Opinion

Opinion: Should Riders Be Stopped? On Injuries, The Racer Mentality, And Macho Culture

Marc Marquez at the Andalusia round of MotoGP at Jerez, Photo Cormac Ryan-Meenan

Any fool could see that Marc Márquez coming back to race at the second race in Jerez, after breaking his arm in the first race, was a bad idea. The fact that he has had to have a second operation to replace the plate in his arm merely confirms this.

But MotoGP racers are no ordinary fools, of course. Like all elite athletes, they are driven to extraordinary lengths to compete, taking extraordinary risks, pushing their bodies and minds to the limits of their abilities, and all too often, beyond. They do not consider whether something might be a bad idea or not.

For a MotoGP rider, the short term is the next practice session, the medium term is the race on Sunday, the long term is the championship standing at the end of the season. Anything beyond that is not relevant to the job at hand, which is to try to win races and titles.

That blinkered focus means that they are, as a rule, incapable of taking sensible decisions about their health, in either the short or the long term. But it is precisely that same blinkered focus which has brought them to where they are, racing at the very highest levels of the world championship. The ability to exclude anything that doesn't directly involve racing from their minds and devote all of their mental and physical energy to racing is what makes them so successful.

The decisions of MotoGP racers are foolish in the long term, but when viewed from the warped perspective of an elite athlete, they have an internal logic and consistency which makes sense to them. As I said, MotoGP racers are no ordinary fools...

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Welcome To The Multiverse, Or When Will Racing Start Again?

Humans have a deep-seated need for certainty. Though the human experience runs the full gamut from an excess of spontaneity to rigid and unbending routine, a need for some kind of certainty, some handholds to grasp on to as we make our way through the world. Motorcycle racing fans, as humans, are no different.

So it is unsurprising that people – fans, journalists, team managers, mechanics, etc – have responded to every piece of news about the COVID-19 outbreak by making more or less bold predictions about when racing might resume. The latest news – that Germany has extended its ban on large-scale events until August 31st, meaning that the MotoGP round at the Sachsenring set for June 21st, and the WorldSBK round at Oschersleben, due to take place on the weekend of August 2nd will both have to be either rescheduled or canceled – has been no different. Everyone seems keen to make bold predictions of exactly what will happen next.

If there is a lesson to be taken from all of this, from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and all of the repercussions, surprising and unsurprising, it has had around the world, it is that bold predictions rarely last beyond a few hours. The pandemic has exposed the massive complexity of the modern world, and how tightly all of it is intertwined. Decisions and events have huge and unsuspected knock-on effects which echo around the world.

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Opinion: When Will We Go Racing Again? Nobody Knows

When we will be able to go racing? That's the question everybody wants an answer to, as MotoGP and WorldSBK rounds are canceled seemingly every week. The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has cast a pall over the world that not even motorcycle racing can escape. This week, MotoGP was canceled at Mugello and Barcelona. Last week, it was MotoGP at Le Mans, the week before that, Jerez MotoGP and Assen WorldSBK. Each race is canceled as it heaves into view on the calendar.

So when will we be able to go racing again? I don't know. You don't know. The truth is, nobody knows, not even Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta or FIM president Jorge Viegas. Because it is out of their hands. Organizing a world championship motorcycle race is complicated, and requires large numbers of people and equipment to cross multiple national borders using various modes of transport.

Freedom of movement

A couple of examples: For the Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP team to get to the first MotoGP race which has not been canceled, at the Sachsenring in Germany, they need to drive trucks from Gerno di Lesmo, near Milan in Italy, through either Switzerland or Austria and up through Germany to Hohenstein-Ernstthal, where the Sachsenring is.

There is a mixture of nationalities among the drivers of those trucks, making just getting to the trucks a complicated affair. One driver, for example, is a Dutchman living in Norway. His journey would involve flying from central Norway to Milan, then driving up from Milan to the Sachsenring. On his return to Norway, he would face a 14-day quarantine before being allowed to go home.

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Marc Marquez: Six Titles In Seven Seasons - Where Does He Go From Here?

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.

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Marc Marquez' Ever Increasing Salary: A Good Problem To Have?

Marc Márquez is the highest paid MotoGP rider in the world. His salary is rumored to be in the region of €15 million a year, and while the numbers bandied about for rider salaries can be wildly inaccurate, there is evidence to suggest this is not far off the mark, if you will excuse the pun. HRC is said to give riders an automatic €2 million a year raise for winning the championship, so Márquez' five MotoGP titles in theory add up to a tidy €10 million since he entered the premier class. And that is on top of the base salary he stated out with, and any extra wages he may have negotiated for himself.

He is worth every penny of that to HRC. Without Márquez, Honda's championship trophy cabinet would have been conspicuously bare. In the five seasons in which Márquez won the MotoGP title, the second-placed Honda rider finished third, fourth, sixth, fourth, and seventh respectively. For a factory which regards itself as the pinnacle of motorcycling, not winning championships is not an option. The dry spell between Nicky Hayden's 2006 title and Casey Stoner's in 2011 is still a painful memory for Honda.

Poachers

So HRC know they have to keep Marc Márquez. And not just keep him, but prevent him from moving to the competition. Ducati have shown an interest in Márquez, and after the abortive attempt with Valentino Rossi, and the only-successful-once-it-was-too-late attempt with Jorge Lorenzo, the Italian factory may be ready to take a third run at throwing a lot of money at a superstar in an attempt to finally win the title which has eluded them so far.

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Opinion: Doing The Right Thing - The Different Trajectories Of Johann Zarco And Jorge Lorenzo

What are you to do if you find yourself stuck on a bike you know you can't ride? On a bike which you are convinced is trying to hurt you, and which you keep falling of every time you try to push? The obvious answer is you try to leave as soon as possible. But that simple answer hides a host of factors which make leaving not as easy as it looks. The cases of Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco illustrate that very well.

First of all, why would a rider want to leave a factory ride? The pay is good, rarely less than seven figures. Riders have a chance to shape the bike and point development in a direction which suits them. They are treated, if not like royalty, then at least like nobility: transport is arranged and rearranged pretty much at their whim, picked up at their front doors before a race and deposited there again afterward. The pressure is high, but in a factory team, they do everything they can to take the strain and let their riders concentrate on riding.

That is little consolation when the going gets really tough. When you are struggling to get inside the top ten, despite giving your all to try to make the bike go faster. When you are crashing at twice, three times your normal rate. When factories are slow to bring updates to the bike. Or even worse, when they bring boxes and boxes of new parts, and none of those parts make much of a difference to your results.

Gravel rash on repeat

How tough can it get? In 2009, while Valentino Rossi was riding a Yamaha, he crashed 4 times during the season, the same number of times he had fallen the year before. In 2010, he crashed 5 times, though one of those crashes was enough to break his leg and take him out of competing for four races. In 2011, the year he switched to Ducati, he crashed 12 times. When you are not used to falling, that can put a real dent in your confidence. What's more, he scored just a single podium that year, compared to ten, including two wins, the year before.

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Four Predictions For 2019: The Most Competitive Field Yet Means More Winners, More Intra-team Tension, And Thoughts Of Withdrawal

You would think that after writing about what I got wrong in my predictions last year, I would not be so foolish as to try to make predictions again for the 2019 season. As it turns out, I am that foolish, so here is a list of things I expect to happen in the coming year.

2019 certainly looks very promising for world championship motorcycle racing, in just about every class in both MotoGP and WorldSBK. A range of changes mean the racing should be closer and more competitive. Cutting the MotoGP grid from 24 to 22 bikes, and having the Petronas Yamaha team replace the underfunded Aspar squad, means there are more competitive bikes on the grid.

Ducati will field only GP19s and GP18s, and the GP18 is a much better machine than the GP17. Honda will field three 2019 RC213Vs, and a 2018 bike for Takaaki Nakagami, and the fact that Nakagami was fastest at the Jerez MotoGP test last November suggests that it, too, is good enough to run at the front. Yamaha, likewise, will field three factory-spec bikes, with only rookie Fabio Quartararo on a 2018-spec machine. Suzuki made big steps forward in 2018, and have a more powerful bike for 2019.

It's not just in MotoGP either. In Moto2, the new Triumph engine will change the way riders have to ride the bike, and the introduction of electronics – very limited, but still with more than the old Honda ECU kit had to offer – will give teams more options. Ducati's introduction of the Panigale V4R will make the WorldSBK series a good deal more competitive. And the cream of last year's Moto3 crop moving up to Moto2, to make way for an influx of young talent, will make both classes fascinating and exciting to watch.

So what can we expect from 2019? Here are a few concrete predictions:

1. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

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Who Is The Greatest Superbike Rider Of All Time?

Jonathan Rea made history at the weekend by claiming a record setting fourth consecutive WorldSBK title. The Northern Irishman is at the peak of his powers but where does he rank in the all-time list?

“Who's the greatest” has been a question asked in every sport over the years. Whether it's Muhammad Ali proclaiming himself the greatest, or Tiger Woods being anointed by the masses, a general consensus quickly forms about a pecking order.

In football it quickly comes down to Pele or Maradonna, Ronaldo or Messi or another combination from a certain era. In tennis it comes down to dominance over a sustained period with one era blending into the next of Rod Laver to Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras to Roger Federer. Motorcycle racing is similar in a lot of ways, with riders typically earning their titles in spurts of sustained excellence.

Superbike racing is however a curious subset. With domestic series feeding into World championships and some of the brightest WorldSBK stars being offered MotoGP seats after only a couple of years, at the same as riders step across to Superbike racing from Grand Prix for only a handful of seasons at the end of their careers, it's a strange combination of fluidity and constant change. When you ask a Superbike fan who the greatest is, you certainly get more than your fair share of choice.

Jonathan Rea (Four time WorldSBK champion, 68 wins and 131 podiums)

Recency bias will place Rea at the top of the list of many fans, but a constant thorn in his side are the references to racing in an era of lesser competition and Rea having the best bike. In terms of the machinery the best riders almost always end up on the best bikes in any championship.

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MotoMatters.com Travel Guide – Race 02, Argentina, The Wild, Wild West

From Qatar, the MotoGP circus heads west. A very long way west, out towards the western edge of the Argentine pampas, and Termas de Rio Hondo (a fun game for fans to play is to check every article written by MotoGP journalists and see how many times they have spelled Termas de Rio Hondo with an A on the end instead of an O). The Argentinian round of MotoGP is crucial to Dorna, giving it a foothold in South America, a key market for the manufacturers, and a region in love with motorsports.

Ideally, a Grand Prix in Argentina – or Brazil, or Chile, or Peru, or Colombia – would be held at a track near one of the great cities of the region. But the tracks build near Buenos Aires (or Rio de Janiero or Sao Paulo in Brazil) are all relics from a previous era, when rider safety was not the paramount concern it is today. So instead, MotoGP heads to the middle of nowhere, fortunately, to one of the fastest and finest tracks on the calendar. It is, by all accounts, a wild affair, though it is not a place I have visited myself. But from what I have been told, it is a memorable event to attend.

MotoMatters.com Travel Guide Rating:

Atmosphere factor:  9 
Exoticness factor:  8 
Cost factor:  10 
Non-racing factor:   6 

Explanation of this table

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MotoMatters.com Travel Guide – Race 01, Qatar, Jewel Of The Night

As I will be writing my MotoGP travel guides in the same order as the calendar, I will start it in the same place that MotoGP kicks off every year: in Qatar. Why does it start in the middle of the desert so very far away from the vast bulk of MotoGP fans? The answer is simple: money. Qatar pays a lot of money to be the first race of the MotoGP season (and the last race of the WorldSBK season). So if you want to see the MotoGP season opener, you have to travel out to a sandy peninsula in the Persian Gulf.

MotoMatters.com Travel Guide Rating:

Atmosphere factor: 6
Exotic factor: 7
Cost factor: 8
Non-racing factor: 3

Explanation of this table

Where is it?

The Losail International Circuit is located some 30 kilometers north of the center of Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is situated just off the Al Khor Coastal Road. It is clearly visible from the plane when you fly into Doha, and visible as you drive to the track because of the floodlight system, which appears after the bulbous blue-and-white Lusail Multipurpose Hall, a sports facility.

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