All arms and elbows

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Marc Márquez rewrote the rules of MotoGP technique last season and, in so doing, became the youngest premier-class champ in the sport’s history. What drives Spain’s latest bike-racing phenomenon?
Writer Mat Oxley

You are at the circus to witness the world’s greatest high-wire artists do their thing. You can barely see the wire, one hundred feet above you, and there’s no safety net. The lights go down and the spotlights pick out a tiny figure, hovering at one end of the wire. The reigning tightrope champ steps gently forward and teeters above the abyss, tensed muscles reacting to every quiver of the wire until he finally reaches the platform at the other end. The crowd roars its appreciation. The next artist appears, stoops low, pulls back on his heels and sprints across the rope which twangs wildly, sending the figure dancing this way and that, his arms and legs searching for equilibrium. It seems certain he will fall, but his superhuman sense of balance takes him to the other side with ease. A huge grin spreads across his face. The crowd cannot believe what it’s just seen.

*******

This, then, is Marc Márquez: a controversial young apprentice of prodigious talent who has revolutionised a sport and become its youngest-ever champion. Whatever you call him – Marc the Magnificent or Marc the Maniac – the 20-year-old changed MotoGP during 2013, ushering in a new kind of aggression and a spectacular riding technique that had you wondering if someone had changed the laws of physics.

“Marc rides always at the limit – it seems like he’s crashing all the time but he’s not crashing,” says his Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa.

“Marc is like a bomb that’s come into MotoGP and exploded,” adds German MotoGP rider Stefan Bradl.

Outgoing World Champion Jorge Lorenzo isn’t a fan, but even he has to admit that his nemesis has forced riders to up their game like never before. “Márquez is making us better, faster and stronger riders,” says the man who looked likely to enjoy several years of domination until his young compatriot appeared on the scene.

Wherever you watch Márquez he is breathtaking to behold and does things no one else does. He is so aggressive on the brakes that he has his RC213V fishtailing, the rear tyre an inch or two in the air. Other riders also do this, but they don’t then yank the handlebars towards opposite lock to tip the bike into the turn while the rear end is still kicked out sideways.

At this point, it looks like the former 125 and Moto2 World Champion will surely crash, but his talent, reflexes and sheer physicality keep him on the right side of oblivion. Most of the time. Then he scrapes an elbow slider across the tarmac, yanks the bike upright and he’s gone, in a screaming cacophony of RCV exhaust noise.

“Marc has a unique talent – he has the ability to push beyond,” says Freddie Spencer, the youngest premier-class champion before Márquez. “He is able to feel the edge of the limit even where there’s a lot of movement from the bike and he can control that. He has incredible feel and is able to anticipate what’s going to happen next, which gives him a real advantage. He is extremely intuitive. He’s come into MotoGP and raised the level, whereas most new guys come in and conform to what the other guys are doing.”

Márquez’s sense of balance is never less than amazing. “Marc is like a cat that always lands on his feet,” says British rival Cal Crutchlow. “He locks the rear into every corner at nearly full lean and you think, ‘How can he get away with that?’ But he does it at every corner! I followed him at Catalunya and I thought, this guy ain’t finishing this race. His shoulder was on the kerbs, not his elbow or his arm, his whole shoulder next to his helmet was on the kerbs. I was thinking, ‘No chance of him finishing’.”

Márquez did finish that race and went on to win the championship in his rookie year, the first time anyone has done that since American Kenny Roberts in 1978.

Márquez stays on when others fall because he’s got a superhuman sense of balance while his mind and body have spent the last 15 years or so learning how to ride a motorcycle at the brink of disaster. As a child he rode a lot on dirt tracks, acclimatising to riding with the front tyre tucked and the rear tyre slewing sideways. That’s how former greats like Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Mick Doohan learned to ride.

He’s also developed his own techniques, like using his elbows as outriggers to save a crash, as other riders use their knees. “Sometimes you can save a crash with your knee,” he says, laughing. “But if you have your knee and an elbow, you can do it more easily!”

Márquez scrapes his elbows at nearly every corner, so while other riders use plastic elbow sliders, he has specially made magnesium sliders that just about last one race. “When I tried plastic sliders they were finished in five laps!” he says, still laughing.

His favourite corner is Turn Five of the Indianapolis MotoGP circuit: a fast, bumpy, left-hander – just like a dirt-track curve – but with a hard surface. Riding through that corner he’s got the bike jumping around, front and rear tyres leaving smears of rubber on the Tarmac, like a Morse code SOS. Meanwhile he is perched on top, muscles tensing and relaxing as he counteracts the forces by adjusting pressure through hands, feet and backside, all the while twitching his upper body this way and that to transfer load from one tyre to the other. It’s a delicate yet vicious show – Márquez is somewhere between ballet dancer and wrestler.

*******

Márquez likes to ride loosely, so he’s been able to revive an old riding technique that was presumed lost. During the last decade, the development of electronic rider aids and Bridgestone slicks turned the emphasis towards wide lines and high cornering speeds, which means no sliding. And then Márquez arrived, using the throttle like the former dirt trackers who ruled Grand Prix racing throughout the 1980s and 1990s. “If you slide, sure you destroy the tyres more, but if you can manage that, then you can control the bike better,” he says. “And by sliding to stay on the inside line you can stop other guys from attacking.”

The way he manhandles his RC213V and leans off so far that he grinds his elbows comes from two seasons in Moto2. These are heavy, unwieldy race bikes with zero aids that must be bent to a rider’s will.

Their lack of any electronic engine-braking control has the rear tyre skittering into corners, a negative that Márquez turned into a positive and then brought with him into MotoGP.

“When you slide the rear into corners you take weight off the front tyre so maybe you can brake a little later,” he says.

His greatest rivals Lorenzo and Pedrosa had very different upbringings. They spent their formative years on Tarmac and both won the 250 World Championship (replaced by Moto2 in 2010) before graduating to MotoGP. The 250s were light, responsive two-strokes that encouraged a smooth, inch-perfect riding technique, so that’s how Lorenzo and Pedrosa ride in MotoGP, which strengthened the shift towards wheels in-line riding.

Roberts, who dominated American dirt track racing before conquering Europe, is delighted that Márquez has brought back the technique he introduced to GP racing in the 1970s.

“These past few years, people keep telling me that although Wayne [Rainey], Kevin [Schwantz] and I used to steer with the rear wheel, you don’t need to do that any more,” says Roberts, who won the premier-class title in 1978, 1979 and 1980. “Oh, really? Well, guess what? That’s how Márquez does it. If you can let the bike drift, spin and go sideways, then point it where you want it, it’s much easier than trying to do it by using lean angle and depending on the front tyre.”

Whatever the reason for his speed, there’s no doubt that Márquez does things other riders struggle to do. In recent years MotoGP races have become too often processional, because riders find it difficult to overtake. They say that carbon brakes have shortened stopping distances, making it impossible to out-brake a rival in normal circumstances. And they say that traction control allows every rider to exit corners at maximum speed, so neither is it possible to gain an advantage there.

Márquez doesn’t seem subject to the same rules – he can pass on the brakes because he’s happy riding out of control all the way to the apex. “It’s more like he’s riding with motocross handlebars, not like a road racer,” says Pedrosa, who suffered the ignominy of being outshone by his rookie team-mate during 2013. “Marc’s corner entry comes from Moto2 – he falls the bike into corners.”

No wonder Márquez sometimes falls off. Last season he was the second most frequent crasher in MotoGP – he tumbled 15 times in 18 race weekends – but it’s significant that all but one of those falls came in practice. In other words, Márquez uses practice to try new ideas and push the boundaries, and sometimes those experiments go wrong. Hardly surprising considering that he had only just graduated from a 125bhp Moto2 bike to a 250bhp, 215mph MotoGP bike.

He is certainly lucky – so far – that he bounces well. Márquez escaped serious injury in all those accidents, including a record-breaking 209.9mph tumble at Mugello. During the year he broke a few minor bones, dislocated a shoulder and felt a lot of pain. Lorenzo, on the other hand, crashed only three times but twice broke a collarbone.

*******

If Márquez’s antics have the entire MotoGP paddock in awe, they haven’t won him universal respect. The man has a dark side, and some rivals accuse him of riding dangerously.

“Sometimes Marc’s actions are too hard,” says Lorenzo, his most vocal critic. “He takes risks for himself but also for the rest of us…”

Opinion in MotoGP is split between riders like Lorenzo and Pedrosa, who enjoy racing for the speed and not for the fight, and riders like Valentino Rossi and Crutchlow, who believe in a more robust style of racing. “Marc rides very hot,” says Crutchlow, “but some riders make controversy because they’re annoyed they’re getting beaten – simple as that.”

In fact, there’s nothing new about Márquez’s aggression. Older racers – who remember an era when rubbin’ was racin’ and no one seemed to give a damn unless someone got hurt – can’t believe all the fuss.

“Wayne [Rainey] and I had some of the best fights there have ever been on a racetrack,” recalls 1993 500cc champion Schwantz. “We traded paint, we leaned on each other, touched leathers and handlebars. It was hard fighting. We don’t need guys complaining about how others are riding. They need to grow up, quit crying, respect each other, go out and race.”

Whenever Márquez was penalised during 2013 – he received more penalty points than anyone else – he admitted his mistake, insisted he wouldn’t change his style of racing and smiled sweetly for the cameras. Of course, most people know that’s no smile – it’s an assassin’s grin.

The sport’s youngest champion has committed numerous crimes during his career, some plain stupid, others the kind of dirty, sneaky little moves to which most racers resort when they feel like it. Most famously, there was his final-corner collision with Lorenzo at Jerez. He avoided sanction because it was ruled a normal racing incident – two riders arguing over the same piece of Tarmac. Indeed, video footage from the rear shows Márquez clearly ahead when the pair made contact. Yes, it was an aggressive move, but no more so than that inflicted on a rival by a teenage Lorenzo at the same corner and no more so than that inflicted by Rossi upon Sete Gibernau in 2005.

There is no doubt that Márquez is a merciless assassin on the racetrack, but what about when he’s out of his leathers? Could it be that he’s just another petulant racing prodigy who’s never had a proper job and believes that the world revolves around him?

Obviously it’s hard to know the real man. All you can do is go with what information you’ve got. A colleague recalls seeing Márquez a few days before the 2012 British GP, as team artics crept into the Silverstone paddock. Several Moto2 teams arrived late and were in a hurry to get their trucks unloaded and their garages set up. In the hubbub of mechanics carrying crates and equipment, there was only one rider doing anything to help. It was Márquez, and he was laughing and joking with his crew.

Apart from that mad racetrack streak, the kid from Cervera (a small town, 60 miles inland from Barcelona) seems maddeningly perfect. His speed, boyish good looks and demeanour are sponsorship gold. He’s a great interviewee: engaged, illuminating, smiling and entirely unafraid to speak his mind. His mental agility reminds me of interviewing Rossi for the first time a decade and a half ago.

True, he may not have Rossi’s rock and roll swagger, but as his star rises and Rossi’s falls, it won’t be long before he is the most popular bike racer on earth.

Most racing fans adore riders who look spectacular, who aren’t afraid to tread deep into the danger zone in pursuit of their dreams and who make it known to the world that they relish what they do. That’s why they love Márquez, because he brightens their Sunday afternoons, just like Rossi used to.

He is the kid with a smile for everyone who all the while is utterly focused on where he’s going. He has that one-in-a-billion ability to live life at two speeds, combining zoom-lens focus on the details with perfect peripheral vision, fully seeing and understanding everything that’s going on around him.

You can witness this ability every afternoon at the back of his pit garage, where there’s always a crowd of cute teenage girls, the next generation of Valenteenieboppers. They linger by the door, phones in hand, hoping for a photo of the angelic face that hides a devilish determination to win. While having his photo taken with star-struck fans, you just know that he’s working out where to commit his next pass. Will he do Lorenzo at Turn Six or Turn 11?

There is no doubt that Márquez isn’t always as in control as he should be, but he is already smoothing off the rough edges. Will he then become perfect and go on to become the greatest rider in history, surpassing the genius of Rossi, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini? It would seem there is every possibility of that: when Rossi joined the premier class in 2000, even he didn’t raise the game as Márquez did last season.