Why Ducati suddenly seems vulnerable in MotoGP 2024 opener

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“Looks like he’s the favourite for tomorrow.”

You’d expect this to be said about a Ducati rider on the eve of the 2024 Qatar Grand Prix – after all, a Ducati won four of the last five grands prix at Lusail, won the track’s first sprint in 2023 and has now won the second sprint, too, with Jorge Martin leading every lap en route to victory on Saturday, the day before the main event. And Ducati hasn’t lost a MotoGP race of any kind since last September.

Yet Marc Marquez wasn’t talking about Martin when he picked his Qatar GP favourite.

He was talking about Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro, whose tyre management on the way to third in the sprint caught the eye of the six-time MotoGP champion.

While the two riders ahead of the Aprilia – Martin and KTM’s Brad Binder – were in the low-1m53s to finish the 11-lap sprint, Espargaro was in the high-1m52s, having just overtaken Pecco Bagnaia and coming up at quite the rate on Binder.

And from where Martin sits, as happy as he was to take an eighth sprint win in the last nine attempts, he sounded distinctly unconvinced about his prospects of doubling up on Sunday.

“I feel like Brad and Aleix have a bit better pace at the moment,” he admitted. “Let’s see if we can keep them behind.

“Here at least, they [KTM and Aprilia] are closer. For this track, they will be really difficult to beat tomorrow.”

CHATTER

The culprit for Martin is an issue that had already alarmed him in the test – chattering on the rear, which he thought may have been fixed but is now convinced hasn’t truly gone away.

“I think it will be much worse,” he said of how that issue projected for the 22-lap grand prix.

“I don’t want to speak a lot about it – I don’t know if I can – but for sure I couldn’t ride perfectly, I felt a bit too much on the limit.

“Hopefully we have some ideas for tomorrow, but it’s quite tight to try in the warm-up. So tomorrow will be a difficult race.”

Martin was surprised to have retained something of a buffer over Binder coming into the final lap – and feels that “without that pole position, or even if Brad overtook me in the first corner, I wouldn’t have won”.

And he says the dreaded chatter is present on other riders’ data, too, while suspecting it is more of an issue with the 2024-spec Ducati than its predecessor.

BAGNAIA’S SETBACK

Martin’s 2023 title rival Bagnaia was more upset about his minor qualifying error than his chatter – a brief off-track excursion (that didn’t erase his lap as it wasn’t deemed advantageous) that left him fifth on the grid.

“I compromised the result in qualifying a bit,” he said. “I lost the front row, or the pole position.”

But that still looked fixable, given he was bearing down on Binder mid-race for second place, only to swiftly run out of steam.

There was a chatter issue here, too, indeed – something that Bagnaia, unlike Martin, says he didn’t really experience in the test – but one he linked to a spiking tyre pressure on the rear. “Maybe we have to rebalance a bit,” he concurred.

Nonetheless, he was impressed with his rivals – particularly with Espargaro.

“For me, KTM was more or less similar to us. Aprilia was interesting in the last laps.

“Maybe not in the explosive way, because at the start they were struggling a bit more, but in the last two-three laps they were gaining four-five tenths.

“And this was interesting to watch. I understood many things behind Aleix in the last lap that I followed.”

THE PARTY-CRASHERS

So can the lead KTM or the lead Aprilia deny the Ducati juggernaut a much-anticipated season-opening win?

The answer seems an undoubted yes – but the path there isn’t 100% straightforward for either.

Binder was the beneficiary – and the author – of another “rocket” start and looked in prime position to capitalise on any Ducati weakness on Saturday already. “Obviously I wanted to win,” was how he put it.

“And, honestly, I went to sleep last night knowing that I probably could. But clearly today we were missing out a little bit.”

He felt like he was being beaten on acceleration – so his hope will have to be that this deficit will be negated by a more linear drop-off in performance.

For Espargaro, the race distance is unquestionably on his side here. It’s just all about the start – he was down to fourth from second off the line, and described Aprilia’s work on the clutch as progress but “not enough” – and struggling in battle in the early laps.

“I’m very positive for the long-distance race. I suffered more the first five laps [of the sprint] than the second five laps,” he said.

“The first five, when everybody uses a lot of power, a lot of torque – nothing I could do. I braked very late, but couldn’t catch them on acceleration. We have no more power to put on the floor.

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia, Qatar MotoGP sprint 2024

“But after five-six laps, when the tyre grip dropped, I maintained my acceleration – and they dropped a lot.

“In the apex of the corner, it [the Aprilia] is unbelievable. I have a Formula 1 [car].

“It’s amazing to ride this bike. I enjoyed today a lot, especially in corners 12-13-14-15. It’s crazy, the speed you can carry in the middle of the fast corners.”

Does KTM and Aprilia looking so menacing for Sunday suggest, then, that the season will be closer between manufacturers than anticipated?

Both Martin and Espargaro are not so sure, Martin suggesting that the Desmosedici was still crucially more complete out of the box and that everybody having data from two days of pre-season testing was skewing things and reducing the advantage Ducati might get at tracks where rivals don’t get so much mileage to help them catch up.

Espargaro struck a similar note.

“I don’t know if this [top three] is the truth, because we did many days of testing here,” he said.

“But in any case, Brad and I showed that we’re going to fight like lions, to put our bikes on top, to fight Ducatis.”

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