Some might say relying on divine intervention in a sporting environment is a last resort. Not for the first time, Marc Marquez’s rivals were reduced to looking toward the heavens on Sunday afternoon and wishing a higher being would come to their assistance. And, for the third time in seven weeks, there was no answer from above.
Jack Miller was the latest to take the fight to the reigning world champion. But as Marquez rode away and into the distance from lap eight, the Australian was left clutching at straws. “A couple of times when he went wide at turn eight, you’re sort of praying that something happens,” he said, “because you know there’s nothing you’ve got that you can take to him.”
The plucky Australian wasn’t the only one who came up short. Andrea Dovizioso’s solemn expression in the press conference and insistence that “we have to find something“ to combat Marquez’s genius was further evidence that, in this shape, the reigning world champion is approaching untouchable. “If we improve we have a chance to fight,” said Dovizioso, before countering: “If you don’t have a chance, you just pray others make a mistake.”
So what? You may ask. Marquez winning and doing so all without breaking sweat is nothing new. The seven-time champ’s haul of 95 points from a possible 125 is the same total he managed five races into a brilliant 2018.
But there has been something different about the world champion’s approach this time around. Only Miller could disrupt this latest effort at a lights-to-flag exercise in dominance. The former Moto3 runner up’s ballsy move at turn three gave him the lead for laps five and six. Other than that, Marquez has led every lap he has completed since the lights went out in Argentina.
Looking at the five outings to date, the reigning champ has fronted 84 of the 119 laps – or 70 percent of the races. Of those he has won, 75 of the 77 laps saw the #93 cross the line in first with the chasing back hanging on with decreasing degrees of success. 75 from 77 equates to 97 percent, a number more associated with Mick Doohan in his pomp than Marquez, a rider with a wicked taste for the rough and tumble of the fight.
Compare these digits to previous years and there is a clear shift. Last year he led only 29 percent of the 431 laps completed across 18 races. Take the nine races he won, and 100 of the 221 laps (45 percent) were dictated from the front. Even if we are to revisit 2014, a season that left him feeling “invincible”, he ‘only’ led 47 percent of the year’s 448 laps. During the record breaking 14 races he won, he was the race leader in just over half of the laps (184 out of 324, or 56 percent), some way down on 75 from 77.
Champions operating at the height of the their powers always need to find fresh motivation, and new ways of winning. It’s that variation, and ability to control, that sets a relentless performer like Doohan apart from even the very best. Bored by the ease with which he won in 1995, he trained with less intensity and welcomed closer competition in ‘96. Then he stepped it up a year later, neglecting the NSR500’s ‘big-bang’ configuration for the wilder ‘screamer’ that his closest rivals couldn’t handle. “I just needed something to mess with their minds,” he told me last year.
On Friday Marquez said his new tactics were right out of Doohan’s veritable box of tricks, aimed at scrambling the preparation of Dovizioso, Rins and the rest. “Sometimes you need to find different strategies for the opponents,” he offered. “If not, everybody expects the same. When somebody is doing something new and in some races starts pushing from the beginning then in another race starts saving the tyre you don’t know if he’s straining or pushing … they won’t know what you’ll do.”
This element of gamesmanship hasn’t been restricted to racing. Take Friday at Jerez, for example. In FP1 Marquez spent the full session on Michelin’s hard rear tyre, while the majority of others adjusted settings to suit the medium or soft. In the afternoon he then spent the majority of FP2 on the soft rear. Logic stated he was paddling up a creek in the wrong direction. But still he was fast, with the added bonus of making clear that whatever his tyre choice he’d be there on Sunday, fighting front and centre.
Not that all of this is psychological, however. Sunday’s success – Honda’s 300th in the premier class, and Marquez’s 47th, tying him level with team-mate Jorge Lorenzo for fourth on the all-time list – was further proof of the reigning champ’s remarkable adaptability. Honda’s attempts at building a machine less critical in heavy-braking zones for 2019 have required a shift in approach at his end.
With a punchier, more powerful engine at his disposal, Repsol Honda’s leading man can, he said, “find the lap time in a different way than last year.” This therefore permits Marquez “to use different tyres and different riding styles.” In racing trim, the #93 is now less do-or-die in the braking zone, even if Friday morning’s miraculous free practice save suggested otherwise. None of this passed Miller by: “Nothing really overly impressed me in braking,” he said of Marquez’s riding just up ahead. “I could catch him in most of my braking zones.”
Speaking after the triumph, Marquez explained, “Now I just take the risk in the corners, not in the braking point. That’s where it’s more dangerous. When you have more engine then I understand the way Dovi and Jorge rode last year.”
Marquez was referring to the second half of 2018, when Ducati’s factory men had a clear advantage in top speed and acceleration. But now corner speed and acceleration is his forte. Just look at how he gained 0.1-0.2s in sector four per lap. “I felt stronger there because was no brake points,” he said. “I just take the risk in the corners.” Tracks like Brno and the Red Bull Ring that were kind to Dovizioso in the past no longer appear a Ducati shoo-in.
Sunday was only the second time Marquez used Michelin’s softest available front to win (Austin 2016 was the other). In part this was due to the cool conditions and low track temperature of 19 degrees. But it also shows he and the ’19 RC213V now stress the front tyre less (contrast that to Taka Nakagami, the only rider on the ’18 Honda, and the only rider running a harder front). Softer compounds, which help the bike turn better, can now be used.
But this requires a degree of caution. Using the soft front means he is at risk of overheating the rubber, a constant trait of the RC213V in recent years. “If you follow another rider you overheat,” Marquez said, referencing the lack of fresh, cool air that comes when tucked in a slipstream. “With the soft [front] I knew that behind somebody it would be difficult for me, so for that reason I just was pushing for try to find the fresh air.” Little wonder he responded to Miller’s challenge within two laps. In this instance, his new approach was born out of necessity.
With all forms of greatness, the near impossible is made to look effortless. Marquez has essentially had one preseason test when nearing competitive fitness to experiment and put this style into effect before going straight into the business of racing. Cal Crutchlow, by comparison, has yet to come to terms with the ‘19 bike’s changed characteristics. The Englishman was a regular podium contender last year, but in recent weeks has been unable to find any kind of comfort in corner entry. His results – eighth at Jerez, ninth at Le Mans – bear that out.
“I can see on the data how Marc does it, but nobody else can do it; it’s as simple as that,” said the Englishman of his fellow Honda rider’s technique. “Through the entry and the middle, the lean angle he puts into the bike and the way he controls it with the front and rear brakes is pretty special.”
Perhaps Marquez’s revelation on why he went for Miller’s jugular offers up hope. Put two or three Ducatis in front of him at Mugello and an immediate response may not be possible as he grapples to control that front tyre temperature. For the spectacle’s sake, someone needs to find an answer… and soon. Otherwise the seven-time champ will quickly be administering the last rites on his rivals’ championship hopes.
In this game the gods will not save you.
By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87
Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp