On Thursday, June 27th, 2013, Jorge Lorenzo took a flying lap around a soaking wet Assen during FP2, and hit a patch of water at Hoge Heide, the blisteringly fast right-left flick before the Ramshoek and the GT chicane. The Spaniard hit the ground hard, breaking his left collarbone. Trailing Dani Pedrosa in the championship by 7 points, Lorenzo decided to fly back to Barcelona for surgery.
Lorenzo flew to Barcelona on Thursday night, had his collarbone plated in the Dexeus Institut that night, and spent Friday morning recovering. Friday evening, Lorenzo was on a plane again, on his way back to Assen, and contemplating riding. On Saturday morning, race day at the time, Lorenzo was passed fit by the circuit doctor at Assen. Starting from twelfth on the grid – he had qualified for Q2 in FP1, benefiting from the weather conditions – the Spaniard gritted his teeth and suffered through a long race, eventually finishing in a remarkable fifth place.
Lorenzo's story has gone down in the annals of MotoGP history as a feat of epic endurance and willpower. But there were many question marks raised at the time. Was it safe? Was it worth the risk of crashing again, and potentially suffering a worse injury? The case even triggered a change in the rules, with a clause added that riders who had been under any form of anesthesia would not be allowed to practice or race for 48 hours afterwards.
Lorenzo's result dispelled any notion that he had made the wrong choice. Finishing fifth, just behind Pedrosa, meant he lost only two points in the championship. The decision was justified.
Down at the Waterfall
For a brief time, at least. Two weeks later, Lorenzo crashed heavily in practice at the Sachsenring, losing the front at the notorious Turn 11, breaking his collarbone again, and bending the titanium plate holding it together into an unpleasant looking V shape. He was fortunate that Dani Pedrosa did pretty much the same thing, so Lorenzo did not lose any points to the Repsol Honda rider.
But Lorenzo was also unfortunate. His DNF at the Sachsenring, and finishing behind Pedrosa in sixth place at Laguna Seca, a week later, left Marc Márquez in charge of the championship. There would be ups and downs along the way, but those two weekends, in The Netherlands and Germany, paved the way for Márquez' first and historic MotoGP title.
Now Márquez finds himself in a remarkably similar situation. Last Sunday, he paid dearly for pushing too hard to make up for an earlier mistake which had cost him a lot of ground, highsiding himself into the gravel on the exit of Turn 3. It was a big and ugly crash, but he was particularly unlucky to be hit by his bike as it followed him into the gravel. The front wheel smashed into his right arm, breaking the humerus, the bone which runs through the upper arm.
It could have been much worse. The blow from his front wheel seems to have broken the bone relatively cleanly, and though nerve damage was feared at first, once the surgeons opened him up to fit a titanium plate to fix the bones together, they found that the nerves were untouched.
The crash happened on Sunday, Márquez flew home to Barcelona on Monday, had surgery on Tuesday, and according to Italian TV pit lane reporter Antonio Boselli, sent a video to his team of him doing push ups, to convince them he was strong enough to ride. Thursday lunchtime, he arrived in the paddock, was evaluated by the Chief Medical Officer for the event (an experienced senior doctor appointed by the event promoter, usually the circuit doctor), and passed fit to ride.
Even Dr Angel Charte, MotoGP Medical Director, had been surprised at the speed of his recovery. "As you all know, Marc Marquez had a crash where he suffered an injury," Charte told MotoGP.com. "He underwent a surgical intervention where they plate it and 48 hours later, as is stated in the medical regulations, he has the right to request a medical evaluation to participate in the next race. Today he came to the medical examination unit, where they tried all of the movements that involve this kind of injury and it turns out he’s able to do them perfectly. There were no signs of pain or mechanical inability of his right arm, and therefore the exhaustive medical examination, although it seems strange to us, has been positive. It proves the rider is perfectly ready to race. At what percentage, that can’t be told, but he fulfills the rigorous medical protocol for this type of injury."
Being passed fit to ride is one thing, but as Dr Charte hints at, actually riding and racing is very much another. Márquez has already chosen to sit out Friday, to give himself another day to heal, and to get more physio on the arm to help him prepare. He will attempt to ride on Saturday, and if he believes he can manage the race after that, he will try to line up on the grid on Sunday, after another examination by the circuit doctor to see if anything had changed.
Should he be allowed to ride? I am a mere journalist, and have precisely zero competence to answer that question. What I do know is that there is a process which has to be followed. The Chief Medical Officer, along with the MotoGP medical team, get to see the medical dossier of the rider and the details of the surgery, and perform a series of checks to assess whether they believe that the rider can control a racing motorcycle safely. They check range of motion, strength, and how affected the riders are by pain.
They will do some unpleasant things to riders to make sure they are not hiding the pain. When Cal Crutchlow broke his ankle at Silverstone in 2012, the doctors made him jump up and down on it. Jorge Lorenzo was made to do push ups on his broken collarbone in 2013. Marc Márquez was almost certainly ordered to do the same. Every single rider will do all they can to hide the pain, pulling all sorts of tricks to cover it up.
Doctors do their best to try to give a realistic assessment of whether a rider is in good enough shape to actually ride, but the only real test is to actually climb aboard a MotoGP bike and head down a straight in sixth gear before subjecting themselves to forces approaching 2G as they brake to make the turn.
The Dentist speaks
If a journalist is unqualified to make a judgment, Miguel Oliveira is in a much better position. Oliveira is both a MotoGP rider for the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team, and as a dentist in training, he has significant medical knowledge and experience. He understands the issues better than most.
"I mean, the doctors do what the rider wants," he replied when asked whether he thought the judgment of the circuit doctors could be relied on. "I have experience, I was declared fit to ride after my shoulder injury in Sepang, but I could just tell that it was a huge limitation for me to ride. Of course you can ride, but it depends what is acceptable for you in terms of pain limit or performance."
The risk of further injury for Marc Márquez is significant, Oliveira said. "We are talking about a bone that was just recently fixed getting out of surgery. So the risk is there, because if you have a crash the thing can come off completely. It has an artificial fixation, but the bone has movement, and you have vibrations from the bike, so it's never very healthy to do it." That didn't mean that it couldn't be done, however. "But it's possible, of course, we have seen it before in the past with Lorenzo after I don't know how many hours he came back and raced and finished in the top five. It's possible, yes."
Impressed but wary
Riders with more MotoGP experience but less medical training came at it from a slightly different angle. "For me it's impossible to say because I don't know what's happened to Márquez," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "I haven't seen the X-rays. When you are outside you don't know everything. From what I see from outside, it looked like a bad injury and a lot of people were saying that Márquez would need a lot of time to come back. But he's already here after 3 days. Now we need to understand if he can ride the bike, because he's very brave and if he can ride the bike and make the race it's good."
Márquez' future teammate Pol Espargaro was equally impressed. "For sure I am impressed," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "What the doctors can do now, by putting the plate, it’s amazing. I have experienced it with my collarbones and my wrist. It is amazing what they can do by Márquez is also really brave after just three days of surgery, and especially at this place where the heat is very high and the circumstances this Sunday. It is not just the injury and pain but the combination of the heat. Everything will be a bit more inflated and tough."
Espargaro also shone a light on why Márquez is even attempting to ride, against even the wishes of Honda. "In the end he is a brave guy but if he wants to win the title then he needs to here. It is such a short championship and there are not so many points."
The shortened season moves the goalposts for everyone in all three Grand Prix classes. With 13 races, a DNF is much more expensive than in an ordinary, longer season. And with so many races in such a short time, the pressure to perform is greater, and therefore mistakes are easier to make – Marc Márquez is the very embodiment of that. If Márquez has any hopes for the title – and after just 1 race, despite a DNF, he must believe that the title is still possible – then any points he can pick up on Sunday could make the difference at the end.
Tell me why
That, of course, is the cold, rational explanation, but the real motivations for Márquez are so much more complex. Racers always want to race, no matter the injury or the pain they are in, because competing is what they live for. They have an unshakable belief that they can triumph, whatever the odds, and a conviction that they deserve that success, which they have worked so hard for.
The race happens whether they are fit or not, of course, and so they have to perform on the day, whether they are ready or not. If MotoGP delayed a race because a rider was injured, to make the season more fair, the season would last exactly one weekend, until someone fell in the gravel and cracked a bone or tore a muscle or suffered severe bruising.
There is also an element of psychological warfare in this. Marc Márquez is a great champion, and like all the great champions who have preceded him, he doesn't just want to win, he wants to dominate. That means imposing his will on the opposition, not just going a bit faster than them. It means making clear that his rivals should fear him, that he is capable of doing the impossible, of feats which they could never hope to replicate.
To an extent, Marc Márquez' objective this weekend has already been achieved. On Monday, all the talk was of how Márquez had thrown away the championship with silly and unnecessary mistake. From Wednesday night, the media and fans have spoken of nothing but the willpower, the physical and mental resilience of Márquez, to even consider riding in that state. Whatever happens this Sunday, and even whether Márquez is able to race or not, he will have proved to his rivals that he is willing to go further than they even imagined possible. He has planted a seed of doubt in their minds.
Earlier in the week, Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig had attempted something similar, tried to unsettle Márquez' rivals. His attempts did not go down so well, however. Puig told Spanish TV broadcaster DAZN that Marc Márquez' absence would devalue the championship. The eventual winner could not feel 100% satisfied at winning the championship when Márquez, clearly the best rider according Puig, was not able to compete in all of the races during the season.
To say this is a weak argument is something of an understatement. As one Twitter wit put it, does Alberto Puig not feel 100% satisfied at winning his only Grand Prix, at Jerez in 1995, because the best rider in the world at the time – Mick Doohan – crashed out?
Jack Miller was less than impressed with Puig' statements. "I have heard two people ask questions about the relative value of this championship and it is a complete crock," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. "We all started on Friday 100% fit. If one person gets injured it doesn’t matter." Riders are always getting injured and missing races, he said. "We all get injured, they keep saying it is not valid, we all have the same opportunity to get injured and that’s the risk you take."
A brief run down the history of the sport is sufficient to disabuse a person of any notion that this championship will be devalued by Marc Márquez' injuring himself. In 1992, Wayne Rainey became champion after Mick Doohan broke his leg at Assen, and nearly ended up losing his leg due to complications with surgery. Kevin Schwantz became champion in 1993 after Wayne Rainey tragically broke his back at Misano and was unable to walk. Alex Crivillé won the championship after Doohan ended his career in a big crash at Jerez. Jorge Lorenzo won in 2010 because Valentino Rossi first damaged his shoulder, then broke his leg.
Marc Márquez won his first title as a result of the two men in front of him in the championship at the time, the two hot favorites for the title, who had fought a fierce battle for the crown the previous year, took themselves out of contention by crashing at the Sachsenring, and taking themselves out of contention. And so we come full circle.
Jorge Lorenzo may have raced and finished fifth at Assen in 2013, Marc Márquez faces a much stiffer task. Lorenzo was competing against half a grid of CRT machines, and against satellite bikes which were much further behind the factory than is currently the case. He was racing against a Ducati which had made no real progress for about 6 years, and was about to undergo a revolution. Ahead of him on the grid he had to Aprilia ART machines, racing in the CRT class, two satellite Tech3 Yamahas which were at least a year old, two Ducati GP13s, arguably the nadir of Ducati's MotoGP development, and a year-old Honda satellite machine.
Marc Márquez is racing in a very different environment. For a start, the level of machinery is both much better and much more equal than in 2013. Then, there were two factories with competitive machines. Now, there are four manufacturers who have won races, and a fifth, KTM have had a podium. There are no more CRT teams, and in their stead, we have satellite squads with de facto factory spec machines. Of the 22 bikes on the grid, just three are last year's spec: Takaaki Nakagami's LCR Honda, and the Ducati GP19s of Avintia.
Complicating life even more – and making this weekend's race even more intriguing – is the fact that MotoGP is racing at the same circuit as last week, and so the teams and riders already have a weekend's worth of data in near identical conditions to work with. They also have data from the race to work with, which is even more valuable. They can learn from their mistakes, and further refine their setup.
Indeed, the fact that MotoGP is back at Jerez was a factor in Marc Márquez' decision to race, Alberto Puig said, as it allowed them to persuade Márquez to sit out the first day of practice on Friday. "If it was a new track it would be more difficult," Puig said. "But we have been here for five days so the setup of the bike we know, he knows exactly how to ride the bike on this track. So it's no meaning to try Friday and to give more stress to the injury. So he will try Saturday and after that we will see."
More data, closer field
What effect will a weekend's worth of data have on the riders? It will close up the field a fair amount, was Marc VDS Moto2 rider Sam Lowes' opinion, with the riders further back likely to gain more than those at the front. "Everyone can improve this weekend but obviously the guys in the midfield have more room to improve on," Lowes told us. "I think that the sessions will be tighter and the gap for getting into Q2 will be only a few tenths."
This is a very salient point. The field is already tight: the top ten after FP3 were all within four tenths, with seventeenth-placed Aleix Espargaro just half a second behind Andrea Dovizioso in tenth. A quarter of a second separated fourth place Pecco Bagnaia from polesitter Fabio Quartararo, and another quarter of a second separated Jack Miller in fifth from Franco Morbidelli in tenth.
If the field concertinas together as the middle of the field catches the front, and the rear catches the middle, it won't be tenths separating the top ten. There will be hundredths of a second between the various positions, and passing through to Q2 is likely to be a matter of thousandths. A small mistake, a slip of focus, or a slight lack of strength could cost a great many positions.
That is going to be very tough for riders, but great for fans. And it is going to be doubly difficult for Marc Márquez. He may have chosen to try to ride, but passing through to Q2 will be an enormous task. And finishing inside the points during the race will be a major hurdle, as he faces up to the heat, the conditions, and his injury.
Should Marc Márquez be trying to ride at Jerez on Saturday? Whether he should or not is irrelevant. The fact is that he will try. How much of a difference it will make to the outcome of the championship, we won't know for a long while yet.
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