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In Assen, at the end of June, I asked Marc Márquez if he believed it was possible to have a perfect season, to win every single MotoGP race that year. At the time, before the Dutch TT, he had won four of the previous seven races, and finished in second place twice. "For me, now, in the championship we have now, it’s impossible," he said. "Nothing is impossible, but it’s very, very difficult."
And it has become more difficult over time. In 2014, Márquez won the first 10 races in a row, but that was easier then, he believes. "In 2014, I would say it’s difficult. But now I will say it’s nearly impossible. Because the way that the championship is, everything is very equal, and to be very strong in all the races and to have the perfect bike is impossible. And now that everything is very equal, one manufacturer will be faster in this racetrack, another manufacturer in another racetrack. The most important thing is to find the compromise for all racetracks and try to be on the podium. Trying to be on the podium in all the races is possible. But win all the races? Hmmm, very difficult."
A year in numbers: the 2019 MotoGP™ season
The Sunday after telling me this, the MotoGP race bore out Márquez' point for him. The Repsol Honda rider got caught up in a battle between two Yamahas, the factory Monster Energy bike of Maverick Viñales, and the Petronas Yamaha SRT M1 of Fabio Quartararo. Márquez battled hard, but eventually, couldn't follow Viñales' lead. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider slipped away from him, and handed him his biggest deficit of the season, Viñales crossing the line 4.854 seconds ahead of Márquez.
He would not be beaten very often again. Márquez went on to win eight of the remaining eleven races, finishing second behind Andrea Dovizioso at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, second behind Alex Rins at Silverstone, and Viñales again in Sepang. It is worth noting here that Viñales won the race in Malaysia by over three seconds, and remained the only rider to beat Márquez by over a quarter of a second. The Repsol Honda rider's other defeats were by 0.023 at Qatar, 0.043 at Mugello, a whopping 0.213 in Austria, and 0.013 at Silverstone. He came within a few hundredths of making it sixteen races out of nineteen.
Márquez only slipped up once all year. At the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, the Repsol Honda rider was leading by nearly four seconds when he lost the front at Turn 12, the left hander at the end of the back straight. At the time, he shouldered the blame for the crash himself. "Of course it was a mistake, because you cannot crash leading by 3.5 seconds," he said.
A conversation with a World Champion: Marc Marquez
But he left some room for doubt. "We compared on the data, and it was very similar to my fastest lap and to the other laps. But of course it's a very long brake point, and it's difficult to understand sometimes. The mistake is basically, I crashed, but I didn't do anything stupid. This can happen. But it's a mistake because I was leading by 3.5 seconds already. Sometimes I say, I was riding over my limit, but I was inside my limit. I was riding in a very good pace, I was riding very smooth, trying to save the front tire."
The problem, it later transpired, was an issue with engine braking. Márquez had asked Honda for one thing at the end of 2018: more horsepower to at least stay with the Ducatis on the straights. If he had that, he could handle the rest. "We knew that we had the best rider in the world, and so we gave him the power," HRC Technical Director Takeo Yokoyama said after Márquez had clinched his sixth MotoGP title in Buriram. "Because power, in the middle of the straight, if you don't have the power, you can't do anything. He said many times, if he has a good engine, he doesn't need to push into the braking, push in the corner, and he can save the tire for when he needs it, and things like this."
In their pursuit for horsepower, Honda had run up against an intractable problem, however. More engine power made getting engine braking right a tricky proposition, the engine not wanting to decelerate smoothly. That meant that sometimes, the engine would still be pushing the bike forward as the rider braked and entered the corner. And that added a little more entry speed than the lean angle would allow, and down you would go.
That was what had happened to Marc Márquez in Austin. He was not on a particularly fast lap, he had a comfortable lead, and he was more or less on the same line as he had been on previous laps. But the engine brake reacted a little unpredictable, pushed the front a little more than Márquez expected, and before he knew it, he was on the floor. So even his one serious mistake in a race of 2019 was not entirely down to him. And at the test in Jerez, his team found a partial solution which allowed him to ride around the problem for the rest of the season.
One mistake all year, more the result of choices made during preseason testing, makes Marc Márquez' 2019 season as near to perfect as it is possible to get. The way Márquez won was impressive, but arguably, his second place finishes were more impressive, and more important, than the wins. Championships are won on the bad days, and mostly, Márquez' bad days entailed finishing a few hundredths behind the opposition.
Chapter 12: The Blind Side
Take Silverstone, for example. It was a track which the Repsol Honda rider had been concerned about coming into the last weekend in August. "Honestly speaking, on Thursday I had some doubts about this racetrack because last year we struggled a lot," Márquez said after qualifying on pole. "But since I went out on the first lap in FP1, I said, okay, this year we are there, with the new surface we are working much better with our bike."
It wasn't easy, however. For most of the weekend, it was the Yamahas which ruled the roost, Fabio Quartararo leading the way, while Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi were never far behind. The Suzuki of Alex Rins was also close, and Andrea Dovizioso seemed to get stronger over the weekend. Márquez' focus was on the title, on extending his lead over Dovizioso, the factory Ducati rider his only challenger in the championship at that point. "Our target is try to fight for the victory, but don’t be crazy," Márquez said. "We will try to manage in the best way for try to fight, but inside the limits, try to finish the race. The first target is to finish in front of Dovi."
That turned out to be easier than Márquez had feared, the Ducati rider unable to avoid the stricken Fabio Quartararo, who had made a mistake at Copse, the first corner, both riders going down. From then, Márquez pushed hard to thin the field. He led from the first lap, with only Alex Rins able to follow. The leading duo dropped Valentino Rossi quickly, leaving a simple battle between the Honda and the Suzuki.
Márquez' determination to drop the opposition had cost him at the end, however. Leading the race had been tough on his tires, and he had nothing left at the end with which to hold off Alex Rins' late attack. But he had achieved his objective. "My goal was not to make the best strategy to win the race, just make the best strategy to make the front group smaller, because then you can lose less points" the Repsol Honda rider said. "I know that leading the race you use the tires more, you use your physical condition more, you use more fuel, but the target is to take a lot of points for the championship."
Could Márquez have won the race? Possibly. If he had not pushed so hard at the start of the race, and sat behind Rins and Rossi in the early laps. But that might have allowed Viñales to catch them much earlier, and if the Monster Energy Yamaha rider had been able to take the lead, his pace would have made Márquez' life much more difficult, as would having to fend off attacks from wily veteran Rossi, or a determined Rins. A sure second was a better gamble than playing to win, with the risk of finishing fourth.
That, for me, is what makes Márquez' 2019 season as near to perfection as we are likely to see in the current hypercompetitive era of MotoGP. Márquez played the numbers all year long, and always made exactly the right gamble. He tried to escape and win from the front when he could, and whittled down the opposition when he couldn't, giving himself fewer riders to have to beat at the end of the race, and a better chance of racking up the points when he couldn't. He used his experience and wiles to outfox Fabio Quartararo in Misano and Buriram, pushed Maverick Viñales to the limit in Phillip Island, mixed it up with Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci at Mugello to maximize his points haul. When Viñales proved far too strong for him, at Assen and Sepang, he concentrated on securing second, rather than risking it all for a shot at a win which was probably never there for him.
Will Marc Marquez be at the Sepang Test? Dr. Mir explains...
And he did all this despite not being fit for a significant part of the season. Márquez had major shoulder surgery in December of last year, and spent the entire off season rehabilitating, having four hours a day of physiotherapy, with only four days at Christmas and New Year off. Between the Jerez test in November and the Sepang test in February, he spent one day on a minimoto bike, just to check the shoulder worked. "We expected he would be maybe 80% already at the Sepang test, but no, he was less than 50%, honestly speaking," Takeo Yokoyama said after Márquez won the title in Thailand. Márquez would really not be fully fit until Jerez.
At Buriram, the Repsol Honda rider managed to damage a shoulder again, this time his right one, rather than the left one he had had surgery on the previous winter. A massive highside during free practice saw him partially dislocate his shoulder, though he kept that to himself. He did the same again at Sepang, trying to follow Fabio Quartararo during qualifying, and getting caught out by cold tires. If there is one thing which can be seen as a mistake, it is surely that crash in Malaysia, an unforced error made because Márquez was trying to intimidate a rider he saw as a rival, and lost focus.
So despite not being fully fit for seven of the nineteen races in 2019, Márquez still managed to win twelve races and finish second in six. And he did it on a bike nobody else could really get a handle on. Repsol Honda teammate Jorge Lorenzo started the season with an injured wrist, then fractured vertebrae in crashes in Barcelona and Assen. Cal Crutchlow managed three podiums, compared to Márquez' eighteen.
For comparison, Andrea Dovizioso had nine podiums on a Ducati GP19, while Jack Miller had five on the same bike. Maverick Viñales had seven podiums on the Yamaha M1, the same number that Fabio Quartararo had. So good was Marc Márquez that he almost single-handedly won the Teams championship, racking up 420 of the 458 points scored by the Repsol Honda team. Second-place Ducati Team saw Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci contribute 269 and 176 points respectively.
Is this the best season of Marc Márquez' career? The man himself certainly thinks so. "It was an amazing season, the best season in my career," he said after winning race number twelve of 2019 in Valencia. "I don't know if it will be the best season in all my career, but obviously the numbers, the statistics speak for themselves. We showed our potential this year. It was a perfect season, so difficult to improve."
MotoGP™ Classics: German GP 2002
Is it the best season by any rider in MotoGP? It rates with Valentino Rossi's 2002 season aboard the Repsol Honda, the year when the Italian won eleven races, finished second in four more, and was forced to retire with tire problems at Brno. Comparisons between Rossi in 2002 and Márquez in 2019 hinge on rating the competition. The 2002 Honda RC211V was the best bike on the grid, but there were a fair few of them spread about, especially by the time the season ended. Though the 2019 Honda RC213V had plenty of horsepower, only Márquez could get it to work, the Yamaha and Ducati arguably better all-round machines.
Can Márquez repeat this feat in 2020? The competition will be stiffer next year, with a faster Yamaha and a Ducati that turns, with Fabio Quartararo on a factory-spec M1 from the start of the season, Maverick Viñales carrying the momentum from 2019, and Joan Mir pushing his Suzuki teammate Alex Rins to even greater heights. But I suspect that if you ask Márquez, he will give you the same answer he gave me in June at Assen. "Nothing is impossible, but it’s very, very difficult." But that won't stop him from trying. If there is one thing which Marc Márquez thrives on, it's a challenge.
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