the season, at the Ricardo Tormo circuit near Valencia, Spain, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
2023 MotoGP World Champion rider Francesco Bagnaia of the Ducati Lenovo Team celebrates after the Valencia Motorcycle Grand Prix, the last race of the season, at the Ricardo Tormo circuit near Valencia, Spain [File: Alberto Saiz/AP]

3. Will Marc Marquez’s bold team switch win him a seventh World MotoGP title in 2024?

He’s the man everyone is talking about ahead of the Qatar MotoGP season opener.

In a sensational move, six-time MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez left huge dollars on the table at the Repsol Honda factory team – the only outfit he had ever rode for in the premier class – to ride with his brother Alex at Gresini Ducati.

Marquez struggled in 2023 – crashing his Honda frequently, failing to record a single race victory and finishing a career-low 14th position in the riders’ championship.

The legendary Spaniard last won the MotoGP riders’ title in 2019 – but since then, it’s all been downhill for Marquez with multiple serious injuries and an underperforming Honda bike resulting in just six, top-three finishes in the past four seasons.

Now 31, and with a clear realisation that the Ducati – any Ducati – is the dominant race machine, Marquez was simply running out of time with Honda to mount a 7th MotoGP title charge.

Marquez showed glimpses of talent in pre-season testing on the Gresini Ducati – but some critics believe he is struggling to master the vastly different technical set-up of the new Italian bike.

Others speculate that the manically competitive Marquez was “foxing” in the pre-season and contend that the Spanish superstar will immediately challenge for race victories.

Exactly how Marquez performs in Qatar on March 9-10 will hold early clues as to his chances of pulling off a surprise world riders’ championship title in 2024.

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Gresini Racing’s Spanish rider Marc Marquez steers his bike on the second day of the MotoGP pre-season testing at the Lusail International Circuit in Lusail [Karim Jaafar/AFP]

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