In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | July 3, 2019

Young Before His Time

COLUMN

Motorcycle racers suffer all sorts of injuries – strain, sprains, arm-pump, broken bones and wounded pride among them.

The one most likely to afflict Marc Marquez at the moment is a stiff neck. From looking over his shoulder and seeing what’s coming. And it’s not just his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, whose bowling-ball action in Catalunya took out Dovizioso, Rossi and Vinales, and only missed the back of the leader’s Repsol Honda by millimeters.

Is a tide of youth coming up behind Marc Marquez? Photo: Gold & Goose
Is a tide of youth coming up behind Marc Marquez? Photo: Gold & Goose

Marquez might be more wary of something that only six years ago he represented himself. In spades. The tide of youth. And while the current dominant rider is, himself, only 26, he’s not too young to be feeling a bit jaded.

The example of the rider whose “youngest-ever” records he took might be taken as salutary. Freddie Spencer had won three titles by the time he turned 23, and thereafter never won another GP. Marquez shows no sign of running out of steam, but then neither did the sublimely talented Freddie during 1985, when he secured a unique 250-500 double.

Actually, this is just scare-mongering, particularly two weeks after writing about the super strength of the newly mature Marquez. And there is a different example which suggests the opposite: Valentino Rossi is in his 40s, and still a factor. He might find it harder to win races … indeed impossible for the past 24 months. It didn’t stop him from trying, and sometimes coming desperately close. He’s still trying, though it is obviously not getting any easier.

But the tide of youth syndrome is real enough, threatening others perhaps more than Marquez, and embodied most spectacularly by the remarkable Fabio Quartararo, who only at the last race missed his chance of deposing Marquez as the youngest-ever premier-class race winner. This was in Catalunya, where he started from pole for the second time in his debut season, and finished a fighting second.

This was in only his seventh race on a big bike, and (after a few relatively average Moto3 and Moto2 years) reminds us that he was the first to be drafted in to GP racing under age, after sweeping to two dominant CEV (aka “Junior World Championship”) titles before he was 16.

The young Frenchman, who, at just 20, is both cheeky and pretty funny, has been astonishing. He’s not just challenging the factory Yamahas but all too often outclassing them, certainly over single-lap qualifying runs. He was on pole at Jerez – only for his bike to fail while he was a strong second; fastest at Le Mans in FP1; fastest at Mugello in FP4, and qualified second.

But is it just beginner’s luck—much the same as that which enlightened Johann Zarco’s first season on a satellite Yamaha, when he went straight into the lead in his first race, and was a major disturbance to the factory riders?

Impossible to know. Though it is possible to measure Quartararo against both Zarco, who outranks him in having won two Moto2 titles to Quartararo’s single Moto2 race; and Marquez, who was dominant in both of the junior classes before busting into MotoGP.

How much does that matter? It is Quartararo’s present performance that is lighting the warning bonfires. And prompting serious questions about whether Yamaha will draft him into the factory team next year, leaving Rossi to decide whether he wants to play out the final year of his contract with the satellite team.

This is written on the eve of the Dutch TT, where Quartararo started out by battling with Vinales to set the best first-day time. What happens on race day will be instructive at the very least.

But you could argue that Quartararo is not really the youngster that Marquez, Rossi et al need to worry about. Or not the only one.

After a long spell when everybody thought the sport would die on its feet when Rossi retired, then another six years when Marquez dominated pretty much everything, there are encouraging signs of renewal and growth.

Suzuki’s Alex Rins is just 23, has already won one race on a bike that is nominally too slow to be a proper threat. Pecco Bagnaia, at 22, hasn’t lived up to expectations, having turned into a serial crasher. But his immaculate 2018 Moto2 title suggests that he’ll get over it and become a big threat.

At the same time, Jack Miller and Maverick Vinales are only 24, and seasoned race winners in MotoGP.

Furthermore, Moto2’s acquisition of more advanced machinery is also promising more than before. The 765cc Triumph-powered bikes not only have more electronics and close-ratio gearboxes, but enough power for the riders to find different ways to express themselves, and learn new tricks. The likes of Baldassarri, Navarro, Marini and (finally) Alex Marquez are backed by Brad Binder, Remy Gardner and the rest.

The future looks bright. CN

 

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Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.

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