Today, Thursday, is the day that Marc Marquez hopes the long nightmare of the last two years will start to end. The six-time MotoGP champion is to have an operation to straighten the humerus in his right arm. To straighten it, because the bone grew back twisted after three previous operations to fix the bone he broke in a massive crash at the first race in Jerez in 2020.
Most MotoGP fans know the story pretty much by heart now, but to recap. Marquez ran wide at Turn 5 during the first race of the pandemic-stricken series of 2020, at Jerez in July. He staged an incredible comeback, making from almost dead last all the way back up to third, and challenging for second, before his bike spat him off at Turn 3, then hit him as he tumbled through the gravel, breaking his right arm.
Instead of giving the bone time to heal, however, Marquez decided to try to ride at the next race the following week, just a few days after surgery on the arm. He paid dearly for that decision, pulling out during FP4 after riding in FP3, and then a couple of weeks later, the plate in his arm broke, having been subjected to too much stress. The plate was replaced in a second operation, during which the bone became infected, and would not heal. A third operation removed the infection and inserted bone from his hip to promote bone growth.
Although that final operation was a success, by then the damage was done. As a result of the infection, the bone had grown very weak, and had started to rotate as it regrew. Though Marquez hid it well, only ever mentioning a lack of strength in his arm, a fourth operation proved to be inevitable.
On Thursday at Mugello, he denied it would be necessary. "No, at the moment, no," Márquez replied when asked by journalist Niki Kovács. "At the moment we just keep working there, we keep pushing and we keep going." The reality became clear the day after, when Márquez received a phone call from Dr Joaquin Sánchez Sotelo at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At a press conference on Saturday, he told us, "At 12 o'clock, he called me and said no doubt. Come. The rotation is too big. I don't know what you're doing, but you are doing it, so come here and we will fix it."
Márquez had hoped not to need an operation, but Dr Sotelo had made 3D scans of the Repsol Honda rider's arm, and built a model, and seen that there was no other choice. In a way, having the decision taken out of his hands had made things easier, Márquez said after the race. If the rotation of the humerus had been less, he would have had to make the decision himself.
"There was the possibility to get the results and say ‘okay, the rotation is not so big, up to you…’ Then, woah, it's a big decision," Márquez told journalists. "But they called me and they said straight away: ‘Come next week. This is too big. We don't know how what you are doing now. But this rotation is too big. And you must stop now’. And for me it was an easy decision."
The fact that Márquez was riding at all is testament, if such were needed, to his grit and his ability to endure pain to achieve a goal. His daily routine has been pretty miserable ever since he broke his arm. "My daily life is affected a lot," he said on Sunday evening. "I was one of the riders, you know me I was training a lot at home with motorbikes, with motocross, with road bikes, with any kind of bikes. I was training a lot."
His present routine stands in stark contrast to that. "Now normal life is; come back home, stay 2-3 days at home, relax. Because I cannot do anything, just to do some legs, some cycling, and then start to train again. Then physio, physio, painkillers."
Even for a person as driven as Marc Marquez, it was becoming too much, especially as he was not doing what he loves most, which is winning races and winning championships. "I mean, I said to my doctors and my people, riding like this, I will do one more year, two more years. No more. Because I'm not enjoying and I'm suffering a lot and I cannot support this about the mental side."
For Marquez to admit that this was becoming too much of a strain on his mental strength is quite the statement. He never admits to mental weakness. He has an unrivaled desire to succeed and is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve those goals. But that requires focus and belief.
That had been hard at Mugello, especially after receiving the phone call on Friday. The knowledge that he would be stepping away, and having a surgery that should allow him to return to his former levels of competitiveness had made it hard to think about the race. Just how hard it had been was clear on the cool down lap, as he released some of the pent up stress and emotion.
"Of course it was a very demanding weekend," Marquez admitted. "Not only about the physical side, where every weekend I suffer a lot this season, but especially about the mental side, it was very difficult to keep the concentration."
The timing of the phone call from Dr Sotelo on Friday had made things that much tougher. "It’s true that I received the news on Friday, but if I receive that news on a Wednesday or Thursday, I will not race here," Marquez admitted.
But because it came after he had already started, he felt he had no choice but to continue. "But I received on Friday, I was here, Honda allowed me to choose the best for me. But I decide to continue the weekend. Because I raced until now. And I say okay, I will continue racing. I will take a risk, because you're riding 350 km per hour. But I will work for you. And I work a lot this weekend, I tried to work a lot for Honda, to give my input for the future."
So far, Marquez had felt relatively competitive at Mugello, and a good start to the race. "I enjoyed 6-7 laps in the beginning, I did a great start and I saw the front group was just there. And I was able to ride more or less in the same pace. But then I had one warning and I gave up, because I saw that already I started with the arm pump, with a lot of pain and a lack of power."
From then on, it was just a question of gritting his teeth and making it to the finish line. "I finished the race. I find my group there with Nakagami, Oliveira and Di Giannantonio and just I ride and finished the race."
After the race, almost every rider made a point of waiting for Marquez and offering him a pat, or a touch, or some other gesture of solidarity. While it may not have been so clear to fans, the riders he had raced again had been able to see his travails from close up.
Unsurprisingly, Marquez is extremely optimistic about this fourth surgery on his arm. "Having this operation, I hope my life changes. The last two years were not easy," he said.
There is some reason for optimism. At the presentation of the grand prix in Barcelona on Wednesday, Marquez' manager, Emilio Alzamora, said that Marquez and his team had been given "guarantees" about the operation, adding, "Well, when we say guarantees, at the end, it's an operation". That always carries some risk, but the improvements after the third operation, carried out by the same team, gave them confidence.
The road ahead
"If this operation is a success, have a good success, then we will see how I can ride a bike," Marquez said on Sunday. "If the operation is going in a good way, then, of course, if we don't have other problems, this is my body and this will be the last chance to improve my physical condition."
The risks involved in an operation were worth it, Marquez reiterated, because without this surgery, his career was pretty much at an end anyway. "It’s an operation and everything can happen. You never know. But it's true that it’s the correct decision because riding like this, this is the last chance. Riding like this I cannot continue."
The aim was of course to allow him to race competitively again, but more than that, it was just to allow him to live a more normal life, to escape the drudgery of endless physiotherapy, and the constant use of painkillers to manage that pain. "The operation is not like, I’ll have the operation and I will win again," Marquez said.
"The target of the operation is try to enjoy it again and riding again and have a normal life again. And have a normal athlete life. I mean, training. Forget the painkillers and all these things. This is the target of the operation. Then if you have all these things, and you enjoy it again, the possibilities of good results will increase."
What had given him the most optimism was what the doctors told him about the prospects of success of the surgery, and what it would achieve. "Of course, always you are worried about the fourth operation in the same arm. Is not easy. But the way, when they call me on Friday, and they give me the results and they told me all the information. I could breathe. But especially on Friday was one of the best days of the year, it was very bad news for the operation, but very good news for myself."
Marquez said he had the support of everyone inside Honda – both the wider corporation and HRC – for his decision. "I have a really good confidence and straight contact to Nomura-san. That is the top guy. Wakabayashi also is the president of HRC. Kuwata, Alberto, I always informed them, but always when I have these critical situations, I speak straight away to them."
He had appreciated Honda's support throughout this long Calvary, these two years of suffering. "As I said, in 2020, and 2021, I felt a very big respect, from Honda to myself. And I feel it again now," Marquez said. "I mean, I said to them, the situation is this, if you want, I can continue until the end, riding like this, finish between 5th-10th. And maybe finish on the podium in some races. But they said to me, no, yourself is more important, your life is more important. Just take care about yourself. And we will wait. This is something coming from Honda."
When HRC made the decision to move Alex Marquez out of the Repsol Honda team at the end of 2020, before the season had even started, and signed Pol Espargaro to race for them in 2021, I was convinced that Marc Marquez would take that as an insult to his family and would be the wedge that would eventually lead to him deciding to leave Honda.
But the way Honda and HRC have treated Marquez during these two long and difficult years, where he has barely been able to race for them, and when he has, has not been scoring the results for which he is being so generously paid, has changed that. Marc Marquez, like Mick Doohan, will remain a Honda rider until he retires, and after he retires as well.
There is perhaps an implicit mutual acknowledgment of fault there. The complications which have arisen from that first crash are all directly related to Marquez' attempt to race just a few days after the original surgery to fix his broken right arm. Marquez is to blame there for wanting to try to do something which proved to be impossible, and his management team and Honda are to blame for allowing him to try. Nobody tried to impress upon him the risks involved, and if they did, Marquez would almost certainly have ignored them. It is a lesson he has learned the hard way, but he has learned it nonetheless.
What does this operation mean for Marc Marquez' future? The optimism from Marquez, his management, and Honda, suggests that they fully expect the operation to be a success. The surgery will involve breaking his arm again and reversing the rotation, as well as removing the extra material inserted at the end of 2019 to prevent his shoulder from dislocating, with the aim of giving him a greater range of motion. Obviously there are risks involved, but the way in which this surgery has been approached gives it an excellent chance of success.
But as Marquez said, in reality, he had no choice. Marc Marquez lives to compete, and with his arm in the state it was, that was simply not possible. He could not ride a MotoGP bike properly, and was in constant pain. He couldn't even relax after a race by enjoying his favorite pastime, riding motorbikes, be it motocross, flat track, enduro, or on a circuit. This injury had sucked all the joy out of his life, both professionally and privately.
If the operation succeeds, and there is every chance that it will, can Marquez be competitive again? Surgeons say they expect Marquez to be able to ride and train normally, so the answer to that question is yes. Will he be challenging for championships again? Given he is currently effectively riding with one arm, and is still racing for between 5th and 10th position, the answer to that is almost certainly yes. But whatever the outcome, he will be achieving better results than he is currently.
Marc Marquez could not continue along the path he was on. He has to try surgery to get the arm fixed. He has nothing to lose.
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.