What was impressive about Marc Márquez wrapping up his sixth MotoGP title in seven years was not so much that he took the title with a win (as outstanding as it was), but how he got there in the first place. Márquez' record after Thailand is almost unparalleled in the MotoGP era: 9 wins, 5 second places, and a single DNF. Márquez' sole DNF came when he crashed out of the lead in Austin, a result of the engine braking problems the 2019 Honda RC213V suffered early in the season.
The only rider to have done anything like this before was Valentino Rossi in 2002. Then, in the first year of the 990cc four strokes, Rossi won 11 of the 16 races, and took 4 second places, with one DNF, caused by a problem with his rear tire. It was Rossi's third season in the premier class, a year after winning his first title aboard the 500cc two stroke Honda NSR500.
To find other parallels, you have to go back further in time. In 1997, Mick Doohan won 12 races out of 15, finishing second in two more and not finishing in the last race of the year, his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. Before that, there was Freddie Spencer, who won 7 races in 1985, finishing second in 3 more, crashing in Assen and choosing to skip the final race in Misano. To find greater dominance, you would have to go even further back, to the days of Giacomo Agostini on the MV Agusta, who either won or retired in every race he started in during the period from 1968 to 1971.
Closer than ever
Márquez' 2019 season stands above all of those, however, for the sheer level of competitiveness of the current era. When Agostini was racing, the MV was in a league of its own, the Italian regularly lapping the rest of the field. In 1985, Spencer's only real opposition came from Eddie Lawson, and from his own successful attempt to secure the 500cc and 250cc titles in the same season.
Mick Doohan faced little competition beyond his teammates Tady Okada and Alex Crivillé in 1997, racing against a handful of riders on non-factory Honda NSR500s, under-powered Yamahas and Honda V-twins. The gap between the podium was huge in that era. The difference between first and third was under 10 seconds in only 5 of the 15 races that year. And it was over 20 seconds in 6 of the 15.
The advent of the four strokes helped shrink that gap, as did Valentino Rossi's instinct for showmanship. But even then, the Honda RC211V was head and shoulders above the competition. (Indeed, a case could be made that the RC211V is the best racing motorcycle ever made). The average gap between first and second is nearly nine tenths closer in 2019 and in 2002, but the real difference is with the rest of the field. In 2002, the gap between first and third was nearly 9 seconds, in 2019 it is less than half that. The top five were covered by over 20 seconds in 2002, now, that same gap covers the first nine riders.
Competitiveness of MotoGP 2002 vs 2019
Better bikes, and more of them
The biggest difference is in the breadth of competition in 2019. In 2002, only Honda and Yamaha were capable of winning races, whereas in 2019, Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, and Suzuki have all won races. The field only really became more competitive at the end of 2002, when Honda started handing out RC211Vs to the more successful satellite riders, Daijiro Kato and Alex Barros. In 2019, if you take away Marc Márquez, there are seven or eight riders in with a shot at winning.
What makes Márquez' 2019 championship stand out even more is the performance of riders on the same bikes. In 2002, there were three Hondas in the top four, and Rossi's teammate Tohru Ukawa finished third. This year, the next Honda is Cal Crutchlow in ninth. In 2002, the RC211V racked up a total of 14 wins with three different riders, in 2019, only Márquez has won on the RC213V.
In 2002, the Honda RC211V was widely regarded as the best bike on the grid. In 2019, even Honda's technical director Takeo Yokoyama acknowledged that they had built a flawed bike with a lot of horsepower, knowing that Márquez would ride his way around the problems and find a way to win.
"In the winter time, what we tried to do is, we knew that we had the best rider in the world, and so we gave him the power," Yokoyama said. "Because if you don't have the power in the middle of the straight, you can't do anything. Even the best rider in the world can't do anything. So we concentrated in the winter time to give him as much power as possible, knowing that there will be some other problems. But we decided, OK, the problems will come, but again, he's the best rider, so maybe he can manage."
Coming back from injury
He had to manage from the start of the season with a shoulder which was still recovering from serious surgery in December 2018. So bad was his shoulder last year that when the anesthetics rendered him unconscious, his shoulder spontaneously dislocated, Dr Mir, the surgeon who operated on Márquez said.
Recovery was harder than expected, despite Márquez working as hard at his recovery as he normally would at preparing for a season. He had his physiotherapist come to live with him, and had physio on the shoulder four hours a day, every day except Christmas and New Year. Even then, the rehabilitation took longer than either Márquez or Honda had hoped. At the Sepang test, he was at only 50% readiness, rather than the 80% Honda had expected. It was Jerez before he recovered the strength he lost over the winter, and the summer break before he was completely without pain.
To do all this – dominate the season on a bike only he could ride, while still weak and in pain from major surgery, and never finishing lower than second – is as near to perfection as it is possible to get for a MotoGP rider. Early this year, I asked Márquez if he believed he could ride a truly perfect season, winning every race. "Nothing is impossible, but it’s very, very difficult," he replied.
"Now I would say 'it’s nearly impossible'. Because the way that the championship is, everything is very equal, and if you just slip a little bit in FP3 you are not in the QP2 directly. In Montmelo for example I finished ninth in FP3. Everything is very equal, and to be very strong in all the races and to have the perfect bike is impossible. And now that everything is very equal, one manufacturer will be faster in this racetrack, another manufacturer in another racetrack. The most important thing is find the compromise for all racetracks and try to be on the podium. Trying to be on the podium in all the races is possible. But win all the races? Mmmm, very difficult."
Kindling the fire
So where does Márquez go from here? The biggest question for the Repsol Honda rider is whether he can maintain his level of ambition to keep on winning races and championships. The past is a poor guide here. In 2005, when Valentino Rossi seemed able to win at will on the Yamaha M1, a sweet-handling bike which was obviously inferior to the Honda RC211V, he started toying with the idea of a switch to F1, and lost focus on development for 2006, going on to lose that title to Nicky Hayden.
Mick Doohan, on the other hand, went on to dominate 1998 nearly as completely as he had in 1997. Only serious injury stopped him in 1999, a huge smash in Jerez effectively ending his career.
Where does Marc Márquez fall between these two extremes? Márquez is more Doohan than Rossi, always taking the win rather than risking losing out by engaging in battle. Márquez has a hunger for victory that outdoes even Doohan, and it does not look like being sated any time soon.
So he will have to find new targets to chase. In Thailand, after winning the title, he already named a couple of targets. His first aim is to finish the next race, and try to get on the podium, or even win in Japan. In past seasons, he has managed to crash out of races after wrapping up the title (though sometimes, like last year, through no fault of his own). The next aim is to wrap up the constructors and team titles. The constructors should be easy enough, but the fact that the Repsol Honda team is only 19 points behind the factory Ducati squad in the team standings is remarkable. The standings are determined by the combined points of both riders in each team: Márquez has scored 325 of the Repsol Honda team's 358 points.
Can he repeat again next year? Right now, it doesn't look like anyone is capable of stopping Marc Márquez from winning another title. Andrea Dovizioso came closest in 2017, but that was when the Ducati Desmosedici had a serious horsepower advantage over the Honda RC213V. This year has seen a new generation of challengers rise, with Alex Rins, Fabio Quartararo, and Maverick Viñales taking the fight to him. But Rins and Viñales seem flawed, lacking the consistency which Márquez has worked so diligently on in 2019.
That leaves Fabio Quartararo. Talk to people inside Honda, and they will tell you Quartararo is the only rider Márquez is truly afraid of, because Quartararo is not afraid of him. The Frenchman has been quick since the beginning of the season, but in the last few races, he has really taken the fight to Márquez. If Yamaha can find a nice chunk of horsepower over the winter, Quartararo could make life very difficult indeed for Márquez next year.
That, perhaps, is just the motivation Márquez needs. Where Márquez and his team have been so strong in the past few years is in their attention to detail. That expresses itself in a number of ways. In strategy: they were the first to try doing three runs in qualifying, rather than two, giving Márquez an extra shot with a new tire. They also use FP2 as race preparation, not bothering to throw a tire in at the end to ensure passage to Q2. They prefer to concentrate on race pace under conditions as similar as possible to the race, chasing times in the morning sessions of FP1 and FP3.
In preparation: Márquez and his team turn up to each race with a plan to minimize time lost. They try to cut down the tire choices as quickly as possible, preferably before the weekend even starts, preferring to concentrate on understanding tire wear over race distance rather than going back and forth between similar tires to see if one has marginally better performance than the other.
Márquez, too, is constantly working on his preparation, using his training to try to further hone his technique and look for ways to improve. He rides motocross and a lot of dirt track, and not just on ovals. Around Spain, more and more dirt tracks are springing up with a mixture of left and right corners, and Márquez uses this to get a feel for how the bike reacts. And he works on sliding the front, feeling when it goes, always at the limit in his quest to understand just how grip works on a motorcycle.
Pushing the envelope
Marc Márquez has moved the bar in motorcycle racing, like all great riders who came before him. The challenge he now faces is that the riders coming after him have grown up watching him race, studying him on video, reading about his training techniques, working to emulate him. He has gone from upstart chasing the champions who came before him – the Valentino Rossis, the Jorge Lorenzos, the Dani Pedrosas – to being the champion the young upstarts are coming after. He caught riders who carried the target on their backs, and has now transferred it to his own.
Márquez is not yet done winning. Though he has no real sense of his legacy – no riders do: if you gave them a choice between winning a championship but being forgotten, and becoming a legend while not winning again, they would choose the silverware every single time – there are still targets left to achieve. Consistency was an objective for 2019, and one he and the team fulfilled admirably. Bar the crash in Austin, of course: an error Márquez can try to eliminate for 2020 and beyond.
We are in the middle of the Márquez era, with little sign of it ending. Marc Márquez will keep winning, and should pass Mick Doohan as the most successful Honda rider in the next race or two, Márquez currently having 53 premier class victories on a Honda to Doohan's 54. Giacomo Agostini's premier class haul of 68 wins is not far off, while Márquez is just 11 victories short of Angel Nieto's total of 90 wins in all classes.
That will take Márquez another couple of seasons, and on towards his thirties. By then, we will have a better idea of just how much of a challenge Fabio Quartararo can put up against the current King of MotoGP, and also get a sense of the coming generation. 2021 could see wholesale changes in MotoGP, with the old guard making way for young blood. Cal Crutchlow will be gone, Valentino Rossi could be gone, even Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso could have left MotoGP by then.
Can Brad Binder, Jorge Navarro, Luca Marini, Augusto Fernandez, Remy Gardner, Fabio Di Giannantonio join Quartararo, Rins, Viñales, Jack Miller, Miguel Oliveira in taking on Márquez? Can his younger brother Alex continue the remarkable progression he has made in 2019 to challenge Marc in 2021 and beyond?
We may be in the middle of the Marc Márquez era in MotoGP, but that doesn't mean the rest will just lie down and accept defeat. The Cannibal may still have an insatiable appetite for victory, but he has a whole army of talent arrayed against, trying to stop him.
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