Marquez Equals Rossi’s Qualifying Record, What’s Next?

Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso on the MotoGP podium at Le Mans in France 2019
Marc Marquez equaled Valentino Rossi’s qualifying record in the 2019 French MotoGP – what’s next?

The MotoGP grid may be filled with world-class riders, but sometimes it seems as if multiple world champion Marc Marquez is in a class of his own. The 2019 French MotoGP at Le Mans was one such example, as Marquez rode impeccably to triumph. Marquez’s victory was also historic because it gave Honda a landmark 300 victories in the premier class, making them the first manufacturer to reach this milestone. Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci of the Ducati factory team took the remaining two places on the podium.

Once again, this race showed us why MotoGP is such an exciting spectacle this year. Despite the Marquez masterclass, there was plenty of drama up and down the order and there wasn’t a dull moment to speak of. Formula 1, where races have gotten boring and predictable thanks to Mercedes outclassing the other teams, will surely want to take notes.

Qualifying: Marquez equals Rossi’s record

In the run-up to the French MotoGP racing weekend, speculation was flying thick. This year’s MotoGP season has been highly competitive with a close grid — three different manufacturers have already grabbed victory. That said, Marquez seems to be regaining his dominant form, leading everyone to wonder whether somebody would be able to stop Marquez at Le Mans. All eyes were especially on Ducati, who have never won at Le Mans. The stop-go nature of the circuit (thanks to the unique nature of the curves) is said to suit the team well as Dovizioso declared, “At Le Mans, I will be able to take advantage of the Ducati’s qualities.”

Weather conditions play a crucial role at Le Mans and this year was no different. Mixed and quickly changing weather conditions defined the Saturday’s highly unpredictable qualifying session. It wasn’t only about speed — Tyre strategy and rider control were as critical. Timing was everything, as those riders who managed to get in a quick lap time early on in Q2 (before the rain intensified) benefitted the most. On top of that list was Marquez, who grabbed the pole with a blazing lap at the very start of Q2 before shockingly crashing his Honda on the immediate next lap. Marquez’s pole meant that he leveled Valentino Rossi’s record of 55 MotoGP career pole positions.

Joining Marquez on the front row of the grid were Petrucci and Jack Miller of Ducati’s satellite team Pramac, a strong indicator of Ducati’s might at Le Mans. On the second row of the grid were Dovizioso in P4 and Valentino Rossi in P5. Alex Rins of Suzuki, widely tipped as a possible dark horse in the race, could only manage a dismal P19 after being caught out by tyre choice decisions in qualifying.

The podium: Marquez and two Ducatis

The race got off to an exciting start as Petrucci challenged Marquez off the line, riding side by side into Turn 1 until Marquez managed to get an upper hand. Undaunted, Petrucci launched a second attack on the next lap but was again thwarted. The next challenger to Marquez came in the form of Miller, who broke away from the trailing group to dive past Marquez on Lap 5. This was the first time that Marquez was overtaken on track since the Qatar MotoGP at the start of this season! Marquez fought back two laps later to retake the lead and then rode with textbook perfection to pull ahead and stay ahead of the pack. Amazingly, it was a display of the Marquez family dominance at Le Mans as his younger brother Alex won the Moto2 race (his first win since October 2017). He tweeted jubilantly after the race, calling it an unforgettable Sunday with “double happiness” and “victory by two.”

The Ducati riders did not disappoint as they put on a great show in the latter stages of the race, even as Marquez had already ridden away into the sunset with the victory. The intra-Ducati battle between Dovizioso and Petrucci was nail-bitingly close as they battled for P2, with Dovizioso ultimately coming out on top — by only by 0.158 seconds. Admitted Petrucci after the race, “I was very, very scared to make a disaster with my teammate, and especially a big friend of mine, Andrea. I want to come back home with the podium, with the trophy, not with someone angry in the factory.”

Le Mans marks the first double podium for Ducati of the season, a result that they will be heartened by. Interestingly, this result comes while the team ran without the Mission Winnow branding, thanks to the strict tobacco policies of France. Dovizioso, who is on the heels of Marquez in the overall championship, will be happy remain within fighting distance thanks to this P2 result. P3 is great news for Petrucci, who was last seen on the podium exactly a year ago (at the French MotoGP in 2018). It takes off the pressure to deliver — expect to see him riding with a renewed spirit in the races ahead.

Rest of the grid: KTM impresses, trouble for Lorenzo?

Miller managed a respectable P4 after being put out of podium contention thanks to failing tyres. It is his third top-four finish of the year which includes a podium at Circuit of the Americas. Even better, Miller’s moves on Marquez at Le Mans will no doubt have gotten him noticed in the paddock. Cal Crutchlow (Miller’s former teammate) had famously remarked that Miller could be world champion in three years if he was “clever” about his approach to racing — surely Miller is a rider to look out for. Rossi finished P5, continuing his strong showing this season while his Yamaha teammate Maverick Vinales recorded a DNF after being taken out of the race by the out-of-control Ducati of Francesco Bagnaia.

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It was a fantastic outcome for KTM as Pol Espargaro grabbed P6, making it the best-ever finish for KTM in dry conditions. Rookie Fabio Quartararo, who was in the news after becoming the youngest-ever MotoGP pole sitter at Jerez last fortnight, was in focus since Le Mans is his home race. After starting in P10, he ran wide and dropped back t0 P16, before staging an impressive recovery to finally finish in a comforting P8. Meanwhile, the troubles continued for Marquez’s Honda teammate Jorge Lorenzo, who finished a dismal P11 — this is a rider who has actually won the French MotoGP on three previous occasions! Worryingly enough, Lorenzo’s P11 finish is still his best result of the season, which painfully highlights the sheer extent of his troubles. Rumours are racing in the paddock that Honda has issued Lorenzo with an ultimatum — that he must improve his performance, or risk losing his seat for 2020. How will Lorenzo rise up to this challenge, or will the pressure get the better of him?

What’s next?

Marquez has pulled some valuable points over his closest challenger, Dovizioso, in the standings after his win at Le Mans. Even so, only eight points separate these two drivers so it remains wide open to contest. In the team standings, Ducati have pulled further away from Repsol Honda with a 33-point gap. This is where Repsol Honda will be feeling the pinch of having only one highly performing rider (Marquez) as Lorenzo struggles to score significant points. On the constructor’s standings, Honda continues to lead the field. Next, the action shifts to Italy for the Italian MotoGP at the Mugello Circuit in a fortnight. This is the home race for Ducati, as well as several riders on the grid (Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci and others) who will all be hoping for a memorable result in front of their local fans.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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