To win a motorcycle race, team, rider, and machine need to get as close as possible to extracting 100% of performance from both motorcycle and rider. In the Socratic Ideal of a motorcycle race, as the bike crosses the line, it runs out of fuel, explodes into a thousand pieces, the tires destroy themselves, and the rider drops down dead. That, however, would contravene the engine durability regulations, be extraordinarily expensive, and make winning a championship impossible.
Instead, what the riders and teams try to do is maximize the performance of the bike, and allow the rider to manage performance throughout the race. That means finding the right engine mapping to extract as much power as possible without burning through tires and fuel, and setting up suspension and electronics to keep as much edge grip, corner speed, and braking ability as possible for as long as possible.
In 2017 and 2018, tire consumption was often the limiting factor. Riders knew tire performance would drop significantly at some point, so they had to design their race strategy around that: either push hard from the beginning and manage to the end, or slow up the race and hope to keep as much performance as possible to make a dash for the end. Andrea Dovizioso was a master at this, which allowed him to control the races such that he could win them, or at least keep them close.
The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid. If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8 Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.
Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda's 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year's race is even more important. Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider's title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.
What was impressive about Marc Márquez wrapping up his sixth MotoGP title in seven years was not so much that he took the title with a win (as outstanding as it was), but how he got there in the first place. Márquez' record after Thailand is almost unparalleled in the MotoGP era: 9 wins, 5 second places, and a single DNF. Márquez' sole DNF came when he crashed out of the lead in Austin, a result of the engine braking problems the 2019 Honda RC213V suffered early in the season.
The only rider to have done anything like this before was Valentino Rossi in 2002. Then, in the first year of the 990cc four strokes, Rossi won 11 of the 16 races, and took 4 second places, with one DNF, caused by a problem with his rear tire. It was Rossi's third season in the premier class, a year after winning his first title aboard the 500cc two stroke Honda NSR500.
To find other parallels, you have to go back further in time. In 1997, Mick Doohan won 12 races out of 15, finishing second in two more and not finishing in the last race of the year, his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. Before that, there was Freddie Spencer, who won 7 races in 1985, finishing second in 3 more, crashing in Assen and choosing to skip the final race in Misano. To find greater dominance, you would have to go even further back, to the days of Giacomo Agostini on the MV Agusta, who either won or retired in every race he started in during the period from 1968 to 1971.
Closer than ever
Márquez' 2019 season stands above all of those, however, for the sheer level of competitiveness of the current era. When Agostini was racing, the MV was in a league of its own, the Italian regularly lapping the rest of the field. In 1985, Spencer's only real opposition came from Eddie Lawson, and from his own successful attempt to secure the 500cc and 250cc titles in the same season.
We are in the middle of a major transition in MotoGP. One generation is on the verge of passing, another generation is rising, and right in the center of it all, towering over it, is Marc Márquez. The reigning champion has dominated 2019, while rivals of a variety of ages on a variety of bikes try to usurp his place.
The Thai Grand Prix illustrated this mix of generations nicely. On pole for the race sat the Young Pretender, Fabio Quartararo, 20 years of age. Alongside him, Maverick Viñales, 24, two years Márquez' junior, and the reigning champion himself. Behind them, two more 24-year-olds, Franco Morbidelli and Jack Miller, flanking the 28-year-old Danilo Petrucci.
On the third row, two veterans and a young rookie. Joan Mir, 22, sat between 40-year-old legend Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Dovizioso, at 33 years of age the only rider left who could stop Márquez from lifting his sixth MotoGP title in seven seasons in the premier class. Behind them, Alex Rins, 23, beside the Espargaro brothers, Pol, 28, and Aleix, 30.
Of the front twelve, Márquez, Viñales, Quartararo, Miller, Rins, Dovizioso, and potentially Rossi had the pace on paper for a legitimate shot at the podium. It was not inconceivable for the podium to represent a cross section of the current set of MotoGP generations. Or for Rossi to be sharing a podium with a man half his age.
Youth has the future
On paper, the Chang International Circuit at Buriram is a very simple proposition. A tight corner followed by a short straight, then a tight corner followed by a very long straight, and then a long hairpin followed by a medium-length straight. And then a bunch of complicated twists and turns to get back to the start and finish line.
Of course, a track is never the same on paper as it is when motorcycles actually race on it. Sure, Buriram has three straights which determine a lot of the circuit's character. But there is much more to it than just getting the bike turned and getting on the gas as quickly as possible. There are a plenty of places with a choice of lines, where a canny rider can find an opening on the rider ahead. And the nature of that tighter interior sector is such that a bike which isn't a basic drag bike can make up a lot of ground.
Take Turn 3 (the long back straight has a kink formally designated as Turn 2), the long hairpin at the end of the straight. Not perfectly flat, it offers a choice of two lines: stay inside and hug the inside kerb, and try to make the ground up on corner exit; or run in wide and cut back to the second apex carrying more speed. Both lines work. Both lines get you to the corner exit at roughly the same point in time. And both suit two very different bike characters. It may look point and shoot, but it really isn't.
Fast and fear-inducing
Winning a MotoGP race is never easy. Even when the winner crosses the line with a huge victory margin, it's never easy. Riding for 42 minutes and 117 kilometers at close to maximum intensity is tough on the body, and tough on the mind. Disaster is only a momentary lapse of attention away.
That thought was on Marc Márquez' mind going into the race at Aragon. He had qualified on pole with a lap a third of a second faster than anyone else. In terms of race pace, he looked to be half a second a lap quicker than the rest of the grid. On paper, the race was in the bag.
That was pretty much what we thought at Austin back in April as well. But there, Márquez crashed out of the race on lap 9, after he had built up a lead of nearly 4 seconds. Up until that point, he had looked as unbeatable as ever at the Circuit of the Americas. But a minor hiccup with engine braking pushed the front, the bike getting away from him, and down he went.
Coming into Aragon, Márquez led the championship by 93 points. He could feel his sixth MotoGP title was within his grasp. He knew he had the pace to win comfortably. But the crash at Austin was preying on his mind, and he knew that a repeat would make his life unnecessarily difficult. Eyes on the prize, at all times.
Command and control
Everyone not called Marc Márquez will be worried at the Motorland Aragon circuit. They will be worried at the fact that the reigning champion, and last year's winner, went out and put in a fast lap in FP1 on soft tires. They will be worried because that lap was 1.6 seconds faster than anyone in FP1, and 1.1 seconds faster than anyone in FP2.
But above all, they will be worried that it was a demonstration of his confidence in his own pace. Márquez went for a quick lap during FP1 thinking of Saturday, and the likelihood that rain would prevent anyone from going faster during FP3. More importantly, it allowed him to spend all of FP2 on his race pace, in conditions likely to be similar to race time on Sunday afternoon.
It was a typical stroke of strategic genius, Márquez and his team giving himself a head start on preparing for the race. Not only has he had more time figuring out whether to use the hard or the soft rear tire for the race – as so often, the medium is neither fish nor flesh, the drop not much smaller than with the soft, the grip not much more than with the hard – he has also had time to work on race setup. Márquez is already two steps ahead of everyone else before they have even lined up on the grid.
Fast out of the blocks