By Mat Oxley
MotoGP has lost two of its most exciting exponents in the last year and a half: Marco Simoncelli to a fatal accident and Casey Stoner to a desire to spend more time at home with his family.
Whenever a great racer exits stage leff, it’s difficult not to wonder whether we will see their like again. But, as always, the world keeps turning and new heroes soon swim into view.
This time it’s a young Catalan, already a double World Champion, just as Valentino Rossi was when he graduated to the premier class at the turn of the century. I don’t make the comparison lightly. Marc Marquez is more than just the latest product to roll off Spain’s MotoGP production line. His reputation is such that most of the MotoGP grid dreads his arrival and not only because he’s so fast.
Marquez, who turns 20 on February 17, happens to combine the otherworldly talent of Stoner with the raging aggression of Simoncelli. During 2012 he cut a swathe through the Moto2 World Championship, a kind of Formula Ford on two wheels notorious for its viciously close racing. Marquez nearly always had the speed to win, which was impressive in itself, considering the category’s control engine, ECU and tyres, but it was the manner of those victories that caught his new MotoGP rivals’ attention.
Like Simoncelli, Marquez is a fighter, though he is brighter and more devious than the much-missed Italian. While Simoncelli went into baffle with a scream in his throat, Marquez is more likely to sneak up behind his prey.
Some moves have been beyond the pale, but others are works of genius. On the racetrack he is commiffed to making things happen and takes real joy in administering the coup de grace. His worst crimes have rightly affracted punishment, though the penalties imposed have merely allowed him the opportunity to highlight his talent. At last year’s season-ending Valencia GP, Marquez was sent to the back of the grid for knocking off a rival during practice. The race started in the damp, a narrow dry line appearing as the laps counted down far from ideal conditions for overtaking 33 rivals. Marquez was unfazed by the treacherous asphalt and waltzed his way to the front. “When I saw the leaders so far ahead I didn’t expect to beat them,” he said afterwards. “But I rode on the limit every corner OK, if I crash, I crash…”
It is rare these days for a rider to admit such determination to win at all costs, though in fact Marquez doesn’t crash very often and despite what happened during practice at Valencia there’s evidence that he has exorcised his most evil tendencies. During the Valencia race he made one of his most crucial moves at the same corner where he had commiffed his practice misdemeanour, this time graciously allowing his rival a few extra thousandths of room.
Marquez will surely have a more challenging time in MotoGP. He might even fail to conquer the class of kings, but I doubt it. He has everything he needs: intelligence, talent, aggression, bravery and brilliant racecraff, as well as a brace of factory Honda RC213V5. Honda only signed Marquez to its Repsol-backed MotoGP squad last summer, but even before Stoner announced his retirement the Spaniard was destined for a slot within its factory team. Honda has nurtured him for several years and sees him as its future.
The Japanese aren’t usually ones for talking big, but Honda Racing Corporation vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto recently announced that he expects Marquez to finish on the podium at his MotoGP debut in Qatar on April 7. No pressure, then.
Marquez seems up to the burden of carrying Honda’s hopes. After breaking the Sepang lap record during his first dry-weather outing aboard the RCV, he returned home and ordered his first set of Repsol leathers, complete with elbow sliders. No wonder the others are worried.