He came. He tried. But in the end, it proved impossible. Even for a man whose ambition and competitive drive burns as fiercely as Marc Márquez'. After riding with fewer problems than he feared on Saturday morning, the fracture in his right arm started to swell in the afternoon, and made riding impossible. Marc Márquez was forced to face the limits of human endurance and willpower, and accept that racing on Sunday would not be.
Saturday afternoon was the first time that the media had had a chance to actually speak to Márquez since his crash last Sunday. He hadn't spoken to the media after the race – for the obvious reason that he was injured and needed medical attention – nor had he spoken to us on his return to the track. His mind was focused laser-like on Saturday morning, when he would get a chance to ride – skipping Friday was part of the deal he made with HRC before they would even allow him to get on a bike – and he wanted no distractions.
But on Saturday afternoon, after his body had forced him to throw in the towel, Márquez finally told us exactly what happened a week ago, when he crashed out of the race, and kicked off the roller coaster ride which ended with him pulling into his garage after a single lap during Q1.
How it started
"Last Sunday I enjoyed it a lot on the bike," Márquez told us. "You cannot imagine how much I enjoyed it. Of course after the big save it was a strange race but I was really enjoying it and felt really good. The mistake arrived when I said ‘OK, the job is done’. I arrived there and I was already behind Viñales. The job was done, I will just follow him and overtake in the end."
That did not happen, however. "It is then that I fly. In that corner the only difference was that every lap I was cutting the curb on the inside and that lap I didn’t cut the curb, I touched the white line and suddenly both wheels – the rear and the front – give up and, yeah, it’s a mistake because I crashed but it can happen in racing and you must learn."
There were no thoughts of racing this weekend that Sunday night, Márquez told us. But that changed as the week unfolded. "What I did during all the week was to follow my instinct and listen to my body, try to follow my body," the Repsol Honda rider said. "On Monday I would have said it was impossible to race in Jerez, but then on Tuesday Dr Mir did a good job and on Wednesday I was able to do some push-ups and be in Cervera in my town and put on a leather suit and be on a bike. Then I said 'it’s possible'."
This was not a decision he could take on his own, however. First, he had to persuade HRC that racing this Sunday was both feasible and desirable. "I started to speak with Honda and the team, and they were a little bit on another side, they wanted to save me. But we made a deal that I would try on Saturday and be really honest. It’s what I did."
There had been much criticism of the medical evaluation of Márquez, of him being passed fit to ride. That seemed impossible from the outside. But Márquez explained that the test was as tough as the circuit doctors and the FIM Medical Director, Dr Angel Charte, could make it. "On Thursday the medical check was really tough. Just now I said thanks to Dr Charte because he was pushing me a lot with the push-ups and everything; the power was there and the muscle was working good."
Cal Crutchlow, assessed after surgery on his left scaphoid, had to undergo a similar test and put forth a strong defense of the fitness test. "It wasn’t easy. People think you can just walk in there and they say you can go in, see you later. But that’s normally written by you journalist lot," the LCR Honda rider said. "I don’t know how many of you have broken bones, come back and stood there in front of three doctors that all do the same test on you three times, where they’re grabbing you and ragging you around to see if you can ride or handle a bike that’s moving."
No single test
The test consists of a number of parts, Crutchlow said. "We had to do a strength test. I don’t know what the other guys did but I’m sure it’s the same. We had to do a flexibility test, as in how much I can move my wrist. How much you can grip someone’s hand to show how you can grip the handlebar. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. When I actually did that I thought I don’t know if I can ride tomorrow."
Being passed fit is just the first hurdle, Crutchlow said. "I passed the test and we go there on agreement that you'll speak to the doctor in the session. You’re passed fit but passed fit for the first session. They will also assess you in the session and they make sure you’re able to continue. It’s not like you just walk in there and they sign your form."
Once past the obstacle of the fitness test, Marc Márquez suited up on Saturday morning and went out for FP3. He was faster than he dared hope, doing shorter runs. "In the morning I felt really good and was able to ride in 1'37.7 with the used tire, pretty much the same time as last week," Márquez told us.
In FP4, Márquez went out for a first run, stringing together eight laps where he got faster every lap. But when he returned at the end of the run and sat in the garage, something changed. "When I started again something changed. Immediately. It was like the inflammation or something. The arm got a little bit bigger and maybe pressed some nerve. I was losing the power on the second run in some corners I did not expect."
He took that warning sign very seriously, as he had promised HRC and his team. "At that point you need to be honest with your body and understand the situation, and that’s what I did," Márquez said. He would give himself one more chance, but approach with extreme caution. "I stopped in the box and said straight away to the team what’s going on: that I would go to Q1 and in the first lap if I feel a little bit this feeling or something similar I will give up. This is what I did."
It was a brave decision, and a sensible one. Perhaps even inevitable. But it was not what he had hoped for. "It’s not what I expected. If I am here then it is because I was able to ride but I want to say thanks to all the doctors and the team and the physios because they gave me the chance to follow my passion and my instincts. It was what my body was asking."
Having believed he could ride, and experiencing that this was a bridge too far, allowed him to skip the race with a clear conscience, Márquez said. "Tonight I will sleep in a good way because I tried and it wasn’t possible. Brno will be another race." Why had he even tried? "The reason for me being in Jerez is my passion for racing and the passion for what I do. Above all my enthusiasm to do things well. I’ve always been a person to follow my own mentality and my ideas and my instincts."
Márquez deserves credit for recognizing that his body said no, and for accepting that. "I stopped because it was not safe for anybody," he said. "When you have a passion for something then you are able to lift the limit of suffering a little but when I saw that things were going beyond the line I knew it was better to stop. "
That he had gotten so close was down to sheer willpower, ambition and the desire to race overcoming the physical pain from the injury. "The mind does a lot," Márquez said. "When I said to myself 'I can’t' then the pain multiplied 2, 3 times! But the mind also has to know the body very well and know the limits of suffering and how far you can go. The body also has nerves, and I have experience of this already from preseason. When mentally you can but physically you cannot – and you might put yourself in danger – then that’s when you have to know your time is up. I kept this with me and kept being realistic." But he had to try, he said. "If I didn’t believe it was possible initially then I would have stayed home, with air conditioning and my physio instead of making life complicated."
Rider knows best
Jack Miller had been impressed by the lengths Márquez was willing to go to try to race, and had no criticism for the Spaniard for wanting to attempt it. "It is completely and utterly up to him," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "The guy is an animal. To be putting his elbow on the ground when he’s not 100% fit with a broken humerus…I guess in his mind he can still ride the bike and he’ll just get better and better as the days go on. I have no doubt he’ll be there at the next round going for victories again."
Not that Miller necessarily thought that riding was the best choice Márquez could have made. "Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing to see him out there doing laps let along going for times," the Australian told us. "Obviously, you never know until you try but I think it would have been better sitting at home and getting himself fit for the next race rather than being here. It was so close to the operation that it’s a bit mind-blowing. Massive congratulations to him. He deserves a medal for just getting his leathers never mind doing some laps in anger. That alone was pretty cool. It is a shame to see him and [Alex] Rins trying. The biggest one to look at is [Cal] Crutchlow. He had surgery on the same day on that scaphoid. He was into it. It will be hard for him over 25 laps and the race distance. All those boys getting on the bikes with injuries that are just a few days old is astonishing."
Marc Márquez may have a reputation for taking risks and crashing, but it looms larger in the imagination of fans than in reality. Sunday's Andalusian Grand Prix will be the first race Márquez has missed since entering MotoGP. Prior to that, he missed only two races, at the end of 2011 after crashing over a stream of water at Sepang in Moto2, at a point where marshals had not shown yellow flags to warn of danger. Before that, he missed his first two races in 125s in 2008, after breaking an arm in preseason testing.
Márquez has had big crashes before – Mugello 2013, where he jumped off the bike at well over 250 km/h, or the massive tumble in Thailand in 2019, or his highside during qualifying in Sepang, are just a few which come to mind - but they have never kept him off the bike. Until now.
A worthy championship
Which means that he starts the season with two no-scores, and zero points. That is a major handicap in what is an already curtailed season that could potentially end up being curtailed even further if there is another outbreak of COVID-19 later in the year. Though you can never rule Márquez out until the championship is mathematically impossible, it is a K2-on-top-of-an-Everest mountain to climb.
Does that devalue the championship, as Repsol Honda team principal Alberto Puig seemed to suggest earlier in the week? "If you are a champion then it is because you did something better than the others. The value is the same," Márquez insisted. "If you ask any rider then they’d prefer to win a title with all of their rivals on the track without injury, but the value of a title – however it is won, either by consistency or speed or by an injury to someone else – is the same. Whoever wins this year deserves it. They will have more points than the others and have earned it."
Valentino Rossi was not so sure Marc Márquez could be ruled out of the championship just yet. "First of all it depends on how many points Quartararo and Viñales will take tomorrow," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "And also Dovizioso. The championship is short and he will start with a disadvantage, but in the first race he demonstrated that he has great pace and can win, because in the first race he was the fastest. So I think that for him it's not over."
Tiptoeing around title talk
The two title favorites now that Márquez is seemingly out of the championship were less inclined to look so far ahead. "At the end, it’s never easy to think already in the championship because it’s only our first race. Tomorrow will be the second one," Fabio Quartararo said, leading the championship after winning the first race. "Of course it’s an advantage when a person does two zeros, and more in this kind of championship, when you don't have 20 races."
But given Marc Márquez' 2019 season, he can't be written off, Quartararo insisted. "At the end, if you check last year’s results of Marc, apart from Austin, the worst result he got was a second place. So it depends how he will come back. Of course at the moment we don’t need to think too much about the championship, just to enjoy. The best way to make good races is to enjoy and try to do our best. One race and one day we will think about the championship but it is not the moment yet."
Maverick Viñales, who finished second to Quartararo last Sunday and looks like the only rider capable of challenging the Frenchman this Sunday as well, had a similar perspective on the title chase. "I think the championship is very long," the Spaniard told the press conference. "Even if it’s less races it’s very long and can happen anything. I have the experience from a few years ago. Every race is unique and we have to enjoy the race, trying to be as faster as we can and taking the maximum points. Still it’s too early to think about it. It’s too early."
All open for Jack
Jack Miller, who finished fourth last week and lines up seventh on the grid for this Sunday's race, and with good pace under his belt, was a little more focused on the championship, perhaps reflecting the fact that he had no thought of the title before the season started, his main goal to try to get as many podiums as possible.
"It’s definitely changed now," the Pramac Ducati rider said of the championship picture. "We’re in this thing and we’ll change our strategy. As I’ve said all along we just have to get through this round here at Jerez and there is the chance of coming to tracks where I really do well at and we’ll be able to challenge. We’re here at a track that Marc normally does well at and he hasn’t been able to take advantage of that. Coming to some tracks with another year of experience I think the GP20 is getting better. It has definitely changed my outlook on this championship. I was hoping for some podiums and looking around a top five position in the champions but now….we’ll go race by race still but there is no reason why we cannot be a leading contender for this thing."
Solutions at last?
First, there is Sunday's race. That Jerez favors the Yamaha is evident from the fact that the four M1s line up in the first two rows of the grid, Quartararo and Viñales in first and second respectively, Franco Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi on the second row, in fourth and sixth. The result is particularly encouraging for Rossi, after the Italian veteran had suffered through a miserable first race in Jerez, eventually pulling out when a sensor failed and caused his engine to shut off automatically.
Rossi and his crew had found a bike setting to help alleviate some of his problems with the rear Michelin tire, he explained. "We continued to work on the bike, we have a different setting. I feel better. I am not too bad in the morning, in the afternoon I suffer a little bit more. But looks like it's difficult for everybody. This afternoon was also more hot and tomorrow will be another step, so I think tomorrow will be the hottest MotoGP race that I've ever seen. Now the situation starts to be really, really at the limit for everybody. So I think that it will be a great challenge for everybody to make 25 laps."
If Valentino Rossi had gone from back to front, Andrea Dovizioso had made the opposite journey. Last week, the factory Ducati rider had finished on the podium; this week, Dovizioso couldn't even make it out of Q1, and will start from fourteenth on the grid.
That difference was deceptive, Dovizioso warned. Sure, he had finished on the podium last week, but with a week to examine the data, the rest of the grid had made a large step forward, while he had only made minor improvements. Dovizioso had spent both days of practice making radical changes to his setup, shortening the bike and playing with the ride height in an attempt to make the bike easier to turn.
What had changed? Dovizioso was asked. "Nothing. But also last weekend it was enough," the Italian said. "When you make third it looks like everything is fine, but it wasn’t like that. You see me on the bike, I wasn’t nice. I was fighting from the first lap until the end. I was completely destroyed at the end of the race because I didn’t ride in the right way. I was able to manage everything from my mind to control the situation, but not because I was fast."
Dovizioso's situation was unchanged, while the rest had made a step forward, he explained. "This weekend a lot of riders improved the speed. We improve the feeling with the bike and we are able to be a bit easier with 1'38.4s, 1'38.3 with a used tire. But some riders are doing 1'37-high so there is a difference. A lot of riders are able to do 1'38-low," Dovizioso said.
There had been improvement, but it wasn't enough. "I’m a bit more consistent compared to the last weekend. But most of the riders are a bit faster. So we have to be faster and to be faster we have be more consistent the way I ride. I mean in the braking and entry I am not comfortable. This is the point. Maybe tomorrow morning we will try something completely different from what we used in the past in the last few years because the tire is different. We have to find a way."
Dovizioso finds himself on the fifth row of the grid, with three more Ducatis ahead of him: factory Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci will start from eleventh, and lines up directly ahead of him. Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller starts from seventh, while Pecco Bagnaia showed incredible speed in qualifying to take third on the grid.
It was Bagnaia's best qualifying in MotoGP, and a strong start after a difficult first season in the class. Being upgraded to a Ducati GP20 had helped, Bagnaia said, but he had also made a big step in braking and in his feeling with the bike. "I think that I’m more confident with the bike. Having the same bike of the factory team is a great step for me. Last year I was struggling in the first race with the bike. I think the biggest step is that, but also I improved a lot the braking. In these two races I worked a lot to improve the pace. Just already making the step in the braking let me be more fast. I’m happy with the work we have done at the moment but tomorrow will be very important to be strong for all the race."
Miguel of Orange
The Ducatis are finding themselves rapidly being caught by KTM. Though Ducati had reason to be pleased with three GP20s on the first four rows, that was a feat almost matched by the Austrian manufacturers, with three KTM RC16s starting from the second, third, and fourth rows for tomorrow's race. Of the factory riders, rookie Brad Binder sits directly ahead of his vastly more experienced teammate Pol Espargaro in ninth and twelfth respectively. But the revelation of Saturday is Miguel Oliveira of the Red Bull KTM Tech3 satellite squad, who starts from fifth.
It had not been easy for Oliveira, the Portuguese rider struggling in the cooler conditions in the morning, and forcing him to pass through Q1. Oliveira aced the first qualifying session, easily setting a time in Q1 that would have been good for fifth in Q2 as well. As it was, he found an extra hundredth in Q2, though he had had to work for it. "I’m not going to lie, of course I was on the limit," Oliveira said. "I think everybody was. That’s part of the game but the laps were coming a bit more naturally from morning. It was much more clear about the way we needed to go to have more grip and go faster and into the 1'37s. We were more relaxed."
But looking at the pace, it is Pol Espargaro who looks to be the only rider capable of getting close to the Yamahas of Quartararo and Viñales. He wasn't running 1'37s with the Lorenzo-like consistency of Fabio Quartararo, but he was not that far away. But his problem is that he is forced to start from twelfth on the grid.
"I would say our pace is one of the best ones," Pol Espargaro said. "Close to the best. But starting from so far behind then it is difficult, because I was suffering so much last weekend behind Dovi. I couldn’t overtake him during the race and it was very difficult. I was really concerned about doing a good qualifying for me but maybe we put all the pressure on that moment and I was just wanting too much. It was everything or nothing and in the end it came to nothing. It was not the best strategy." That strategy saw him end his qualifying in the gravel.
The riders face a punishing challenge on Sunday, with temperatures likely to rise even further than they did last week. That could tempt some to give the medium rear a try, the tire having a little more endurance but a bit less grip than the soft raced by everyone last weekend. That would allow riders to make a push later in the race, while everyone on a soft will try to make a break from the start. Sunday's race is going to be long, hard, and almost certainly tactical. It is very far from a foregone conclusion.
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