This is how Marc Marquez pushes a bike harder than anyone else
By rights, the dominant image of the past MotoGP season should be that of masterful championship winner Marc Marquez waving to his exultant pit crew as he flashes past yet another chequered flag on the back wheel. After all, he did that nine times in an 18-race season, en route to his fifth championship in six years of trying.
Yet there is another more powerful picture that says even more about this remarkable, record-breaking talent.
It is of the Repsol Honda at an absurd angle of lean, the steering folding the front wheel inwards, the rear sliding sideways; the rider with one foot in the air, knee and elbow on the tarmac. A split second later he will be back in control, throttle open, stopwatch ticking once more.
Most times, anyway. His season was distinguished not only by results, but by a heroic number of extraordinary saves, of situations that by all normal laws of dynamics were already beyond the point of no return.
Now and again, he’d fail. The falls were exceptions. That there were 21 of them serves to highlight just how many more times he did manage, beyond all reason, to make the front wheel grip again, to pick the bike back up, and continue.
All told, he had 23 crashes, more than any other MotoGP rider. Two of those were in races. All the rest represented the few times, perhaps one in five, that the bike had lost all grip, and he had not been able to pick it up again.
Nobody counted his successful saves, but it was certainly at least two or three times every weekend, frequently more. Sometimes they were just little nudges. In Barcelona, memorably, he did it twice in one go. He lost the front at some 105mph, the tyre painting a long black strip as he dug his knee into the track so hard that his knee-slider was pushed round to the back of his leg. He recovered, having scrubbed off maybe 30 mph. but now he was on the dirty part of the track “and I lost the front again”. He saved that one too. Just astonishing.
Given 23 falls, you might wonder why he wasn’t injured. Because almost every time he didn’t actually fall very far. He was already touching down.
It is amazing to watch from the outside. Equally so for his competitors, or at least that small number who can go fast enough to see what he is doing. None of them are presently willing or perhaps even able to emulate him.
Rossi, who has not enjoyed looking over his shoulder at the advance of the youngster, is among them. I asked him, after a particularly dazzling display at Brno, if he could have done the same. “Aaah… it’s to do with his body position, and… er,” he laughed. “I think it is better to don’t lose the front.”
There is an old racing chestnut: “It’s easier to teach a fast rider to stop crashing than a slow rider to be fast.” Marquez doesn’t seem to want to learn, because crashing is his way of finding the limit, with pin-point accuracy. Ninety-nine per cent of these falls happen in free practice; so that when qualifying and the race come round he alone knows exactly how far he can push his bike and his tyres.
Given all this, it is hard to see an end to his dominance. The limit would be willpower and physical strength; and as 39-year-old Rossi continues to demonstrate, there’s no reason to suspect he’s going to run out for a few years to come.
All good things, of course, come to an end (as 39-year-old Rossi keeps trying not to demonstrate). Yet there’s nobody on track now or even on the horizon who comes close to Marquez’s combination of ferocity and talent. He has the sort of natural gifts that come along very seldom. One thinks of Mike Hailwood, and Freddie Spencer. Maybe Mick Doohan. Next to them, even the best of other riders were to some extent journeymen.
Or have we seen the next one?
At the final round of 2018 in Valencia, a lanky 15-year-old, one Can Öncü, was able to take advantage of a change in rules that allows the winner of the Red Bull Rookies Cup the same privileges already accorded to the CEV “Junior World Champion”, of entering GPs below the 16-year-old minimum age limit.
Öncü, in the most difficult conditions, won the Moto3 race both brilliantly and decisively, becoming at a stroke the youngest-ever GP winner, the first Turk ever to do so, and the first novice since 1999.
Marquez is ten years older, a smaller age gap than that between himself and Rossi (14 years). He might already be looking over his shoulder.
Words by Michael Scott.