Bagnaia is ’23 MotoGP champ but Márquez already ’24 favorite

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The 2023 MotoGP season boasted one of the tightest title fights in recent memory. Throughout the campaign, momentum swung back and forth, like a pendulum, between Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martín.

The series reached its crescendo at the final round in Valencia over the weekend. Prima Pramac Ducati’s Martín ate into Bagnaia’s advantage during Saturday’s Sprint race, but the factory Ducati Lenovo rider clinched his second straight world championship in Sunday’s grand prix.

Bagnaia was able to enjoy the spotlight that shines on a double world champion for all of 48 hours before the two-wheeled world turned its attention elsewhere.

You see, not only does Valencia serve as each season’s finale, it also marks the beginning of the next campaign. The curtain fell on 2023 on Sunday night at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, but on Tuesday morning, the track hosted the first preseason test of 2024.

It just so happened to be the most highly anticipated preseason test in more than a dozen years.

In October, it was announced that six-time MotoGP world champion Marc Márquez would be leaving Repsol Honda, the only team he’s known in his 11-year premier-class career. A week later, Gresini Racing confirmed that the 30-year-old Spaniard would join them in 2024, riding the same Ducati Desmosedici GP23 that won 13 races in 2023 — with the year-old GP22 making it 17 from 20 for the Italian manufacturer.

While Márquez has a reputation as one of the greatest riders in the sport’s history, it’s been four years since his last championship and he’s tasted victory just three times since.

In the opening race of the 2020 season, he suffered a career-threatening humorous fracture, an injury that took him nearly three full years to recover from. In that time, his once-mighty Honda RC213V had become the slowest and most unruly bike on the grid, preventing him from truly competing with the likes of Bagnaia, Martín, 2021 world champion Fabio Quartararo and the rest of the new wave of riders who’ve emerged in his absence.

Tuesday’s Valencia test marked the first time Márquez would ride a truly capable motorcycle in at least four years. This would be an event. MotoMatters’ David Emmett noted that the grandstands open to the public to the event were full, traffic to the circuit backed up to the motorway, as if it were race day.

Márquez may have kept everyone waiting, but he didn’t disappoint.

The man adorned in a striking navy-and-red livery didn’t take to the track until more than an hour of the day’s session had passed. His first foray out of the Gresini garage saw him emerge through throngs of photographers, journalists and lookers-on, all with cameras or phones in hand hoping to capture this moment in history.

After his first seven-lap stint on the GP23, he’d already set the third-quickest time of the day.

When the checkered flag fell on Tuesday, Márquez had completed 49 laps and logged the fourth-fastest time, just 0.171 second behind the leader. It was a remarkable accomplishment considering his closest rivals on the timesheets were riding evolutions of the same bikes they’d just spent the entirety of the 2023 season on, while Márquez had barely amassed an hour and 15 minutes of seat time on his Ducati.

And yet, no one was surprised.

“What were people expecting,” asked Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig, who’s worked with Márquez for six years. “It’s quite obvious for us. We know the rider and we can see the potential of [the Ducati]. Zero surprise.”

Bagnaia even predicted it.

“I was saying some races ago to a journalist that [Márquez] would be first in the first test,” the 26-year-old Italian said on Tuesday evening. “I missed [my prediction] by three or four positions, but I think he can be really happy with the bike.”

That much was evident in Márquez’s facial expressions upon returning to the Gresini garage after his first stint aboard the Ducati. He was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

His new Ducati stablemates Bagnaia, Martín, Enea Bastianini, Marco Bezzecchi and Fabio Di Giannantonio all did plenty of smiling this season, each taking at least one grand prix victory. Beyond Bagnaia’s pair of MotoGP titles, this quintet can lay claim to 43 premier-class wins and three junior-class championships, so there can be no doubting their capabilities, but their dominance in 2023 is also a testament to the might of the Desmosedici.

The same Desmosedici that will now be in the hands of a man who himself has 59 senior-class victories and two junior-class titles to go along with his six MotoGP championships.

Márquez risked life and limb to drag his Honda anywhere near the front of the field this season. He claimed one grand prix podium and three more in Sprint races, while the three other Honda riders combined for just two across all 40 grands prix and Sprints. He also crashed 29 times, the most get-offs of any season in his premier-class career, leading him to concede that he could no longer justify the risk required to run at the front with such uncompetitive machinery.

If his first laps aboard a Ducati Desmosedici GP23 are any indication, he won’t need to risk anywhere near as much in 2024. That should ensure Márquez is still smiling 12 months from now in Valencia, but for the rest of the Italian marque’s riders, their grins may soon become grimaces.

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