Nineteen races, 28 riders, and several controversies later, the 2019 MotoGP season is over. Marc Marquez took his sixth championship crown, while others faded when they were perhaps expected to shine. So who were the ten best MotoGP riders of 2019? You can probably guess the man in the top spot, but perhaps the other nine are more difficult to place…
The 10 best MotoGP riders of 2019
1. Marc Marquez, Honda
Championship position: 1st
There were few chinks in the six-times MotoGP champion’s armour in 2019, but when revealed they were instantly sealed. Able not only to save situations that would have others on the ground, when Marc did come down hard, in Thailand and Malaysia, he walked away, showing no outward signs when he was obviously hurting. It was only after winning again at the final race that he revealed he’d suffered shoulder injuries bad enough to require a second successive operation over the winter, this time to the right shoulder.
The same invincibility applied on track. On a factory Repsol Honda that had closed the gap to Ducati’s top speed advantage, he was able to ride in a more measured way. When he could win, he did. On every other occasion, but for an electronically triggered slip-off in Texas, he came second.
He frequently spoke of this matured approach: thinking about the title rather than only race wins, and accept that at some tracks other bikes might work better. Marquez’s way of accepting second happened six times in 19 races. Four of them were by less than a second, and three of those by less than a tenth of a second.
He was formidable.
Still only 26, Marc reinforced his place in the pantheon of superstars. Only Giacomo Agostini (eight) and Valentino Rossi (seven) have won more premier-class championships, and he has set many youngest-ever records since his first class-rookie title win in 2013; among them the youngest to claim six premier-class titles. Traditionalists will appreciate, though, that he missed out being the youngest to take four in a row. Mike Hailwood was 25 when he took his fourth straight in 1965.
2. Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha
Championship position: 5th
Quartararo had a point to prove – to convince those who doubted whether he deserved a MotoGP ride, after only one single Moto2 win in four years in the smaller classes. He did that emphatically, emerging as the closest challenger to Marquez at four of the last seven races, and taking seven podium finishes..
As emphatic were his six poles out of 13 front-row starts. The first of them was at Jerez, opening round of the European season, and it was perhaps an omen that he took away one of Marquez’s records in the process – youngest-ever pole qualifier.
Quartararo maintained a cheery boyish grin throughout, and though he didn’t win a race, by year’s end he was reliably chasing Marquez harder than anybody, leading several races until last-lap (in Thailand last corner) battles. “It will come,” he shrugged happily.
Riding for the new Petronas-backed satellite Yamaha team, he did not have the latest factory kit. His ability to get the best out of a second-level Yamaha on new tyres put the factory riders Vinales and Rossi in the shade. Nor was he just a Saturday man. In the second half of the season, when each of them finished, he beat Vinales six times out of eight, Rossi five times out of seven.
Compatriot Zarco’s history might be taken as a cautionary tale. More successful in Motos 2 and 3, Zarco was also a thorn in the side of Yamaha’s factory riders. But he found his second year harder.
Quartararo needs to prove himself once more, but he could turn out to be a giant.
3. Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati
Championship position: 2nd
Dovi did nothing wrong in 2019, and fully deserved second overall, for a third year in succession. But he didn’t believe he deserved to be so far away from Marc. He summed up the 151-point gap as “ridiculous”.
Not only was his rival’s Honda closer to his Ducati in outright horsepower, but it was a more rounded machine. The glamorous red Italian bike had reinforced its strengths – acceleration and top speed, with a back-up of good braking. But the Bologna factory hadn’t made inroads into shoring up the main weakness, which can be summed up in two words – corner speed.
In his calm and professorial way, the 33-year-old Italian made the most of his possibilities at tracks that didn’t favour his bike, and showed his teeth for two of the narrowest of wins over Marquez. But only two. He wasn’t the only Ducati winner, but he remained both consistent and safe.
With 313 starts by year’s end, only Rossi is more experienced. Dovi’s remarkable statistic is that he has never missed a race since his 125cc debut in 2004; and when he was knocked down on the first corner in Silverstone it was the first time he had not finished the first lap.
4. Maverick Viñales, Yamaha
Championship position: 3rd
The former Moto3 World Champion was back for a third year with the factory Yamaha team. The first had started brilliantly and gone off song, the second stayed that way. The third was mixed, with two wins among seven podium finishes, but several more races where he didn’t really join the party.
It was in some of the later races that Vinales showed his true worth, after a patient campaign where he had discarded the pettishness of 2018 along with veteran crew chief Ramon Forcada, and taken a fresh start with the companion of his Moto3 youth, Esteban Garcia. The Yamaha M1 was likewise gradually smoothing off the rough edges that cost so much over race distance. Together they moved onward and upward, and the result was third in the championship.
This was an achievement of some depth, because in the first half of the season Maverick seemed all at sea. When he did qualify well, with five front rows in the first nine races, he’d frequently lose it all by falling back down the order in the early laps. Focusing on these and other problems saw him catching up threateningly at Silverstone and elsewhere. By the time of the flyaways, he was getting ready to win.
It didn’t work at every race, and Yamaha need to help by addressing a conspicuous top speed deficit, but if he starts 2020 with a better balance between rider, bike and tarmac, he’ll have another chance to show his full potential, and be a greater threat to Marquez.
5. Jack Miller, Ducati
Championship position: 8th
If there was an award for progress, the popular and cheerful Australian would be the prime candidate. Earlier difficulties on an uncompetitive Honda were forgotten in his second year on a Ducati clearly better suited to his style. This was his first season on a full factory bike.
He impressed from race one, with the pace to run at the front. He couldn’t necessarily stay there, but as the year wore on he made notable progress in learning how to turn fast laps into fast race pace. It’s a matter of understanding tyres over the full distance, and is a deeply subtle craft.
In this way the satellite Pramac-team rider scored five strong podium finishes, and earned a regular place at the top table.
Miller’s equanimity was severely tested during the season by contract matters. He came off second when Ducati engineered a face-off between him and Danilo Petrucci for the 2020 factory seat. The Italian’s single win sealed the deal, though from there on Miller handsomely outscored him. Then – because rookie team-mate Pecco Bagnaia had already been promised a works bike next year – he was again unwittingly at a disadvantage, which grew more acute when big star Jorge Lorenzo was being considered for a return to Ducati, in his place.
Miller kept his head, turned down a generous offer from KTM, and eventually his loyalty to Ducati was rewarded with a factory bike in the same satellite team for 2020. Greater rewards are in the offing, with a potential seat in the official team.
6. Alex Rins, Suzuki
Championship position: 4th
The 23-year-old Spaniard’s third year in the class and his third in the factory Suzuki team, now as lead rider, had moments of sheer brilliance.
His two wins, at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas and at Silverstone, showed strong fighting spirit – each won in the closing stages, the first over Rossi and the second by inches from Marquez. Rins showed more of the same at other races, but far too often with his chances already badly undermined by poor qualifying.
The 2019 Suzuki married improved horsepower with its already renowned good handling and high corner speed, and was in general a better bike over race distance than the technically similar Yamaha. Where Rins struggled was in finding a fast single lap in qualifying.
The margins in MotoGP are nowadays so small that even a third-row grid position will condemn most riders to a lowly finish. Four times Rins didn’t even make the top 12 in the “senior” Q2 qualifying session, and on four other occasions was on the fourth row.
In consequence, he often had too steep a hill to climb; and made errors that earned penalties or crashes. But for this weakness, he’d be a serious challenger for top honours.
7. Valentino Rossi, Yamaha
Championship position: 7th
Valentino Rossi is still the rider with the most victories in the premier class, by a comfortable margin (89, from Agostini’s 68 and Marquez’s 56), but his last one was back in 2017, and it was often hard to watch Rossi struggle to regain his former pre-eminence in 2019. In the Yamaha pantheon, he was outranked not only by team-mate Vinales but also new boy Quartararo and on occasion even by his protégé Franco Morbidelli. Yet his enthusiasm and self-belief remained undimmed.
At 40 the oldest rider in any class, he was still capable of podiums – second in the two opening rounds – and a lap record in Malaysia. But there were many more below-par finishes where he dropped to the wrong end of the top ten, and four race crashes, only one of which (in Catalunya) was not of his own making.
By year’s end his spell without a win had extended beyond two years, and his seventh in the championship equalled his worst ever result, during his ill-fated two years with Ducati.
But there is an unwritten code in MotoGP, familiar to seasoned rivals and observers alike … You can never rule out Valentino. Those who predict he will never win another race do so at their peril.
8. Pol Espargaro, KTM
Championship position: 11th
The Austrian KTM is in its third year and its Spanish rider in his third on the V4, with its quirky – indeed unique – steel tube chassis and White Power suspension (all the others use aluminium beams and Ohlins suspension).
Being different is difficult, and for all its wealthy Red Bull backing, high-level Austrian engineering and constant upgrades and improvements, KTM still has a little catching up to do.
Pol, younger brother of Aprilia rider Aleix and former Moto2 World Champion, was also facing the prospect of becoming the junior rider, after KTM’s star signing of French double Moto2 champion Johann Zarco.
He rose to the challenge in spirited fashion even as his new team-mate’s fortunes spiralled downwards towards early dismissal. Pol scored points in every race but two, eliminated once with a mechanical problem and the other time by a crash in practice, with seven top tens among them, a best of sixth, and a marvellous front-row start at Misano.
The KTM has shown that it rewards an aggressive riding style, and this is what Espargaro can offer, reliably.
9. Cal Crutchlow, Honda
Championship position: 9th
Cal’s greatest achievement may well be that he turned up at all. His 2018 season ended early with the worst crash in a career during which he had never shrunk from taking big risks, with severe leg and ankle injuries incurred at Phillip Island in Australia.
Cal complained that he still found it hard to walk in a straight line, but he applied himself to the task of not only helping Honda’s development of their factory V4 missile, but also backing Marquez in a way that the Spaniard’s team-mate Lorenzo was unable to manage.
Three podiums were capped with a fine second place (to Marquez) in Australia; at 34 – only Rossi was older – his good days were very good.
The down side was erratic results. Like other Honda riders, he found the front-end very twitchy and sensitive. Marquez could ride around it, Lorenzo became its victim, Crutchlow bullishly battled it all year, but on bad days he had bad results.
There were six race crashes and no-scores, and one deeply unfair penalty in Argentina, which meant he did not achieve the overall result his sheer grit deserved.
10. Joan Mir, Suzuki
Championship position: 12th
22-year-old Spaniard Joan Mir arrived in MotoGP as the expression of the factory Suzuki team’s faith in young riders, and after spending only one year in the intermediate Moto2 class following a dominant title win in Moto3.
His prowess repaid their faith, and also proved that the Suzuki, like the Yamaha, is a friendly bike for beginners. It is not a coincidence that each is an in-line four in a class dominated by V4 engines, which for complex reasons are more powerful but clearly more difficult to handle. Both Suzuki and Yamaha achieve their results with high corner speed, but fall down on acceleration. But Suzuki had found better top speed for 2019.
Mir finished in the top ten nine times, with a best of fifth at the rhythmic Australian Phillip Island circuit, where he beat his more experienced team-mate Rins.
His smooth style belied the difficulty of adapting to nigh on 300 horsepower, and his results might have been better still but for a very unpleasant crash in testing at Brno after the summer break. A technical fault left him with lingering internal injuries that affected the latter half of his season.
Yet another off the conveyor belt of Spanish talent.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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