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What we learned from MotoGP's Sepang 2024 test

The expectations for the first MotoGP test of 2024 were very high, and the event did not disappoint, as it set up what promises to be a fascinating season. Here's all we learned from the three days of running at Sepang

Marc Marquez, Gresini Racing, Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

As MotoGP heads off from its annual winter Sepang residency, this year’s pre-season shakedown and test had plenty of focus points going into it and even more coming out.

Ducati demonstrated its new weapon will remain the standard as a number of its riders went under the lap record with ease. To see a Ducati rider top each day of the test plus end the final day with the top four locked out wasn’t so surprising, but to see all four in the 1m56s bracket and back it up with impressive long-run pace sends out a clear message to the rest.

Marc Marquez made a quiet but gradual adaptation to life on a Desmosedici, perhaps understandably after an entire premier class career to date spent on a Honda, which meant unlearning old habits and understanding what makes the Ducati purr.

Honda’s life without Marquez showed promise, but the scale of its task to climb back to the top of MotoGP remains sizable, while the same can be said for Yamaha - but it faces a race against time to deliver what its star rider Fabio Quartararo demands.

Elsewhere, the Pedro Acosta hype train is fully booked and ready to leave the station as he produced lap times not seen from a MotoGP rookie since a certain Marquez over a decade ago. Meanwhile, Aprilia endured mixed fortunes, with Aleix Espargaro settling into life with the 2024 RS-GP far more comfortably than his stablemates.

All this plus much more is what we learned from the MotoGP pre-season test at Sepang.

1. Ducati has achieved something that seemed unachievable

The 2024-spec Ducati proved to be especially quick in Bagnaia's hands

The 2024-spec Ducati proved to be especially quick in Bagnaia's hands

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

What seemed impossible a month ago, that Ducati would take another significant step forward with the bike planned for this season, can start to be considered a reality after what happened in Malaysia.

If the 2023 Desmosedici was capable of dominating, especially in the hands of Francesco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin, the 2024 bike looks to be even more balanced. Bagnaia is used to going from less to more and this time he has undertaken the process much faster than usual.

He finished in style, smashing the Sepang lap record (which was also his), by more than eight tenths of a second. Martin followed close behind, just two tenths off the pace, while Enea Bastianini completed the GP24 hat-trick. If Bagnaia's long runs are impressive, Bastianini's are on par, which leads one to believe that the Borgo Panigale brand has managed to outdo itself.

The advantage that the previous year's Ducatis had early doors in the last two seasons, which at the time gave Bastianini (2022) and Marco Bezzecchi (2023) an edge, seems to have vanished. That may open a gap between the Ducati battalion, even if Fabio di Giannantonio managed to do the best sprint race simulation on his year-old VR46 bike, which shows the GP24 still has room for improvement.

"We have shown the potential of the bike - I think we are at 80% of the full potential, so we arrive well in Qatar," said Bagnaia, referring to the final pre-season test, which kicks off in just over a week's time at Losail.

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2. Marquez is not there yet

As he adjusts to life as a Ducati rider, Gresini's Marc Marquez admits he has to unlearn Honda habits

As he adjusts to life as a Ducati rider, Gresini's Marc Marquez admits he has to unlearn Honda habits

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The main focus of attention in recent months has yet to give observers a clear idea of what goal he should aim for in 2024. After the Sepang test in which he finished sixth, half a second off the pace, neither are those convinced that Marc Marquez would sweep the field on a Ducati so sure, nor should it be thought that he is in trouble.

The fact that he lost a large part of the first day due to four problems with his GP23, which left him in the garage for a long time, blurred the picture of his second contact with the Italian bike. Besides that, it has not been easy for the Spaniard to shake off the habits accumulated over 11 years on a Honda.

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"I'm not as fast as Pecco or Jorge - on a fast lap, I'm still a long way off, but I'm satisfied with the pace on a lap-by-lap basis," said Marquez, who - in addition to his process of adapting to the Desmosedici - must also adapt to the human group that surrounds him in the Gresini garage.

"I am satisfied because the progression is positive. I didn't stagnate at any moment, there were no steps backwards."

3. Acosta is spectacular

Highly-rated Acosta did nothing to dispel expectations as he grew accustomed to Tech3's KTM

Highly-rated Acosta did nothing to dispel expectations as he grew accustomed to Tech3's KTM

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

If the credentials of the Moto3 (2021) and Moto2 (2023) world champion had left anyone in doubt, the exuberance that Pedro Acosta displayed at the second circuit where he has ridden a MotoGP bike left the paddock in a state of shock. While it is true that taking part in (and topping) the pre-test shakedown gave him an edge that many did not have, the Spaniard's confidence on the bike and the ease with which he made it all happen made people think he could aim high.

On Thursday, Acosta finished ninth and second fastest of the KTM contingent, with Brad Binder managing to improve on Wednesday's time in the final minutes of the test.

"I'm getting there," Acosta warns with a powerful mix of enthusiasm, excitement and pure talent in proportions that bear similarities to those that accompanied Marc Marquez's explosive debut in the top category.

"What Pedro is doing is amazing, we didn't expect it. We knew he would go fast, but probably not that fast," commented Pol Espargaro in an informal chat with Autosport during one of his breaks.

If one thing seems clear it is that Acosta will shake things up at KTM, where only Binder, apart from himself, has a guaranteed place beyond 2024.

4. Honda has improved, but not enough

Marini is having the opposite problem to Marquez and riding the Honda like a Ducati

Marini is having the opposite problem to Marquez and riding the Honda like a Ducati

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

While still digesting Marc Marquez's departure, Honda is beginning to show signs of a slight recovery. That's especially true in the case of Joan Mir, probably the one who needs it most after the 2020 world champion's confidence-shattering 2023 season. The RC213V has shed more than eight kilos during its winter diet and allowed the Japanese brand to take a step forward, illustrated in the engine more than in any other component.

However, the road ahead is still long and rocky, new arrival Luca Marini says. His view is not surprising given the former VR46 rider was not fast over one lap - he finished 19th in the combined - and had no long run pace either. These were particularly dramatic when the performance of the tyres start to drop and the bike becomes more unstable.

The optimism with which Valentino Rossi's brother started the test faded as the hours went by, as his garage neighbour - 10th overall over the three days - grew a sense of moderate unease. "Last year I suffered a lot, and that's why I don't want to get my hopes up. But the feeling is different now," Mir repeated again and again.

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Marini, for his part, is going through the same thing as Marquez, but in reverse: "I still ride the Honda as if it were a Ducati. And that, especially with the rear wheel under braking and corner entry, has a big influence."

Honda has made progress with the engine, but that doesn't mean that the problems of lack of traction are a thing of the past. In that respect, it remains to be seen what effect the recruitment of Kalex co-founder Alex Baumgartel will have on the chassis issues. He will certainly have plenty of knowledge, but whether Honda will let him put it into practice is another matter.

5. Yamaha needs time it doesn't have

While encouraged by improvements to the Yamaha, Quartararo says there is still a lack of one-lap pace

While encouraged by improvements to the Yamaha, Quartararo says there is still a lack of one-lap pace

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Fabio Quartararo's warnings throughout last year have had an effect, at least in terms of investment and recruitment. The signings of Max Bartolini (technical director) and Marco Nicotra (aerodynamics), both from Ducati, have led Yamaha to change the pace and reduce reaction time considerably.

Until recently, any new aerodynamic element had to be approved, designed and tested in Japan, before being fitted on the M1. Now, collaboration with companies such as Dallara allows Yamaha to test components and discard them in much less time.

Quartararo has been joined by Alex Rins, with whom communication in the garage is also much better than with Franco Morbidelli. Despite the evolution of the bike, especially over long runs, the lack of performance over one lap prevents them from thinking big, given the difficulties in overtaking.

"I am happy with the work, with how the methodology has been changed," Quartararo told Autosport on Thursday. "But we are far from a fast lap. And having to start at the back condemns you."

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The Frenchman finished 11th, eight tenths off Bagnaia and almost four tenths clear of Rins in 16th. The Catalan, for his part, is still trying to adapt to a Yamaha that, for his taste, concentrates too much weight on the front, which makes the rear end lift and move a lot under braking. "That's not my style," he said.

6. Espargaro looks Aprilia's best bet

Espargaro was alone among the Aprilia riders in taking well to the latest evolution of the RS-GP

Espargaro was alone among the Aprilia riders in taking well to the latest evolution of the RS-GP

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Now more than ever, Aprilia seems to revolve around Aleix Espargaro, the most senior member of the grid and probably also the most solid of the non-Ducati riders. The Noale-based company has redoubled its commitment to MotoGP in recent years, especially with the arrival of Massimo Rivola, and the RS-GP has risen through the ranks very quickly. If the testimony of the eldest of the Espargaro brothers is anything to go by, the 2024 bike represents a considerable leap in quality compared to the previous version.

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The #41 rider finished fifth - his best lap was four tenths of a second off the pace - and the simulation he carried out was almost on a par with Bagnaia's. The counterpoint, which is not a small one for Aprilia, is the brutal difference between the 'Capitano' and the rest of his fellow Aprilia riders. On Thursday, Maverick Vinales was 12th, eight tenths off Bagnaia and four tenths off his garage neighbour.

Vinales' feeling on the bike is not nearly as good as Espargaro's. It was a similar story for Miguel Oliveira in 17th, the Portuguese rider from the Trackhouse team also using the latest RS-GP specification.

"The bike rides me instead of me riding the bike," said Vinales, obviously not very happy. "We recently raced here and I had the bike very much under control. That doesn't happen to me with the 2024 bike, but I prefer to be suffering in the test and for the race to go better."

Vinales took a tumble in an uncomfortable test for some of the Aprilia riders

Vinales took a tumble in an uncomfortable test for some of the Aprilia riders

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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