Sunday was quite a day for motorcycle racing: MotoGP at Mugello, the world’s greatest purpose-built circuit, and the Superbike TT on the Mountain Course, the world’s greatest circuit carved out of ordinary roads.
Michael Dunlop was the man on the Island and Marc Márquez might’ve been the man at Mugello, if he hadn’t teetered over the brink once too often. Even so, to come back from three practice crashes – including the fastest-ever in GP history, after he lost the front at 210mph – to challenge for a podium was nothing short of magnificent.
I see similarities between the Ulsterman and the Spaniard. Márquez is the wild young man of MotoGP, just like Dunlop was only recently the wild young man of real roadracing. Son of Robert, nephew of Joey, Dunlop ruffled some feathers and bashed some fairings in his earlier years, just like Márquez now.
Dunlop is a solid rock of talent, hewn from real roadracing’s greatest dynasty. Over the years he has sculpted and burnished his skills into something that can win four TTs on three different types of motorcycle over four days. The 24-year-old is a real character who says exactly what he thinks and rarely fails to raise a laugh in an interview. As he said after his win in the first Supersport TT – his second victory in 24 hours: “It’s like Pringles – once you pop, you can’t stop”. He was probably speaking from experience in more ways than one – last winter Dunlop shed some of the excess pounds he had been carrying for the last few years. It’s all part of the process of honing himself into a leaner, meaner winning machine.
Just like Márquez in MotoGP, Dunlop looks like he may be moving things on in real roadracing. He has devastating speed and yet the lock-to-lock wildness of a few years ago has been replaced by breathtaking momentum through the corners. On Sunday, Monday and Wednesday he made everyone else on the Island look a little second rate. Current Island king John McGuinness broke his own lap record in the Superbike race, trying to make amends for being “a little lazy at the start” (and a penalty for speeding in the pit-lane), so there’s no doubt McPint has what it takes to stage a counter attack in Friday’s Senior TT, but he already knows he has come up against the toughest rival of his career.
Márquez is just a little further down the learning curve than Dunlop. He already has devastating speed, but Mugello proved that he still needs to work on honing his talent, fashioning it into something more solid and stable.
He is, of course, exactly where Jorge Lorenzo was when he came to MotoGP in 2008, when the former 250 champ’s rookie campaign was marked by stark contrasts of dazzling speed and agonising crashes.
When he won his first MotoGP crown, Lorenzo told me this. “At the beginning of my career in MotoGP I had the speed, but I didn’t have control of the motorcycle at 100 per cent.”
Márquez certainly didn’t have 100 per cent control last weekend. He had that 5mph off on Friday morning, when he ran wide and toppled off on damp grass, then that terrifying 200mph accident a few hours later, followed by another vault over the handlebars on Saturday morning, before a final high-speed off in the race. His mechanics must love him at the moment; the seamstresses at Alpinestars too.
It will be fascinating to see how he goes at the next round at Catalunya. He would surely have left Mugello beset with self-doubt, and the pressures will be greater than ever at his home race because he knows that his mind and body can’t afford another disaster of a weekend. He has made life difficult for himself because that narrow line between disaster and glory will seem narrower than ever. It’s at times like this that you get to find out whether someone has the mental fortitude and coolness to survive and prosper at 200mph.
Marquez’s record-breaking Mugello crash – when he fell while braking for Turn One, sending bike and rider skidding past a trackside wall at 180mph – proved that even in MotoGP you run the risk of getting way too close to walls at terrifying speeds. His recovery from that scariest of accidents also suggests that he is more than tough enough to make it, but we’ll see.
If Marquez’s comeback from that crash was heroic, spare a thought for TT rider Daniel Cooper, who was running 14th in Sunday’s Superbike race when he dislocated a shoulder while fighting a tank-slapper as he rode through the village of Kirk Michael. He pulled over, popped it back in and carried on to finish 29th.