Winning a MotoGP race is never easy. Even when the winner crosses the line with a huge victory margin, it's never easy. Riding for 42 minutes and 117 kilometers at close to maximum intensity is tough on the body, and tough on the mind. Disaster is only a momentary lapse of attention away.
That thought was on Marc Márquez' mind going into the race at Aragon. He had qualified on pole with a lap a third of a second faster than anyone else. In terms of race pace, he looked to be half a second a lap quicker than the rest of the grid. On paper, the race was in the bag.
That was pretty much what we thought at Austin back in April as well. But there, Márquez crashed out of the race on lap 9, after he had built up a lead of nearly 4 seconds. Up until that point, he had looked as unbeatable as ever at the Circuit of the Americas. But a minor hiccup with engine braking pushed the front, the bike getting away from him, and down he went.
Coming into Aragon, Márquez led the championship by 93 points. He could feel his sixth MotoGP title was within his grasp. He knew he had the pace to win comfortably. But the crash at Austin was preying on his mind, and he knew that a repeat would make his life unnecessarily difficult. Eyes on the prize, at all times.
Command and control
When the race started, it played out pretty much as expected. From pole, Márquez got the holeshot. By the end of the first lap, he had a gap of over a second, and the pace he set was four or five tenths faster than anyone else was capable of. At the halfway mark, he was 5.5 seconds ahead of the race for second place, and on pace to beat his own biggest margin of victory set earlier this year in Argentina.
Eyes on the prize. Márquez wasn't after his own record for the biggest winning margin. Or even taking another step closer to beating Mick Doohan's total of 54 premier class wins on a Honda. Or chasing Angel Nieto's total of 90 wins in all classes. Or even extending his winning streak at the Motorland Aragon circuit. The only thing that mattered was 25 more points for the championship, and increasing the gap to Andrea Dovizioso.
So Márquez eased off, managed the gap, gaining just over a second in the ten laps leading up to the final lap. Chickens were only counted once hatched, reared, and taken to market, and not a millisecond before.
Enough is enough
"He rode the perfect race, because he probably could have won by more," was Honda stablemate Cal Crutchlow's assessment of Márquez' performance. "He didn't need to, he managed the situation very well. It's not easy for 23 laps to have no reference and just lead like that, when he knows he has such a big advantage. When you have a guy half a second behind you, I think you can keep your concentration a little bit more a lot of the time."
Márquez acknowledged how great a role the race in Austin had played in the press conference after the race. "It was the main target during all the race to be focused, concentrate and be patient and don’t push too much, save the tires because I was saving the rear tire but also the front tire because with the medium I was struggling a little bit on the left side. But the experience of Austin was always in my head. So then I just keep going and I just try to understand and try to manage the distance, because what I learn in Austin is that doesn’t matter win by four seconds, twelve seconds, one second. The most important are the 25 points and it’s what we did."
It was the end to an almost perfect weekend for Márquez. They had arrived at the circuit with as good a setup for the Repsol Honda RC213V as they were going to get, he said. "We did an amazing job during all weekend. From the beginning we started in a good way. Just to know, to understand how good was the weekend, we raced with the setup that we started in FP1. This was something that was the first time in the year."
The only blemish on Márquez' record was a crash on Friday afternoon, falling at Turn 8 while testing the hard front tire. But it was a minor fall, the reigning champion walking away unhurt. All Márquez suffered was the inconvenience of having to return to the pits and lose time assessing tires. But it made no material difference to his quest for the 2019 title.
Márquez leads Andrea Dovizioso by 98 points heading into Buriram. If he finishes ahead of Andrea Dovizioso there, and in fourth place or better, he will tie up the title in Thailand. The chances of that happening are very good: Márquez has finished ahead of Dovizioso 11 times in 14 races, and he has never finished worse than second.
Wrapping the title up next round looks to be Márquez' mission. "Now we arrive in a circuit that last year already was a great battle between me and Dovi until the last corner, so this year can be more or less the same," he told the press conference. "The main difference for me is that looks like this year the engine is faster. So in Thailand there are the biggest straights, but then is a small part which will be more difficult. So we need to understand which is our level and which is Dovi’s level and try to fight for the victory. I already said on Thursday, my main target these last races is try to finish on the podium at every race."
That consistency is what is making it impossible to beat Marc Márquez in 2019. It is hard to take points from a rider who never finishes outside the top two. To beat him, you have to be even more consistent, and that means winning at tracks whatever the grip level, whatever the weather, whatever the other bikes are doing, whatever the disadvantages of your machine at a particular circuit.
An uncanny consistency
The difficulty of that challenge is illustrated by the last three rounds of MotoGP. In Austria, Márquez lost out to Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati. At Silverstone, it was the Suzuki of Alex Rins which finished ahead of him. At Misano, Márquez just pipped Fabio Quartararo to the line, the Yamahas finishing second through fifth. The one unchanging factor in all these races is Marc Márquez.
Andrea Dovizioso addressed Márquez' consistency, and the factors which play into how the different bikes have performed at different tracks throughout the season. "I think the bikes are affected a lot by the Michelin tires, which kind of tires they bring to every race, and which grip you found in that track," the factory Ducati said. "Every time it's different. For example, if you can see that the Yamaha they were so fast in the practice, but at the end struggled a bit more in the race, I think because the grip is different in the race. You have to ride in a different way. I think they improved in some areas but still not in some others. Sometimes in these conditions they struggling. In Misano they were better. Every time it’s a different story."
A different story for everyone but Marc Márquez, that is. "The only strange thing is Marc," Dovizioso said. "He’s difficult to analyze because he’s always there and in every race and fight for the victory. That is very, very difficult for sure. He makes the difference."
Be careful what you wish for
That is both a blessing and a curse for Honda. Honda leads the constructor's championship by 306 points to Ducati's 241. Márquez has scored all but 6 of those points for Honda, Takaaki Nakagami grabbing 6 points in Austin after Márquez crashed out. By contrast, Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller have all scored points for Ducati, Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, and Fabio Quartararo have all scored for Yamaha.
In the team championship, the Repsol Honda team trails the Factory Ducati squad, 357 points to Honda's 333. Marc Márquez has scored 300 points in the championship, more than the combined total of 284 by Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi in the Monster Energy Yamaha team, more than the 209 combined points scored by Alex Rins and Joan Mir for the Suzuki Ecstar team, more than any other team combined.
Two factors are at play here. First of all, Marc Márquez' appetite for victory is voracious, and impossible to satisfy. He reminds me a lot of Eddy Merckx, the Belgian cyclist who earned the nickname The Cannibal. In 1969, Merckx won the Tour de France, picking up the prizes for best climber, best sprinter, and the combativity jersey as well for the most attacking rider. Márquez shares that same hunger, that same desire to dominate and crush the opposition, to leave no one in any doubt over who is the best in the world.
Leading where none can follow
But the second is that because of his success, Márquez has become the goose that laid the golden egg. The bike has been developed to give Márquez the tools he needs to win. That hasn't made the bike any easier to ride, but he doesn't care. The bike has more horsepower, and that means he can stay with the Ducatis on the straights, and rely on himself to handle the corners.
It is a problem which Jorge Lorenzo keeps butting his head against. "It's clear that to gain more power, we got some problems in the corners with the new bike," Lorenzo said after finishing 20th, 46 seconds behind his teammate. "So Marc is able to take the benefit of this power without losing so much in the corners. But when I tried the new bike in Jerez, I saw that something was missing in the corners. I told the engineers, but maybe it was too late to find a solution, and we needed to race with this engine. For sure, Honda is now working obviously to keep the power which is a big advantage with this bike, but to solve this problem that generates this in the corners for next year."
Lorenzo accepts that this is the way of the world, of course. "It's true that from the time he arrived in MotoGP, the bike followed the way of the fastest rider in the team, which was Marc," Márquez' teammate said. "As you know, Marc has a special riding style, very aggressive and hard-braking riding style, and the bike needed that to be able to work better for Marc. The bike offers this feeling to the rider, and you need to be able to ride similar to Marc to take the maximum. But obviously, Honda will follow a little bit the way of the fastest rider, as is normal."
Dilemmas for Honda and Lorenzo
The only incentive for Honda to fix this is if they lose Márquez, but with the Spaniard crashing less than last year, he is unlikely to go out due to injury. And as long as they can give him a bike he can win on, there is no reason for him to leave. Marc Márquez measures success by the number of race victories and championships won, and the control he has within Honda means the risk of moving to another factory is huge, even if the bike appears to be more competitive on paper. So Honda are stuck building a bike for Marc Márquez, reaping the rewards while they can. The prospect of losing Márquez is a bridge they will cross when they come to it.
That leaves Jorge Lorenzo with a massive problem. There were small signs of progress at Aragon, as the Spaniard continues his recovery from injury. "I think that apart from the result, which is not good, obviously, these 46 seconds are a lot, I think we can go away from here with some positive things," he said.
"I think in some practices and even at the beginning of the race, I could ride a little bit more with more flow, like at the beginning of the season, close to that part of the season. But obviously the injury affects a lot my physical condition and my pain when I am riding. And I lose a little bit from there." Lorenzo estimated that he would be finishing 15 seconds behind Márquez on the bike without injuries, rather than 46 seconds. But that is still a big gap to his teammate.
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