Mat Oxley

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Má​rquez’s greatest yet

In 2015 Marc Márquez lost his MotoGP crown and slumped to third overall because he crashed too much. Last season he fell off even more, but won the title with three rounds remaining. Work that one out.

The 2016 MotoGP championship was the strangest in many years, with nine different race winners, an all-time record over seven decades of Grand Prix racing. The reasons were three-fold: new tyres, newly introduced unified software and lots and lots of rain.

The first of these factors was the main cause of the increase in Márquez’s crash rate, because Michelin’s 2016 front slick had lower limits than its Bridgestone predecessor. Also, a front slide is much more difficult to save than a rear slide, so most riders found themselves on the ground more often than they had during the previous few seasons.

Márquez has always been a risk taker: he had 15 crashes in his rookie 2013 MotoGP season, 11 in 2014, 13 in 2015 and 16 last season. Remarkably he wasn’t seriously hurt in any of those accidents, including a 209mph fall at Mugello in 2013.

His secret during the 2016 campaign was to crash only in practice, at least until he had wrapped up the title at October’s Japanese GP, after which he crashed in the next two races! Up to Motegi he scored points at every GP, including Le Mans in May, when he slid off and remounted. “After that crash I told myself, ‘OK, we must keep calm.’ I crashed because I was trying to push harder than what felt right on the bike. So I decided that for the rest of the championship I would only push hard if I felt like I could push hard, but that I wouldn’t push if I didn’t have the right feeling with the bike. This year I crashed many times in practice, just trying to find the limit. Then once you have found the limit it’s easier to stay on the bike!”

During August and September Márquez finished off the podium at three out of four races, something he would never have tolerated in earlier years when his instinct was always to attack, never mind if the bike was willing or not.

His genius last season was to maintain his gloriously aggressive corner-entry technique and make it work with Michelin’s front. In some ways, he mimicked former motorcycling greats like Californian Wayne Rainey, winner of the premier-class world title in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

“What I wanted was to open the throttle to get the weight off the front tyre,” says Rainey. “I wanted to get through that danger zone – where the throttle is off during the flick into the turn – really quick.”

Márquez didn’t only have to worry about tyres during 2016. The Honda Racing Corporation struggled to find the right numbers for the unified software, supplied by Magneti Marelli. Thus Márquez’s RC213V was often slower and harder to handle than rival machinery, which is why his third MotoGP title (in four years) rates as his best yet.

“The Magneti system is less reactive than our system used to be,” said Repsol Honda technical director Takeo Yokoyama. “It has a time delay, so it’s easy for us to overshoot the slip-ratio target and then come back too strongly. Wheelie control is another thing we struggle with; maybe the programme is too basic to make the bike calm down.”

Márquez understood that if the bike was difficult to calm down then it was his job to stay cool and resist the pressure.

“In 2013 and 2014 I didn’t expect to win the title, so I didn’t really feel pressure. This year I cannot explain the pressure, because maybe I didn’t understand it until now. This season I really felt the pressure and when that happens you can make mistakes. Sometimes I forgot to enjoy myself because the pressure was too high. Even some of my team could see that, so sometimes they told me, ‘you are not the same Marc, you must enjoy yourself!’

“The team was a big help – at lunch and dinner they always helped me to forget the pressure – so I concentrated on working with them. The most important thing is that I forgot about the other riders, because if you don’t do that, it’s easy to be confused or to lose focus.”

Those last words are no doubt an oblique reference to Márquez’s relationship with his childhood hero Rossi, who swore he would never forgive the alleged plot between Márquez and Lorenzo to deprive him of the 2015 title.

The fallout sullied much of the 2016 campaign, with a new kind of bitterness festering between some of the riders and some appalling behaviour from Rossi’s most ardent fans, who booed Márquez when he won and cheered when he crashed.

The Spaniard had to summon up a very thick skin to deal with that sort of treatment and he did exactly that; ignoring the boos while he was stood on top of the podium and refusing to react, whatever the provocation. Just as well, because this is a problem that’s likely to follow him into next year and beyond, at least until Rossi retires and his so-called ‘Valeban’ supporters drift away from the sport.

It’s a pity that a rider who has won more than 50 Grands Prix and five world titles at the age of just 23 should be treated so. Motor Sport editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck likens Márquez to the late, great Gilles Villeneuve, who had a similar way of driving on the ragged edge. Such is the kind of talent that should be adored, not derided.