It is easy to make predictions. It is much harder to make predictions which will actually turn out to accurately forecast what will happen in the future. Which is why most of the many industries which make their living from what might broadly be labeled "predictions" – futurologists, financial analysts, political and sporting pundits – consist mainly of drawing a line through what happened in the past and extrapolating it on into the future.
Of course, the future doesn't work that way. The world is a far more complex and nuanced place, with a thousand minor details conspiring to change the course of history in unheard of ways. Which is why the only people who make really money off of predictions are those making the odds, such as the bookmakers, or playing with other people's money, such as merchant bankers and investment advisors.
My own role here is as a MotoGP pundit, and in that capacity, I too made my own prediction: that Marc Márquez would make it 11 victories in a row at the Sachsenring this Sunday. That prediction was based on two things: extrapolating the last 10 races in which Marc Márquez had competed into 2021; and Márquez' actions at the Barcelona tests, where he racked up more laps than any other rider.
Doubt creeps in
But as the weekend went on, I started to doubt my pompously overconfident predictions of a Márquez victory at the Sachsenring. On Friday, Márquez didn't chase a fast lap in FP2, saying he lacked "the energy" to do so. He had expected to race without any limitations, but that had proved to be overly optimistic. "Honestly speaking I expected even less, I expected to have zero problems," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Even like this I am not riding very well. I think you can see in the video my right elbow is very high all the time. I can’t ride like I want."
On Saturday, Márquez missed out on pole position for the first time in 11 years, his pole streak ending at 10 in a row. "The streak of poles has finished, and tomorrow the streak of victories will as well," he told Spanish media. He was aiming for the top five, he said. Given that Márquez had spent a lot of time in FP4 sitting in the pits, perhaps his right arm and shoulder was too much of a limitation to give him a chance for victory, with Miguel Oliveira, Fabio Quartararo, and Jack Miller setting such a searing pace. A podium was definitely still a realistic goal, but as the Repsol Honda rider said himself, his winning streak looked like coming to an end.
The race played out a little differently. Of course it did: all of the unexpected and unaccounted for details meant the race offered opportunities for some, and took them away from others. A brief rain shower gave Marc Márquez his chance to bolt, and the Repsol Honda rider seized it with both hands. After 581 days, Márquez returned to the top step of the podium, taking his 57th MotoGP victory, and moving past Mick Doohan into third place in the all-time podium list, having stood on on the box a total 96 times to Doohan's 95, making him Honda's most successful premier class rider.
Long and winding road
It has been quite a journey. Of disaster, hope, despair; a failed comeback, a broken bone that would not heal, a year of the endless drudgery of physiotherapy, training, and rehabilitation of the body which was betraying him. In the end, the hard work and determination paid off.
Trailing in Márquez' wake is a grand web of stories, of successes and failures, of contrasting fortunes on identical equipment, shattered dreams, comebacks and shortcomings. We will touch on a few of these in these subscriber notes:
- What makes this a typical Márquez victory
- The two phone calls that changed the course of the race for Márquez
- Why this is is good news for HRC staff in the short term, bad news for Honda in the long term
- Fabio Quartararo extends his championship lead
- Is Yamaha in the same boat as Honda?
- The KTM comeback, and Brad Binder's rapid learning curve
- Miguel Oliveira, rising superstar
- How the championship momentum has changed.
The question mark hanging over Marc Márquez in the 336 days since he broke his right humerus at Jerez was whether he would ever return to his former level. Early optimism when he returned a week after breaking his arm dissipated when he was forced to pull out ahead of qualifying. The outlook grew bleaker and bleaker, as he suffered one setback after another: the plate breaking again, weakened by the exertion of riding that second time at Jerez; the lack of progress as an infection prevented the bone from healing; the long, slow recovery from the third surgery to fix his arm. Many, many months passed without riding a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.
Will he, won't he?
There were flashes of the former Márquez after he returned at Portimão, and in the races which followed. He was unafraid to push, but unlike before his injury, his ability to save himself when he peered just a little too far over the limit appeared to be gone. In the five races prior to the Sachsenring, he had already crashed 7 times, putting him in joint fourth in the crash league tables.
The real problem, however, was that he had crashed out of three consecutive races, a feat he had never equaled before. He had learned in 2015 the hard lesson of crashing out of races too often, missing out on the title in large part because he pushed too hard trying to compensate for an unwilling bike. Since then, he had learned to crash during practice and find where the limit was, so he would not crash during races. That was proving impossible in 2021.
The problem, he explained, was his right shoulder, still carrying the lingering after effects of shoulder surgery in the winter of 2019-2020, and exacerbated by his crash in Jerez. He could not get his position on the bike right in right-hand corners, which meant he couldn't recover from errors as quickly and easily as he did in the past.
But there were also signs he was preparing for the Sachsenring, a track where he had won ten races in a row already, from 125s to Moto2 to MotoGP. At Barcelona, he was riding more freely than ever, despite crashing out in the early laps. (Or perhaps he crashed out in the early laps precisely because he was riding so freely.) At the test the day after he racked up a total of 87 laps, finally free to work on his riding without the pressure of a race weekend, and without the public scrutiny that televised practice brings.
"Another thing that was very important for me was Monday test in Montmelo," Márquez said. "It was the first time that I was able to ride like I want. Was no pressure, just was like my preseason test so it was only one day but I did many laps and this was very helpful to understand the way to ride."
All that led to Sunday. In the race, everything came together for Marc Márquez. And Marc Márquez was ready for the race. There were a couple of moments which stand out, the Spaniard showing his determination from the start, despite missing out on pole for the first time in 11 years.
First, the start and the first few corners. Márquez held onto the middle of track as the bikes raced down to the first corner, lining up just outside the rear wheel of Fabio Quartararo, taking advantage of Johann Zarco's mediocre start. He turned in a fraction early, which positioned him perfectly to stuff his Honda RC213V inside Quartararo's Yamaha, giving the Frenchman the merest nudge as the rounded Turn 1.
The inside line through Turn 1 then left him perfectly positioned for Turn 2, and to cut across the nose of Johann Zarco, who had taken the long way around the first corner, but had the inside for Turn 2. But that meant the Pramac Ducati rider was slow on the entry to the first left hand corner, allowing Márquez to carry speed into Turn 2, and latch onto the back of Aleix Espargaro, who had grabbed the lead in the first corner.
Márquez chased the Aprilia round the tight, twisting track, but found himself a little too far back to attack into Turn 12, the prime overtaking spot at the bottom of the hill. No matter: knowing the Sachsenring like the back of his hand, he switched to plan B, carrying exit speed out of Turn 12 and then braking later than Aleix Espargaro dared into the final corner, diving up the inside of the Aprilia RS-GP and grabbing the lead. Espargaro found a Honda RC213V in front of him, and couldn't get the drive to counter Márquez' pass.
That first lap was a display of the Marc Márquez of old, but once past Espargaro, he could not easily escape. Lap after lap, Espargaro remained stuck on Márquez' tail, the gap never more than a few tenths.
Then, the second flash of the real Marc Márquez came. The summer air had been heavy with moisture, and on lap 8, it started to rain. Light spots, not enough to dampen the track, but enough to rob the surface of grip and dramatically raise the risk of pushing. Just the conditions where Marc Márquez comes into his own, and can be so much faster than everyone else. "I did the perfect first lap and then when I saw some drops I said, okay, it’s my day," Márquez said after the race. "I continued. I pushed and I was riding same as before when it was completely dry without any drops."
The difference with his rivals was stark. "I have huge respect to Marc obviously, but sincerely today I didn’t expect him to win," Aleix Espargaro said after the race. "He’s been brave in the moment of the race when the rain arrived, because actually we were talking this after the race with Marc and Fabio. It was not just a couple of drops on the screens. It was slippery. I almost crashed in Turn 8, and the track was slippery for four or five laps. So, he was brave enough to make the difference there, and then to maintain for the win."
On lap 9, Márquez pulled out a second from Aleix Espargaro, extending his lead from 0.260 to 1.260. A lap later, after Jack Miller had got past Espargaro, Márquez had gained another half a second over second place, the Australian now holding that position. He has broken the pursuit, and had the race right where he wanted it.
Márquez didn't have it all his own way, however. A barnstorming Miguel Oliveira was on a charge, and once he got past Miller, he kept Márquez honest. The two men pushed each other to the limit at a distance, the gap yoyoing as they traded fast laps. Oliveira closed the gap in the final third of the race, but though he got to within a second of Márquez, he eventually had to let the Repsol Honda go. Second was sufficient for the Red Bull KTM rider, better than risking it all on a day where he stood to make gains in the championship.
Márquez had used a mental trick to withstand the pressure of having Oliveira on his tail. At one point, he felt he was tensing up, not riding loose and relaxed the way that he can. So he reached back into his memory banks to recapture the feeling of riding at the track when he won. And when he saw Oliveira's name on the pit board, with a +1 next to it, he swapped the Portuguese rider's name for his brother Alex', recreating their regular training exercises.
"In some part of the race I was just riding too stiff because I was like, I don't want to crash and I don't want to make any mistakes," Márquez told us. "But then I said, okay, forget about all these things. Just I try to come back to the old memories in this racetrack, when I was riding in a good way. I changed the name Oliveira to my brother’s name to when we are training at home. Normally we train in that mode. The fastest guy goes behind, the slower rider in front, and sometimes he’s faster than me in some situations. So, I just changed his name on my mind to my brother. I said, okay, if he catches me, it’s not a problem. But of course, I was pushing and I never give up."
Despite the intense physicality of motorcycle racing, of pushing a 300 horsepower bike weighing 170kg plus with a full tank of fuel, so much of the sport takes place in the mind of the rider, in what is sometimes called the most important 6 inches in racing, the gray matter between the ears. (Ironic, then, that people talk of riders having 'balls', when what they actually have is a finely-tuned prefrontal cortex.) Márquez knew he had to calm himself, release the stress, and find his Sachsenring zone again. Using visualization and memory, he tricked his body into being in a better, faster place. It was enough to carry him to a win which he really needed.
The release of emotion by Marc Márquez showed just how much this win meant, to him and to Honda. Márquez is normally a man who has his feelings under control, beyond the normal brief expressions of joy when he wins. But he struggled speaking to Simon Crafar in the parc ferme interview, and he was still struggling when he did the TV interviews shortly afterward.
It wasn't just Márquez who found it hard to control his emotions. HRC's MotoGP Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama couldn't hold back the tears as Márquez crossed the line. While Márquez had to face the pressure of trying to understand whether he would be able to race again, Yokoyama had had the pressure of a year of Honda failures on his shoulders. But more of that later.
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