The fastest bike racers in the world will be thoughtful/concerned/content as 2018 MotoGP pre-season tests continue in the coming weeks and in the build-up to the first Grand Prix of 19 at Losail, Qatar on March 18 - but almost all face the realisation that dethroning world champion Marc Marquez will take a special type of commitment.
The 24-year-old Catalan is regarded as something of a genius in motorsport. Holder of six titles and possessor of the most sought-after crown in motorcycling four times in the last five years, Marquez’s robust, reactive and instinctive style on the Repsol Honda has become one of the defining sights of the series since his startling debut in 2013.
At the heart of Marquez’s will to extract every ounce of performance from the Michelin tyres and steer the factory Honda unlike any of his peers is a staunch commitment to seek the limit of physics… and then bound over them.
For an athlete who claimed six victories and 12 podium finishes from the 18 MotoGP races in 2017, and sealed the title at the final round in Valencia by 37 points over Andrea Dovizioso – a rider almost the antithesis of Marquez’s barrelling philosophy but fantastically effective in his synergy with the works Ducati – Marquez also hit the ground more than any other on the MotoGP grid bar one.
His close squad of mechanics had to repair the RC213V a total of 27 times during the 2017 season: a crash average of 1.5 per Grand Prix.
The most intense weekend of work came at Marquez’s home race at Barcelona, where he disrupted the gravel on five occasions through the two days of practice, qualification and warm-up. The track’s trajectory had been altered after Luis Salom’s tragic accident the previous year; the Majorcan falling just once and paying the ultimate price in what is the sport’s most recent dark cloud and a reminder of the perils. Marquez was runner-up at the Circuit de Barcelona on that Sunday.
Marquez courted both the risks and the glory of MotoGP in 2017. What is staggering is that very few people publicly regarded his “method” of scratching the boundaries as reckless or foolhardy.
His rival Dovizioso said: “Marc is only ones to do this. I think he is one of the smartest riders in our championship.
“He crashes a lot and he likes to play with the limit, but in the important moments he is there. And he’s able to manage.”
For Marquez - in 2017 at least - it became de rigueur to often leap over the precipice of caution to throttle the best from the Honda/Michelin package. Although he only tumbled in two Grand Prix races his “experimentation” in practice to prepare for the race on Sunday became part of his process.
The technique included a number of virtually inexplicable “saves” from seemingly certain crashes (search on Youtube for “Marquez saves” or click here to see just one of them).
Marquez explained: “In MotoGP my style is about trying to take a risk and to feel some movement. Of course not every lap, and it depends how and when you push.”
He famously recorded one of MotoGP’s fastest ever dismounts at Mugello, Italy in 2013 when he hit the ground at almost 210mph; his protective airbag logging a 25G spike of force.
Explanation of his mode became like a mantra. He also credited the support system back in the garage. “I had many crashes [this year], hard also,” he reflected once the world championship was secured in Valencia - after another miracle scrape with near-disaster at more than 100mph.
“I [always] said, ‘A crash is a crash but tomorrow will be better’. But it’s difficult also for a rider to understand and to forget a crash and go out again the next morning and be fast again. Anyway, I was able to do it because of the team. After a crash the team will say ‘We are happy, we will repair the bike and we will not be bored during the afternoon!’ When you have such great people everything is easier.”
MotoGP seemed to accept this manner to compete and to achieve, but that didn’t stop a general sense of disbelief in the other garages. Dovizioso, 31, looking at the other side of the coin, summed it up best. “Some riders are not worried about crashing,” the Italian said. “This is strange for me because everything can happen every time you crash, also if you crash very slowly.”
For all his accidents Marquez acknowledges that he also rides his luck as well as the Honda to the metaphysical edge. Like most MotoGP riders he does what he can to push the odds in his favour. This means the best in safety gear (he is an Alpinestars stalwart and also uses Shoei helmets) but also other measures, such as Pilates and stretching.
Britain’s Sam Lowes, a Moto2 GP-winning star who had an unhappy maiden MotoGP attempt in 2017 and whose 31 “get-offs” was the only total higher than Marquez’s, said: “Flexibility helps a lot because when you get sent through the gravel you get in some strange positions.
“If you are going to break something then it won’t help you… but flexibility does help so that you don’t wake up the next day and feel stiff.”
“Of course, stretching is a big part of it,” says Alma Pramac Racing’s Jack Miller; the Australian unharmed after a ferocious accident during free practice at Le Mans ahead of the French Grand Prix last summer.
“I came into MotoGP out of Moto3 and didn’t do it [stretching] at all and was like a piece of wood. It does help, not only in terms of crashes but generally to have more mobility; it helps you to crawl around the bike a bit more, get the bike a bit more away from the ground.”
LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow is the only Briton to have won in the premier class this century and as an Honda-contracted rider is on the same equipment as Marquez; one of just four factory HRC competitors in MotoGP. The 32-year-old has a typically forthright view on Marquez’s steps. “Marc, as we know, doesn’t get injured that much… and all he does all day is stretch.
“I’ve crashed probably the same amount as Marc - I’ve never stretched for a second of my life! So yeah, I’m not going to start suddenly wrapping my legs around my head like he does, trying to do stuff that should be on an internet channel! But it could work.”
Crashing seemed to be part of Marquez’s rich fabric of results, and formed part of his plight last year where he publicly admitted to momentarily losing motivation and also struggling to cope with the stress of leading a challenge for Honda against the rejuvenated Dovizioso and Ducati.
But it is hardly a long-term strategy. Honda’s HRC racing division has re-worked the RC213V engine for 2018 and the third season with Michelin control tyres. Tests in Thailand and Qatar remain this month to see if the factory and Barcelona-based team will have a motorcycle that will be more forgiving for their special talent.
Otherwise the rest of the MotoGP pitlane will know what it takes in order to steal the main prize.