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Opinion

Five MotoGP riders who need a big 2024 season

OPINION: While there is plenty to be excited about on-track in MotoGP 2024, the major intrigue will be off-track, as the rider market bursts into life with factory contracts up for renewal. As a result, a number of riders need big seasons to boost their future prospects

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Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The 2024 MotoGP season is almost upon us and all eyes are firmly on Marc Marquez as he makes his Ducati debut with Gresini Racing. The eight-time world champion’s move from Honda to the satellite Gresini squad has dominated headlines ever since it was first suggested last September. Following pre-season testing, the big question on everyone’s lips concerns how far away his first win on the Ducati is, and indeed whether it is even realistic to expect.

But the 2024 MotoGP campaign yields far more intrigue than Marquez alone. This year is set to be a manic one in terms of the rider market, with most factory contracts up for renewal at the end of the season. As such, this puts the spotlight firmly on a number of contenders as they look to prove they deserve a place on the 2025 grid.

Just four riders are currently contracted beyond 2024. They are reigning double world champion Francesco Bagnaia, KTM’s Brad Binder (both of whom holding deals to the end of 2026), LCR Honda’s Johann Zarco and factory Honda rider Luca Marini. For the rest, it’s open season; but they don’t have long to stake their claims, with the market – as proved by Bagnaia’s new Ducati deal being penned before the first round – set to move very quickly.

Ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix, Autosport has ranked who we believe are the five main names who need to have a big year in 2024.

5. Jack Miller - KTM

Miller only had one grand prix podium to his credit in 2023

Miller only had one grand prix podium to his credit in 2023

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Jack Miller is in something of an unfortunate position, because it appears that his days as a factory team KTM rider are already numbered. According to Autosport’s Spanish language sister publication es.motorsport.com, highly anticipated rookie Pedro Acosta does have a clause in his contract that frees him from KTM should it not offer him a factory seat for 2025.

Insight: Why Pedro Acosta is the rookie MotoGP needs

If Acosta proves to be the generational talent he is widely expected to be, whether that’s straight away in 2024 or a few years down the line, potentially losing a rider it has been grooming for greatness would be a monumental blunder for KTM. And with Brad Binder locked up tight to the end of 2026, that leaves just one rider facing the axe.

Miller would probably be looked after by KTM, by either being shifted to Tech3 or a second satellite team should the Austrian manufacturer finally get its wishes. But with factory contracts on the table, Miller should rightly be aiming higher.

However, he will need to take a big step in his second year on the RC16. Three wins in five years on works Ducati machinery undersold a rider clearly possessing speed, and so one podium on the KTM last year was a disappointment – regardless of the adaptation needed to get to grips with the RC16.

The Australian can do better than this and had things gone slightly differently in Valencia, he would be coming into 2024 as the most recent grand prix winner.

The KTM looks to have made a good step in pre-season testing, though its true potential is yet to be seen. If it has managed to become a consistent podium threat, Miller needs to be there more often than not to keep his name inked onto a factory deal.

4. Enea Bastianini - Ducati

Bastianini's 2023 was massively impacted by injury, but he still managed a win

Bastianini's 2023 was massively impacted by injury, but he still managed a win

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Enea Bastianini’s time in MotoGP has been a perfect display on how you are only as good as your last result. A hot property in his rookie season in 2021 as reigning Moto2 champion, Bastianini excelled in year two with Gresini Ducati to score four wins and fight for the title, ultimately earning a factory team promotion for 2023 with the Italian manufacturer in the process.

But an injury in the sprint race through no fault of his own in round one in Portugal threw Bastianini’s season off-course. Missing the first five grands prix, plus a further three to a second injury later in the season made his adaptation from the 2021-spec Desmosedici to the 2023 difficult.

Insight: Why Ducati's biggest MotoGP challenge in 2024 will be off the track

As such, he was never given a fair shot to try and get his head around the 2023 Ducati’s engine braking. A breakthrough at the Malaysian GP led to a fifth career win and the pre-season has been much better for Bastianini on the GP24, which seems much more suited to his riding style.

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that, had Jorge Martin won the title for Pramac last year, Bastianini would have been sent to the satellite squad in his place. And with Martin unlikely to race for Pramac again in 2025 as he looks to see out his factory team ambitions, Bastianini has got a big target on his back with the only works team Ducati seat available.

Martin, of course, isn’t the only Ducati rider looking to usurp Bastianini. And as such, he needs to deliver – either as a title contender in his own right, or prove to be an exemplary number two to Bagnaia – to convince Ducati to back him into 2025.

3. Maverick Vinales - Aprilia

Vinales has gone without a win since the start of 2021

Vinales has gone without a win since the start of 2021

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Both of Aprilia’s factory riders are out of contract at the end of the year and both are in wildly different circumstances.

Aleix Espargaro came into last year considering that he was perhaps starting his final contract, but backtracked on this at the end of 2023 having won two grands prix on the Aprilia. While he is definitely nearing the end of his career, Espargaro has continually proven to be a vital asset for Aprilia and it would be foolish to ice him out if he so desires to carry on racing.

Maverick Vinales is something of a darling in the eyes of Aprilia management, and it’s hard to see why at this stage of a massively underwhelming tenure with the Italian brand. Vinales hasn't won another grand prix since his Qatar GP success with Yamaha at the start of 2021. That was 1074 days ago.

In the 53 GPs since then, he has seen a MotoGP podium just seven times (nine if you add in sprints). He did finish two points behind Espargaro – who has never been headed by an Aprilia team-mate – last year, but too often Vinales told the media he felt like he had a bike to fight for top positions then underdelivered.

Coming into 2024, the RS-GP appears to have taken another step, with Espargaro calling it the best bike he’s ever ridden at Aprilia. Vinales’ pre-season was more mixed, but showed decent speed still. While he may have the support of Aprilia, this is a factory approaching 10 years since it returned to MotoGP and is not at this moment very close to mounting a credible championship challenge.

With a number of big players on the market for 2025, Aprilia must consider its next move carefully. And Vinales must start proving he is the rider he claims he can be on the RS-GP now to justify the continued belief Massimo Rivola places in him when he was offered refuge following his Yamaha fallout.

2. Joan Mir - Honda

Mir's contract with Honda is up at the end of 2024, a year in which he is expected to step up as HRC's team leader

Mir's contract with Honda is up at the end of 2024, a year in which he is expected to step up as HRC's team leader

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Joan Mir's first season with Honda was nothing short of desperate. The 2020 world champion, who signed a two-year deal with the Japanese marque following Suzuki's decision to quit MotoGP at the end of 2022, scored just 26 points in 2023. The only full-time rider lower than him in the championship was the man he replaced at Honda, Pol Espargaro, who missed half of the year following a serious crash in FP2 for the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Mir's season was also hampered my numerous injury woes, chiefly a hand fracture suffered in a crash during the Italian Grand Prix weekend. He also withdrew from the Argentina GP and Valencia GP following crashes.

Fifth at the Indian GP was the highlight of the year for Mir, snapping a points drought that stretched back to the opening round of the campaign in Portugal. In total, there were just five occasions in which Mir actually scored points.

Adapting from the Suzuki to the RC213V was no small task, not least given the traction issues the Honda suffered from all year. That problem appears to remain on the 2024 bike, despite a radical overhaul, though Mir felt with every run in testing that Honda was getting a little closer to where it needs to be.

With the void left by Marquez pushing Mir into team leader role, he has a big opportunity to step up and take Honda in a direction that could see both rider and bike back at the front of the grid.

But it also puts big pressure on him to show Honda its future lies with him, as his contract is up at the end of the year, and you can guarantee that HRC will be shopping around the free agent market while Mir attempts to prove his worth.

1. Marc Marquez – Gresini Ducati

Marquez's Gresini move is one of the biggest talking points of 2024

Marquez's Gresini move is one of the biggest talking points of 2024

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

This will inevitably surprise some but, yes, eight-time grand prix world champion Marc Marquez is the rider probably needing the biggest year of them all.

There is no questioning the “killer” – as he described himself to Autosport last year – that is Marquez. Even on bad Honda machinery in 2023, he was still the marque’s leading contender and was the only other rider following Alex Rins’ Austin win to get the RC213V to a podium.

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In 2021, despite his badly broken arm being far from healed, he managed three grands prix wins and still managed a podium in 2022 despite missing a good chunk of the year to a fourth major operation.

When he jumped on the Gresini Ducati in the Valencia test, Marquez stole the headlines when he went fourth fastest overall. He ended pre-season testing in that position after two days of running in Qatar last month, and now says he is at the stage where is looking for the “last three tenths” to be a true frontrunner.

But Marquez only crashed once in testing, on the last day as he finally started to push having had to contend with various mechanical issues during the winter. So, as we approach the opening round, we still don’t really know just how fast he can be on that 2023 Ducati.

There’s little doubt Marquez will be competitive on the Ducati, though what he considers to be the end goal isn’t really defined right now; he’s repeatedly spoken about how being fast on the bike doesn’t necessarily mean fighting for the championship or even wins.

And while Marquez’s talent can never be questioned, this is arguably the biggest year of his career. He has taken a big risk in walking from the relative safety of Honda, where he was getting paid a mint and a lack of results was easily blamed on an obviously bad bike.

Now he’s on the bike doing all the dominating and there is no excuse. The court of public opinion will not be kind if this doesn’t work, while where the 31-year-old goes from here if this move isn’t successful will become a major question mark…

Marquez knows he is taking a big risk with his Ducati switch

Marquez knows he is taking a big risk with his Ducati switch

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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