“You release the brakes and believe”


Dovizioso and Márquez could hardly see where they were going at Motegi, yet their duel was reminiscent of one of the greatest of all time

It’s been a generation since I have been so overawed about a motorcycle race: since Sunday May 26, 1991, to be precise. That’s the last time I recall witnessing such a heart-in-the-mouth finish to a premier-class Grand Prix that held a world championship in its hands: big speed, big risk, big heartbeat.

Of course, there have been numerous classic encounters over the years. We could argue about them forever.

But there was something different about Sunday’s race, something that reminded me of Hockenheim 1991, when Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey were fighting for the 500cc world title at one of the fastest, scariest circuits of them all. Motegi isn’t particularly fast or frightening, but it’s terrifying in a torrential downpour, when riders can hardly see where they’re going, blinded by spray from the rain and by steam from the engine. Unless you’ve been there, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine what it’s like to be hauling along at 185 miles an hour, peering through the murk for your braking marker, then slithering the front tyre all the way into the corner.

Anyway, let’s go back quarter of a century to the summer of 1991 and a forest near Heidelberg, where the Germans had opened a new racetrack in 1932, just a few months before Adolf Hitler took power.

In May 1991 the main men in 500 GPs were Schwantz on his Lucky Strike RGV500, Rainey on his Marlboro Team Roberts YZR500 and Mick Doohan on his Rothmans Honda NSR500. During that Hockenheim race Doohan’s rear tyre chunked, so he left Rainey and Schwantz to duel it out.

On the final lap, racing through the forest in top gear, their 500s yowling like a thousand angry chainsaws, Rainey was ahead by a few yards, Schwantz tying his RGV in knots trying to stay with him, a bit like Márquez on the last lap at Motegi, losing the rear of his RC213V so badly that he was half off the bike. This, in fact, was the moment that decided Sunday’s race.

With half a lap to go at Hockenheim Schwantz somehow found himself back in the lead, which is just where he didn’t want to be, because Hockenheim was a huge racetrack, with straights like autobahns, where the key to success was using the vacuum created by the bike in front to magic a few extra miles an hour from your own motorcycle.

Exiting the chicane that took them onto the final straight before the stadium section and the chequered flag, Schwantz moved to the right of the track, Rainey ducking out of the RGV’s slipstream and passing him on the far right. Usually at this point Rainey would be on the far left of the circuit, lining up for the right-hander into the stadium; the last realistic overtaking opportunity. But this time he was on the wrong side of the track, which messed up his perception of where he was, because he wasn’t where he had been on every lap of practice, so his mental picture of his braking markers was all wrong.

Schwantz was now in Rainey’s draft, just inches off the YZR’s rear wheel at 180 mph. What happened next was possibly the greatest overtake in Grand Prix history. But this wasn’t so much Schwantz’s genius at work – “see God, then brake” – this move was in fact unplanned.

“When Wayne comes past me I get a really good draft off him and I’m thinking, it’s not over yet! All I can see is the Marlboro on the back of his seat and then it’s like it comes right back at me, because he gets on the brakes earlier than he intended. So I’m thinking, f**k! What did you do that for?

“What happened is he’s a bit lost, because we’re on the opposite side of the track to usual, so the brake markers and reference points are all different. My first intention is to not hit him. I have to take evasive action and then I start getting the bike stopped. I’m getting out of shape but that’s helping me slow down.

“I’m up the inside and if you watch the video you’ll see me look back. Reason I look back is because I’ve gone back to first gear for a second-gear corner; I’m trying everything I can to stop. When I get back on the gas the engine goes dead and won’t run. I’m like, mother**ker! What’s wrong? I look down and the tacho is at 15,000, when the engine barely turned above 12,000. So I grab another gear and that’s when I look back to see how big is this shit fight going to be when we get to the Sachs Kurve, the final left-hander.”

Rainey found no room to counter attack at the Sachs Kurve, so he crossed the finish line 0.0176 seconds down. He was deeply unhappy about Schwantz’s pass, because the youngster was totally out of control, even though (for once) it wasn’t his fault.

“I was pissed off because Kevin just saw me braking and then he braked and ended up way deep in there. I was still trying to go around the outside of him, but his momentum carried us both to the edge of the track and I knew then it was done because there were no more chances to get back by him. He did a move where he was going to make it or we were both not going to make it. I could’ve leant on him really hard and the chances are we both would’ve gone down. If I had done that, Mick Doohan would’ve been champion that year.”

The Texan and his crew were in paroxysms of joy. There is no official record of what happened next, but you can be sure that one or two of Suzuki’s rent-a-cars didn’t make it back to the airport the next day. Meanwhile, Rainey was burning with anger and so was his team boss ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, who took losing just as badly. Back then, especially when those two Americans were involved, every defeat was the end of the world.

In 1991 Schwantz and Rainey hated each other – really despised each other – and this wasn’t a put-on thing for the cameras. Their loathing had festered in US superbikes and ripened in Europe.

Dovizioso and Márquez don’t hate each other, although Dovizioso does occasionally roll his eyes and grin when he describes some of Márquez’s riskier moves. Most of today’s riders have much better control over their emotions. They know it’s safer that way. Rainey still admits that the reason he ended up in a wheelchair was because he simply could not contemplate defeat. And the more world titles he won, the stronger that obsession became.

Dovizioso and Márquez hugged each other after Sunday’s race, and they meant it, mostly anyway. Most racers love a good fight and Motegi was a great fight.

What made this fight a once-in-a-generation confrontation was the horrendous weather. If we say the limit on a dry racetrack is one centimetre wide, it’s less than a millimetre wide in the rain, so it’s much, much easier for things to go badly wrong; which is why most riders on Sunday rode more slowly, or fell off, or both.

At the previous race at Arágon, the fastest laps of the top nine finishers were all within half a second of each other. At Motegi, even third-place finisher Danilo Petrucci’s best lap was more than half a second off the pace and the most of the top nine were a whole second a lap slower, which should tell you how far out there Dovizioso and Márquez were.



Márquez admitted he was locking the front tyre into most corners, then releasing the brake to save a crash, then just hoping he would make the corner. “You need to release the brakes and believe,” he said. And he did that 378 times over 47 minutes.

Dovizioso had an advantage on the brakes. The GP17’s radical aerodynamics don’t only increase downforce to reduce wheelies and improve acceleration, they also help during braking, because the aero angle changes as the bike pitches forward, further increasing downforce.

The Ducati also has excellent corner-exit grip, but like any advantage in racing, this comes at a price, because good traction puts extra load into the tyre, which can overheat the rubber and chew up the tread, which is why Dovizioso’s bike was getting horribly squirrely down the back straight.

Not only that, riders can’t slipstream in the pouring rain, because they would be 100 per cent blind, so Dovizioso stay to the right of Márquez’s draft, instead catching the Repsol Honda’s 180mph backwash, which also sent his GP17 shimmying into a mad dance as he shifted into fifth and sixth gears on the downhill rush towards turn 11, where he finally nailed Márquez on the final lap.

In other words, both riders were way more on the edge than they would’ve been in the dry, even more so than Schwantz and Rainey were at Hockenheim. But neither rider backed off for a nano-second, despite several others cartwheeling through the gravel traps during the 27 laps.

This was no big surprise for Márquez, because we know he lives for the risk and delights in dancing on the edge of the precipice. But Dovizioso? The Italian is not a risk-taker; never has been. And he’s copped a lot of criticism for this over the years, especially from fans who think it’s a racer’s duty to take risks for our entertainment.

“When people say things like this it means they don’t understand bike racing,” is Dovizioso’s no-nonsense response to those armchair racers. “Doing crazy things doesn’t mean you are a faster or better rider. For sure, the fans like to see riders doing something crazy, but to me this is not the key to winning. The key to winning is a lot of things. You must put everything together and you must understand how you can manage every situation. It’s about a lot of work in a lot of areas. It’s about having the right mentality. And I have confirmed that it is possible to win without doing crazy things.”

Indeed. Dovizioso achieved two of his last three victories the same way – without taking crazy risks but instead forcing Márquez into risky final-corner passes that ran the Spaniard wide, so Dovizioso could win the drag race to the finish line.

On the other hand, Dovizioso is in a place he’s never been before: in the thick of the fight for the MotoGP crown. The 31-year-old Italian is one of the most balanced human beings you will ever meet on a MotoGP grid. He is humble and sensible. He doesn’t believe in attempting the impossible or pressuring himself into doing things that might push him over the edge.

But at Motegi on Saturday evening, with four races to go and plenty of points required to get the better of Márquez, he said something I’d never heard him say before. “I need to win; I need to gain some points on Márquez.”

Which is exactly what he did. The difference between finishing first and second is five points, but Sunday’s result was more than that. If Márquez had beaten Dovizioso he would go into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix a comfy 21 points in front, so he could afford to finish second to Dovizioso at Phillip Island, Sepang and Valencia, and still win the title. Now his advantage is only 11 points.

Three races and 75 points remain. Who knows what will happen? Will fortune favour the brave or will it be more complicated than that?

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