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The MotoGP civil war threat Ducati must now delicately manage

OPINION: The first flashpoint of the 2024 MotoGP season for Ducati came last weekend at the Portuguese Grand Prix, as Marc Marquez and Francesco Bagnaia came to blows. While deemed a racing incident by the stewards, differing opinions on the clash have put Ducati in a delicate position as it faces its biggest test of the year

Marc Marquez, Gresini Racing and Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team crash

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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The clamour and the clatter of incensed keys could be heard across the world last Sunday at 2:39pm local time in Portugal, as social media was whipped into a frenzy over the clash between Marc Marquez and Francesco Bagnaia. It was an incident that Ducati fielded many warnings about last year, when the idea of eight-time world champion Marc Marquez signing for Gresini to race a year-old Desmosedici first hit the headlines.

Race report: Martin wins as Bagnaia and Marquez collide

Just hours before Marquez made his first appearance on the GP23 at the post-season Valencia test last November, Ducati general manager Gigi Dall’Igna told the wind-chilled media between the team’s race trucks that “Ducati’s position was surely that we did not want Marquez”. His comment has its roots in that fact that Ducati over the last four years – ever since Andrea Dovizioso and Dall’Igna’s egos irreparably clashed, and the former wasn’t re-signed beyond 2020 – has crafted a finely balanced ecosystem.

That has been spearheaded by Bagnaia, now a double world champion for the marque, with the second factory seat occupied by an Enea Bastianini - who impressed on a Gresini Ducati in 2022. That earned him the place over Jorge Martin, winner of the Portuguese GP and 2023 championship runner-up, who holds factory machinery at Pramac.

Beyond these two teams, Ducati has the likes of three-time grand prix winner Marco Bezzecchi contracted to VR46, while Fabio Di Giannantonio and Alex Marquez have also shown race-winning potential as riders in the Italian marque’s stable but not directly contracted to it.

Marc Marquez is also contracted to Gresini rather than Ducati. But the threat he posed to this ecosystem was something long-discussed as the Italian marque – who eventually warmed a little to the idea of him riding one of its bikes as last year wore on – proved ultimately powerless to stop the Nadia Padovani-run team from securing his signature.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as Marquez jumped on the GP23, Ducati management’s tune has been one of intrigue and praise, as well as considerations as a potential factory team candidate for 2025.

Marquez on a Ducati has so far lived up the pre-season anticipation, rocking a boat that had been fairly stable

Marquez on a Ducati has so far lived up the pre-season anticipation, rocking a boat that had been fairly stable

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“Marc has already shown all his talent and class through an innate ability to adapt: he is already a fearsome contestant on a bike that is completely new to him, the first of our 2023 bikes at the chequered flag,” Dall’Igna said in his post-Qatar GP review on Ducati’s website. “The experience and desire of a champion wanting to once again have his say will make the difference in this new adventure.”

Marquez’s progress on the GP23 from Qatar to Portugal was evident last weekend. While he made three errors at the Algarve track that he says were avoidable with more miles on the bike – the most critical being the crash in qualifying that left him eighth, as he activated his rear ride height device too early – he was convinced that “we have the speed” now.

Coming from eighth, Marquez was second in the sprint to score his first Ducati podium. The grand prix was a bit trickier and his pace wasn’t good enough to be a factor in the podium battle. But the patient approach that has so far typified his time on the Ducati led him to sit tight in sixth for much of the grand prix before seeing an opportunity to snatch fifth from Bagnaia – which would have become fourth following Maverick Vinales’ gearbox-related retirement.

"For me, it was a mistake from Pecco, but not just the incident"
Marc Marquez

On lap 23, Marquez got a run on Bagnaia as the factory Ducati rider struggled through Turn 4 – a race-long issue that robbed him of a chance to fight for a second Portuguese GP win – and launched a raid into the downhill left at Turn 5. Bagnaia attempted to cut back and retake the position on the inside, but the pair connected. Both crashed and failed to score.

The stewards investigated the incident but deemed no further action was warranted. While one could argue Marquez could have left a bit more room, being mindful that Bagnaia would try to retaliate, it could just as easily be argued that the latter could have realised that Marquez would not have been able to see where he would be given the angle of the turn.

Bagnaia was “angry” that he walked away with zero points, which has let Martin scamper away to an 18-point lead in the championship. But he, at least publicly, accepted the racing incident verdict from the stewards.

Marquez’s assessment was a bit more direct: “It’s impossible for two riders to be in agreement after one hour from the incident. But when they come into the race direction, I said to the stewards it’s a racing incident on the very limit.

Bagnaia has seen Martin gallop into the points lead after his clash with Marquez, a setback in his hopes of claiming a third consecutive title

Bagnaia has seen Martin gallop into the points lead after his clash with Marquez, a setback in his hopes of claiming a third consecutive title

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“The stewards must decide what is the limit. For me, it was a mistake from Pecco, but not just the incident. Because in the end he tried to come back – okay, it was too optimistic and contact can happen. But it was a mistake that we were fighting for fifth, sixth position – two points more, two points less. And he was suffering a lot, especially with the rear tyres.

“In the end when three, four laps remain you know you will lose the position, it’s not necessary to come back in that aggressive mode. But he decided like this and the consequence to Ducati is zero points.”

That last line is cold, because that comment can very easily be read as Marquez saying Bagnaia was not acting in the best interest of the manufacturer. But this is a key characteristic of the Spaniard: he always thinks about what he says to the media. Nothing is ever blurted out in anger or in the heat of the moment.

That much was evident when he added: “I didn’t talk to Ducati staff - just to Davide [Tardozzi, Ducati Corse team manager]. The good thing that they have the telemetry, and they can see exactly what happened…”

Marquez told the Spanish media that he is “not here to think about revenge”, when asked if there would be an on-track response in Austin next month. There doesn’t need to be, however, because he has already fired his shots.

His media debrief came after Bagnaia’s, whose diplomacy over the incident will now have to stand as his side of the story for another three weeks until he can properly address Marquez’s comments.

The fact is, Marquez had every opportunity to approach the situation in the same way Bagnaia did. He would likely argue that it was just honesty. But you can also look at it as Marquez making his first tentative steps at rattling the cages of riders he will soon start considering as a title threats, if the current trajectory of his Ducati adaptation continues. His comments about telemetry will also force Ducati into revealing those details at some point, which will likely only further absolve Marquez.

Marquez electing not to employ the same diplomatic assessment as Bagnaia after their crash is telling of his mindset

Marquez electing not to employ the same diplomatic assessment as Bagnaia after their crash is telling of his mindset

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Until now, Marquez and Bagnaia have never really crossed swords. The latter’s ascension coincided with Marquez’s career hitting an injury-induced skid, while last year the Honda was nowhere near capable of challenging the Ducati.

Portugal may well mark round one of this bout, but also as a precursor to come as Marquez starts to test Ducati’s other factory leader in Martin – with whom he has already had several on-track run-ins with in recent years.

You can also look at it as Marquez making his first tentative steps at rattling the cages of riders he will soon start considering as a title threats

A flashpoint between Bagnaia and Martin can be fairly easily handled internally. Both are on factory contracts, as so both pretty much answer to the same authority. Marquez is on a year-old machine with little support on a Gresini contract. Controlling him will be much more difficult for Ducati.

Ducati management has done a lot of things correctly over the last few years and the results are just reward for this. But containing the potential fire spread from the Marquez/Bagnaia clash is the biggest challenge it has faced for a long time and could come to define Ducati’s year.

Ducati faces a significant challenge to keep the peace between Bagnaia and Marquez

Ducati faces a significant challenge to keep the peace between Bagnaia and Marquez

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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