Marc Márquez's battle to be fit — and at the front — in 2022

“There’s no gain without pain, which is especially true in motorcycle racing”

Marc Márquez has always pushed the risk versus reward trade-off as far as it will go. The Spaniard’s victory and crash statistics make jaw-dropping reading. Since he arrived in grands prix in 2010 he has taken eight world championships, 85 victories and 90 pole positions across three classes, at a cost of 211 crashes during race weekends.

They say there’s no gain without pain and the saying is especially true in motorcycle racing. Many of the great champions who preceded Márquez were forced into retirement by injury: Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan and Alex Crivillé, to name but a few. MotoGP’s most burning question of the moment is: will Márquez follow them?

Márquez’s huge successes in the premier class – six world titles from his first seven years in the category, including his 2019 championship which rates as history’s greatest – were achieved through burning determination, raging torrents of talent and a willingness to explore new (and risky) ways of going faster than everyone else.

He was the first rider to slide the front tyre, a technique that almost always resulted in a crash until Márquez came along. He clambered all over the bike to wrestle it into submission and leaned off so far that he touched his elbows on the ground.

“Márquez leaned off so far that he touched his elbows on the ground”

Márquez used these tricks to win the MotoGP championship in his rookie year, 2013, and again in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. He probably would have won the title in 2015 too, but Honda got its engine spec wrong and he struggled to control his RC213V, especially in corner entry, where he tends to win the majority of his races.

An important part of his front-end technique is using his elbows as outriggers, so when the front tyre loses grip he can avoid what otherwise would’ve been a crash by digging his elbows into the asphalt. For these reasons and more Márquez became pretty much unbeatable.

At least until he crashed out of the 2020 season-opening Spanish GP at Jerez. What should have been nothing more than another bruising tumble became something much worse when his cartwheeling motorcycle caught up with him in the gravel trap and broke his right humerus (upper arm) bone.

Márquez had the fracture plated two days later and tried to return to action the following week. That ill-advised comeback and a subsequent accident at home damaged the plate, which needed replacing. Months later surgeons realised the fracture site had become infected, causing a non-union of the break. A third operation took place last December – eight hours in theatre to insert a bone graft from his pelvis and replace the plate for the second time.

This followed major surgeries at the end of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the first to rebuild his left shoulder, the second to rebuild his right shoulder, which had taken the brunt of many of his falls.

Finally in April 2021 his surgeons deemed his right humerus strong enough to resist further tumbles and he was given the green light to race again. Márquez was immediately fast, but his right arm wasn’t strong enough to control his RC213V over full-race distance or save front-end slides via his elbows.

He suffered frequent falls as he regained strength, but never wavered from his ultimate target – to win more races and championships.

Two months after his return at Portimão he won his first victory since 2019, at Germany’s Sachsenring, an anti-clockwise circuit where his weak right arm was less of a handicap. Ten weeks after that he won again at anti-clockwise Circuit of the Americas and another three weeks later at clockwise Misano.

Márquez was back to his best – far too late to win the 2021 MotoGP title but surely ready to challenge for a ninth world title in 2022.

Until the weekend before the penultimate race of the year when he crashed an enduro bike during off-road training. Márquez sustained a head concussion and, much more worryingly, re-injured his right eye, first hurt at Sepang ten years ago, in an accident that wasn’t his fault.

The damage to the eye causes diplopia, double vision in layman’s terms. During the winter of 2011/2012 Márquez waited months for that first diplopia to recede but it didn’t, so eventually he underwent successful surgery to fix the damaged nerve and muscle that control rotation of the eyeball.

Surgeons are regularly assessing Márquez’s current condition, in the hope that this latest episode of diplopia will subside naturally, but if it doesn’t they will need to go in again. Operating on the eye’s tiny superior oblique muscle is challenging to say the least and no one can be sure of the success of a second intervention.

Time is not on his side either. Pre-season testing begins at Sepang in early February and the first race takes place at Losail, Qatar, on March 6. And not only does Márquez need to worry about his eyesight. Honda has undertaken the biggest redesign of its RC213V in a decade, so the motorcycle will need significant debugging before the 2022 season gets underway.

MotoGP has already lost Valentino Rossi and will be an even poorer spectacle without Márquez on track. “With Marc everything is on another planet,” says his team manager Alberto Puig. “Whenever he puts on his helmet and goes out on track you know something is going to happen, something special.”

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley