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For his first seven seasons in MotoGP, Marc Marquez was the sport’s kingpin. World champion as a 20-year-old rookie in 2013, the Spaniard won his second race, starting like he meant to go on. At his 2019 zenith, Marquez won 12 of 19 races and finished second six times, only a crash from the lead in the United States blotting an otherwise perfect podium copybook.
And then came the Spanish Grand Prix in 2020, where the first stumble in a seemingly spotless career set in train a series of events that leads to Phillip Island and this year’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, where the clock ticks down to a divorce that was both unsurprising in its announcement, yet shocking in its gravity.
Superstar MotoGP rider Marc Marquez.Credit: AP
Ahead of last weekend’s race in Indonesia, Marquez announced his four-year contract with Honda, with whom he has won 59 races and six world titles, would cease a year earlier than scheduled by mutual agreement at the end of 2023. At age 30 and finally healthy for the first time in over four years, Marquez feels ready to regain his mantle as the world’s fastest man on two wheels. It’s a quest that, he felt, couldn’t be achieved on a Honda.
There’s been seismic rider shifts in MotoGP before, but nothing like this. By negotiating an early exit from his Honda deal and relinquishing a base salary of over 15 million euros ($25 million) to sign with fourth-string Ducati team Gresini Racing for just one season, Marquez is taking the biggest gamble of his career. It’s one driven by an insatiable appetite for winning, and a chance to prove that his machinery, rather than any physical deterioration, has held him back since last year’s visit to Australia.
The Formula 1 equivalent would be seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton moving from Mercedes to drive for a lower-grid team which buys equipment from a manufacturer Hamilton has never had an association with, such as Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo. It sounds like madness, but Marquez’s decision – given how his career has gone haywire – has a method to it.
“The easiest way was to stay in Honda, situation under control, bike under control, my team is there, big salary … that was the easy solution,” Marquez says.
Spaniard Marquez rocked MotoGP with his announcement he would finish with Honda.Credit: AP
“But then if I want to take care of my career, I need to find a new challenge. Sometimes you need to go out from your comfort zone. My comfort zone was Honda, but it’s true that for a long time, I’m suffering a lot. I’m not enjoying. I did a change to enjoy it again on the racetrack because if not, there’s no meaning to continue my racing.”
That suffering started from a spill that changed the modern-day trajectory of MotoGP. Rewind to that aforementioned 2020 Spanish Grand Prix, and Marquez produced arguably the ride of his career after an early mistake dropped him to the back of the field. At an eerily quiet Jerez Circuit as the COVID-19 pandemic left sports stadiums across Europe empty, Marquez tore back towards the front to make the rest look second-rate until he crashed and shattered his right humerus. An audacious attempted comeback after surgery just one week later was aborted, the titanium plate holding his arm together snapping. He wouldn’t race again that season.
Marquez’s absence exposed Honda’s reliance on the sport’s greatest natural talent; its bikes weren’t the benchmark equipment between 2014-19, but were manhandled by Marquez into title contention. None of Marquez’s Honda teammates could come to terms with the bike’s non-linear power delivery, its propensity to lack front grip on corner entry, its twitchiness in the turns. When Honda developed a machine that could match the ultra-fast Ducatis on the straights with the trade-off of being harder to ride through corners, Marquez relied on his cat-like reflexes to save crashes that would leave his stablemates tasting tarmac.
Marquez was heavily compromised when he finally returned in 2021, somehow wrestling a bike that had developed independently of his input to three victories. By mid-2022, though, he knew something had to change – and he decided to step away to undergo radical surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, his scarred right arm re-broken and operated on for a fourth time, his mangled humerus rotated an eye-watering 34 degrees back to its pre-Spain 2020 position.
Marquez returned for the final six races of 2022 to test the waters, and the difference was instant. He qualified on pole position in his second race back in Japan, then finished second at Phillip Island for his 100th MotoGP podium, and first in a calendar year.
It was a sign that Marquez, as he put it, “could be Marc again”, and that Honda needed to raise its game. But the harder he rode, the worse things got.
The writing was on the wall this year when Marquez crashed from the leading group in France as the other Honda riders floundered, and again in Italy one round later, gesturing to his broken bike in exasperation after it spat him off.
At the next grand prix in Germany, where he’d won 11 times in a row, five crashes through practice and qualifying saw Marquez elect to sit out the race at the Sachsenring, not prepared to batter his repaired body to extract performance out of a bike that wasn’t capable of it. He then missed the next round in the Netherlands, discovering he’d cracked several ribs from one of his Sachsenring shunts.
Time was up. Days after the Japanese Grand Prix at the Honda-owned Motegi Circuit in early October – where he slithered forwards in soaking-wet conditions to finish third – Marquez asked Honda management to be released from the remaining year of his contract, later admitting that he’d even considered a 2024 sabbatical as he pondered his future.
“One year off was one of the possibilities,” he says.
“I believe that they [Honda] need time … a manufacturer, a brand – they have time. As an athlete, we don’t have a lot of time.
“I did many things in the past, but … it doesn’t matter if you have one or eight world championships – you want to fight for the present.”
When Marquez reflects, it was Australia 2022 where he first realised that he was no longer the inhibiting factor in his career arc re-ascending. Watching a rider who made relentless winning his trademark celebrate a second place with such gusto at Phillip Island one year ago revealed the mental anguish that result released, and the ambition that awakened within.
“It was a really great moment, one of the most memorable and important races that was not a victory,” he says.
“We had come from a really hard moment, another operation on the arm and had been working so hard to try and recover. This was the first time that we were able to fight at the front and get a podium since my return, so it was a great boost. For me, it was so important when I came back to understand that inside me, the speed is there. The body needed to follow that speed. It was the best way to keep the motivation.”
That motivation won’t be lacking when Marquez first throws his leg over a Ducati at November’s post-season test in Valencia, the unofficial first day of the 2024 season. Yes, it will be a Ducati hand-me-down, the bike ridden by reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia this season as part of the Italian factory’s deal with customer team Gresini. But former Honda stablemate Cal Crutchlow expects Marquez to come back with a vengeance.
Will Marc Marquez’s big gamble pay off?Credit: Getty Images
In six seasons riding the same machinery as Marquez and being privy to his telemetry, the British rider got a first-hand insight into what makes him so swift.
“Marc is still I believe the best rider I’ve had the privilege to ride with, because obviously I was riding the Honda at the same time,” Crutchlow said in Japan.
“I knew what he was doing. I understood it, I just couldn’t do it. The talent was incredible. I don’t think he’s lost this talent. The bike isn’t letting him do what he used to be able to do – if it did, I still think he’d be in the front of the championship.
“I’ve always said that if Marc goes on a Ducati, the rest may as well not turn up …”
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