Honda went into the Indonesian Grand Prix widely seen as potential front runners. Pol Espargaro had been fastest in the test at Mandalika a month previously, Marc Marquez had been quickest on the second day of the test, Honda riders had set a consistently fast pace, looking better than their single-lap speed. What's more, Espargaro was coming off a podium at the season opener at Qatar, the race where Marc Marquez had finished fifth.
To say the Indonesian Grand Prix ended badly for Honda is an understatement. Pol Espargaro was fastest Honda once again, but the Repsol rider crossed the line way down in 12th, 33 seconds behind the winner, Miguel Oliveira. Espargaro was one of only two Honda riders to finish in the points, crossing the line just ahead of Alex Marquez on the LCR Honda in 13th. Takaaki Nakagami could only struggle to a 19th place, 49 seconds behind the winner.
That wasn't the really bad news, however. The worst blow for Honda was the fact that Marc Marquez manage to miss the race, and perhaps endanger his chances of the 2022 title, or worse. Much worse.
Living on the edge
I am sure by now you will have seen the footage. During morning warm up for the Mandalika race, Marc Marquez entered Turn 7 at something over 200 km/h, scrubbing speed as he leaned into the corner. Just before he started to think about rolling on the gas again for corner exit, the rear started to come round on him, the soft Michelin tire letting go and starting to slide.
Marquez had caught a similar situation during Q1, when the rear started to slide at Turn 16. He managed that by opening the gas, and spinning up the rear to control the slide and get the bike sideways. It had looked spectacular, a cross between Mick Doohan's method of stepping out the rear on his Honda NSR500 two stroke, and the original Honda four-stroke MotoGP bike, the 990cc RC211V, which had few electronics and bags of smooth, controllable power.
This time, though, the rear was gone too early. Marquez had too much lean angle and not enough time to attempt to manage it with the gas. The rear started sliding very early, just as he entered the corner with no gas. The rear Michelin stepped out, and as is its wont, suddenly bit, gripped and catapulted the eight-time world champion into the air.
To the moon
It was the most violent highside I have seen in a very long time. The Spaniard was flipped up at least 3 meters into the air, spinning on his axis as he fell. He slammed into the tarmac at the edge of the track, landing feet first and still spinning, hitting his right shoulder and smashing the right side of the chin bar of his helmet onto the asphalt. He slid, and tumbled, and rolled, ragdolling in the awful jargon of motorcycle crashes.
It was clear he had been badly affected by the crash. He was up on all fours relatively quickly, but obviously stunned. It took him some time before he was up and walking, and staggered away, punch drunk. There was no need for a formal diagnosis of concussion, it was obvious for all to see.
It came as a relief that Marc Marquez was ruled out of the Mandalika GP. He was obviously unfit to race, and, it would later turn out, had suffered a new bout of diplopia, or double vision. He had flown back to Spain accompanied by Dr Angel Charte, and noticed problems with his vision on the plane. A visit to the hospital to see Dr Sanchez Dalmau, the ophthalmologist treating him for his previous bout of diplopia sustained last October, confirmed a recurrence, though in much milder form.
Back in April 2021, before Marquez had made his comeback from the aftermath of the arm injury he sustained at the first Jerez race in 2020, the Spaniard had told the press conference that he would be changing his approach. "We have a lot of races in life, but only one body," he said.
There was little sign of that at Mandalika. The Repsol Honda rider crashed once in FP2, twice in Q1 – once on each of the two runs he attempted – and then had the massive highside in the morning warm up.
Before the warm up, the crash in FP2 was the biggest, losing the front end at high speed at Turn 11. That should have served as a warning, Marquez taking a tumble and being slow to get up afterward. The crashes in Q1 were perhaps more excusable, losing the front at Turn 13 as he pushed for a quick lap the first time, getting up and running almost before he had come to a stop, to get back to the pits to attempt another run. The second crash, at Turn 12, came after he found himself stuck behind Takaaki Nakagami on his last run, and the last shot at getting straight through to Q2. Again, he lost the front pushing too hard, but was unhurt.
The two crashes in Q1 were, though, a sign of desperation. Marquez was working through a bad weekend – stuck in Q1 for the seventh time since his return from injury, with a rear Michelin tire which wasn't working the way it had at the test. Marquez had been pushing hard throughout practice – he had a massive moment at Turn 7 in FP2, the rear letting go on a closed throttle in almost identical fashion to the crash which happened in warm up, though Marquez managed to save this particular moment – and Marquez was smoking the rear in several places in pretty much every session.
On Saturday night, Marquez laid out his situation. "I’m confident with my tire management…but tomorrow I can’t. I need to attack in the beginning," the Repsol Honda rider said. "For that reason we will put a soft rear, attack and see at the end. You need to try and see."
That need to attack was possibly why Marquez was pushing so hard in the warm up. He had to find a way to make the tires work, after narrowly missing out on Q2. On Saturday night, he explained that he had not been expecting to struggle so badly. "I say unexpected problems because here at the test we ride very well: me, Pol, Taka, my brother. Since we arrived here we start to struggle a lot with the rear and we push a lot with the front. I cannot ride with the front and I don’t feel good with it like in Qatar," Marquez said.
It was hard to blame the tires when others were not having the same issue, however. "The others have the same tire so we cannot point in just one way," Marquez said. "We need to understand the situation to take profit of those tires. It’s true that Quartararo did the same time today as in the test so the performance is there."
So Marquez was trying to find a way forward with the tools he had at hand, despite still not having full confidence in the front end of the new Honda RC213V. He was used to being able to have absolute blind faith in the front end, and then trying to find a way to get the most out of the rear, where he had no grip. But the new Honda has shifted the balance of the bike further to the rear. The rear grips now, while the front has sacrificed feeling.
At Mandalika, the right side of the rear tire was a particular problem. Riders were using the softest compound because the construction was stiffer to help keep the tire cooler. That kept the casing cool, but left the rubber susceptible to overheating, and causing it to lose grip. That was a bigger issue for some bikes than for others. The Hondas had it worse, the Suzukis also suffering.
A situation to manage
"This weekend was really special, for the tires," Suzuki Ecstar rider Joan Mir reflected on Sunday night after the race. "This made everything really complicated. A lot of crashes. Especially in MotoGP, most of the crashes no? For some reason. It's not easy when you work all these years to give the bike your style and everything and then straight away they change the tires. It's not easy to make them work. Sometimes for some riders this fits a bit better and you see that someone is faster and for others it's more a disaster. We took the bad part during all the weekend!"
The Suzukis had managed to salvage something on Sunday, perhaps aided by the rain which fell. Mir crossed the line in sixth place, one place behind teammate Alex Rins.
But it had not worked out for the Hondas, and Pol Espargaro, especially, was livid. On Saturday night, the Repsol Honda was spitting fire. "All winter, even last year, Honda was taking a lot of info about the tires," Espargaro fumed. "Here we were working a lot to recognize the problems of the bike. They brought a new bike to Jerez, to Malaysia that fits with the current tires. Then there was some problem during the test and to improve the problems Michelin brought four-year old tires."
That had dashed Honda's hopes. "What we face is we have a bike ready, the best bike we have to say with the correct tires. but with four-year-old tires this bike isn’t made for it." Honda was struggling, while Ducati had taken a huge step forward, Espargaro complained. "We saw Ducati struggling massively at the test here, especially on rhythm. Now they are flying. We are especially p***ed off with that. We think it’s unfair in some ways. We were working so much during the preseason, making an amazing bike. Honda built an amazing bike and we do not deserve these results."
Michelin's Piero Taramasso told Dutch journalist and Ziggo Sport commentator Frank Weeink that the French tire maker had had no choice. The test had shown that if the track was much hotter than expected, and stressed the tires much more than expected. "We have been very clear that the tires we have at Mandalika this weekend are different to the ones we used at the test, but as all the teams and riders know very well, this change was something that had to be done to reduce the possibility of severe overheating and to eliminate potential safety issues for the riders during the race."
Different tires required a different setup, and some teams had been more successful than others at finding the right balance. "The different casing construction of the tires requires changes to bike set up to extract the optimum performance from them, and with the reduced dry practice time available, this has been difficult to achieve for some teams," Taramasso explained. "I have no doubt that given more time (as we had during the test days), all teams would have found good settings to make the tires work very well, but unfortunately this has not been possible this weekend."
Pol Espargaro had no time for that argument. And when it was suggested to him that another test was needed at the Mandalika circuit, he rejected the idea out of hand. The test had been a complete waste of time, as far as he was concerned. "Whatever we do at the test it should stay the same otherwise you create a big mess. You prepare the bike for something an then you arrive to the race and you have completely different things. We spent quite a lot of time here in preseason to put the bike in its place and for us it was a waste of time and money for us to come here in preseason. What we did here during the test was zero for this weekend."
Espargaro pointed to the rear Michelin as an important contributing factor to the crash by Marc Marquez. "When we are complaining about Michelin, it is not because we like to complain about Michelin but because we were facing serious problems about front tire consumption and we could not complete the race because the temperature was too high and the rear was locking out of the corners – as Marc crashed – and to all the rider all the weekend," the Repsol Honda rider said.
"When we complain it is because we feel we have a problem and from being fast and safe on the test we were slow and unsafe, and I think today Marc was lucky not to get injured and if he was injured then it would have been of consequences of an external partner choice this weekend." Espargaro told the media this on Sunday after the race, before the news of Marquez' injury broke.
Espargaro rejected Michelin's claim that switching to the different casing – a tire which had been used in 2018 and 2019 with success – had been necessary. "I’m not a Michelin technician. I’m not a guy that tells them what they need to do. But if they are always trying to be better you cannot bring a four-year-old tire. It’s something that doesn’t match with the current situation," the Repsol Honda rider said. "We can all have problems. Honda had problems. We improved the situation by doing a completely new bike, not by using a bike from four years ago. The problem needs to be solved in a different way. At the end it’s something happening we’re not understanding so much at the moment."
Jack Miller saw the upside to the rear tire Michelin had brought. The stiffer construction made it more stable, something that was lacking in a few places at other tracks, the Lenovo Ducati rider said. "Through the three fast corners, 5-6-7, when you are on the lean angle and trying to pull gas and hitting kerbs and all sorts of things, it definitely gave me a lot more stability and a lot more confidence to be able to hang off the bike more," the Australian told us.
"In general a lot less pumping. I've given my feedback to both Michelin and Ducati about a lot of times, for example at Assen, we will have issues as you've seen with bikes absolutely doing this, shaking the whole time and I feel that is 100% coming from the rear tire." The compromise between speed and stability had been worth it for Miller. "For sure the performance isn't maybe as good as something soft and malleable and gets nice and hooked up. But you need to find a compromise I guess."
An unfortunate chain of events
Are Michelin to blame for Marc Marquez' plight, as Pol Espargaro claims? Perhaps the rear tire they brought to Mandalika was not the best choice. They had been forced into building something based on an old design (it was the design of the casing, rather than the tires themselves which were four years old) because of the brief period between the test and the race. Normally, that four-week gap would not have been an issue, but at a track where MotoGP had not visited before, located in the tropics, and which had to be partially resurfaced after the stones started cracking during the test, there were too many variables and unknowns.
New asphalt is always a problem, especially at a fast track, as Bridgestone found at Phillip Island in a memorable race in 2013, when problems with blistering forced the introduction of compulsory pit stops (and nearly cost Marc Marquez a historic MotoGP title in his rookie season). New asphalt, with pitch black tarmac, under the direct and intense tropical sun, was going to get even hotter. And that was going to be an issue for the tires.
But Michelin didn't have time to analyze and build a tire suited to the conditions, in part because they couldn't be entirely sure what the conditions might be. And brand new asphalt made this even worse. The tire situation, like the rapid resurfacing of the circuit, which started to come apart as the track hadn't really had time to set yet, was all done under the pressure of contracts and timing. Indonesia had been waiting for a very long time for a MotoGP race, and the weekend was going to go ahead almost no matter what.
It would have been better to hold a MotoGP test in Indonesia at the end of last year, which might have exposed the issues much earlier, and given the Mandalika circuit more time to fix it. But three months are a long time during the pandemic, and scheduling a test then would have been difficult for any number of reasons.
A better solution would have perhaps been to reschedule the race until the end of the year, but WorldSBK is due to visit in November, and shifting the calendar about at the start of the year is a very difficult task, given the astronomical cost of freight. Michelin would have had more time to build a slightly better tire, perhaps, but how much better is another matter. And what the conditions at the track would have been is yet another matter for speculation. All this is just conjecture.
Do Michelin bear the blame for Marc Marquez' crash? In the end, the rider controls how fast they attack a corner, and know the consequence if it goes wrong. The trick, of course, is to believe you can outrun fate, and can manage the risks involved in racing better than anyone else. Bad things may happen to other riders, but if you believe they will happen to you, then you probably shouldn't be racing in the first place.
Marquez believes he can manage that risk, but he gambled wrong on the morning of the Mandalika race. Through a series of circumstances set out earlier, he ended up with more risk than anticipated, bit off more than he could chew. And the perils of motorcycle racing came back to bite him, in this case in the eyes.
Should Marquez be taking that much risk, after all he has gone through? He has repeatedly said his crash at Jerez has changed his approach to racing, making it easier to accept he can't win a race, and just to concentrate on scoring as many points as possible. But it is in his nature to want to outwit the bike, to bend it and the tires to his will, to subjugate the Honda and make it score points. With the bike so drastically changed since last year, that is a wrestling match he is more likely to lose.
Will this mistake prove to be costly? Undoubtedly. By the time you read this, you will probably know whether Marquez will be forced to sit out Argentina, and possibly Austin as well. If he can race, then in Argentina, another fast track with a notoriously dusty and slippery surface, he will once again have to throttle back the amount of risk he is willing to take. And he will have to restrain himself in Austin, not push too hard at a track where under normal circumstances, he would be certain to win.
The clock is ticking
Marquez certainly can't afford to keep crashing the way he did at Mandalika. Each concussion he sustains makes him more susceptible to concussion. And he has already been told that the nerve in his eye which was damaged in the Moto2 crash at Sepang in 2011 cannot take much more punishment. The injury picked up training last year had already created additional problems, and increased the likelihood of suffering permanent vision issues.
And that's just the head trauma (though head trauma is by far the most serious aspect). Marquez' crash at Mandalika was a demonstration of just how good modern safety equipment is. Boots are designed with shock-absorbing layers between inner bootee and outer hard shell, which probably saved Marquez' ankles from being shattered. Alpinestars Tech Air airbag suits now cover a huge amount of the body when they inflate, from shoulders and upper arms to back, side of the ribs, and around the hips and lower back. Marquez landed hard enough to break several bones without the benefit of the airbag. (Airbags are one of the biggest safety gains for street riders in 20 years, thanks to racing.)
But Marquez still landed very heavily on his right shoulder, the shoulder which is still giving him grief after surgery to fix dislocation issues at the end of 2019, and then the massive crash at Jerez and attendant bone infection issues. Right now, shoulder problems are probably some way down his list of concerns, but if his vision corrects itself once again, his focus might shift to the secondary damage done at Mandalika, if any. Did he escape unharmed except for the concussion and vision problems? Would he even know just yet?
Could this crash be the end of Marc Marquez' career? Potentially, yes, but it is way too early to suggest this with any certainty. Marc Marquez is driven beyond the imagination of most people, his willingness to make sacrifices to pursue his dream of, well, riding around in circles faster than anyone else, already the stuff of legend. The mental strength to keep coming back from injuries and and health problems - two shoulder surgeries in 2018 and 2019, then the broken and infected arm from 2020, then diplopia at the end of 2021 – is almost superhuman. There can be no doubting his commitment to doing all he can to come back.
But even if, as seems most likely at the current moment, Marc Marquez does come back from this crash and race again this year, it serves as a warning sign, a harbinger of what is to come. Marc Marquez may race again, but he won't be racing into his forties, and retire on his own terms. His will to overcome his own limitations and those of the bike he races, his appetite for risk, and his prodigious talent for finding the limit and seeing how far he can go over it will catch up with him in the end.
Marc Marquez will not choose the moment of his retirement, but will be forced into it by injury. He will go out like Mick Doohan, forced out by injury, rather than Valentino Rossi, choosing to switch to another discipline once the keenest racing edge has been blunted.
Is that a tragedy? Absolutely. Should he be protected against himself? That is a question for philosophers of ethics rather than MotoGP writers and fans. Given all that we know about Marc Marquez, he lives only to race, and knows only one way to do that. He may be the only rider to actually live up to the cliché of giving more than 100% every outing. But in the end, that is Russian Roulette, and he will pay the price. But Marquez has show himself willing to pay that price over and over.
It is not a choice that I, or the overwhelming majority of humanity would make. But we are not eight-time grand prix champions.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.