MotoGP Blog from #141: 93 or 46?

So that was title number five. Or number three, depending on how you are counting (it is a sensitive subject, most commonly in the context of nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi). Marc Márquez headed to the flyaways expecting to return as champion, but he didn’t expect to clinch it at Motegi. The way he ended up with the title was illustrative of the 2016 season. Márquez explored the limits in practice, falling off as he always does, then rode just inside the limit all the way to the finish line. He took the lead early, and both Movistar Yamaha riders crashed out, Valentino Rossi losing the front trying on lap 7 to chase down Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo washing out the front on lap 20 trying to defend his second place from a rapidly approaching Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales.

Marc Márquez won the race and the championship thanks to a mature approach, picking the battles he could win, and limiting his losses in the battles he couldn’t. Valentino Rossi lost by wanting it too much, pushing too hard at Austin, Assen and Motegi, and crashing out. Jorge Lorenzo lost by failing to get his head around the Michelin tyres until it was too late, especially in the wet. Marc Márquez – thanks, above all, to the painful lessons of 2015, when he threw his shot at the title away by crashing while trying to claim unwinnable Grands Prix – proved to be a complete racer. He never lost sight of the real objective: winning a championship. Taking races is sweet, but winning titles is sweeter.

Marc Márquez is not yet 24 years old, and he already has three MotoGP titles under his belt. Now in his fourth season in the premier class, he has won 29 races, an average of just over seven a season. His win rate in the 69 GPs he has started so far is 42%. He has finished on the podium in 50 of those 69 races, a podium rate of 72%. His average points score is 17.5 per race, 1.5 points more than if he finished third in every single race he has started. He has become champion in three of his first four seasons. He is the youngest rider to earn three premier class titles, and the youngest to win five Grand Prix titles. It is truly an astounding record.

Such precociousness begs comparisons with another young rider who came out and blew the field away when he first moved up to the premier class. In Valentino Rossi’s first four seasons, he rode 64 races (the season was 16 races long between 2000 and 2003), of which he won 33, an average of a smidgeon over eight races a year. The Italian was on the podium for 54 of those 64 races, or 84% of the time. And Rossi’s points average was 19.5 points per race, the equivalent of finishing second in almost every race he competed in.

Such comparisons are precarious, of course. Rossi and Márquez started their careers in two very different eras. Rossi’s first two seasons were aboard a 500cc two-stroke, and though the 500s had been greatly tamed by the time he climbed aboard them, they were still vicious beasts capable of highsiding athletes into the asteroid belt. He crashed out of the first two races before getting the hang of the NSR500, climbed the podium for the first time in the fourth race at Jerez, then winning his first 500cc Grand Prix at Donington, the ninth race of the season. He then went on to be just about unbeatable, especially once the series switched to four strokes in 2002.

Marc Márquez came into MotoGP in the middle of the four stroke era, and mounted – what was at that time – the best bike on the grid, bequeathed to him by the retiring Casey Stoner. He finished on the podium in the first race, ending up third behind the two factory Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, after a spectacular battle with Rossi. He triumphed next time out, taking his first MotoGP victory in just his second race. He went on to win six races that season, scooping the MotoGP title in his first year, then dominated his second season, before struggling in the third.

Comparisons may be difficult between two very different eras, but there is one factor that speaks in favour of the Spaniard. When Valentino Rossi came into the premier class he faced Max Biaggi, Alex Crivillé, Alex Barros, Kenny Roberts Jr, Carlos Checa and Loris Capirossi. Only Roberts and Crivillé had won titles, and only Biaggi is anywhere near the top of the all-time winners list, in twelfth position with 42 Grand Prix wins. When Márquez entered MotoGP, he faced Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. At the time, Rossi had seven world titles, led the premier class winners list with 79 victories, and sat at 105 victories in all three classes. Lorenzo had two MotoGP titles and 44 Grand Prix wins, and Pedrosa had 45 Grand Prix victories. In the all time winners list, Rossi was second, Pedrosa seventh, Lorenzo tenth. There is no question that when Marc Márquez graced MotoGP, he faced the toughest field of all time. Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Márquez are all destined to go down in history as all-time greats. To enter MotoGP in 2013 and win is a sign of astonishing talent.

Is Marc Márquez better than Valentino Rossi? I am not sure that is a question with an easy answer. Rossi’s achievements are so unique, and extend so far beyond the track and beyond the sport of motorcycle racing that they will not be rivalled for a generation or more. But in terms of raw talent, it is hard not to give Márquez the edge. I always believed that Casey Stoner was the most talented rider I ever saw race a motorcycle, but then along came Marc Márquez. What’s more, Márquez combines the mental strength of Valentino Rossi with a talent superior to Stoner’s.

Will Márquez go on to break Rossi’s records? If he keeps racing for long enough, there is a very good chance he will. But the one distinguishing characteristic of Valentino Rossi is his unflagging ambition and his will to race. That Rossi is as good as he is at the age of 37 is truly remarkable, the Italian having had to change his style so many times during his career to face down young challengers. He is signed to race for two more seasons, and looks set to continue beyond that. Whether Márquez has Rossi’s staying power is still to be seen. So if you ask me the question of whether Marc Márquez is better than Valentino Rossi, my reply would have to be, I will tell you in 20 years’ time.

Photo by Automotophoto