People still talk about Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost 30 years after their battles lit up Formula 1. Now MotoGP has its own version: Marc Márquez versus Jorge Lorenzo; except the 2019/2020 Repsol Honda line-up is even more exceptional than the McLaren Honda equivalent of 1988 and 1989.
The Spanish pairing might not be bike racing’s first great team duo – in the 1960s we had Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini at MV Agusta, in the 1990s Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson at Yamaha and not so long ago Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, also at Yamaha – but never before have the winners of the past seven premier-class world championships been in the same team, which has won seven of the past eight titles for constructors.
And no one expected it.
Márquez has been Honda’s golden ticket to MotoGP glory since he graduated to the premier class in 2013. The theory went that Honda would only sign a lesser rider as his partner, to keep the youngster sweet. Thus when Lorenzo announced he had signed with Repsol Honda – two days after he had won his first Grand Prix with Ducati – the paddock was stunned.
The man behind the deal was Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig. The 51-year-old former 500cc Grand Prix winner runs his team like a racer, not like a politician; so when Lorenzo contacted him, he didn’t hesitate.
“The opportunity to sign Jorge was there, so we took it,” he says. “I don’t know what the other teams were doing. Maybe they don’t work via the same principal. For Honda it’s important to prepare the best bikes we can, and then give them to the fastest riders.”
Márquez and Lorenzo commenced their preparations for 2019 during MotoGP’s first winter tests last November. Unsurprisingly, Márquez was faster, because he has spent the past six years squeezing the maximum out of Honda’s 220mph RC213V, not just a few days. But the gap was only 0.135sec, suggesting the pair will be very closely matched when the new season gets underway in March.
But how will five-times MotoGP champion Márquez and three-times MotoGP king Lorenzo get along? The pair had their first feud after only their third race together, during which the young rookie had barged the reigning champion out of the way at the final corner. Most recently, 33-year-old Lorenzo blamed 25-year-old Márquez for his accident at last September’s Aragon Grand Prix. “Marc destroyed my race and my foot,” he fumed.
Their duel for supremacy over the next two seasons will therefore be fascinating to witness – on the track, in the garage and in the media spotlight.
The pair have different characters, riding techniques and styles of racing. Márquez is gregarious, Lorenzo is more reserved. Márquez rides on the brink of disaster, Lorenzo is as smooth as glass. Márquez likes to fight, Lorenzo prefers to race alone.
However, Lorenzo has had to learn to fight since a rewrite of MotoGP’s technical rules made it pretty much impossible for him to escape out front. At the Red Bull Ring last August, he unleashed a victorious attack on Márquez that was straight out of the youngster’s playbook, so we can surely expect more of the same.
Lorenzo and Márquez might be very different people, but they share a similar strength of spirit. They are the only two riders that Valentino Rossi has failed to break mentally. Neither will back down, which brings us back to Senna and Prost.
“When the situation between them became harder I used to crack jokes, to relax them and to reduce the stress,” recalls McLaren team co-ordinator Jo Ramirez.
At Repsol Honda that will be the job of Puig, who will do his best to maintain the peace while the world’s two fastest bike racers go about their business within the same garage.
“Of course, it’s not going to be easy,” says Puig. “Racing is complicated and it’s a difficult environment, but if we wanted things to be easy, we wouldn’t be running a team at this level.”
During 2019 and 2020, the two Spaniards won’t only be racing for the MotoGP crown, they will also be racing for their legacies and for the love of a nation that worships its bike racers like football stars. Lorenzo has won 47 MotoGP races to Márquez’s 43, but Lorenzo is two world titles short of his compatriot.
On the other hand, he has the chance to add to his victories with Yamaha and Ducati to become only the fifth rider to win premier-class Grands Prix with three different marques, joining Hailwood (Norton, MV and Honda), Lawson (Yamaha, Honda and Cagiva), Randy Mamola (Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda) and Loris Capirossi (Yamaha, Honda and Ducati).
Most people will put their money on Márquez, but they may be the same people that bet Lorenzo wouldn’t win on the Ducati. Lorenzo reacted angrily to one TV pundit who suggested he won’t win a race on the RC213V. “Don’t mess with The Hammer [a self-styled nickname],” he said. “Or you risk ending up in the big-mouth club.”
The RC213V is not an easy machine to master, but Lorenzo has already proved that he is one of those riders who can be a chameleon. He transformed his riding technique away from Yamaha’s inline-four YZR-M1 to suit Ducati’s very different Desmosedici V4, so it’s no wonder that his adaptation to Honda’s V4 is proving to be easier.
“I don’t know how long it will take to win with Honda,” he says. “But that time will arrive because the important thing is the brain.”
Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner