Friday, March 1, 2024

2024 MotoGP Season Preview

With so much going on, we start March with a MotoGP preview a week early. The 2024 calendar is set to grow by one round, even though one round has already been lost, as Francesco Bagnaia will chase his third consecutive world championship. 

Bagnaia will face increased competition, especially from within his own Ducati camp, as one of the best to ever race has changed manufacturers in hopes of a career Renaissance. For the second consecutive year, there is only one rookie on the grid, but this rider has high expectations after his success in the junior ranks. There is also a new team on the grid, represented by the Stars and Stripes. 

What was originally scheduled for 22 rounds, the 2024 MotoGP season will contest 21 races after the Argentine Grand Prix was canceled at the end of January. 

Qatar returns to the season opener spot, a night race on March 10 before the first European round a fortnight later in Portugal. After an extended break, the lone visit to the Western Hemisphere will be on April 14 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Two weeks after that, the series returns to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix from Jerez.

May begins with the French Grand Prix on May 12 with the Barcelona round moving back up to May 26 after taking place in September last year. A week after Barcelona will be the Italian Grand Prix from Mugello. This is the first of five instances of consecutive weekends with races in the 2024 season. 

After falling off the schedule in the middle of last year, Kazakhstan is scheduled for its debut race on June 16, two weeks prior to the Dutch TT from Assen. The German Grand Prix will lead MotoGP into its summer break on July 7. 

After a month off, the British Grand Prix will be held from Silverstone on August 4. Two weeks later, MotoGP will be in Austria at the Red Bull Ring. The European portion of the calendar closes with consecutive races over September 1 and 8 from the returning Aragón Grand Prix and Misano. 

The first half of the Asia-Pacific swing will have three consecutive races. India will be on September 22 with Indonesia on September 29 and then the Japanese Grand Prix on October 6. After a week off, the second three-week leg in the Pacific will begin in Australia on October 20 before Thailand on October 27 and then Malaysia on November 3. 

Valencia remains the host of the season finale, and the 2024 season concludes on November 17.

Ducati Lenovo Team
Riders: Francesco Bagnaia (#1 Ducati Desmosedici GP24) & Enea Bastianini (#23 Ducati Desmosedici GP24)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Bagnaia is the defending two-time champion, and he just smashed the track record during the Qatar test. However, Bastianini is healthy and he was on his teammates heels during testing as the Ducati riders went 1-2. This should be a much more competitive season between the Ducati factory riders, and if Bastianini is stealing points off Bagnaia, it will make a third consecutive championship hard to come by. 

In 2023, Bagnaia mostly skirted the crashing problem that plagued. If he has Bastianini breathing down his neck, will that cause him to fold into his old ways? 

An edge goes to Bagnaia, but this could be closer than most realize.

Where should Ducati finish in the championship?
It should be noted that the factory Ducati team did not win the Teams' Championship last year. It was second to Pramac Racing Ducati. If Bastianini is on form with Bagnaia, Ducati should be moving up to first. 

Prima Pramac Racing
Riders: Franco Morbidelli (#21 Ducati Desmosedici GP24) & Jorge Martín (#89 Ducati Desmosedici GP24)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Martín, as he is the returning rider from 2023 for Pramac. Martín was the surprise title contender last year, and part of that came down to his sprint race form. Martín won four grand prix last year and stood on the podium seven times. Morbidelli has not stood on the podium in his last 49 starts. His most recent trip to the rostrum was the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix from Jerez. 

Morbidelli takes over for Johann Zarco. The Yamaha had plenty of issues, but Morbidelli battled a few injuries over his last three seasons. The bike will no longer be the concern, but his health remains in question. Morbidelli was injured road bike testing in Portimão in January. He has yet to be cleared for the season opener. 

Until, we see Morbidelli on the bike, Martín is the undisputed leader at Pramac.

Where should Pramac finish in the championship?
For all the quips over Johann Zarco, he did finish fifth in the championship last year with a long-awaited victory in Australia, and that put Pramac ahead of the factory Ducati outfit for the Teams' Championship. However, if Morbidelli's production was already questionable, it certainly hasn't improved with his injury. Martín can only do so much, plus, other Ducati teams have strengthen. Expect a slide back for Pramac. It will finish fifth, but could risk sliding out of the top five altogether. 

Pertamina Enduro VR46 Racing Team
Riders: Fabio Di Giannantonio (#49 Ducati Desmosedici GP23) & Marco Bezzecchi (#72 Ducati Desmosedici GP23)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
This is a matchup between a rider who started 2023 strong and then faded versus a rider who had not done anything worth a damn in his first one-and-three-quarter seasons of his MotoGP career only to end on a heater and score his first career victory in the process to close out 2023. 

Bezzecchi should recover and resemble more of the rider we saw in the early portion of 2023. Di Giannantonio should still be good, but I don't think he will be matching the results we saw at the end of the season on a regular basis. A few trips to the podium would be good for him, but Bezzecchi should be the leader of VR46.

Where should VR46 finish in the championship?
Something tells me third again, but a slight slip to fourth wouldn't be the craziest result. 

Bezzecchi should be a little better than last year. Di Giannantonio should produce something, but I don't think he is going to blow out Luca Marini's points total. The two riders were near each other in testing, but they were the third best Ducati team in the test.

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Riders: Brad Binder (#33 KTM RC16) & Jack Miller (#43 KTM RC16)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
All Binder does is finish races and all Miller does is throw away promising results. Binder is insanely consistent. He has finished in the top six in each of the last three seasons. He quadrupled his number of retirement in 2023 compared to 2022 and still went from sixth to fourth in points. 

At their highest level, Miller is better than Binder, but Miller steps over the edge too often. This should be close, and it should be a good year for KTM, but Binder isn't going to falter. 

Where should Red Bull KTM finish in the championship?
I don't think Binder can be at the same level he was at last year. It will be close, but I don't see five podium finishes. If the grid remains healthy, it will cost him some points, not a devastating total but enough to knock KTM back a few pegs. Sixth would still be good for this group.

Aprilia Racing
Riders: Maverick Viñales (#12 Aprilia RS-GP24) & Aleix Espargaró (#41 Aprilia RS-GP24)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Espargaró has been proven difficult to defeat on the Aprilia, but I think this is the year Viñales tops him. Only two points separated the riders last year. Espargaró did win twice, but Viñales was on the podium three times and he had six top five finishes to Espargaró's five. 

It will be close again. Espargaró was the fastest of the two in testing in third, but Viñales was sixth and within 0.127 seconds of his teammate. This will be a hotly contested battle all season.

Where should Aprilia finish in the championship?
Second or third. Espargaró seems happy with the bike. The pace looked good. There were three Aprilia in the top six of the testing. The factory Aprilia team was one of two teams to have both its riders in the top six. The other was Ducati. I am not convinced it can take the fight to Ducati for the championship, but it should have plenty of strong days, and second or third depends on how the customer Ducati teams perform.

Gresini Racing MotoGP
Riders: Álex Márquez (#73 Ducati Desmosedici GP23) & Marc Márquez (#93 Ducati Desmosedici GP23)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
If healthy, Marc Márquez. 

This could be the year. I know we have been saying "this could the year" for four years now, but this could be the year Marc Márquez returns to form. He was fourth in testing on a year-old Ducati that thrashed the championship last year. The problem is the 2024 Ducati looks exceptionally strong. 

There should still be races where on the year-old bike Marc Márquez is able to take the fight to everyone and come out on top. Even on the days the new Ducati is clearly better, the year-old Ducati should be better than most. 

Where should Gresini finish in the championship?
If healthy, Marc Márquez combined with Álex Marquez can get Gresini to second. It will be task. Aprilia, VR46 and Gresini could be a thick three-way fight for second, third or fourth. If Pramac has two capable riders, it could become a four-way fight. 

Álex Márquez was eighth in the championship and that should not be lost on anyone. He can contribute and complement his brother. Together, they can lift Gresini up the order.

Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP
Riders: Fabio Quartararo (#20 Yamaha YZR-M1) & Álex Rins (#42 Yamaha YZR-M1)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Quartararo, mostly because of his experience, but both riders have experience on rough bikes. Rins is coming from a customer Honda. 

It will be another trying year for Yamaha. Quartararo has been able to pull out some special results, though Rins did win last year at Austin on the LCR Honda. I feel better about Quartararo being able to make it to the finish of races. That goes a long way to deciding who finishes the best in a team.  

Where should Yamaha finish in the championship?
Yamaha was seventh last year and somehow that feels way too high for 2024. 

Quartararo and Rins were 14th and 16th respectively in the final test. The only manufacturer Yamaha was ahead of completely was Honda. I think it will be a battle between Yamaha and Red Bull GasGas to see who is eighth.

Trackhouse Racing MotoGP
Riders: Raúl Fernández (#25 Aprilia RS-GP23) & Miguel Oliveira (#88 Aprilia RS-GP24)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Last year, as CryptoData RNF MotoGP Team, Oliveira was ahead of Fernández in the championship by 25 points despite Oliveira missing nine races. Oliveira, of course, picked up his one "how they hell did he do that" victories last year. Fernández had one top five finish and five top ten finishes all season. 

If healthy, Oliveira, but it should be noted Fernández, on the year-old Aprilia was fifth in the test and nearly a half-second faster than Oliveira. Hmm...

Where should Trackhouse finish in the championship?
This is the first season of the Trackhouse ownership of this team. The American-based organization expands from its roots in NASCAR into the motorcycle world championship. It shouldn't really change much. Trackhouse has hired Davide Brivio, who oversaw the Suzuki program from 2015 through January 2021, as its team principal.

Things should improve from last year. Seventh for Trackhouse in year one.

Repsol Honda Team
Riders: Luca Marini (#10 Honda RC213V) & Joan Mir (#36 Honda RC213V)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Honestly, your guess is as good as mind. 

Mir has more time with the bike and team, but the bike and team is lost. Marini was respectable at VR46, though he lost out to Bezzecchi. Mir was 19th in testing and Marini was 20th. 

I don't think Marini truly knows what it is like to ride a truly cruddy bike. Advantage Mir, though it doesn't really matter when both riders will be struggling to score points.

Where should Honda finish in the championship?
Eleventh. Honda was behind LCR Honda in testing! It no longer has its magic bullet in Marc Márquez who can take a bike that shouldn't be in the top ten and have it finish on the podium. Mir and Marini should get some points. They may even keep the factory from receiving the wooden spoon, but it isn't going to be any better than tenth.

LCR Honda Idemitsu/Castrol
Riders: Johann Zarco (#5 Honda RC213V) & Takaaki Nakagami (#30 Honda RC213V)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
You have Zarco taking a significant step back, and Nakagami, who was the most consistent Honda rider in 2023. Zarco was 17th in testing and Nakagami was 18th. Zarco could settle into his fate for the 2024 season, but Nakagami is already used to it. Numbness is his advantage. Nakagami isn't going to breakdown over this season.

Where should LCR Honda finish in the championship?
Tenth or 11th. Neither Honda team is going to do all that well. Nakagami's consistency could be the deciding factor. If he and Zarco are on the same level, Repsol Honda is toast.

Red Bull GasGas Tech3
Riders: Pedro Acosta (#31 KTM RC16) & Augusto Fernández (#37 KTM RC16)

Who should win the intra-team battle?
Acosta is making an anticipated move into MotoGP, and he already started ahead of his teammate. Acosta was 15th in testing while Fernández was 21st, the slowest of the full-time riders. 

The Tech3 operation doesn't quite have the same legs as the factory KTM team, which is surprising. It doesn't have to be competing for podiums but it should at least be in consideration for points. Acosta put on some spectacular rides in Moto3 and Moto2. It will not be as easy in MotoGP. However, I think he can put together a few impressive runs and lead GasGas Tech3.

Where should Ducati finish in the championship?
There is a chance GasGas Tech3 clears Yamaha and the Hondas and gets into eighth. GasGas should at least be ahead of the Hondas. Quartararo could keep Yamaha in eighth, but if Acosta finds his groove and Fernández can run a respectable pace in comparison, eighth isn't out of the question for the French team.

First practice for the MotoGP season will be on Friday March 8 at 7:45 a.m. Eastern. The next session will be at noon that same Friday. At 6:00 a.m. ET on Saturday March 9, there will be the second practice, a 30-minute session before the first round of qualifying takes place at 6:40 a.m. Round two follows at 7:05 a.m. The sprint race will be 11 laps and start at 11:00 a.m. 

The Qatar Grand Prix will run on Sunday March 10 at 1:00 p.m. ET for 22 laps.