Of the seven races he’s ridden since he returned after nine months out of the saddle, the one that showed Marc Marquez at his best was the French GP at Le Mans.
Not the German GP? Where he came first, adding a 21st year of total domination of the pocket-handkerchief Sachsenring? When he crashed out at Le Mans? Yes, it is perhaps a surprising choice. Zero points does not usually signify greatness. The important thing is how it happened.
It had been a cold and frequently rainy weekend. Now the rain returned shortly after the race had started on a dry track. This triggered the always-exciting flag-to-flag protocol, introduced in 2005 to put an end to race stoppages. Bikes are not configured for quick wheel changes, and 45-minute races too short to allow for pit stops. And slicks are lethal on a wet track. So instead of changing tyres, riders change bikes – their spares on rain tyres and suspension ready warmed-up, engines running in pit lane.
Marquez was still playing himself in. In July last year he broke his right humerus (upper arm bone), and recovery had been problematic, requiring three operations, the most recent an eight-hour marathon in December, after bone infection set in. Before the French race in mid-May he explained that while his arm muscles were now generally at 80 per cent strength, in some body positions he had only 50 per cent. The body positions required for right-hand corners.
Le Mans being a right-handed circuit, he wasn’t expecting much at this fifth round, only his third of the year, having sat out the first two. The eight-times World Champion had been an emotional seventh in his first return in Portugal, ninth a fortnight later at Jerez. Both also clockwise tracks. His expectations were pinned on the forthcoming German GP, round eight and a full month away.
The Sachsenring, you see, is a rare anti-clockwise track. Only three of its 13 tight corners are right-handers. Even without the injury, it’s Marquez country, replicating his life-long training on left-hand oval dirt tracks.
Four laps in at Le Mans, and it started to rain. Opportunity knocked. Marquez has long been the master of changing conditions, of speedy and tactically well-timed bike swaps, of getting up to speed while others are still feeling their way. More importantly, riding on a wet track requires much less physical effort. In the dry a MotoGP bike requires considerable muscle power. In the wet, smoothness and delicate control take the place of aggressive inputs.
Marc had started well and was fifth when the “wet-race” flags were shown. He was not quite the first into the pits for the bike change, but he was the first out, and in the lead – for the first time since July last year.
At the end of lap five, the orange Repsol Honda was less than two hundredths ahead of title favourite Fabio Quartararo’s factory Yamaha. Two laps later, he was 1.5 seconds clear and still stretching. The king was back!
And shortly afterwards, the king was down. Nothing dented he scrambled back on board, now 18th, with his dander up. Ten laps later, he was closing on a cautious Valentino Rossi in tenth when he slipped off again, this time unable to restart. But the point had been proved.
His body might still be below par. But his will and self-belief, his courage and opportunism – all still present and correct.
Does this mean Marquez will return to dominate as he has done, seldom interrupted, since he moved to the big class for a rookie title win in 2013? Before his crash at the opening round last year, he had finished 95 of 128 races on the podium, 56 times on the top step. The rest of the pack were all racing to beat Marquez. Things are a little different now, however, both technically and personally.
Honda’s RC213V V4 was already something of a brute, with pernickety handling making corner entry fraught. Marc was rider enough not only to manage it, but even to turn it to his advantage. Other Honda riders struggled, and often crashed.
Now the most successful factory in bike racing had been without his input for a full season, and the engineers had clearly lost their way. One of the first things Marc did on his return was to reject the latest 2021 bike for a 2019/2020 hybrid. He said he wanted something familiar while he worked his way back to speed. A euphemistic way of criticising the latest model.
Then there are the rivals. Marc is 28. Last year’s champion Joan Mir is 23, current points leader Quartararo 22. (The fading Rossi, by comparison, 42.) It’s not that Marc is too old, just that his challengers are that much younger.
Most importantly, while he’s been away they’ve had the place to themselves. They’ve acquired strength and confidence that come from winning races. Something that happened only seldom before Marc got hurt.
The king is back, yes. But the palace has changed in his absence.