MotoGP Mutterings: Honda's walking woundedby Mat Oxley on 9th February 2019
World champion Marc Márquez and his new team-mate Jorge Lorenzo are fighting to be fit for the new season, as are two other HRC members...
There are always plenty of walking wounded in the MotoGP paddock – it’s the downside of the game – but rarely have there been so many riders recovering from serious injury at the first preseason test or even entirely absent.
At Sepang, Marc Márquez was nursing his still-healing left shoulder; Cal Crutchlow had an ankle full of steel; Tito Rabat was hobbling around with a battered femur; and Jorge Lorenzo was at home working on a recently broken wrist.
Not surprisingly, the main focus was on the reigning world champion, who admitted that he will not be fully fit for the season-opening Qatar GP on March 10.
Marquez’s shoulder was in a much worse state than expected when surgeons operated last December. As soon as he was knocked out for the operation, the shoulder popped out of the shoulder simply because he was no longer using his muscles to keep the humerus bone located. And the operation took four hours, not the planned 90 minutes, due to the seriousness of tendon damage.
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The 26-year-old had physio Carlos Garcia with him at Sepang and all three days of his testing programme were arranged according to the state of the shoulder. He rode short days, taking care not to overstress and therefore inflame the joint, which might delay his five-hours-a-day rehab regime.
“The important thing is to listen to my body and to stop when my body says stop,” said the 26-year-old, aiming to win a sixth MotoGP title in seven years. “The shoulder is worse than I expected but better than the doctors expected!
“The big difference for me here is that I cannot use my usual riding style because of the shoulder, because if I ride normally my energy immediately drops and I have less power and more pain, so I have to ride more smoothly, which is strange because that’s not my instinct or my style.
“For this reason we didn’t try all the items we needed to try, because it’s easy to lose your way if I can’t ride like a I want. So we keep changing the plan to try big things, rather than working on the small details, because to do that I need to ride like I want to ride.”
Márquez evaluated different chassis at Sepang, but with no definite benefit. He also tested a radical aero set and a bike fitted with what looked like a smaller version of Ducati’s salad box. Perhaps a bento box? He spent the testing running carbon-fibre swingarms, which he used in all seven of his 2018 race wins, but test rider Stefan Bradl (subbing for the injured Lorenzo) spent most of his time running alloy swingarms. Does this mean that Lorenzo might prefer an alloy swingarm?
As usual Márquez’s prime preseason focus was the engine, because each rider’s season allocation of seven engines is sealed before the first race, but the team can continue to work on all other aspects of bike development throughout the season.
“My target is to arrive in Argentina for the second race at 100 per cent. I don’t think I will be at 100 per cent for the first race but I hope and believe that Qatar won’t be a big problem. The most important thing is to follow my body.
“For sure it will be a very competitive season: both Yamahas will be there, [Andrea] Dovizioso will be there and Suzuki has a good rhythm now. I expect the same riders at the front – the names at the top are always the same.”
Márquez’s fitness worries may just give his rivals a headstart in the 2019 title race, but Dovizioso isn’t so sure. “Maybe we will have an advantage at the start,” says the Italian. “But I think everyone knows Marc – he is an animal! He is very strong and I don’t think he will have any limits.”
Photo: Mat Oxley
Márquez’s fellow Spaniard Tito Rabat, whose career was jeopardised by that horrific high-speed crash at Silverstone, was limping heavily at Sepang and seemed happier on a bike than on foot. His speed on his Avintia GP18 – just over five months since he had his right femur broken into four pieces – was astonishing.
“I feel tired but the leg is a lot better than I thought, so I can ride and I can go fast,” he said. “I think I can be 100 per cent for Qatar – the recuperation was very slow at the start but now it gets faster.”
Meanwhile back in Europe, Lorenzo continues rehabilitation on the left scaphoid he broke while dirt-track training in Italy last month. The break of this tiny and troublesome bone was immediately screwed, but Lorenzo knew he might only make things worse by riding at Sepang. Remember his trip to last October’s Malaysian GP, when the same wrist was healing from his Thai GP accident and he managed just a few laps before heading home?
“I’m happy with my recovery,” said Lorenzo from home. “The wrist gets stronger every day. Maybe I won’t be 100 per cent fit to test in Qatar [the final preseason outing on February 23/24/25] but I think I will be quite able to ride. I will be stronger for the first race but it’s difficult to know now just how strong.”
HRC isn’t having a great time with injuries at the moment. Márquez, Lorenzo and Crutchlow are all hurting.
And so is Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig, who broke an arm in a motocross tumble last week and was unable to attend the Sepang tests.
Crutchlow: 111 days off bikes, 0.5sec off the top
Photo: Mat Oxley
At Sepang on Wednesday morning Cal Crutchlow rode a motorcycle for the first time since he lost the front riding at 150mph during practice for October’s Australian GP.
That’s 111 days off motorcycles and yet he ended the three days sixth fastest and just 0.541sec off the top.
“Just letting out the clutch again felt strange,” he said at the end of the first day.
What was less expected was that the Briton’s horrific right ankle injury caused him few problems while riding his Honda RC213V in debilitating 30deg C heat. The ankle was badly smashed in the accident, with the talus bone alone broken in 17 places. The injury required several operations and a fixator apparatus.
The ankle is now held together with a large steel plate and screws, which will most likely stay in for life. The worst pain for Crutchlow is caused by the lower section of the plate, which pushes against his skin by the ankle bone. He has also had problems with nerve and tendon damage, which forced him to lay off rehab during December, and with some of the holes left by the fixator.
Leading up to the tests there were fears that the injury might hamper his ability to ride a MotoGP bike; so much so that his LCR team fitted a thumb-operated rear brake in case the ankle didn’t move enough to use a conventional foot brake.
“It’s a lot better than I expected,” said Crutchlow, wearing a right boot two sizes larger than is usual side. “The first few laps were horrendous because the boot I’d ordered was too big – my own fault – so I struggled to get to the rear brake and my control of the foot on the brake isn’t fantastic at the moment. I’ve been learning to ride again, simple as that, and it felt really good to ride again. I can be competitive this season.”
Crutchlow started the tests on a 2018 RC213V, then had two 2019 bikes to work on with his crew.
“I’m impressed with the new bike, it’s definitely stronger in some areas. Most of all, I’m really happy with the ankle. When I get out of bed in the morning I can’t walk for 20 minutes, then it’s fine, although I’ve still not got 100 per cent movement.
“The good thing is that I can use my foot on the brake, so I’m not forced to use a thumb brake, because they are really difficult to get used to. The worst thing is that since I started testing I’ve got a trapped nerve in my neck, which is killing me.”
On the last day of tests Crutchlow tried a radical HRC aero set – that looked straight out of Star Wars – which (like all aero) had “its strengths and weaknesses.”
[Painful looking Crutchlow injury graphic in gallery below – ed.]