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By Matthew Birt

Marquez: the benchmark

MotoGP™ commentator Matthew Birt gears up for Phillip Island and talks title number five for the number 93

With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.

After Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow’s victories, Ducati’s first win since 2010 and Suzuki’s first success since 2007, I thought the shocks and surprises had ceased in this year’s MotoGP World Championship. Yet Sunday’s Twin Ring Motegi showdown in Japan produced another fantastically unpredictable MotoGP showdown, as Marc Marquez was crowned World Champion for the third time in four years. Show me anybody in the world that thought the 2016 title would be done and dusted in Japan and I’ll show you a photo of me having dinner with Elvis Presley.

Marquez himself repeatedly said his prospects of winning the title in front of Honda’s top brass was impossible. It seemed appropriate wording when you took into account that he needed to win for the first time ever in the premier class in Honda’s backyard and then rely on Valentino Rossi finishing no higher than 15th and Jorge Lorenzo to finish no higher than fourth. There seemed more chance of me winning a Golden Boot in the football World Cup than witnessing the incredible scenario that unfolded, with Rossi and Lorenzo’s slim title hopes disappearing in a cloud of dust.

Both Yamaha men crashed out to leave the Japanese factory red-faced and pointless in a MotoGP™ race for the first time since the Phillip Island clash way back in 2011 when both Lorenzo and Ben Spies failed to make the grid through injury. It did only bring forward the inevitable but it was still a major shock to see Rossi and Lorenzo on the floor.

And so as we head to the breathtaking Phillip Island track, we do so with Marquez the World Champion with three races to spare.

Anybody that says Marquez is not deserving of a fifth World Championship crown has either just landed from Jupiter or doesn’t appreciate the genius talent he is blessed with. His transformation from consistent crasher in 2015 to the epitome of consistency this season has been the fundamental cornerstone of his success. Prior to 2016, the 23-year-old was often referred to as Manic Marquez or Merciless Marquez for his wild, uncompromising and aggressive riding style. He thrived on a reputation of being MotoGP’s ultimate risk-taker. Who’d have thought we’d be using words like mature and measured to describe how Marquez went about dismantling the opposition this season, which showed he has more than just all-out attack as his default setting.

Marquez taught himself to silence the voices in his head telling him to push like crazy when he didn’t have race-winning pace in races like Jerez, Catalunya, Assen and Misano. Before his dominance in Motorland Aragon at the end of last month, Marquez had won just once in 10 races, as he resisted the burning temptation to take unnecessary risks and repeatedly throw his Honda RC213V machinery to the scenery like last year. He knew points made prizes and that raw speed and talent were not the only ingredients needed to win a World Championship.

Crashing had been his calling card in 2015, but in 2016 it was consistency.

Marquez has still had more than his fair share of heart-stopping moments. Who can forget his lightning reflexes to save a front tyre locking in Assen and then defying gravity by saving a front-end slide on his elbow, shoulder and backside in Brno? He was at it again in practice in Japan last weekend by saving another big front-end slide on his elbow. If I had a pound for each time he has done that since he moved to MotoGP™ in 2013 then I’d be currently checking out real estate in Malibu Beach.

Marquez has become no less essential and captivating viewing in 2016. He’s just mastered the art of keeping his Honda upright when flirting right on the limit. The stats provide incontestable evidence about how successful the big shift in Marc’s strategy worked in 2016.

Marquez is the only rider in the three classes to have scored points in all 15 races and the only blemish on his record was a crash in tandem with Andrea Dovizioso in Le Mans. Even then he was still able to clamber back on board his badly damaged Honda RC213V to finish 13th.

Losing so convincingly last season hurt Marquez hard. The fact that his hammering was the result of mostly self-inflicted wounds hurt even more.  It forced him to do plenty of soul-searching throughout the off-season, and I don’t think it can be underestimated just how difficult it must have been for Marquez to implement his new tactics this year. It is one thing to say to all of us in the media that he will attack the World Championship with a calmer approach. But when you are trying to do something that directly conflicts with your natural instinct it takes incredible fortitude to stick to the task.

The temptation to slide back to his trademark style must have been ever greater when he was trying to win back the world title on what was clearly not the best package. It sounds strange to say it when he’s wrapped up the title with three races still remaining, but this has without doubt been the most difficult title Marquez has captured in the premier class.

In the opening salvo of 2016 in winter testing in Sepang, Marquez and Honda were destroyed by Rossi and Lorenzo. Marquez might have finished third on the timesheets but he was obliterated by over 1.3s by Lorenzo. That was the equivalent of Barcelona being 5-0 down at half-time in a Champions League final. Honda had only had moderate success in attempting to move away from its long history of having a monstrously powerful motor but one a bike that can be harder to ride than a Penny Farthing in quicksand. They lagged behind in adapting to the new controlled electronics too but Marquez kept his cool and his patience. It really was a case of more haste, less speed for the Spaniard.

He did precisely what he needed to do. Attack like a demon when he could like in Texas and Aragon and when he couldn’t make sure he saw the chequered flag. I’ve said before that I’m sure a big goal for Marquez now is to complete a full season with a 100% finishing record. That would be the icing on the cake to a season in which he has shown a maturity that some felt would permanently evade him.

Now he has won the title  the shackles are well and truly cut free in Phillip Island this weekend.

It will be like unleashing a caged lion because now Marquez is not riding with the World Championship at the forefront of his mind. I don’t need to remind anybody about what happened at Phillip Island last season, so it must feel extra sweet for Marquez to pitch up in Australia as the newly crowned World Champion. And what about a return to the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia in just a few days time? How fired up do you think he will be to win in Sepang?

I wouldn’t be surprised to at all if he wins on Sunday to take a third straight victory for the first time since he golden run at the beginning of 2014 when he steamrollered to 10 successive wins. If the measured Marquez goes nowhere in 2017 then it is going to be a tough challenge for the likes of Rossi, Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales to wrestle the title from his grasp.

Maybe it will be a repeat of 2015 and the biggest enemy to Marquez will be the man himself.

Whatever happens, it is going to be fascinating to see how it all pans out. Right now though, let’s all hail a richly deserved World Championship for Marquez.

Not for the first time and certainly not the last time, Marc is the benchmark.