Why Márquez rules MotoGP’s Triple M era

MotoGP

The master of riding by the seat of your pants: Marc Márquez's special advantage in MotoGP

Marc Márquez on the Honda bike

Márquez during preseason testing at Sepang last month

Honda

Since MotoGP’s Triple M Era began in March 2016, Marc Márquez has won all four world championships and 32 of the 73 races. This is not by chance.

The 27-year-old dominates for various reasons. Mostly because his talent (part nature, part nurture) is the strongest on the grid, so he gets the absolute maximum, and more, from his Honda RC213V.

Within this greater talent is a skill that gives Márquez a special advantage in the Michelin, Magneti Marelli era of spec tyres and spec electronics. This is his ability to adapt his riding technique to changing conditions, just as a chameleon adapts its colour to changing environments.

In the days of tailormade factory electronics and Bridgestone tyres, riders could rely on their bikes behaving as they expected at every racetrack and in all conditions.

That’s no longer the case. MotoGP’s spec electronics are relatively low tech and don’t self-adjust according to grip, bike balance and so on, so the rider must adjust himself.

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It’s the same story with the current spec tyres. They have a narrow sweet spot – dependent on the asphalt, track temperature and track conditions – so when the tyres are outside that sweet spot the rider must find his own grip.

As one anonymous engineer told me recently. “The tyres change every week, so it’s a gamble: sometimes you hit the jackpot, others you lose the shirt off your back.” What Márquez does on Sunday afternoons is give his engineers their shirts back, often with his elbows.

Márquez has highlighted his chameleon ability on many occasions. The first time it really hit me was at Le Mans in 2013, during his rookie MotoGP season, before Michelin and Magneti Marelli arrived.

That Sunday, the 20-year-old rookie contested his first wet-weather MotoGP race. At that time, he had only ridden a MotoGP bike in the rain for a few laps during pre-season testing. Track temperature at Le Mans was half what it had been at Sepang and the track could hardly be more different, but after just eight laps Márquez was the fastest rider out there, quicker than all the MotoGP stars that had been riding MotoGP bikes and Bridgestone tyres for years. My jaw dropped.

This is riding by the seat of your pants – feeling what your bike and tyres need and instantly adapting to those needs. Wing it to win it!

Márquez isn’t the only rider in history to have enjoyed this ability, but his talent is stronger than anything we’ve seen before.

Marc Márquez alongside the 2020 Honda

Márquez and the 2020 RC213V

Honda

Casey Stoner was another. He won a championship on a motorcycle that no one else could master and explained why.

“You can’t have any pride, you can’t be proud in the slightest bit about what you think you can do – you have to find out how the bike needs to be ridden and ride the bike how it needs to be ridden,” he told me in 2012.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of riders who say, ‘ah, the bike needs to suit me, you need to develop the bike so I can ride it’. Well, how about you change yourself a little bit? It’s not too difficult to change some things within yourself to adapt.

“It’s just a mental attitude – you can’t be over-confident in yourself. You’ve got to succumb to that bike and understand that you’re not correct. It’s there, it can win races, but you’ve got to find out how it wants to be ridden.”

This isn’t a new concept. The late, great John Surtees – who won seven world titles between 1956 and 1960 – realised that the rider must listen to the motorcycle and do what it wants you to do.

“The relationship you create with a piece of machinery is something very special,” said Surtees. “In a way the machine talks to you, so the important thing is to understand what it’s telling you.”

Obviously riders and engineers work obsessively to develop and fine-tune their machinery, but when the lights go out on Sunday afternoon the rider must ride around any problems and imperfections if he wants to win the race.

That’s why Márquez often makes the difference when conditions are at their trickiest, usually at the beginning or end of races.

When the race starts, riders often find grip is different to how it was in practice, because the Moto2 race has made the track slippery or track temperature is different. While other riders take half a dozen laps to adjust to the conditions, Márquez instantly adapts his cornering lines, how he uses the throttle and so on.

It’s the same in the final laps, when the rider who feels happiest skating around on the brink is going to be hard to beat. Once again Márquez feels the tyres and adjusts his bike inputs to search for what grip is left in the tyres. Then he uses all of that and a little bit more, elbows always at the ready.

Few understand this better than fellow RC213V rider Cal Crutchlow. “Marc is so special he can ride around anything, so he rides around problems like they’re not there,” says the Briton.

Who else can do this?

Fabio Quartararo can. Some people say the 20-year-old Frenchman rides like Jorge Lorenzo. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. When there’s plenty of grip he glides through the corners, but when the grip goes he’s perfectly happy with the bike bouncing across the kerbs and kicking this way and that.

When will we see Quartararo and Márquez race again? No one knows. Each passing day of the coronavirus crisis makes racing in the near future seem less and less likely. Already it’s difficult to see MotoGP taking to the grid before the late summer or autumn. And perhaps that possibility will seem ludicrously optimistic in the coming days and weeks.

Then once the main wave of infection has passed, which circuits, promoters, sponsors, teams and airlines will be left standing?