A Slip of the Mask

For most competitors, leading a race for the first time in 302 days since sustaining a career threatening injury would be reason for some level of cheer. But the past twelve years have taught us Marc Marquez doesn’t fall into that ‘majority’ category.

For three laps, the French Grand Prix was set up to be remembered for the 28-year old’s glorious return to the top. In wet conditions, he was as fast as anyone, topping his first session since his comeback on Saturday morning. And when the rain arrived five minutes into Sunday’s encounter, you could only really imagine one outcome.

FIM World Championship Grand Prix, Round 05, 13.-16. May 2021, MotoGP, Le Mans, France, Marc Marquez, Honda Repsol Team

Except there would be no dream ending here. Marc’s two crashes in a little over 17 minutes had him holding his head in his hands when he returned to the Repsol box, a brief slip of the mask on how he is really measuring 2021. Any talk of reclaiming the crown he lost last year to Joan Mir has quickly been swerved anytime it has come up. “This week I feel better than last week. This (recovery) is the main target,” he said back in March.

Don’t let his words fool you; Marc’s eye has always been on reclaiming the title. Of course, it has. An athlete this ferocious would never think any other way. Another giveaway came on Saturday, when asked for his opinion on the cancellation of the Finnish GP in July. “Finland was before the summer break so I will have more weeks to be prepared and try to arrive in Austria in good condition.”

It’s not as though another rider has put their stamp over this campaign, although Fabio Quartararo has come close. But considering Joan Mir scored a points average of 12 per race (four down on the champion’s number in 2017, five less on 2018 and 10 under than 2019). This was a golden opportunity to claw back points when several key names in the group of those who can be considered for the title – Mir, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins among them – faltered.

FIM World Championship Grand Prix, Round 05, 13.-16. May 2021, MotoGP, Le Mans, France, Marc Marquez, Honda Repsol Team

Le Mans was another timely reminder that his task in 2021 is greater than first imagined. From 2014 to ’17 the eight-time champ was untouchable in similar conditions encountered five minutes after the MotoGP race got underway on Sunday, triumphing in six out of the seven previous contests that required a bike swap. His fast reactions and ability to bring Bridgestone and then Michelin’s super-stiff tyres quickly up to temperatures on cold, damp asphalt have long been the magic formula – and were in evidence again here, as he emerged from the bike swap in front.

Yet there was a ring-rustiness to his in-race management. Marquez failed to heed the warnings of morning warm-up, when the rear of the ’21 Honda RC213V can come round for both himself and Pol Espargaro at turn three. “Today I felt the opportunity, I tried to be there but maybe I pushed too much and I was too fast,” he reflected of his crash out of the lead at the final corner. His second was more infuriating. “I was more thinking about other things, about the position on the bike, I was just riding and I didn’t think about the track conditions,” he said.

All completely understandable. Marc’s revelation that he had just signaled to his crew he was pitting at the end of lap 18, when he eventually crashed out, for dry tyres suggested his head is very much thinking at racing speeds, while his body lags some way behind. It would have been fascinating to have viewed his progress in those final nine laps while he chased down those ahead, managed their wilting wets on a mostly dry track, on slicks.

He had secretly been hoping the rain would arrive in time for the race. As the weekend’s dry running had demonstrated how a lack of upper-body strength was affecting him. “When I speak about muscles, I mean all the arm is close to 80%,” he said. “But some are 50%. It depends on the movement. I’m struggling more, especially the back of the shoulder. If you remember, two winters ago I had an operation on the right shoulder. That injury still is not 100% recovered because there was some damage to a nerve in the shoulder.”

That means Marquez is still struggling in long right corners, “like corner 1, corner 5, corner 8 … But then in the left corners I’m feeling really good, normal.” Yet, as he noted, that creates its own problems: “It’s where I want to gain time and I push too much. If you check, two times in Jerez, one time here, I crashed in a left corner, because it’s where I feel the most confident and I try to take all the lap time there.”

The Catalan had a check-up after the Spanish Grand Prix, and doctors gave him the OK to increase weight training. But that only put into perspective what he’s still lacking in physical terms. “There I feel like still it’s a big difference between the left and right arm and we are far from a good level.”

FIM World Championship Grand Prix, Round 05, 13.-16. May 2021, MotoGP, Le Mans, France, Marc Marquez, Honda Repsol Team

Aside from that, there is still much to come from Honda’s 2021 machine. Marquez called his first races of the season “my preseason” after he missed all of testing. On Friday at Le Mans he reverted to his 2020 setting – earlier model rear shock, previous chassis – according to pit lane reporter Simon Crafar’s eye, meaning he is still conducting major changes during a race weekend (he missed the Monday test at Jerez because of injury). As Espargaro detailed, Honda’s current weakness has been present since round one. “It’s a problem that we are having since we started the year in dry conditions, pure grip on the edge (of the tyre). Like in Qatar in the fast areas, compared to the Ducatis.”

I have been guilty of bigging up Marc’s capabilities over the past month and a half. To still manage seventh and eleventh finishes in the past two races was remarkable. But if we’re talking title chances, there is still much to overcome. What he needs is an anti-clockwise track – complete with a series of left corners – to ease the physical burden. July’s German GP at the Sachsenring, in other words, can’t come soon enough. And with Mugello and Barcelona coming up on successive weekends – “I will struggle a lot there” – it’s hard to see it getting any easier before July.

By then, Quartararo and co may just be too far ahead for even a man of Marquez’s talents to reel in.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP/Polarity Photo @cormacgp @polarityphoto

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