Sunday MotoGP Summary at Motegi: Winning Slowly, & The Legacy of a Champion

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

“The secret,” said Niki Lauda, “is to win going as slowly as possible.” That racing maxim, first recorded by legendary writer and broadcaster Clive James (and how did I miss that he wrote about F1 in the past?) is as true now as it was back in 1984, when Lauda stated it to a press conference in Portugal. And as true as in the early 1950s, when Juan Manuel Fangio may have first uttered it.

If you want to see that maxim in action, watch a MotoGP race in 2018. The action is often thrilling, usually tense, and always absorbing. Race after race, we see podiums separated by tenths of a second, not tens of seconds. The reason for that is simple.

The field is close in terms of rider talent and bike performance, and the Michelin tires can be applied in many different ways, except for one: if you try to take off and disappear at the front, you risk using up the best of your tires, and being caught in the latter stage of the race.

So MotoGP has become a chess game. A battle of minds, as much as machines, of brains as much as bodies. Riders pace around one another like wolves around a herd of caribou, watching out for any sign of weakness, waiting to pounce and destroy their prey. And sometimes, getting it wrong and suffering a severe kicking from their intended victims.

Nature vs. Nurture

So it is no surprise that MotoGP is being dominated at the moment by Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez. Dovizioso has a deep and abiding understanding of racing on an intellectual level, gained from watching and learning, watching and learning. Márquez is pure talent, whose visceral understanding of racing seems to be woven into his genes. Two very different riders chasing the same goal in very different ways. And riding bikes which achieve similar lap times in very different ways.

Dovizioso and Márquez need not be alone in dominating at the front. Once Jorge Lorenzo mastered the Ducati, and before he was injured at Aragon, he made it a trio controlling the race. If Yamaha hadn’t lost ground every year since 2016, then the veteran wile and sheer talent of Valentino Rossi, and the speed and desire of Maverick Viñales would put them in the fray as well. Perhaps the off season will bring a remedy for Yamaha’s woes. Thailand showed that when the M1 finds itself inside its razor-thin operating window, they too can compete.

But with the Movistar Yamahas brought back down to earth at Motegi, it was clear that the stage was set for a showdown between Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez once again. Throughout practice, they each identified the other as their main rival at the track. “I think Marc has a really good pace, today he was the fastest,” said Dovizioso of Márquez.

“Dovi will be there, he has a great rhythm,” Márquez said of Dovizioso. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that Dovizioso was the only rider realistically standing in the way of Márquez securing his fifth MotoGP title at Honda’s home track.

Handicapping Himself

A crash in FP4, which messed up his qualifying, had already made things hard for the Spaniard. Márquez has won a lot of races, but never from sixth on the grid. Dovizioso did not believe that would stop him, however. “You will see him in the first three at the end of the first lap,” the factory Ducati rider had told the media on Saturday.

It took the Spaniard less than that, just two corners to be precise. Andrea Dovizioso led off the line and into the first lap, while Jack Miller, who had got a jerky start off the line and nearly collided with fellow front-row sitter Johann Zarco, slotted into second. Márquez dived the up inside of Andrea Iannone at Turn 1, then pushed Cal Crutchlow wide to take third at Turn 2.

Márquez had started the race with the intention of winning, forcing his way past Jack Miller and into second at Turn 9. His first objective had been achieved: arriving behind Andrea Dovizioso, his main obstacle to victory, both at Motegi and for the championship. Ahead of him, Dovizioso stepped up the pace to string the field out in the first couple of laps. Márquez followed, as did Cal Crutchlow, once he had dispensed with his friend and student Jack Miller.

Miller was starting to fall away from the leaders. The Australian had scored his outstanding front row more by wile than outright speed, having latched onto the tail of Johann Zarco during qualifying. But his lack of real race pace was making itself apparent, as a gap opened to the leaders, and Miller was swallowed up by the massed Yamahas and Suzukis of Valentino Rossi, Alex Rins, Andrea Iannone, and Johann Zarco. Miller soldiered on for a few more laps, but crashed out on lap 11, shortly after being passed by Zarco on the Tech3 Yamaha.

Slow, Slow, Quick Quick Slow

With some separation achieved, strategy took over. Andrea Dovizioso switched to trying to win the race slowly. After pounding out a couple of low 1’46s, Dovizioso slowed the pace up. On lap 4, he did a 1’46.6, on lap 5, a 1’46.8. With Valentino Rossi closing on the leaders, it was time to shake the tree, see what would fall out.

Dovizioso upped his pace by over a second, pumping out a lap of 1’45.8. That ruined the plans of Cal Crutchlow, who had used the slow pace to make a move on Márquez to take second, and saw an opportunity to exploit the cat-and-mouse games between Dovizioso and Márquez. “I passed Marc and I thought, if I can pass Dovi, then those two can fight it out and they’re okay,” Crutchlow said after the race. “Because what I wanted was for them two to fight it out alone, and leave me to do my own thing.”

Unfortunately for Cal Crutchlow, Dovizioso’s decision to up the pace was a signal to Márquez that he had to be on the Italian’s tail if he was to win the race. Márquez sized Crutchlow up, diving through at Turn 9, a favorite passing spot at Motegi. Crutchlow, aware of what was at stake for the leaders, decided to switch tactics.

“When Marc passed me back, I thought, okay, now leave them to it a little bit. I was still close to Marc, but I wanted to keep half a second. Simply because I didn’t want to run long in one of those braking zones at Honda’s home Grand Prix with Marc challenging for the title.”

After a couple more fast laps, Dovizioso decided to slow the race up again, much to the frustration of Crutchlow. The leading trio had opened a gap of over a second to the chasing group, led first by Valentino Rossi, and then by the two Ecstar Suzukis. Rossi’s challenge was starting to fade, however, with first Andrea Iannone, and then Alex Rins getting past the Movistar Yamaha. While Rossi slipped back, the Suzukis closed in on the leaders, getting close to the tail of Cal Crutchlow.


“The problem was Dovi was yoyoing the pace again,” the LCR Honda rider said. “Now we know the strategy of the Ducati, which he’s done in four or five races in a row now. They do two or three fast laps, then he slows the pace down. Then he does two or three fast laps again, and slows the pace down. That was allowing Alex and the group behind to catch. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s so difficult to pass.”

Ahead of Crutchlow, Marc Márquez saw the same pattern, but he was prepared. “He was riding, like Cal said, in a strange way, sometimes pushing, sometimes slow down,” Márquez explained. The Repsol Honda rider was trying to be patient, confident in his own pace.

“After FP4, I felt like we were able to win. Then okay, the quali has been not so good. But after warm up we reconfirmed. Then we did the meeting together with Emilio [Alzamora], Alberto [Puig], Santi [Hernandez], like every race. We already discussed. We tried to understand always where is our real position. We saw on the pace we were able to fight for the victory. So I just started convinced.”

It was just a matter of being patient, and waiting for the right time to strike. As the two thirds mark approached, Dovizioso pulled the pin again, dropping Crutchlow and Rins, Iannone having crashed out by that point, but still finding Márquez on his tail. Dovizioso pushed, but now it was Márquez’ turn to turn the tables.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

His first attempt misfired. Putting a clean pass on Dovizioso up the inside at Turn 9, Márquez was forced to defend though the hairpin. Knowing he had Dovizioso right behind him, and fearing the acceleration of the Ducati, Márquez ran just a fraction wide, using all of the kerb and then more, running over the grass and kicking up a cloud of dust.

The race nearly ended in disaster, for Márquez, Dovizioso, and Crutchlow, as Márquez hopped back onto the track directly in front of Dovizioso. The Italian was forced to back off a fraction, to avoid a collision, but Márquez had lost so much drive that he could slide past on the brakes going into Turn 11.

Back in the lead, Dovizioso pushed again. The race was still a chess match, but this time, it was being played at full speed. “Dovi overtook me again and he started to push really hard,” Márquez explained after the race. “We started to be in 1’45 again. So I was able to follow him in a good way.”

With four laps to go, Márquez took another shot. Once again, he took the open door which Dovizioso left through Turn 9 as an invitation, diving up the inside. This time, though, he made it stick, holding enough advantage through the hairpin to parry any counterattack with room to spare.

It had been a deliberate choice, Márquez explained. “I attacked before the last lap. Why? Because it was the same strategy like in Thailand. I saw that in the last lap he had the most chance to win, because he was slightly faster on the acceleration.” The Repsol Honda rider wasn’t prepared to let it come down to that.

The Hunter Hunted

Now it was Dovizioso’s turn to counter, and find a way past the Honda RC213V ahead of him. He stalked Márquez for a couple of laps, plotting a pass at Turn 11 and rehearsing the moves he would need to make to be in the right spot on the exit of the hairpin. He got drive from Turn 5, inching closer as he shot out of the tunnel. He used the Esses to reel Márquez in, and sat perched on the Honda’s tailpipe as the pair of them exited Turn 9. He lined up Márquez through the hairpin, judging the ideal spot to find drive.

He was readying himself for the final onslaught. He repeated the process on the penultimate lap, if anything, even closer to Márquez through the Esses. Márquez knew he was there as they exited Turn 9 and lined up for the hairpin. But Márquez had a meter or two more on Dovizioso than he had the lap before, and he turned a fraction tighter than Márquez had.

That fraction was a fraction too much to ask of his front tire, the front wheel just getting away from him and Dovizioso sliding gracefully wide and into the gravel. The race, and the championship, was over.

“The positive thing is that I wasn’t over the limit when I crashed,” Dovizioso said afterwards. “I just made a small mistake, because I wanted to prepare the exit in a better way than the lap before, because I was accelerating really good, but I couldn’t exit close to Marc, and try to overtake him in the braking. I did one lap and a half like this, and I wanted to do this immediately, but I did a small mistake. I had a lot of angle when I prepared the corner, and it was too early, I asked too much from the front tire.”

Game Over

As Marc Márquez crossed the line with one lap to go, he was already elated. But his team were a little concerned. Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig had gone from wildly gesturing Márquez on to frantically gesturing him to take it easy. Márquez just shook his head in disbelief, relieved and overjoyed at becoming champion. But there was also sympathy for Dovizioso.

“When I saw ‘Dovi out’ on the last lap, my first thought, I was very happy because it was like I won the title,” Márquez said. “Then, when I finished I was disappointed because he deserves to be here, too. He did an incredible season and an incredible race.”

Márquez has a point. He may have won the championship with three races to spare, but he owes that in no small part to the things he learned in racing against Dovizioso. Scoring consistent results was how Dovizioso had taken the 2017 title down to the wire at Valencia, and consistent results is how Márquez had wrapped the 2018 title up early.

“When I check the results and I see 20, 25, 25, 20, 25, 20, 25… this is something that we tried to work really hard on in the preseason, to achieve this consistency,” Márquez said. “It’s what I learned about Dovi last year. He was really good to manage the situations.”


What that meant for Márquez was learning when he had to push a little harder to make up for the shortcomings of the Honda, and when he had to ease off and let the bike do the work. “This year, we did a really great job together with Honda HRC, all the staff, because sometimes I give a little bit more to the bike, and sometimes the bike give a little bit to me,” he said. “So this compromise makes that this consistency was really, really good during all the season.”

Only one mistake marred his season, he said. “Honestly speaking, I only struggled in Mugello. There was the only mistake that I did of the season, the big mistake. But apart from that, during all the season I was able to be very constant. This was the key.” That consistency did not always sit well with Márquez’ white-hot ambition, his desire to win everything.

“Of course, the second part of the season I was able to play with that advantage, but it’s not my style. I try to enjoy it. These last two races I will try to enjoy it. Where I’m enjoying? I’m enjoying in fighting for the victory. This is the way to ride.”

Márquez had known from early on that the Ducatis, and especially Andrea Dovizioso would be his main rival. “Since the first race I saw that Ducati was the bike and the team to fight against the title,” he explained. “Ducati last year was really good in the last part of the season, the second part of the season. But this year, Ducati was really good from the beginning. They improved, and also of course when you have a good bike you can improve your skills.”

Five Ps

That challenge, and the pressure of having to win the title at Valencia last year, had precipitated a change in Márquez’ approach. Throughout preseason testing, Márquez worked harder than ever, grinding out the laps to ensure that they didn’t repeat the mistakes from previous years.

Behind the scenes, Márquez exerted his influence, forcing a change in management in HRC, which saw Livio Suppo replaced with Alberto Puig. The Motegi race may have been a chess match, but it was merely the culmination of the chess moves Márquez had made throughout the year.

“Looks like this year I feel more mature,” he said. “I feel like we started with a very competitive bike already, because last year I started with a not so good feeling with the bike. I crashed many, many times. This year I was able to manage in another way and find this constant pace during all the weekend, different tracks.”

Márquez underlined just how important this preparation had been. “It’s everything. Without the bike, you cannot win. Without the team, you cannot win. So I’m here celebrating the title, speaking with you, but there are many people around me that, it is what I said, sometimes the bike is helping me, and sometimes I am helping the bike. Sometimes the team is helping me and the bike. So this is the best compromise, or the most difficult compromise to find.”

Match Ball

Winning at Motegi was a dream, Márquez said. But one he had worked very hard to achieve, despite the risks. “I told myself, I will try to win with the first match ball, and I will try to win in Motegi,” he said. Winning in Japan, in front of Honda’s senior managers, at a track owned by Honda, was the perfect way to celebrate a title.

“Today after warm up the president came to me and said, ‘You need to do it,'” Márquez told the press conference. “I said, ‘Okay.’ But then immediately Emilio [Alzamora] and Alberto [Puig] came and said, ‘It’s just another race. Forget it, forget it!’ But I know that it’s important for them.”

The pressure of performing in front of the big bosses had helped him focus, Márquez said. “When I have the pressure, I’m working better. I like the pressure. Sometimes I don’t have the pressure, but I like to have it because then it looks like I’m more concentrated.”

Márquez may have won the title at Motegi, but the turning point was much earlier in the year, when his main rivals crashed out at Jerez and Le Mans, and he went from trailing Andrea Dovizioso by 1 point, to leading the Italian by 49 points, and the championship by 36.

“I think the important point was Jerez and Le Mans, when I won two races in a row, and Dovi, that was the guy, and also Lorenzo, crashed and did not so good, did not get many points. There I increased the advantage. When you get the big advantage, then everything is easier. So, that was the key of the season. Then of course I was able to be fast in every track, and a bad race, difficult race was finishing second or third. So that was a good signal.”

Scary Numbers

Andrea Dovizioso was disappointed to have crashed out, but was full of praise for Márquez. “It’s impossible to not be disappointed when you are fighting for the victory, and have to go home with zero points,” Dovizioso said. But he had nothing but admiration for the man who beat him to the line, and to the championship.

“Márquez numbers are crazy, they’re scary,” he said. “And he keeps improving, he’s never satisfied. He’s not a rider who is satisfied with what he has done, he’s always looking ahead to the future. That’s the reason why he has won so many titles.”

If 2018 was a chess match, 2019 promises to be more of the same. Dovizioso knows the scale of the challenge ahead, and would use everything he has learned this year against Márquez to try to beat him next season. “Márquez is not unbeatable, but you have to study, and work, like he does. We have to not just improve the bike, but I have to improve myself. We did this in the last seasons, but it wasn’t enough, because it was him who won.”

What had Dovizioso learned from Marc Márquez, and from competing against him? “I learned a lot, because he is the strongest in many different areas,” the Italian responded. “Marc is able to be fast from the first lap, he is able to adapt quickly to changing conditions, he is able to ride at the limit for many laps without making a mistake. There are riders who have some of these characteristics, but he has all of them together.”

That was what made Márquez special, and almost unbeatable, Dovizioso said. “I know he is a rider with very special, very particular characteristics. A lot of champions have highs and lows in their careers, but he doesn’t.”

Podium Places

With Dovizioso out, Cal Crutchlow had to hold a hard charging Alex Rins off to hold on to second place. It was a well-deserved end to a very strong weekend for the LCR Honda rider. Throughout practice, Crutchlow had been the only rider capable of matching the speed of the two chief protagonists. But he had been unable to cope with the changes in pace which Dovizioso had forced throughout, in an attempt to control the race.

“It’s just a pattern you see,” Crutchlow said after the race. That pattern was perhaps made possible by the Ducati’s advantage on corner exit. “Even when the Ducati does a slow lap, the way it accelerates off the corner is really strong, so it’s really difficult to get a run to pass them. You just look at the lap times in every race. He can do, as we said, 1’45.8, 1’45.7, and the next lap he’s a 1’46.5. It’s a big difference. But now we sort of see a full pattern. We know we have to attack him even more. I don’t know why they do it. I have no idea. I don’t know if it is him, but that’s their strategy.”

Crutchlow’s worry was that Dovizioso dropping the pace would bring them back within the grasp of the chasing group. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, but my concern was the guys coming back. There was a group 1.7 seconds behind and in three laps they caught us because he slowed down the pace.”

“So that was why I was trying to get to the front, but as I said, even when he does an average lap time it’s so difficult to get a run to pass him. Then he ramps up the pace again. I was swearing a little bit in my helmet. Not at him, just in general at the situation. If I would have got a run at him I would have tapped him on the leg to say, ‘Come on, push, push!'”

“We could have used the tire then and really broke the guys behind, I think. But it’s the strategy. We all have different strategies. Let’s see. Maybe we can make them change the strategy now we know.”

Rins Cycle

Crutchlow was right to be concerned about Dovizioso slowing up the pace, because those tempo changes had allowed Alex Rins to catch him, and stay with him. In the final laps, the Englishman had had to work hard to keep the Suzuki behind him. Rins had been optimistic after practice on Saturday. “Since yesterday we knew that our race pace was not so bad,” Rins told the press conference. “It was good enough for trying to fight for the third position.”

More might have been possible had Rins not started from the third row of the grid. “At the start I overtook many riders. I had good battles with Valentino and Iannone. I destroyed I think a little bit the tires there, the front tire, because then with Cal I had some chattering in the front.”

The fact that he had come so far forward was a sign of the progress made so far this year. This was Suzuki’s sixth podium of the season, after failing to get on the box in 2017. Andrea Iannone could have been close as well, if the Italian hadn’t crashed out in the middle of the race. Suzuki are starting to enjoy the fruits of their hard graft.

“They are working really hard since the beginning of the season,” Rins said of Suzuki. “In Assen, we changed the engine. We are using one with a little bit more power on the high speed. Since there, they are bringing always new things, new fairing. Here we raced with a different one, with looks like new winglets. They want to win, so I’m very happy to be part of them and trying to go fast.”

Starting Matters

Rins’ third podium of the year is proof of the talent of the Spanish youngster. Yet the fact that he was only third is also a symptom of Rins’ biggest weakness. Take Rins’ lap times, and there is little to choose between his and those of the leaders. But at Motegi, Rins lost a second and a half just on the first lap, and had to fight his way forward to get into the podium battle.

If the secret to racing is to win as slowly as possible, Rins is making his life difficult, forced to chew up his tires in battling with riders he is obvious faster than. Until he understands this, and pulls his finger out in qualifying, he will continue to struggle.

Back to Earth

The crash of Dovizioso promoted Valentino Rossi from fifth into fourth, matching his result in Thailand. But Rossi was far less optimistic about this result than he had been at Buriram. The Movistar Yamaha rider acknowledged once again that this is all the current Yamaha M1 is capable of. “This is our potential,” he said afterwards. “It’s more this than Thailand.”

Like all of the Japanese factories, Yamaha senior management was at Motegi to watch the race. In a way, it was good for Yamaha to have the senior bosses be confronted so starkly with the underperforming M1. “We weren’t as competitive as in Thailand, and I told the Yamaha bosses who were hear that they see how things are going at the moment. But I know that improving isn’t easy, because the level is so high,” Rossi said.

Movistar Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales’ initial optimism after practice faded on race day. The team tried a gamble with the setup, trying to use what had worked at Buriram in Japan, but to no avail. The Spaniard finishes seventh, over 13 seconds off the pace.

“We are struggling a lot with the bike, we are not able to be fast in the races,” Viñales said. “Today we tried something different on the bike in the race, but it didn’t work so much. So we followed another line from Buriram, trying to see if that worked, but finally it wasn’t like that.”

Prizes Down to Fifth

Alvaro Bautista finished the race in fifth, just behind Valentino Rossi. The Angel Nieto Team Ducati rider’s result came off the back of a strong weekend, and was, he explained, the result of the hard work the team had been putting in all year. “I’m very happy, because we worked really well during all the weekend. Well, during all the season, but now when you get a good result, it seems like it is much better.”

Bautista lost too much time getting past Johann Zarco, leaving him just short of Valentino Rossi. “I was seeing that my rhythm was a bit better than Zarco and Valentino, and I could catch them,” Bautista said. “And when I arrived to Zarco he had a bit more acceleration than me, and I arrived always to the next corner a bit too far to try to overtake him. But at the end, I took some risk in some corners, and I could pass him. But it was too late to arrive to Valentino, and I was a bit faster than him, but I cannot arrive to him.”

Bautista’s fifth place will not go unrewarded. The Spanish veteran has been promoted into the factory Ducati team to replace Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island, while Australian Mike Jones has been drafted in to take Bautista’s place. Replacing Lorenzo is a bit of a poison chalice, as Hector Barbera found out some years ago, when he replaced the injured Andrea Iannone.

The GP18 is a very different bike to the GP17, and Bautista will not have the time to adapt to its quirks and nuances, and find ways of extracting the available performance. He will have a new crew to work with, and will need to get up to speed quickly.

But Bautista is the obvious choice to replace Lorenzo. He is out of the running for top independent rider, unlike Danilo Petrucci. He has a contract to ride the factory Ducati in WorldSBK next season, and so this is something of a sweetener for that deal. He was the first satellite Ducati rider across the line, proving that he earned it.

The other options were limited, with a WorldSBK race on the same weekend as Phillip Island precluding Chaz Davies and Marco Melandri, and Michele Pirro busy on promotional duties.

History in the Making

With victory at Motegi, Marc Márquez seals a remarkable legacy. His fifth MotoGP title comes in six seasons in the premier class. The last rider to do that was Valentino Rossi, who missed out in his first year, then went on to win five titles in a row. In 105 MotoGP starts, Márquez has started from pole on 50 occasions, finished on the podium on 76 occasions, and won 43 races.

Put another way, Márquez has started roughly half of his MotoGP races from pole, finished on the podium in nearly three quarters of them, and won 41% of them. He is also the youngest rider ever to win five premier class titles.

His fifth title brings him level with Mick Doohan, and leaves him with only Valentino Rossi (7) and Giacomo Agostini (8) ahead of him. What is perhaps remarkable is that Marc Márquez has achieved these things against such incredible competition: as he closes in on Valentino Rossi’s records, he has had to actually beat Valentino Rossi on the way to doing it. A Valentino Rossi, those around him will tell you, who is riding better than ever.

And not just Rossi: he has also faced Jorge Lorenzo (fourth of all time in the number of premier class wins) and Dani Pedrosa (eighth in the number of wins in all classes). Though he lost a title in 2015, he won in 2016 and 2017 on what was arguably a worse bike. And though the 2018 version of the Honda RC213V is much better, it is still probably not as good as the Ducati.

The Character of a Champion

There is, it seems, no stopping Marc Márquez. It is not just the fact that Márquez keeps winning championships, but the way he wins them. Every year, he learns new tricks, picking them up from the riders he faces in the championship. He is, in many ways, similar to Valentino Rossi, his great idol when growing up, and his bitter rival now.

Both men have almost infinite amounts of ambition – why else would a 39 year old still be so competitive – yet both men are also strangely down to earth. They are surrounded by a close-knit circle of friends and family, who help them to keep some sense of perspective. That is a strength, as that allows them to see things as they are, rather than being blinded by flattery.

Márquez’ strength is not just that he has a strong family around him, but that he has extended that to include his team. Márquez has kept the same group of people around him, almost since he started racing. They are loyal to him, not just because he is ticket to success, but also because he extends that sense of family to his team.

Márquez spends hours and hours in the garage, not just to go over data, but so that he can hang out with his team. They work harder for him, because they know how much they mean to him. His mixture enthusiasm and boundless ambition is infectious.

How many more records can Márquez break? Should Valentino Rossi be worried about his championship records? Should Giacomo Agostini be worried? So far, Márquez’ desire and passion for racing is unabated. He shows no signs of getting bored, or of trying another sport. He still loves winning, and still has plenty of winning left in him.

And though, like Rossi, he has had a test in an F1 car, he seems to have viewed it more as a pleasurable pastime than a possible new career path. It is unlikely we will hear rumors of a possible switch to F1, mainly because Márquez seems entirely uninterested in any such venture.


If Márquez has a weakness, it is a propensity to fall off. This is more of a strategy than mere carelessness, Márquez using practice to figure out where the limit is, risking a fall, so that he can avoid crashing in the race. He leads the crash statistics with 18 falls so far this year, after leading it in 2017 and 2013 as well. So far, the strategy has worked, as he has escaped serious injury.

Márquez is aware of the risks, of course. “In qualifying practice, you just forget the risk and just push,” he said. “Then in Buriram, it was a special situation, also because going in I was with the hard tire, very used. But here, I need to be careful, because some of the crashes are just when I touch the first touch of the gas and I lose the front, like yesterday. I need to control this.”

“I already said last year I would like to improve, but last year I crashed more than this year. This year we reduce a little bit, but this is the way. But to improve these statistics I need to find another way to ride. I need to keep the same riding style, but try to find another way to give more feedback from the front tire.”

There are signs that the crashes are starting to take their toll. Ironically, those signs appeared while Márquez was celebrating his victory, and his championship. As he sat on his bike, surrounded by his brother and his friend and assistant Jose, Scott Redding stopped to congratulate him. Márquez reached over to give him a hug, and as he did so, he dislocated his shoulder, his arm popping out of its socket.

“I was very happy and I arrived there. I was out of control, like in the track. But then Scott stopped and I just hugged him. I felt something strange and dislocated my shoulder. I dislocated my shoulder and then I just stand on the asphalt and my brother and Jose put again in.”

This is a recurring problem, Márquez said. “It’s not the first time. Maybe was my weak point of the season. During the season dislocate many times training at home. So in December I need to pit stop in doctor, and for next year will be perfect.”

He has a history of dislocating his shoulder, but has managed to distract attention from it. But looking back, it has happened in some crashes in practice too, notably at Silverstone in 2015.

Organizing Surgery

Fixing a shoulder which keeps dislocating is a fairly standard procedure. But the standard recovery time is between 10 to 12 weeks. Translated into racer time – professional racers have the free time and the financial means to speed up recovery – that is around 6-8 weeks. But from the final test of 2018 at Jerez to the first test of 2019 at Sepang is a day under 10 weeks.

Márquez can have the surgery and be back in time, but it is a risk. If he isn’t completely fit, he risks making the wrong judgment on the 2019 engine, or the chassis for the 2019 Honda RC213V. He is to be joined by Jorge Lorenzo, who has no experience of the Honda, and so the main burden of testing, and of finding the right direction to pursue, will fall on Marc Márquez this winter. This is a situation which will need careful managing if he is to prevent Honda going down blind alleys again.

Then again, perhaps he has planned the whole thing out. Honda has switched engine configurations three times in the last three years, and it now seems to be fairly well fixed. Honda management was reorganized at the end of last season, and it appears that Márquez is happier with Alberto Puig than he was with Livio Suppo.

He has managed to impress upon HRC engineers that they have to listen to him, rather than just looking at the data, and backed it up by putting in the work during preseason testing last year. He has proved to them that they should trust him.

He has, in a way, prepared the way for surgery over the course of several years. He did not rush into surgery early, because he did not want to sacrifice race wins and championships for a quick fix. First he laid the groundwork, in order to minimize the risk, and minimize his losses. He still has plenty of winning left in him. But he has tried to secure those wins by approaching them as slowly as possible.

Photo: Repsol Honda