Battle lines drawn: a standoff for the ages arrives in Barcelona

Battle Lines Drawn: A Standoff For The Ages Arrives In BarcelonaLe Mans promised a show and we got one. Ready for another?

Perspective can play a funny game. If you’re looking down from the leader, 38 points feels like a fairly significant gap for Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) at the top of the FIM MotoGP™ World Championship. Likely not for him as he plays the long game, but it’s more than a weekend’s worth of points looking from a purely objective standpoint. He could spend the Gran Premi Monster Energy de Catalunya in the grandstands and still lead come Monday.

If you’re Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) looking up from second, knowing you made up 91 points in 2022 when there were only 25 on offer each weekend, it also feels far from panic stations. It feels close enough, after a fair dash of bad luck too, to explain why you wouldn’t roll the dice on the last lap of the French GP. Bank and move on, come back stronger. Barcelona would also be a statement as you’ve never taken a GP podium there, one of only three venues of which that’s true.

If you’re an eight-time World Champion looking up from third, in the top three of the riders’ standings for the first time since 2019 – before it all unravelled as the line between magic and physics was suddenly blurred – and you’re only getting faster? 40 points suddenly feels like nothing at all. Such is the delicious standoff between Martin, Bagnaia and Marc Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) as we roll into Barcelona.

Bagnaia’s statement in Jerez remains as stunning as the day he made it. To stand face to face with one of the names already in the debate for greatest of all time, before he’s even retired, and not only not back down but come out on top? Statement made as you build your own legacy. Martin’s throwdown at Le Mans is likewise more than the sum of its parts, taking on not only the reigning Champion but that same duel from Jerez and beating both. In serious style, too, to make his own big statement. A different style to Bagnaia in Jerez, and a different style to Marquez. Three approaches to attacking the same goal is part of what has made the story so electric so far. Martin is explosive pace, Bagnaia unruffled poise, and Marquez? Marquez redefined an era and is now making his mark on another. The new era is also responding.

Marquez’ season so far can be almost summed up by the vision of him screaming back onto the scene into the chicane at Le Mans, when it looked like the fight for the win was a last lap duel and he made sure it wasn’t. From P13 on the grid and last year’s bike. Now, he just needs to do it again, and again, and again – but no one else on the grid has his experience of doing just that. Three riders, three approaches, one incredible show.

Still, however much the last couple of races have been a stunning showdown between the reigning Champion, the pretender to the throne and the benchmark of an era, all determined to show each other exactly what they’ve got, it’s not a grid of three. It wasn’t in Qatar, or Portugal, or the Americas, or Jerez, or Le Mans in front or that record-breaking crowd. And it won’t be in Barcelona as one of the most packed fields in MotoGP™ history rolls into town ready to paint another masterpiece.

The results for the French GP are also deceptive in some ways. If Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team) hadn’t cut that apex and been given the Long Lap penalty, the ‘Beast’ would surely have been in the podium hunt. That would also likely have kept him in the top three in the standings. But he wasn’t and isn’t, and there are no takebacks in MotoGP™… only comebacks. As the rumours around the future swirl, can Bastianini make his own statement in Barcelona? He’s been far from slow in 2024, he knows what it takes to win, and he has a very good track record at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. He also probably wants to remind everyone exactly why he’s on the machine he is – he won four races in the seat Marc Marquez occupies now and two were in the first four.

Marco Bezzecchi (Pertamina Enduro VR46 Racing Team), meanwhile, was pretty fast in France but crashed out, so he’ll want to bounce back after that uptick in Jerez, whereas teammate Fabio Di Giannantonio will be keen to show he has the upper hand regardless. Franco Morbidelli (Prima Pramac Racing) got that coveted finish after some solid speed, taking P7, but that still won’t be enough for him. And for Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) – on home turf and a track where he has a good record – it’s definitely a mission to get back in that postcode he occupied in Jerez.

For Aprilia Racing, it’s a case of “no pressure, but-” looking back on the factory’s 2023 Catalan GP. Aleix Espargaro did the double, and Maverick Viñales took P3 in the Sprint before making it a 1-2 on Sunday. It’s unlikely the marque won’t be at the front in 2024 too, but it will be interesting to see if the pecking order changes. Espargaro has a great record at Catalunya but Viñales has had his measure more often than not in 2024 – already having won a Grand Prix race and two Sprints. Which is an understatement for the #12, as his COTA win is most definitely one of the most otherworldly masterpieces hanging in the 2024 gallery so far. To make it feel fairer for the rest, he could have dropped to the back and started painting from there.

At Trackhouse Racing MotoGP™, Miguel Oliveira will want to turn it around after Le Mans, with a solid Jerez not proving a building block as yet. He did knock Marc Marquez out of Q2 though, which is no small scalp. His teammate, Raul Fernandez, will be an interesting watch too – he’s on the machine that won the 2023 GP, and he had a solid French GP getting the measure of Oliveira. What can he do in Barcelona?

It was a tougher weekend at Le Mans for KTM and GASGAS. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) found himself in a shocking last place on the grid after a nightmare run up to the lights going out, but on Sunday he pulled off a classic Binder and came home a solid eighth. For rookie sensation Pedro Acosta (Red Bull GASGAS Tech3) it was almost the reverse as he qualified P7 and then made his first and only Sunday mistake so far, crashing out – alone by a hair’s breadth – to bring his run as the only rider to score in all Sprints and GP races so far to an end. Le Mans and Acosta don’t mix, so far. But both will be reset to come out swinging in Barcelona, a venue where KTM have already won. Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), meanwhile, is missing the later race pace and will want a solid finish, and Augusto Fernandez (Red Bull GASGAS Tech3) scored points in France but is still looking for that step forward.

Said unironically, there were some standouts in France. At Yamaha, there was plenty to celebrate from Fabio Quartararo’s (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) home GP, even if the points didn’t end up on the board. The Frenchman went straight through to Q2 and on Sunday, was up in sixth before a crash out. But that livery – savage – said it all about the performance. With his stunning track record at the venue, can he do similar in Barcelona? Teammate Alex Rins, meanwhile, is looking for more after a tougher one in France and will want to turn the tables on his own home turf.

Johann Zarco (CASTROL Honda LCR) pulled some gap on his fellow Honda riders at Le Mans too, and he’ll want to keep that roll going. After a more positive Jerez, Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) will want a solid finish to hit back, and the mission continues for Takaaki Nakagami (IDEMITSU Honda LCR) and Luca Marini (Repsol Honda Team) to move forward as the project looks to make a big step. After a test for Yamaha and Honda at Mugello, and with a wildcard this weekend for Stefan Bradl, it’s all hands on deck to make those gains.

The field they’re fighting in has also never been closer. The average gap between first and second in the first five Grand Prix races of 2024 is just 0.951 – the first time in the MotoGP™ era it’s ever been less than a second. Even better than that, it’s not simply a mad dash or a game of chance, it’s a gallery of masterpieces painted by the best in the world. So join us when MotoGP™ returns to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya from the 24th to the 26th of May – from the grandstands, from the sofa, from wherever you are in the world, and watch the world’s most exciting sport make racing a fine art.

Tissot Sprint: 15:00 (UTC +2)
Grand Prix: 14:00 (UTC +2)

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