Next up in our list of the biggest motorsport stories of the year is the arrival of the man widely regarded in MotoGP as the biggest threat to Marc Marquez’s dominance: Fabio Quartararo.
Arguably the most surprising storyline of the 2019 MotoGP season, Quartararo’s emergence as a genuine frontrunning threat aboard the customer Petronas SRT-run Yamaha was something few predicted ahead of the campaign.
Yet, as the sun set on the 2019 season, the 20-year-old French sensation had amassed seven podiums and six pole positions on his way to a top five placement in the world championship standings. He comfortably beat factory works rider Valentino Rossi and wasn’t far off Maverick Vinales in the race to end the year as the top Yamaha rider.
Quartararo’s junior career in the Moto3 and Moto2 classes can be considered average at best, despite the occasional flash of promise.
By the time SRT had announced him as the second rider in its line-up for its MotoGP assault, he had taken just one grand prix win (albeit losing another to disqualification) and a further three podiums – a disappointing haul for a rider hailed as the next Marquez when he came into Moto3 as the 15-year-old who utterly devastated the field in his CEV Junior World Championship career.
SRT’s decision, which came at the expense of MotoGP veterans like Alvaro Bautista and Bradley Smith, was scrutinised immensely – generating the “bad comments” which would ultimately spur Quartararo onto his sensational year.
But team bosses Razlan Razali and Johan Stigefelt knew the talent Quartararo so embarrassingly displayed in the CEV still exited within – it just needed to be coaxed out of a kid who readily admits the pressure placed on his shoulders from the off in Moto3 got to him.
From the winter, SRT and Yamaha knew it had stumbled onto something good. Quartararo’s ‘B-spec’ Yamaha was upgraded to 2019 engine, albeit with 500rpm less than the other Yamahas to preserve mileage.
In Qatar, he put his bike fifth on the grid. But his lack of experience robbed him on Sunday, as he was forced to start from pitlane having stalled on the grid. What was immediately obvious after this, though, was how quickly he compartmentalised a negative, learned from it and took away the positives.
This was a quality which shone through on a number of occasions throughout the year. Just three races later at Jerez, Quartararo demonstrated this tendency again.
Running second in the race, a broken gear linkage led to a heartbreaking retirement and a debut podium being snatched from his hands. Devastated at first, the mere fact he had been in that position to begin with was enough for him to justify calling the day a success.
The day before he displayed his raw speed, guiding his M1 to a first pole position. One-lap speed would be a constant of his year, as he stormed to pole at Catalunya, Assen, Buriram, Sepang and Valencia, while stepping onto the front row at Mugello, Sachsenring, the Red Bull Ring, Misano, Aragon, Motegi and Phillip Island.
In races he grew more consistent, leading 73 laps across the campaign. He converted his Catalunya pole into his first podium finish in second, just 10 days after an arm-pump operation, which he took to be fit for the demands of Assen. In Holland he was third, and repeated that result at Yamaha’s weakest venue in Austria.
But it was at Misano where he really shone. Leading for most of the race, he absorbed massive pressure from Marquez. The Honda rider ultimately came out on top, although with just three corners to spare. It seems, though, that Quartararo’s race was a statement to Marquez.
“The real winner, who did the best race, was Fabio,” Marquez said after that race. “Fabio showed to all of us – I already knew [this] – that he has the potential, the talent, the bike, the team to fight for the championship next year.
“And I believe – I will try to avoid this – from now till the end of the season he will be a tough contender, and he will win some races. We will try to avoid this, but I predict next year he will be a tough contender for the championship.”
The pair locked horns again in Thailand, this time Quartararo taking the fight to the very last corner.
Though Marquez had beaten Quartararo in combat, he was all too aware that the threat to him is very real. This was evidenced at Sepang in qualifying, as the Honda rider deliberately shadowed Quartararo throughout the session in an effort to get inside his rival’s head.
But in doing so Marquez crashed heavily, causing the shoulder injury he had to have operated on in the winter. Quartararo, meanwhile, obliterated the lap record to seal pole.
For the first time it now appears a rider who is truly capable of usurping Marquez has arrived – and it is the rider very few believed deserved his opportunity with SRT when it was confirmed some 15 months ago.
Quartararo’s debut season has shades of Johann Zarco’s campaign with Tech 3 in 2017. But Quartararo led more laps, scored more podiums than the double Moto2 champion’s two Yamaha years combined and scored more poles than any rookie other than Marquez. And, crucially, he displayed a certain flair on-track that was absent from Zarco’s Yamaha days.
Of course, 2020 will prove a major test. With factories set to be knocking on his door to offer 2021 contracts, the pressure to live up to his status as a Marquez-beater will weigh heavy.
But, unlike when he came to grand prix racing surrounded by similar hype, the Quartararo that stunned the paddock in 2019 looks more than capable of coping.
Click here to see the list of Top 20 stories so far.
Fabio Quartararo, Petronas Yamaha SRT
Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images