No Ordinary Comeback
As he climbed the top step of the podium at the final race of 2019 at Valencia, little was Marc Marquez to know that a global pandemic would rank fairly far down his list of worries over the coming 581 days. It has been a long, painful road back from the career threatening injury to his upper right arm sustained on 19th July last year, and there is still some way to go. But at his beloved Sachsenring, each and every trait that has earned him eight world championships was on display.
The 28-year-old was sensational around the German venue’s tight curves as he brilliantly seized the initiative midrace during the briefest of showers before resisting a spirited Miguel Oliveira fightback to claim a win that caps one of the sport’s great comebacks. In just the sixth race since his competitive return in April, Marquez held off his strongest opponent at arm’s length for a first triumph in 19 months. This must surely rank alongside the comeback feats of Barry Sheene and Mick Doohan from days gone by, and as one of the most important results in his career.
If that sounds like hyperbole, Marquez was happy to provide some context soon after. “In September, October, and November (last year) I was scared about more than not winning again,” he said of the time when the humerus bone was beset by infection after two unsuccessful surgeries. “Every time I felt less power and worse feeling. I was thinking about my arm, my life, not about racing.”
With those struggles in mind, this revival was never going to be straightforward. Deprived of a preseason and thrown into the action two races late, Marquez has been left to fight on two fronts: the first a frantic recovery of on-bike fitness as he sought to regain comfort in a revised riding position. The pain in his right arm then shoulder has been persistent. The second was to reverse the fortunes of Honda, undergoing its worst run since 1981, that had stagnated in his absence. In previous weeks the challenge appeared too great for even a man of Marquez’s talents.
Those can’t have been easy times of late, when he crashed out of consecutive races in France, Italy and Catalunya. Even if he tried to shrug it off, there were doubts as to whether he would ever recover his full strength. But a recent conversation with Doohan had played a key role in maintaining his spirits. The Australian had gone to hell and back himself when recovering from a botched operation on his right leg, badly broken at Assen in 1992, and offered up some perspective for the current Repsol Honda rider.
“I was listening (and) he was just speaking,” Marquez said of his chat with the Australian five-time champion. “He was explaining his situation, but it was like he was explaining my situation. He had exactly the same problems. (Like) You don’t understand the bike. You are not riding like you want, stupid mistakes, stupid crash, some races you will be fast, some practices you will be slow and you don’t know why. All the problems I’ve had this year is what he had in the past. So this conversation with Mick helped me a lot to keep pushing.”
There are interesting parallels to draw between Marquez’s recent plight, and those arduous months Doohan endured in the second half of 1992 and most of ‘93. Obviously, the Catalan has achieved a ridiculous haul of titles before this, while the fact the Australian hadn’t was one thing that drove him on. “The bone was infected. I probably would’ve given it up, albeit come back a few years later,” Doohan told me a few years back of his feeling at the close of that season, when he lost the title to Wayne Rainey at the final race by just four points.
“But because I didn’t win, it was really a godsend. It drove me to push myself to get back on the bike and get myself strong again. I had people like the Wayne Gardners telling Honda I’d never be the same rider I once was before. Back then in any top line sport you very rarely can take a year off and the door is left open for you. I knew I had to prove myself a little bit, keep going.”
While Kevin Schwantz and Rainey were riding at the top of their game, Doohan had to find new ways of riding to cope with his physical limitations at that time. “You could grab a hold of my ankle and my knee, and you could flex my leg because it was a non-unison, I was still riding with a broken leg. At that point in time I had a 20 degree angulation in my leg. It was just starting to fold over. I couldn’t actually steer the bike. I had a few crashes through the year because you steer a grand prix bike essentially with your feet, especially through fast and tight sections.” It was a grind at times, and there were days it didn’t go to plan. But by the fifth race of 1993 Doohan was back on the podium and a win at Mugello that July was confirmation he still had what it took.
Sound vaguely familiar? As he said on Sunday, Marquez has been enduring similar days when he’s struggled to rekindle the sorcery of before. We really do have to remind ourselves he was still taking antibiotics for the infection in his arm as recently as the Catalan Grand Prix. The bangs he took at Jerez in FP3, where he cricked his neck, and the race in France, were enough to cause even a full fit rider real discomfort. And the current incarnation of the RC213V was a similar one that underwent Honda’s first winless season since 1981. Even Marquez, a loyal member of Honda’s set-up, was highly critical of the bike’s shortcomings in Barcelona, where he opted to risk-it-all trying, over finishing in a steady twelfth.
He’s clearly not out of the woods yet. The Sachsenring was always going to offer up some respite. Aside from the fact he has won each of the previous ten races he entered here, the track’s anti-clockwise layout – nine left turns outdo the three rights – wouldn’t highlight the lack of strength in his right arm as previous courses. Assen, with its quick, long corners and high-speed changes of direction could well bring Marquez and HRC back down to earth.
But a win of this kind will provide such a boost. For one, his rivals have definitive proof that if the circumstances are right, as they were on Sunday, his determination and race-craft are as fine-tuned as they always were. As Jack Miller said, “He comes back here with one arm and still smokes us.” Then there is the positivity it generates within Marquez and his team. He put it nicely on Sunday, saying, “The fuel tank was in the limit and here in Sachsenring we found a petrol station … This victory will be important for all our team.”
Rekindling a title charge considering all of Honda’s current limitations may just be out of reach this year. Yet on this evidence only a fool would count Marquez out of having a major role to play in the ten races that remain. This was no ordinary feat.
By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87
Photos by HRC/CormacGP