On that day Sheene unleashed a valiant attack on Roberts, trying to ride around the outside of the American as they swept through the daunting Woodcote right-hander for the last time. He ran out of room and failed by 0.3 seconds.
On Sunday, Sheene’s Suzuki heir Álex Rins unleashed a valiant attack on Márquez, sneaking inside the modern-day ‘King’ Kenny as they swept through Woodcote for the final time. He succeeded by 0.013 seconds, the fourth-closest premier-class finish in 71 years of Grand Prix racing.
Just like Sheene and Roberts all those years ago, the Rins versus Márquez battle raged throughout the race; both men fully aware that the last lap would decide everything.
In fact Rins won Sunday’s race twice. He thought the penultimate lap was the last lap, so he unleashed his first last-gasp attack on Márquez at Aintree, the Turn 15 left-hander that takes riders onto the final Wellington straight. Márquez regained the lead before the final three-corner complex, but Rins had another move planned, using clever, wider lines through the final Luffield and Woodcote right-handers to swing around the outside, onto the kerb, to cross the line 0.001 seconds in front.
If racetracks had had kerbs in the 1970s, Sheene may well have been able to do the same to Roberts in 1979.
But of course Sunday’s race wasn’t over. Márquez regained the lead as the pair sped towards Turn One for the last time and Rins did amazingly well to regain his composure and get ready to do it all over again.
Sheene vs Roberts revisitedPhoto: Motorsport Images
Two things went wrong for Márquez through the last two corners of the last lap. He slowed too much at Luffield, trying to defend his line, and then he lost both the front and rear at Woodcote, which pushed him a few centimetres wide and allowed Rins to attack on the inside.
This was a truly fascinating duel, because Márquez’s Honda RC213V and Rins’ Suzuki GSX-RR are totally different motorcycles. The RC213V is built for 21st-century racetracks: it’s a point-and-squirt bike, which allows Márquez to make time on the brakes and on acceleration; perfect for most MotoGP layouts. It doesn’t really do corner speed.
The GSX-RR is more of an old-school GP bike, making its time by flying through the corners, which is why it works so well at old-school tracks like Silverstone. It’s no coincidence that this is the only place where the GSX-RR has won twice.
Rins nearly destroyed his race on Sunday by looking behind exiting the Stowe right-hander with three laps to go
Márquez was on the ragged edge throughout Sunday’s race. He went full gas from the start – with little thought for tyre life – because he wanted to break up the pack, so he didn’t have to deal with half a dozen riders that might take points off him in the last-lap dogfight. Better to push like crazy and finish second than conserve your tyres and end up fifth.
His RC213V was shaking, kicking and squirming through Silverstone’s high-speed kinks and turns, because it’s not at home at this kind of track. But he refused to back down. Many riders enjoying such a gaping championship advantage – Márquez’s pit signals had told him that his distant title rival Andrea Dovizioso was out of the race after that Turn One pile-up – would have eased off, reducing the risk to gather a few safe points.
But Márquez doesn’t know how to do such a thing. He only knows how to open the throttle, not how to shut it. Asking Márquez to cruise home for a few points would be like asking Led Zeppelin to cover an Ed Sheeran song. It isn’t going to happen.
Of course, there were more than points and prizes at stake in this particular duel. Neither rider is on the other’s Christmas card list. Rins had fronted up to the world champion several times earlier this season, both on and off the track, most memorably during qualifying at Brno, where he barged into Márquez and continued the altercation in pit lane.
Rins is trying to establish himself as a threat to Márquez, just as Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales have done on occasion. Márquez stands at the top of the ladder, while Rins is trying to climb the ladder. Motorcycle racing is a mean game, so the job of any rider at the top is to stand on the fingers of anyone who’s climbing up behind him. On Sunday Rins beat Márquez good and proper for the first time, so he’s got his fingers firmly on the next step. It’s going to be interesting what happens next.
Rins played to the GSX-RR’s strengths superbly at Silverstone. A good rider can use a corner-speed advantage to compensate for a lack of acceleration performance. If he sweeps through a fast corner several miles an hour quicker than his rival he will carry that extra speed down the next straight.
Throughout the race Rins took different lines to Márquez. While the world champion parked his RC213V at the apex, Rins took wider lines.
The really clever way to compensate for a lack of corner-exit grunt is to hold back at the entry to a corner, so you don’t get slowed at the apex by the slower bike in front. By holding back for a moment you give yourself extra room, so you can run through the corner faster. And if you do it just right you will pass your rival on the way out of the corner, using corner speed to beat brute horsepower.
Rins played this trick on numerous occasions, but most of all when he unleashed what he thought was his final-lap attack through the Village/Loop/Aintree section.
On the way into Village he dropped back several metres, which allowed him to take a tight line through that right-hander, which set him up for a nice wide, sweeping line into the subsequent Loop left. This allowed him to use more corner speed through there, which allowed him to duck inside Márquez at the Aintree left.
If Rins and Suzuki keep working like this then he has the chance to become the factory’s most successful rider since Kevin Schwantz, who won 25 GPs on RGV500s between 1988 and 1994.
It wouldn’t be right to compare the Catalan and the Texan for all kinds of reasons. First, they are very different characters. Schwantz was loud, brash and wild. Rins is quiet, humble and well behaved. He doesn’t have the swagger that Schwantz had, but maybe that will come with more success. His stunning Woodcote attacks – outside, then inside – definitely had a little bit of Schwantz about them. And certainly he will need something hot burning inside him if he is to regularly puncture Márquez’s cast-iron psyche.
Rins did exhibit one Schwantz trait at Silverstone. Schwantz had a bad habit of looking behind during races, which caused him to make many mistakes. There is a time and a place for a quick glance over the shoulder; usually it’s something that riders rehearse during practice, by finding a part of the track where you can have a quick check on what’s going on behind you, without ruining your forward focus.
Rins nearly destroyed his race on Sunday by looking behind exiting the Stowe right-hander with three laps to go. This is a bad place to take your eye off the job. Stowe is followed by the shortest of straights, with a downhill entry into Vale, the slowest corner on the track. It’s a nightmare to get a MotoGP bike stopped there at the best of times (how many times did we see Márquez heading into Vale with his rear wheel several inches in the air and smoke pouring off the sole of his left boot?). By the time Rins had changed his focus to look back at Viñales and then refocused on the upcoming corner he messed up Vale and nearly crashed.
Rins’ GSX-RR worked superbly at Silverstone, saving its tyres better than Márquez’s RCV213V. Pretty much the whole grid chose the hard front and hard rear to cope with Silverstone’s new surface, but Rins definitely had more grip in the final laps. During the race, both men played with their power maps to eke more life out of the tyres, but Rins’ super-smooth technique and the GSX-RR’s engine configuration saved the tyres better.
The V4 RC213V has a shorter crankshaft, which is one reason why the bike flicks into corners so well, but it doesn’t hold its line so well once it’s in the corner. The inline-four GSX-RR has a longer crankshaft, so it doesn’t flick into corners so well. But once the bike is on its side, the longer crank’s inertia helps the bike continue its arc through the corner. This self-turning effect allows the rider to work the tyres less, so he should have more rubber left for the vital stages.
Márquez’s tyre at the end of the racePhoto: Motorsport Images
Of course, there should have been several other riders in the Silverstone battle. And you could blame Rins that there weren’t. The Spaniard got sideways as he gassed it up out of Turn One for the first time, laying down a big smear of rubber, causing Fabio Quartararo to go down. The French rookie was right behind, also sideways and laying rubber, so when he shut throttle to avoid Rins and then reopened the gas, his rear tyre gripped and chucked him over the highside, Dovizioso ploughing into the fallen M1. The traction control didn’t work for Rins or Quartararo at this point because the TC is mapped for third gear at Turn One, but the run to the corner from the grid is so short that the riders take the corner in second gear on the first lap.
The only riders ahead of the carnage were Márquez, Rins and Rossi, so the pack immediately got broken up. And there was another reason the pack didn’t stay together as it sometimes does at Silverstone: tyre trouble.
The combination of Silverstone’s super-grippy new surface (untried by Michelin) and the very un-British 44-degree track temperature (only Mugello and Barcelona have been hotter this year) played havoc with the tyres. Several riders – including Rossi, Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow – complained of badly damaged tyres, with some revealing that their rear slicks had chunked. Some also had front-tyre worries. Crutchlow nearly lost the front through the fifth- gear Woodcote on several occasions, just like Márquez did on the last lap. Crutchlow was so worried that he stood up a few times to look at the front tyre, checking for damage.
Perhaps the game is changing at the top of MotoGP. Rins has won his first proper victory, after he inherited COTA victory from the fallen Márquez. And Quartararo undoubtedly has race-winning speed at tracks that suit inline-fours like the Suzuki and Yamaha’s YZR-M1. But it remains to see what effect Quartararo’s first major blunder will have on his psyche at the next few races.