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The Marquez problem Yamaha is about to face with its MotoGP superstar

Having gone from champion to title runner-up to nowhere across three years, Yamaha’s dip in form is badly timed, as it coincides with its ace Fabio Quartararo’s contract coming to an end. He has proven himself cut above the rest of the marque’s stable since coming to MotoGP, and now the marque faces a race against time to secure him beyond 2024

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Yamaha

Want to know how bad the 2023 season was for Yamaha and Fabio Quartararo? Even with double the number of races than the previous season, the 2021 world champion could only score 172 points – 76 less than he scored in 2022 with three victories on his way to runner-up spot in the championship.

From ending 2022 17 points adrift of world champion Francesco Bagnaia, Quartararo was 172 back at the end of this season, having amassed just three grand prix podiums in Austin, India and Indonesia.

“Being honest, from the first race,” the Frenchman tells Autosport when we sit down with him at the Malaysian Grand Prix, as we begin by asking when he thought the 2023 title was out of reach.

“Even last year I didn’t expect to fight, but of course as a rider the expectation is really high, of never giving up in every situation. And the first part of the season until the middle of the season was hard because I never expected the situation that I was going in.

“Clearly finishing in P10, P17, even P7 sometimes, I was always frustrated and never happy about my positions. Sometimes my riding was really good, but just clearly it was the potential we had. So, this was something we had to accept. But the second half of the season was much better, just giving my 100% and that’s it. But like a rider it was really tough for me, the first half of the season.”

As Quartararo alludes, after scoring 73 points over the first half of the season there was a noted upturn in form in the second part, when he scored two of his three grand prix podiums and 99 points. Some of this was down to the stiffer tyre carcass brought by Michelin to places like India, Indonesia and Thailand to cope with extreme heat. It didn’t necessarily give Yamaha an advantage, but pinned back its rivals a bit to allow the performance gap to be closed.

Quartararo cut a frustrated figure for much of the first half of the year as Yamaha's number one struggled

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Quartararo cut a frustrated figure for much of the first half of the year as Yamaha's number one struggled

But the second half of the season also featured a notable shift in mindset from Quartararo.

“I was arrogant… not in a bad way, but in a way to improve,” he says of the many times he railed against Yamaha’s lack of progress to the media earlier in the 2023 campaign. “Of course, like I said I never accepted being in that position, I wanted to really push Yamaha to the limit. So, the way I was doing it was not the good one. But I always want to be at the top place, to be number one, and so also for my experience being in that position of just doing my best.

“There is no expectation every single race. Of course, trying to be in Q2 on Fridays, this is the main goal of the weekend – not even thinking about P6 in the race on Sunday. Being in Q2 on Friday, this is the main goal of every single weekend. But it’s tough to accept this and even right now, I improved but I never accepted this feeling. Even in Mandalika, I was the fastest and could not overtake, I finished P3. Of course, it was a long time that I didn’t make the podium. But I never accepted this position.”

"We have lost many things and gained just a few things. It’s not normal after four years" Fabio Quartararo

Top speed remained Yamaha’s weakness in 2023, with it regularly above 5km/h down through speed traps relative to its rivals. Yamaha is working with famed Formula 1 engine chief Luca Marmorini on its 2024 motor, though the two iterations tested thus far haven’t yielded major gains yet.

Yamaha, as well as Honda, will be subject to performance-boosting concessions in 2024. It will have unrestricted testing and free engine development – which its European rivals won’t – next year, meaning its next engine update doesn’t have to come as the be all and end all for its season.

While power is one area Quartararo wants fixed, he has repeatedly highlighted the chassis’ lack of evolution in the four years he’s been with Yamaha, leading to a “one step forward, one step backwards” development tug of war within Yamaha.

“Top speed is important in the way that if you don’t have the power you can’t use bigger aero,” he explains. “So, this is something super important, but then the turning we used to have in the past is gone. So, this is something we have to get back. The turning of the 2019 bike was insane and it helped me a lot.

Quartararo has been irked by a lack of progress from the package over the past four years

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Quartararo has been irked by a lack of progress from the package over the past four years

“But we have lost many things and gained just a few things. It’s not normal after four years. You check the lap time in Thailand or whatever, and my lap time was exactly the same as four years ago, [but] feeling much more on the limit [and] being a better rider than myself four years ago, and we have more power than 2019.

“We have to find a way of keeping the positives and always improve because now we always make one step forwards, one step backwards. One step forwards, one step backwards. And we can never really keep the positives we gain. We always lose in one way.”

The results may show that Yamaha’s slide down the order has been gradual, but Quartararo believes the writing was on the wall the moment he was crowned champion in 2021: “To be honest, it was clear from 2021, the year I won, the bike was worse, was not at the same level [as the Ducati]. Last year for me, even if I finished second, it was the best year I did because the bike was clearly worse. But now the step [to the rest] is way too big and I can’t make any difference.”

That last part isn’t strictly true. Again in 2023, he was easily top Yamaha rider. Team-mate Franco Morbidelli’s best result was a fourth in the wet in Argentina, his points haul from the season only 102 compared to Quartararo’s 172. This follows on from him being the only Yamaha rider inside the top 18 of the standings in 2022.

Fairly, Quartararo’s only direct comparison is Marc Marquez, who was easily top Honda despite a miserable campaign. An underwhelming Misano test on the 2024 prototype ultimately compelled him to quit Honda a year early to join Gresini Ducati.

Clearly, Quartararo is too valuable an asset for Yamaha to lose. But this is the possibility it faces now going into the winter and the first few months of the 2024 season. The concessions will buy it some time to convince Quartararo, who is keen to make this partnership successful again, but it still doesn’t have long to convince him.

“Of course, as a rider, Yamaha gave me the opportunity to be in MotoGP,” he says when asked if it's important for him to win again as a Yamaha rider or to just simply win again. “I gave them a title. The relationship is good.

Quartararo will be keeping a keen eye on former team-mate Morbidelli, who has landed on a Ducati at Pramac

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Quartararo will be keeping a keen eye on former team-mate Morbidelli, who has landed on a Ducati at Pramac

“As a rider, I would love to come back with Yamaha, to come back to victories. We have been to the top, to the lows, and I would like to come back to the top. But the thing is we have a really, really short time to do it, especially for myself to be convinced it’s a winning project. Of course, if I feel I don’t have a winning project and I have to leave, of course I will have to make that step. But I see Yamaha is pushing a lot and I would love to be back on top of the standings with them.”

Though success with Yamaha may be at the forefront of his mind, there are two examples Quartararo will be keenly watching on at in the early part of 2024 - both are riders making switches to Ducatis.

“Of course it’s really interesting for me to see what is going to happen next year with Marc,” he says when asked about Marquez’s switch from Honda to a year-old Ducati in 2024. “But especially with my team-mate Franco, who was my team-mate since I started in MotoGP.

"To be more often fighting for the podium would be great because we are way too far now to expect to say 'ok, next year we will fight for the championship'" Fabio Quartararo

“I had a half year with Maverick [Vinales], but basically Franco was my team-mate for a really long time. So, I’m interested to see what he will be doing with a factory Ducati [at Pramac] and how quick he can adapt, because he stayed the same years as me on a Yamaha. It’s going to be an important first half of 2024 for me.”

All factory contracts bar Luca Marini’s with Honda, Brad Binder’s with KTM and Johann Zarco’s with HRC at LCR are up for renewal at the end of 2024. Quartararo will almost certainly be a highly sought-after target, given his championship pedigree, but moreover his determination to grind out the best results possible from an underperforming bike.

Yamaha has signed a strong team-mate to partner him in 2024 in the form of Alex Rins, Honda’s only grand prix winner in 2023. His experience of the Suzuki and the Honda, as well as his speed, make him a good person to have to help drive development.

But could he be the difference maker that Quartararo has been? That’s impossible to know right now and, in reality, it’s something that Yamaha can’t afford to find out, not least with the 24-year-old already pretty much ruling out a title tilt next season.

Rins and Quartararo will become team-mates at Yamaha next year, but the 2021 champion doesn't believe they will be title contenders

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Rins and Quartararo will become team-mates at Yamaha next year, but the 2021 champion doesn't believe they will be title contenders

“As you know, for me the Misano test was really, really important – also to keep my mind pretty calm,” he says. “Of course, it was not a great test for us. So, we have Valencia and here [Sepang] in February. So, these two tests will really be important for my future and especially I want to be back on the podium regularly, to be able to fight for the podium every single week.

“Being in that position, I can’t expect to be in the victory every weekend, but to be more often fighting for the podium would be great because we are way too far now to expect to say ‘ok, next year we will fight for the championship’. Of course, this is my goal, but being realistic we have to think step by step. Being able to fight for some victories and much more podiums next year is really important and [would mean] Yamaha did a great job.”

Quartararo made it clear in Valencia that he's happy to take on extra in-season testing amidst a busy 22-round calendar to get the M1 back to the front. But that also hinges on Yamaha making the steps forward he needs to justify this added effort and quickly if it hopes to avoid the same mistakes Honda made in trying to convince Marquez to stay…

Will Yamaha be able to convince Quartararo to stay, or could developments elsewhere turn his head?

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Will Yamaha be able to convince Quartararo to stay, or could developments elsewhere turn his head?

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