Saturday was a celebration of Italian motorcycling. First, there was the retirement ceremony for Valentino Rossi's race number, 46. A peculiar custom, but if we are going to indulge in it, then #46 is the number which deserves it most. The ceremony also raised the biggest cheers of the weekend so far, and created the kind of atmosphere we are used to at Mugello. For a few moments, the crowd felt a little less sparse.
That ceremony came on top of yesterday's proceedings which saw Max Biaggi inducted as a MotoGP Legend, Dorna's equivalent of a hall of fame. The Italian topped that off on Saturday evening by circulating on a soaking wet track on the Aprilia 250 he built his reputation on, and with which he won so many titles.
But the crowning glory of the Italian Grand Prix was a trio of Italian youngsters on the front row of the grid, on a trio of Italian bikes. All three in Italian teams, with both VR46 riders on the front row, on the day that #46 was retired. An Italian rookie taking pole in spectacular style. And to top it off, four Italians in the top five, and six Italian bikes in the top seven.
And yet, shortly after qualifying for Moto2 had finished, the entire MotoGP world was talking about a Spaniard. And one that had qualified on the fourth row of the grid in an almost entirely invisible display of riding. Almost, bar the massive highside on his first lap, which saw him completely destroy the front end of his Honda RC213V, which then caught fire and caused Q2 to be red flagged.
The crash wasn't why we were talking about Marc Marquez, however. Instead, it was the official press conference called for 4:05pm on Saturday afternoon, in which he and Alberto Puig announced that after Mugello, Marquez would have a fourth operation on the arm he broke at Jerez in 2020, and which has caused him nothing but misery ever since.
For the precise details of the surgery to be done, and some background context to it, see my story on it from this afternoon. But a decision this big is not taken lightly. Throughout the press conference, especially once he switched to Spanish, a language in which he can express himself with much more nuance and fluency, what came across was a sense of relief and of determination.
Relief at having identified the issue which was causing him so much pain and frustration, and even more, at seeing a possible path forward to rectifying it. Determination at setting out on a course of action which will see him miss most, if not all, of the rest of the 2022 season, and which will require yet more hard work, hour upon hour, month upon month of endless tedium of training, physiotherapy, and physical rehab.
Marquez had not wanted to have another operation. Between November 2018 and December 2020, he had already had five: one on his left shoulder, one on his right shoulder, and three on his right arm. (Of course, you can make a very strong case that two of those operations on his arm are entirely his own fault, the consequence of trying to ride a MotoGP bike less than a week after breaking his right humerus and having surgery to fit a plate to fix it.)
But the cold hard reality of the situation made it clear he had no choice. His results have been frankly disappointing, especially since the start of 2022. He is struggling to even be the best Honda rider, which for a six-time MotoGP champion, is a bitter pill to swallow.
"I realized this season that I'm not enjoying now," Marquez said. "I’m just suffering a lot. A lot of pain. I don’t have power. I cannot ride like I want. I also started to injure the left shoulder because I’m pushing too much with the left arm. I mean, my performance is not bad, but it's not the one that I want." Marc Marquez does not race motorcycles to fight for a spot in the top ten. Marc Marquez likes to win.
The comparison which most comes to mind is with legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. Merckx wanted to win every race he entered, whether he had any business doing so or not. He won the yellow jersey, the king of the mountains jersey, and the sprint jersey in his first Tour de France, he won the Tour de France and the Giro D'Italia in the same year three times, and the Giro and the Vuelta in the same year. He was given the nickname "The Cannibal" by a teammate's daughter because of his refusal to let anyone else win. He had an all-encompassing ambition, which meant he would do anything for victory. Including, famously, being caught using banned performance-enhancing substances.
Marquez' ambition is on the same scale as that of Merckx. Marquez, too, is a cannibal, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. That has never been more evident than since his return from injury in 2021. Understanding that he could not longer force out a fast lap on his own, he spent practice and qualifying searching for a suitable victim, and using their speed to improve his own position. This weekend was no exception, using Jack Miller to catapult himself out of Q1, before his monster crash in Q2 put paid to any plans of a solid qualifying.
Whatever it takes
Such behavior has met with criticism from some quarters, but Marquez has not taken any notice. He knew what needed to be done, and he set about doing it. The ends very much justified the means.
Now, that same ambition has led him to the decision to have surgery. He still burns with desire to win races and championships, and knows that he is nowhere near being capable of doing that in his current physical condition. He knew this was not an easy choice, but his ambition made him choose it anyway.
"The passion is still bigger than the suffering," Marquez said to Italian TV broadcaster Sky. "At the moment, my suffering is greater than my enjoyment. But my passion is still bigger than both. The thing that makes me keep pushing and to keep going with my objectives is because this sport gives me so much happiness."
And that ambition is what will get him back to as close to full fitness as possible. Throughout the press conference, it was clear that he would approach his rehabilitation as a challenge, with the same desire to overcome and subjugate adversity as he brings to a MotoGP race. Set a goal, and do everything you can to achieve it, with absolute tunnel vision and eyes only on the end objective, which is to try to win another MotoGP title.
Mind over matter
That requires incredible mental strength. To keep going through injury after injury, operation after operation, setback after setback, and still keep working toward a goal without ever succumbing to the temptation to just chuck it all in and go off and do something else. Whatever weaknesses he may have, his ambition, his desire to compete and to win, is greater than all of that, and drives him on.
"It's true that that one of my strong points is always to just be really strong on the mind," Marquez said. "And believe me, that if I didn't have this character, during this time I would just give up. But if you want something, you need to push, you need to believe in it, and you need to keep pushing."
With that strength of will, you have to believe he will back from surgery as strong as ever. It may take a while – Dr. Michele Zasa of the Clinica Mobile – estimated his recovery time at between four and six months. That would see him return just in time for the last race of the season at Valencia, and more importantly, the one-day test at Valencia. Riding there would give him a chance to evaluate the 2023 Honda RC213V prototype, ahead of a full-time return in 2023. I would not put money against him returning and winning next season.
While we were all thinking about the travails of a giant of our sport, a bunch of young upstarts were giving us reasons to be optimistic about the future whatever happens. Fabio Di Giannantonio's pole position was an incredible achievement, the Italian rookie powering through tricky conditions to put everyone behind him.
Taking pole in Q2 was just a repeat of what he had done in Q1. He had exploited the conditions to perfection, seeing the rain flags but correctly estimating that there was far more grip than the flags would leave you to believe. First he set the top time in Q1, then pulled the same trick again in Q2.
If it had been Marco Bezzecchi, who lines up alongside him on the grid, who had taken pole, we would have been slightly less surprised. Bezzecchi has shown some very strong flashes since the start of the season, but Di Giannantonio has only just started to come good.
A setup change tried at the Jerez test had made all the difference, the Italian explained. "I think we did a good step from Jerez race, but mostly the Jerez test," Di Giannantonio told the press conference. "We tried something different and it worked for me. We kept it in Le Mans and then here also it is working. I think that we are doing the right steps to be every race closer and closer to the top."
The conditions were one of several factors which led to a front row full of talented Italian youngsters. The fact that they had ridden at Mugello on the Ducati Panigale V4 streetbike on multiple occasions had helped, Johann Zarco believed. "Marini and Bezzecchi, I think, also like Pecco, they did many laps with the Panigale, they did a good training here. So the track, it's like in Misano, they are at home."
That, plus the fact Mugello is their home race, had helped for all three Italians, Zarco believed. "So maybe they've got this something more, plus they are at home, and Di Giannantonio got the feeling from Q1. Amazing, he got the good pace of Jack and Márquez, and then he almost surfed on this feeling for the Q2. "
The conditions were also cause for concern among a number of riders. The problem is, Zarco, Fabio Quartararo, and Aleix Espargaro explained separately, that the only thing the marshals can do when it's raining is wave a rain flag. But the rain flags only means that rain is falling, it says nothing about levels of grip. It gave the riders no information on how far they might be able to push.
Riders were basing their idea of how hard they might be able to push on the flags they were seeing, Johann Zarco explained. "When you get some drops on the helmet but there are no flags, you think it's OK." The problem was that the marshals were waving flags at multiple points around the track. "Here they were putting the flags everywhere, so then you wonder. Almost they were putting the flags too much compared to what was possible."
Aleix Espargaro had found the start of the Q2 session, especially the first few minutes, to be terrifying. "Especially the first 5 minutes I was very scared," the Aprilia rider told us. "Casanova-Savelli, Arrabbiata, very dangerous. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Then in the second part of qualifying it wasn’t raining. It was quite dry, that’s why times have been fast. but the marshals insisted with the rain flag."
Espargaro was also using the rain flags as a guide to how much grip was available. "I was focussed on the corner but looking at the next one to see the flags. If there was no flag at the next one I risked on the brakes. If there was a flag, I didn't." That wasn't always an accurate guide, however. "But sometimes you arrive in the corner it was not raining but they were showing the flag. It’s difficult. You have to trust them 100%. If they show it, you go full gas and crash, then it’s your fault. It was very difficult."
The problem, if you can call it that, is that the rain flag is very binary. The white flag with a diagonal red cross is to be waved to signify "drops of rain on this section of the track including rain affecting the track surface," according to the rulebook. But drops of rain on the track can mean just that rain is falling, it doesn't mean that the track is actually particularly wet.
That was the case on Saturday at Mugello, Johann Zarco explained. A stiff breeze and tarmac heated by the Tuscan summer sun meant that falling rain quickly evaporated again. "There are the drops, and then the wind, and then the tarmac is also quite warm. So then it disappeared immediately," the Frenchman told us. "So maybe the marshals saw the rain, and thought I need to put the flag."
This is not something which is easily solved. It is impossible for marshals to make an estimate of how much grip there is on the track. They can signal that rain is falling and that the track may be wet. But it remains up to the riders to figure out how much grip there is in any one corner.
That didn't sit well with several riders, however, who felt the session should have been delayed until conditions improved. "I was behind Marc when he crashed," Fabio Quartararo said. "He did nothing strange, but of course if you are here, it is to make the best result possible. And when it started to rain you want to go with the slick." Riders took risks, against their better nature, knowing they had to try to stand a chance of a decent qualifying slot. "In this kind of track we cannot wait for something to happen, to postpone or to wait something, so for me was not a good decision to go on track with the condition that we had."
Aleix Espargaro was even more outspoken. "It’s very dangerous," the Aprilia rider insisted. "For me it’s red flag. Red flag is for a matter of safety, no? Today was red flag."
Despite his fears, Espargaro ended up in seventh. On the one hand, he believes he has the pace to win. But on the other, he is stuck behind five Ducatis and a Yamaha. "The goal tomorrow is to win, 100%," the Aprilia rider told us. "I’m more focused and convinced than ever."
To do that, first, he would have to deal with the gaggle of Ducatis ahead of him, all of whom are slower on race pace. "It’s a very important race for me and the team," Espargaro said. "It’s going to be difficult with a lot of Ducatis in front. We have the pace. The bike is working good."
Espargaro would have to force himself to be patient, he said. "Everybody in the team is saying to me you have to be calm for the first eight laps, which I understand but I don’t fully agree," he told us. "The first two laps, everyone is more lost with the full tank, and you can take profit of this and overtake."
The problem was a bevvy of youngsters ahead who he would first have to pass. "It’s going to be difficult tomorrow because the young riders are going to give everything in the first five laps. They’ve been brave today, fast. congratulations to them, but I don’t think they have the pace to fight for the podium tomorrow, at least after ten laps. But the first ten laps for them will be the end of the world." Once those ten laps had passed, Espargaro would hope to be able to use the tire he saved to drive past them without too much trouble.
The danger is that Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo are on the row ahead of him. He was less concerned about the Frenchman on the Yamaha, but Bagnaia could get help from Marini, Bezzecchi, and Di Giannantonio. "The problem is if Pecco is able to overtake them, I don’t think they will re-overtake Pecco," Espargaro opined. "If I overtake them, they will try to overtake me 100%. So I have to be aggressive. It’s not going to be easy. I think Fabio is more in trouble than me because my bike is a bit faster than the Yamaha."
The race should at least be less processional than others, Espargaro said. "I think it’s going to be a fun race tomorrow." For the sake of Italian motorcycling, let us hope this is correct.
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