Is MotoGP 2024 about to get another new frontrunner?

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Because of the admittedly very particular circumstances of his off-season, Franco Morbidelli is something of a walking contradiction in terms of his MotoGP status right now.

On the one hand, with the rider market permanently in gear, he is already inevitably on a ‘hot seat’ of sorts with his future beyond 2024 highly uncertain.

Assuming his current Pramac team continues with Ducati, one of the seats within it has already been filled by Moto2 hotshot Fermin Aldeguer.

The other is vacant but seems a logical spot for either one of the two star riders who by necessity will miss out in the Enea Bastianini/Jorge Martin/Marc Marquez battle for the second Ducati works ride in 2025, or a top outside recruit. It is, after all, such a good seat, even if Morbidelli’s team-mate Martin seems willing to give it up.

On the other hand… again, it is such a good seat – so good that there’s a strong argument to be made that Morbidelli has enjoyed the biggest machinery upgrade from 2023 to 2024 up and down the MotoGP grid. The only other contenders there are probably Pedro Acosta (a pure technicality – yes, the MotoGP bike is much faster than his Moto2 bike, but in terms of competitiveness his Ajo-run KTM-coloured Kalex was a great machine) and Marc Marquez (the ’23 Honda was probably worse than Morbidelli’s ’23 Yamaha, but maybe not by as much in the long run as the ’23 Ducati is compared to the ’24 Ducati).

The question up to now this season has been – and remains – to what extent Morbidelli can actually use that elite machine at his disposal. And the primary culprit behind that question hasn’t been Morbidelli’s track record, but instead the injury he sustained in road bike testing at Portimao that denied him the entire pre-season and left him hopelessly outmatched in the season opener in Qatar.

That was entirely predictable. He rocked up to Lusail with minimal knowledge of the bike and a two-day Qatar-specific mileage deficit to literally everyone else on the grid. He qualified two seconds off and didn’t really trouble the points in either race, and all you could do is shrug and say ‘fair enough’.

But while Morbidelli himself was understandably very cagey and vague on when he expected to be on pace – and, really, perhaps he truly had no idea – his 2024 season flickered into life at Portimao.

The points did not reflect it, as Morbidelli produced another ‘bagel’, but you really didn’t have to dig much deeper to see credible signs that Ducati’s mighty MotoGP line-up is about to get even stronger.

He belongs now

Morbidelli was top-five in the grip-deficient opening session of the weekend, and was mounting a credible Q2 challenge in second Friday practice before a crash wrote it off.

He was buoyant by the day’s work despite that, saying his performance had surpassed his expectations – though it then dipped below expectations on Saturday as the track gripped up.

So the progress wasn’t exactly linear. But on Sunday, the performance was tangibly there again.

“We keep our learning curve with this bike,” he said. “And I can go home pretty satisfied.

“For sure, results-wise, not yet. But actually the rhythm was very acceptable and very decent, and that’s encouraging, because still I need to learn everything, I need to get in tune with everything.”

As an example of that, Morbidelli cited that he still didn’t have the reflex of even correctly getting off the pit limiter on pitlane exit.

“What I’m missing the most on the bike is knowledge and freedom of doing things by reflex. I need to think about too much on engaging the devices, on the gear lever that is different that I’m used to. I’m thinking a lot about things right now. And not focussing a lot on riding and maximising the riding.

“But that’s what happens when you don’t have kilometres, and we’re lacking that.”

This is entirely understandable for a rider who had spent the last five years on various Yamaha M1s. Marquez is going through a very similar thing right now on his ’23 bike, and you could argue he’s adapting better – but Morbidelli’s total write-off pre-season makes comparisons moot.

What matters is that he’s progressing with the Ducati and that he really likes it.

When asked to compare it to the Yamaha, Morbidelli batted that off – but in a way that can only be read as very complimentary of the Ducati. “I don’t want to make comparisons. That wouldn’t be… fair, according to me. I’d like to remain a gentleman on this,” he said.

He then added: “What I can say is that I feel good with this bike. I feel very good.

“If you check out the rhythm, also in the race – not having any… freedom on riding, without riding with freedom, just thinking about things, so having margin on many areas, the rhythm was still good. It was still good enough to be sixth-seventh.

“That’s… that was impressive, I was impressed by that.”

That’s no fib. You can absolutely make the case that Morbidelli had the pace for sixth-seventh already.

If you make a concession for his opening-lap crash (more on that later), remove also the next four laps as being skewed by him running in clean air while nearly everyone else is battling among one another and take off the final lap in which he seemingly made an error and then took it easy with nothing to really fight for, you get a virtual ‘race’ in which Morbidelli is seventh-fastest.

Aided by the Marquez and Pecco Bagnaia shunt, yes, but still slotting in between Jack Miller and Marco Bezzecchi. Properly competitive, in other words.

Of what he liked on the Desmosedici, Morbidelli said – as you’d expect – “the acceleration is very nice and controllable”, but then – as you’d expect – acknowledged that “there are many [more] areas where I feel good”.

“I feel very good with the package,” he said. “And I feel a lot of potential with the package.”

Unseen collision

But it would be wrong not to acknowledge also the reason why the discussions of what Morbidelli could’ve actually accomplished already at Portimao are taking place in the realm of theory.

Though his works Yamaha stint is by this point actually a little underrated – 2022 was absolute crud, but he was much more competitive relative to Fabio Quartararo in 2023 – one point that is undeniable is that he found himself in the stewards’ room a little too often.

There were penalties, some absolutely scathing criticism from rivals and even an infamous, bang-out-of-order slap that – without excusing it for a second – did at least originate in an on-track incident for which Morbidelli carried some culpability.

Now, another rider – Joan Mir – got stuck into Morbidelli for how he raced in the early laps at Portimao.

“I thought ‘f**k, on these positions you have to stay a bit calm on the first laps’. And this is the reality, because it’s a big mess and there’s a lot of bikes in front of you and you have to be a bit clever.

“But, yeah, Morbidelli wasn’t so.

“He just came to me, hit me with a lot of speed, I went out of the track at Turn 8. And my race was a little bit compromised.

“Let’s hope in the next one riders at the back think a little bit more in the first laps. That will be also safer for everyone.”

Mir said the incident would’ve warranted a penalty had Morbidelli not crashed – although Morbidelli himself dismissed what had transpired as “part of racing”, hinting that he felt he had the inside line.

As the incident itself wasn’t broadcast, nor caught on any of the publicly-available camera feeds, nor formally investigated, it ultimately goes down as a bit of ‘he said, he said’. Albeit with some physical evidence – Mir had a black stripe all across his leathers and the rear of his bike was clearly battle-scarred.

“The rear part of the bike, the wing tails and all these things, were gone. I didn’t have any one of them. Also the front wing was- was there but was shaking and moving a lot. Also the exhaust, pff,” was Mir’s summary.

Whatever the incident really was, it means Portimao can’t entirely go down in the books as a success for Morbidelli.

But the good news for him – and the ‘good’ news for Mir – is that there’s a good chance Morbidelli actually won’t be racing for the same positions as the Hondas all that often this season.

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