The Answer to the Ducati MotoGP Question Never Gets Clearer

Ducati has already secured part of its MotoGP future, but answering the question of how to approach the second half never seems to get easier

Jorge Martin, Marc Marquez, 2024 MotoGP French Grand Prix podium. - Gold and Goose

The best thing Francesco Bagnaia ever did was win two MotoGP world titles in a row. Apologies for the hard truth off the bat.

It may be something we have to remind ourselves of every other week, but Bagnaia has been the best MotoGP rider in the world for almost two calendar years now. Since 2021, he’s won 20 MotoGP races, which is comfortably more than anyone else in that time.

Third on that list is Bagnaia’s main title rival from last year, Pramac Ducati’s Jorge Martin, whose French Grand Prix success last weekend moved him onto seven MotoGP Grand Prix victories. 

Although Martin ultimately came up 36 points short compared to Bagnaia last year, he’s currently 38 points ahead of him: Bagnaia hasn’t finished either of the last two Sprints, and Martin beat him straight-up in the GP yesterday to equal Bagnaia on two Sunday race wins in 2024. 

Such was the extent of Martin’s title contention last year, there were several scenarios playing out towards the end of the year that could have seen the #89 switch to the factory Ducati team for 2024 in place of Enea Bastianini. The first came up at the Malaysian Grand Prix, but Martin finished fourth and Bastianini won his first race in red. The second happened at the finale, after which the defeated Martin revealed that he had black Alpinestars leathers ready for the test in case he was switching teams, which would reportedly have happened had he beaten Bagnaia to the title that weekend.

After Valencia, Martin told Autosport that “if I didn’t show [in 2023] my potential to be in red, I will never be in red.” It was a similar message from Martin after his Le Mans triumph, if presented in a more optimistic way. “I feel this weekend I was the number one, absolutely,” Martin told the post-race press conference in Le Mans.

It’s true. Martin was the best on Sunday. He was also the best on Saturday, as he had been on Saturday at the Spanish Grand Prix, and on Saturday at the Qatar Grand Prix. On Sunday at the Portuguese Grand Prix, too, Martin was the best. Not only the best Ducati rider but the best rider full-stop. The frequency of Martin’s superiority this year is born out in that 38-point championship lead, as is the inconsistency of Bagnaia whose second-place qualifying in France was his first front row of the year, who is without a Sprint podium in 2024, and whose third-place in the GP at Le Mans was only his third podium of this season.

Fortunately for Bagnaia, he did the best thing he could possibly do in this scenario, and that is to enter it as a two-time World Champion. Ducati was practically forced to give him a contract, and he’s set up in Bologna until the end of 2026. Martin can’t replace him, only join him in the Ducati Lenovo Team.

Or can he?

There was a third member of the fight for the win in Le Mans yesterday: Marc Marquez. He was beaten late-on by Bagnaia in Spain, but demoted the reigning champion to third place in France on the last lap, and arguably had the best late-race speed of all three riders at Le Mans.

Marquez famously joined Gresini Ducati this year to ride the year-old Desmosedici GP23 after spending the first 11 years of his MotoGP career on the once-dominant, now-dormant Honda RC213V. It was a move that brought him into the Bologna house of Ducati that had desperately tried - and failed - to figure out how to beat Marquez to a MotoGP title throughout the 2010s. It was a move that meant that Ducati could now win with Marquez, rather than against him.

But only sort of. The bike Marquez rides might have been built in Bologna and have the word “Ducati” slapped on its fairing, but none of the people who pay for Ducati to go racing - Monster Energy, Lenovo, and perhaps most importantly Audi - have a single sticker on the light-blue #93 Gresini GP23.

Answering the questions from your corporate, non-racer partners why the money they gave you only got you beat by another guy on the bike you won with last year is - I imagine - awkward at best. So, corporately speaking if nothing else, Ducati needs Marquez in the factory team. Sorry, Jorge.

Except Marquez isn’t winning. He hasn’t won a single race yet in 2024, is 40 points out of the championship lead and, as attested to by Fabio Di Giannantonio after Jerez, he can’t turn right.

Instead, it’s Martin who’s doing those things right now, most importantly he’s doing more winning than anyone else. So, sorry Marc.

But, it’s still not as simple as that. Marquez came from 13th to second in both races in France, and on Sunday in particular he displayed superior race pace in the latter half of the contest - better than both Bagnaia and Martin. He did the same in Jerez, where he lost out on victory partly for Bagnaia’s stout defence and partly for the front tyre pressure spike caused by following Bagnaia for one lap too many. 

So, although Martin has the on-paper results, it might actually be the 31-year-old, eight-times World Champion who has the greater potential. Might be. Marquez is five races into his Ducati career and is already a regular contender for race wins despite being on year-old machinery and with less factory support than the two riders he faced off against in the final five laps of the French Grand Prix. 

It’s hard to imagine that Marquez is at the limit of his potential with Ducati, or that he's as close to it as Bagnaia and Martin, simply because he’s so fresh to it. But Martin’s current level has been developed over the course of three-and-a-bit seasons of racing the Desmosedici: winning on it as a rookie, struggling with the cast-away factory engines in year two, contending for the title in year three, and now being the Desmosedici’s most consistent performer in 2024.

So, who does Ducati sign? Martin? Or Marquez? It’s a marvellous dilemma to have: Do you want the fastest guy in the world? Or the best rider in the history of the sport? Both are clearly capable of winning, both have the speed to do so, and both are also perfectly capable of rocking up to Noale on 1 January and engineering a plan to do that winning on an Aprilia RS-GP instead.

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