Four premier class world championships in five years has rightly brought people to hail Marc Marquez as one of grand prix racing’s greats. While to the outside world the Honda rider’s statistics suggest a stranglehold on the series, Marquez’s journey to the MotoGP crown over the last two seasons has been anything but straightforward.
After the disaster of 2015, when a difficult-to-handle RC213V saw his championship challenge vanish in the opening half of the year, the Spaniard’s fortunes still looked bleak when the 2016 bike proved just as troublesome.
Despite this – as well as numerous fumbles from Yamaha – Marquez was able to wrap up the 2016 crown three races from the end, a more methodical approach and a topsy-turvy campaign allowing him to take an unfancied machine to glory.
Honda knuckled down over the winter of 2016/2017 to try and improve its motorcycle, chiefly its over-aggressive engine. A switch from the ‘screamer’ firing order to ‘big-bang’ was HRC’s answer, though it only seemed to create more questions.
Initial tests in Valencia at the end of 2016 and at the Sepang outing in January of this year did not yield promise for the new motor, the team’s issues stemming from its electronics set-ups not working in harmony with the engine – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the change of firing order and the limitations of the spec ECU introduced in 2016.
Eventually things started to improve, though the first two races of the year were a disaster. While main threat Maverick Vinales took his Yamaha to two wins, Marquez was yet to stand on the podium by the time the United States race rolled around.
The weather-delayed start to the Qatar race forced the Honda riders into running their lesser preferred medium front tyre due to the dropping temperatures, which they duly chewed through in a matter of laps. Keen to make amends for his fourth, Marquez crashed while convincingly leading in Argentina in the early stages.
A crash for Vinales and a win for Marquez on his stomping ground of the Circuit of the Americas pointed him back in the right direction, but all was still not well.
His pace throughout the Argentina and CoTA weekends was strong, but he could not understand why. The general consensus amongst the Honda riders was that they were outperforming the bike. Indeed, after his emphatic win in Texas – which put him back up to third in the standings, though some 18 points adrift – Marquez stated: “Still I don’t feel perfect with the bike, we are missing something.”
One crucial thing Marquez was missing from his 2017 bike was enjoyment. After suffering an odd crash at the French Grand Prix and a lowly sixth at Mugello, Marquez admitted to his crew that he simply was not happy doing the thing he so loved, and the stress of the 2017 season was getting to him.
“It was Le Mans, Mugello, Montmelo,” he began after securing his fourth MotoGP title in Valencia. “After Le Mans I was with my hairdresser, and she say ‘what’s going on, whats happening,’ and I say ‘why? (She said) ‘you are losing the hair.’
“Then I say ‘no, I’m 24, it’s impossible, my father, my grandfather have hair’. But then I go directly to Dr (Angel) Charte, to the hospital, and he say ‘you need to change the approach of the races or something, because your stress inside your body was too much.’
“Of course, I change my approach, but especially I change the feeling with the bike. We did a big change on the bike and then I get the feeling, the correct feeling, and I start to enjoy again. After Le Mans, we were in the car going to the airport with Emilio (Alzamora, Marquez’s manager) and Jose (L. Martinez, friend), and I told them I’m not enjoying on the bike. I’m just riding because I need to ride, but I am not enjoying, and then we change the mentality. First of all we say we need to enjoy it on the bike, then we will find the results.”
Despite this, comments after the Sachsenring race suggested he was still deflated. Marquez did not anticipate much from Honda to help them combat Yamaha in the second half of the year. So far, only a switch to the chassis Cal Crutchlow took to two wins in 2016 was the only radical difference Marquez had made to his RC213V.
But, find the results they did.
Marquez saw out the first half of 2017 with a second at Catalunya, a third at Assen and an eighth-successive German Grand Prix win to head into the summer break five points in the lead of the championship – transforming a 37-point deficit following the Italian Grand Prix.
A positive test at Brno over the summer break had Marquez feeling much better on his bike, and he felt quick in all conditions. To boot, the feared Yamaha challenge – which had already shown cracks – faded rapidly in the second half of the year.
The new threat came from Italy. Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati had endured a similarly difficult early season, though 31-year-old Dovizioso did manage back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya and was firmly a championship contender by the summer shutdown – even if he was reluctant to admit it.
Marquez kicked off the second leg of the campaign with a stunning flag-to-flag victory at Brno, but was denied a maiden Red Bull Ring success at the death after a titanic battle with Dovizioso. Despite losing to the Ducati rider, Marquez saw the positive side. He was competitive at a circuit he firmly expected the RC213V to struggle at.
That moment seemingly proved pivotal, as he knew every race that laid ahead would see him battle for the win. Silverstone was the exception. While fighting at the front, he would not convert that pace into a result thanks to an engine failure.
He responded with wins at Misano and Aragon, the latter seeing him take a 16-point lead into the flyaways after Dovizioso struggled to seventh. Another head-to-head with the Italian saw the Honda rider come out second-best, though he once again responded emphatically with a win at the manic Australian Grand Prix.
33 points in front heading to Sepang with Dovizioso finishing 13th at Phillip Island, the championship looked assured. But he was not willing to throw it all away for the sake of an early party. Struggling all weekend for a good feeling with his Honda – as demonstrated by his numerous moments throughout practice and qualifying – he felt fourth on a wet Sunday was a result not to be ashamed of, a trait which took him to success a year prior.
With the finale a simple case of sealing the book, it proved anything but. A feisty Johann Zarco kept the Spaniard on his toes, and even led him to make a near race-ending mistake at the first corner in the closing stages – Marquez saving a 95mph front-end crash on his knee to come across the line third and become the youngest ever four-time premier class champion.
Not since Mick Doohan in 1998, when he won his fifth 500cc title, had a rider won the championship with three DNFs on their scorecard. Over the course of the year, Marquez tallied up an astonishing 27 crashes – the third-highest total of all riders throughout all three classes.
This goes to show just how difficult his charge to the 2017 title was. This year’s Honda had no clearly-defined limit, which often meant several trips through the gravel or spectacular saves that defied all scientific reason. And this is something he knows needs to change next year, not least because of the threat that gathers all around him.
“27 and a half (crashes),” he joked. “Yeah, that means was not easy. Was not easy title, I was pushing every practice. I mean, was always all in since FP1. I was going out convinced I was able to be fast, but of course is something we need to change for the future and I always try to be realistic on the way. Yeah, we won, we are happy that we won, but there are a few points we need to improve for next year.
“Yeah, of course, next year will be another year. For the moment, until the January 1, I am the world champion. Then, from January 1 next year I’m another rider. It will be a new year, we will hope again to fight for the world championship, we will try to work hard in the pre-season. But, like we see this year, you have to pay attention to all the riders. Johann will be very fast, Dovi, the Ducatis, we will see how is the level of the Yamahas also.”
Marquez’s glory-or-nothing approach to race weekends is almost ludicrous. No other rider on the grid is willing to lay a championship on the line for an uneeded race victory the way he did in Valencia.
And while the Spaniard has been able to open up his mind over the past two years in a race situation and see that sometimes it is better to lose the battle to win the war, this desire to push to the limits will forever remain.
But this is, as he described it, the ‘Marquez style’ – and it continues to win him championships.