In The Paddock | COLUMN | Steamroller Racing And The Marquez Effect
Halfway through the three pre-season tests, at mid-day at the Chang circuit at Buriram, the heat was oppressive. So, too, the omens.
After the two most varied, open and competitive seasons in modern MotoGP, there were strong hints of a return to a more sterile past. A time of one-bike/one-rider domination. A syndrome that had its most stifling expression back in the last decade of the 20th century, when Mick Doohan and his Honda were so much better than everybody else that pre-season and even pre-race speculation was confined to who might come second.
Racing was horrendously predictable and (yes) actually boring as a result. As Doohan himself actually said (he later denied his “boring as shit” comment, only for Britain’s MCN to put the tape-recorded interview on line).
Wasn’t Doohan’s fault that he was so much better than the rest (“What do you want me to do,” he once asked testily. “Slow down?”). I have no doubt his towering talent would have shown up even better against tougher opposition, but it wasn’t there. He showed that in 1992, but injury stopped his domination, and by the time he’d got better, Schwantz, Rainey, Gardner et al had gone, leaving Mick head and shoulders above the rest.
Nor can you blame Honda for building the best bike. The V4 NSR had been through some false starts and difficult years, but when the Big Bang version finally got it all right, it was a magnificent piece of kit. The definitive 500cc two-stroke.
But the combination, to put it mildly, did not generate the excitement the fans crave.
It’s actually not uncommon in bike racing, or in any sport, for one person to be dominant. The same is true in car racing, golf, tennis—a host of sports reflecting individual talent.
It takes a showman like Rossi to deliberately disguise the fact. He always understood that he had to make it look difficult, even when he was finding it easy. That was a key element in building his huge fan base.
This year’s omens came from Marc Marquez.
He’s already dominated in terms of numbers, winning four titles in the past five years, including the last two in a row. But that pair was achieved in spite of problems, mainly those imposed by a combination of Honda’s pig-headedly independent streak, butting up against the design-freeze regulations.
Even more than the factory engineers, Marquez had to work—and crash—his butt off to overcome the recalcitrance of his RC213V.
Problems stemmed first from adapting to unified electronics, and thereafter to design changes, with a too-light reverse-spin crank followed by last year’s chassis-disturbing new firing pattern. The ban on engine changes left Honda unable to do anything about their design errors.
It was up to Marc.
Fast forward to Buriram. Or indeed to the previous tests at Sepang, where Honda had brought not only last year’s engine but two new variations. It was clear from the start that this time they had not engineered any pitfalls for themselves, with Pedrosa a close second overall in Malaysia, and Marquez able to spend time circulating steadily to gather data, rather than banging his head against a brick wall and his body against the gravel.
On to Buriram, and with the engine choice now settled, Pedrosa was again the faster of the two and, in fact, the fastest of anybody, but it was Marquez who had posted more of the very fast laps, and consistently.
It made a daunting prospect for his rivals. Both factory Yamaha riders were struggling with hangover problems from a difficult 2017, some of which seem to have carried over, while satellite rider Zarco was consistently fast, on a 2016 bike. Ducati had improved, but perhaps not by much. And their best times were all one-offs; race pace remains to be seen.
Given the depth of Marquez’s talent, this all points to a runaway season. Just like 2014, when he broke the record for the number of wins in a season, with 13, including the first 10 in a row. Whose record? Doohan’s, of course. As if you need to ask.
Marquez’s domination that year was total. But not dull. He was, after all, only 22 years old and in only his second premier-class season. There was a freshness to the inevitability.
But we’ve become used to something different in the intervening years. Tension and variety.
It will be a test of Marquez’s maturity and his stature if he can win again this coming year, as (all things being equal) he clearly should, without it being dull—if he can find the chutzpah and confidence to make a race of it. Like Rossi did, back in the day. All part of being one of the greatest of all time.CN