Rarely do debuts come with as much expectation. Fabio Quartararo, France's teenage prodigy, has yet to clock his first world championship lap – not to mention reach the legal age to do so – and already the comparisons with MotoGP's current elite are plentiful.
Just days after his Moto3 Honda team's unveiling in early March and the motorcycle press was awash with speculation surrounding the fresh-faced 15-year old. Is he France's version of Marc Marquez? Can he become the next 'alien'? Does he have what it takes to challenge for a world championship in his very first year in the class?
Ludicrous questions to be asking of a rookie that won't turn sixteen until April 20th, a day after the third round of the series. But one thing is certain. When Quartararo exits pit lane for the first time in Qatar on Thursday evening the eyes of the entire grand prix community will be fixed on his number 20 Honda.
Those that have seen him will be wandering whether he can replicate the precocious form that saw him sweep aside all before him in the Spanish national championship. Those that haven't will be asking what in god's name all of this fuss is about.
Indeed it is rare to see the top names in the business fielding so many questions on talent so young. It seems as though everyone, from Valentino Rossi to Marquez himself, has been asked about Quartararo through the winter. Rossi has tipped him to win the championship while HRC bigwigs Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo have cleared a direct path for his way to MotoGP. Herve Poncharal claims he has never seen a French talent this complete while Aki Ajo, manager of Red Bull KTM's Moto3 squad, believes he's a certainty to be in the championship fight.
Couple these praises with the Grand Prix Commission's decision last August to lower the required age limit for a reigning CEV champion to enter grand prix - unofficially labelled as the 'Quartararo rule' - and you quickly realise this is no ordinary pimple-ridden, female-chasing teenager present to just make up the numbers.
In many ways his rise through the ranks is unparalleled. Even Marquez didn't have such high expectations going into his class debut. For 2015 he slots into the world championship winning Monlau outfit, one whose roll call of past riders reads like a who's who of recent prized talent. Led by Jordi Arquer, the Estrella Galicia-backed set up is essentially the 'factory' Honda Moto3 team. So the tools are certainly at his disposal.
So what has he done to merit this attention? Well, aside from breaking circuit records and topping the time sheets at both official Moto3 tests in February he is a double Spanish Moto3 champion, in what is comfortably the most competitive national series of its kind in the world. His first title triumph came at just 14 years and 217 days of age, making him the youngest rider to win the series (that's nearly eight months younger than Aleix Espargaro, the previous holder of that record) and the first rookie to do so to boot.
Impressive you might say. But for Quartararo this success was nothing out of the ordinary. The son of 1983 French 125 champion and Bol d'Or competitor Etienne, Fabio grew up in Nice and cut his teeth in motocross as a child before moving to Spain with his family aged seven. From there he quickly progressed through the 70cc, 80cc and Pre-GP Mediterranean ranks, counting off the championships and racking up successes with nonchalant ease.
When he graduated to the Spanish CEV in 2013 winning had become second nature. But even then, the circumstances in which he claimed his first national championship were extraordinary. Riding an unfashionable FTR Honda against a horde of rapid KTMs, Quartararo's early season form was inconsistent, hindered by inexperience and several technical issues. Going into the penultimate round he was 37 points and seven places off the title leader with three races to play.
Fast-forward two weeks and, thanks to an intensified training programme, some extra power and a revised FTR chassis, Quartararo built up an irresistible head of steam. Three dominant wins saw him become the first non-Spaniard to claim the title since Stefan Bradl in 2007. The paddock was stunned and a not-so-orderly queue formed to acquire his services.
'A Star is Born!' ran the headlines in the Spanish Motociclismo magazine. 'Pure Dynamite!' read Solomoto. Both unequivocally stated they had witnessed something special on that late November afternoon. Fabio couldn't quite believe it. Nor could his team, who had made few championship winning preparations. They had to borrow a number one sticker from a rival outfit for the traditional end of year photo.
2014 represented a different challenge. Emilio Alzamora, manager of the current MotoGP champion no less, won the race for his signature. Quartararo would go into the year very much as the championship favourite aboard a very trick Monlau Honda NSF250R. And his main threat was expected to come from the other side of the garage, the girl he narrowly beat to the national title the year before: Maria Herrera.
Could he handle the pressure? Well, his record of nine wins from eleven races certainly suggests he could. In those two he didn't win, he followed up with comfortable second-placed showings. The championship was all-but wrapped up after six races, and barring a midseason rally from Jorge Navarro, his eventual winning margin of 127 more or less reflected the ease with which he claimed the crown. On the other side of the garage Herrera's season was an unmitigated disaster. After scoring a win at round one she managed just two further top-six finishes.
Each round was impressive one way or another. His 45-point haul from the double header at round one came just a day after a hefty qualifying spill. His win in Le Mans demonstrated he could handle the pressure of an expectant home crowd. At Montmeló he demolished the absolute circuit record in qualifying while his practice times would have put him amongst the first two rows of the world championship grid at two other tracks. Then came his turn at Valencia. Names like McPhee and Masbou joined the ranks for a post-season shakedown and even they didn't see which way he went.
Several hyped rookies have flattered to deceive in recent years. Previous winners of the Red Bull Rookies Cup like Kornfeil, Alt and Hanika have yet to set the world championship alight after graduating into Moto3. But lap times in the RBRC are some three seconds slower than their grand prix counterparts. Quartararo's qualifying and testing performances have already proved he can match the world championship field when the stopwatches start.
With times – and talent – like that there is no doubting the CEV's (rebranded to the FIM Junior World Championship for 2015) competitiveness but the world championship is another matter, a class in which the winning margin was less than 0.4 seconds at 88 percent of the races in 2014. With such fine margins making a difference between first and sixth place revised riding techniques are devised to forge an advantage.
“At the Ranch he was very strong from the start… he has a very particular style of riding,” said Rossi, having observed the 15-year old during a training visit in January.
Quartararo's technique was also an aspect of his riding that has struck Thomas Baujard, journalist for France's weekly Moto Journal publication.
“In places he is using a motocross technique,” he said after meeting Quartararo at the close of 2014. “In Portimão... he said he was doing a little scrub with the bike… to get less wind pressure on the inside of this turn. His technique was to slide the bike with the front to reduce flight time and put the bike on the side. If you get it wrong you lose the front and instantly crash. It's unbelievably technical at that speed with this kind of bike. For him everything happens in slow motion because it's so close to disaster.”
Impressive for teenager. Only exemplary talents can even fathom a technique like this, never mind execute it with the utmost precision. Then there is his work ethic. The old mantra of 'determination, dedication and discipline' isn't lost on his young shoulders. 2014 team manager David Cabau recently told MotoGP.com of Quartararo's appetite to train and absorb new info.
Kayaking, climbing, dirt track and motocross all take precedence in his fitness regime while the majority of time off the bike during race weekends is spent analysing data and machine performance, he said.
Then there is that vital ingredient that comes so naturally to elite-level athletes: temperament. Baujard again: “He has the mental strength. This is the usual French weakness in all the sports. I approached him when he was racing at Le Mans [in 2014]. Everyone was expecting him to win and on the grid his body language was really calm. And he won, controlling his race perfectly.”
Every rider, no matter how strong, has a weakness in the armour. For Quartararo his inexperience is the obvious disadvantage. The Frenchman has only raced on five of the 18 world championship tracks. A steep learning curve for any racer, no matter how prodigious.
Then there is overconfidence. With a record like his there is a danger of expecting too much too soon. Who's to know how he will react if Fenati, Kent and Vazquez romp away off into the distance under the Qatari lights. At the close of '14 he told BT Sport, “There's a lot of pressure on me but what I want is to give my maximum, get the best results I can and try to win.” Was this his first mistake? Admitting he was aiming to win in his first year may have gone some way to upping the pressure.
But true to Alzamora's schooling, everything said since has been done so to deflate that pressure. His tune had changed somewhat at his team's official launch at the start of March. “This year my goal is to learn the circuits and to enjoy the season,” he said, before adding he hopes to show strongly at the Spanish and French rounds.
By all accounts those on his side of the garage will be working to keep him levelheaded and focused on the job at hand. “You can feel the 'Alzamora touch', let's say, by protecting his riders and organising everything carefully so nothing goes wrong,” says Baujard. His father, a grounded locksmith who still works in France, is present at race meetings but only in a supportive capacity. “It's a bit like Julia Marquez. Being there to support his son but not getting in the way to shout when things don't go well, like your average motocross dad.”
So what can we expect at Qatar? Baujard reckons the sky is the limit. “I think he can win the race. I'm really curious to see how it's going to unfold, to see his race tactics and whether he's going to be patient or trying to make a gap and win on his own. But for me he has the capabilities of spanking everyone from the first round onwards.”
No ordinary expectations for a grand prix rookie but from what Quartararo has shown us thus far he is no ordinary rider. Piling expectations on young shoulders is always risky business but for this 15-year old that has experienced little other than winning we may need to start believing the hype.