In The Paddock
On the eve of last weekend’s Catalunya GP, with all but a third of the season done, all three championships were as close as paint: two points in Moto2, and three in Moto3, after six of 19 rounds.
In the premier class, mind you, it is a thicker coat of paint, and the closeness is probably as deceptive as the artificially close racing that nowadays often happens in the early laps when the top guys are saving their tires.
The gap is 12 points, and the foregone conclusion of Marc Marquez looks like it will take some upsetting. Not least because of a discernible change in approach for the man who, six years ago, became the youngest-ever premier-class champion. The Repsol Honda man has been stealing rival Dovizioso’s thunder as a thinking rider.
A measured and intelligent approach has long been Desmo Dovi’s strongest suit. Never flustered, and seldom making any glaring mistakes, the Italian racks up strong finishes and points with a relentless rhythm. One remarkable statistic that emerged as he made his 300th GP start at the Mugello race, Dovi has not missed a single race since his 125-class debut way back in Italy in 2001 (he finished a considered 12th in the points first time).
Over the last few seasons, Dovi’s steady speed has compared intriguingly with Marquez’s devastating approach. The Spaniard’s hot-headed riding style sees him reliably at or near the top of the crash list. Compared with Dovi, Marquez tumbles at a rate of three to one. Since he arrived in 2013, Marc has recorded 106 falls, with a worst of 27 in 2017. For the same period, Dovi has knocked up 30, and never more than six in one year. Often, it must be said, through no fault of his own.
At the same time, most of Marc’s crashes have harmless low-siders in free practice. It’s his trademark way of finding the limit.
Anyway, it’s not a contest to see who crashes the least but who gathers the most championship points. In this, Marquez is the clear winner, with five titles in six years, to Dovi’s zero. But that doesn’t mean Dovi is not a worthy rival. Lorenzo may be gathering strength on his new Honda ride (let’s hope so), Petrucci may have beaten him at Mugello, and young hound Quartararo may be able to turn faster laps, but Dovi is the guy that Marc has to beat in the championship.
The difference this year is not in Dovi’s dogged strength, which remains unchanged, and will continue to be displayed at forthcoming tracks that suit the ever-improving Ducati better. It is that Marquez has turned into Marc Mk2. He’s still dazzlingly fast, frighteningly daring, mercilessly talented and dazzlingly competitive. But he’s now also noticeably matured.
It shows both on and off the track.
Marquez turned 26 in February as he prepared for his 12th year in the World Championships and seventh in MotoGP. The choirboy looks lasted for most of those, but the face that he hides behind his tinted visor now has a coarser strength to it. He looks almost grown-up. And his public persona is also subtly different. His comments are wry and more darkly humorous, compared with the wide-eyed innocence of his first 10 years in the GP paddock.
More importantly, the tactics. Marquez’ always been intelligent—nobody wins championships without something a lot stronger than just native cunning. But now he is much more calculating than, for example, in his win-or-bust debut MotoGP title year of 2013.
Nowhere did this show more clearly than at the last race in Italy. After the usual attrition and tire degradation had got rid of the 10-strong mob of the first half of the race, there were still the three of them left—the two Ducatis of Dovi and teammate Petrucci, and Marquez. This in spite of the fact that in general, the Mugello track plays to the strengths of the Italian bikes rather than even the latest (and best so far) Honda.
The last lap and a half were truly hectic, and Dovi thought his own tactics were fine. But he’d failed to account for a desperate late-braking lunge by Petrucci at the end of the last run down the 217 mph straight. In the subsequent confusion, in true extremes, it was Marquez who kept his head. Instead of doing the obvious, trying to take the win off Petrucci, he weighed up the odds and decided that, given the Italian’s passionate desire for a first GP win, a tussle might push them both wide, and give his real title rival a chance to get back ahead.
Second was good enough. This is not a thought that would have occurred to him only four or five years ago.CN