Marc Márquez is the highest paid MotoGP rider in the world. His salary is rumored to be in the region of €15 million a year, and while the numbers bandied about for rider salaries can be wildly inaccurate, there is evidence to suggest this is not far off the mark, if you will excuse the pun. HRC is said to give riders an automatic €2 million a year raise for winning the championship, so Márquez' five MotoGP titles in theory add up to a tidy €10 million since he entered the premier class. And that is on top of the base salary he stated out with, and any extra wages he may have negotiated for himself.
He is worth every penny of that to HRC. Without Márquez, Honda's championship trophy cabinet would have been conspicuously bare. In the five seasons in which Márquez won the MotoGP title, the second-placed Honda rider finished third, fourth, sixth, fourth, and seventh respectively. For a factory which regards itself as the pinnacle of motorcycling, not winning championships is not an option. The dry spell between Nicky Hayden's 2006 title and Casey Stoner's in 2011 is still a painful memory for Honda.
So HRC know they have to keep Marc Márquez. And not just keep him, but prevent him from moving to the competition. Ducati have shown an interest in Márquez, and after the abortive attempt with Valentino Rossi, and the only-successful-once-it-was-too-late attempt with Jorge Lorenzo, the Italian factory may be ready to take a third run at throwing a lot of money at a superstar in an attempt to finally win the title which has eluded them so far.
Then there's KTM. Márquez has been a Red Bull athlete since 2009, when he rode a KTM in the 125cc class. The KTM RC16 is clearly making progress in terms of competitiveness, and is philosophically very close to the Honda RC213V. Red Bull already ponies up a lot of money to KTM for MotoGP, and the pockets of the two Austrian brands would effectively be bottomless if they believed they could sign Márquez. And with Dani Pedrosa as a test rider, they have someone with an intimate knowledge of Márquez' ability on a motorcycle.
So Honda will have to give Márquez what he wants in order to keep him. They have already given him a modicum of control inside the project, changing their usual policy of rotating engineers out of the MotoGP program every three years, a change made at Márquez' request. He explained this to me earlier this year in an interview.
"Now, step by step [HRC] are starting to understand that, of course it’s important to change, but you need to keep two or three people inside the project if a project is going in a good way," Márquez told me. "And then they are starting to understand that, and they are also changing. I mean they are Japanese, of course they have their way of doing things, but they listen. And that's the reason that when I say I’m really happy with Honda, it's because I feel like I’m important in Honda. I feel I’m important because when I say something, they listen and at the minimum, they consider what I say, and this is important."
The influence Márquez has within Honda cannot be overstated. Talk to anyone who has dealings with HRC, and they will tell you the same. "Marc has a lot of control in Honda. A lot of control," one such person told me recently.
That influence will be felt most keenly at Motegi, when Márquez arrives there in three weeks' time either as the 2019 MotoGP champion, or almost certain to wrap up the title at Honda's home circuit. That title, his and Honda's sixth in seven years will make an excellent starting point for the contract negotiations which will follow.
How much will Márquez ask for? And how much will Honda be willing to pay? An added €2 million would take him to €17 million. Will he want more? €20 million? €25 million? If you were Honda, would you pay it?
Of course you would, given Márquez' track record. But that poses a different problem. Márquez' salary is starting to become a substantial proportion of HRC's MotoGP budget. Though no figures are ever made public, an educated guess would be that HRC spends between €70 and €80 million on MotoGP, based on numbers spent by other factories. Márquez' salary is closing in on consuming a quarter of HRC's MotoGP budget. If he gets a big raise, it could be closer to a third.
That, as anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of accounting can see, is a real problem. The more money HRC spends on Márquez' salary, the less there is to go around all the other areas Honda need to spend on. Give Márquez another million, and that is a big chunk of the aerodynamics budget. Give him two million, and you are starting to eat into funds which could otherwise be spent on chassis development and go toward fixing the lack of front-end feel the other Honda riders complain about.
The right balance
Does this mean that Márquez should temper his salary demands? If rider salaries follow market forces, then Márquez' unique skillset is almost literally priceless. He can ask for any number he wants, and someone will almost certainly pay it.
But if he does so, he risks cutting off his nose to spite his face. If he were to go to Honda and demand to be paid €25 million, they would be forced to pay it. But unless HRC could extract more money from Honda's corporate HQ, they would inevitably be forced to find areas of the budget to cut. And a sufficiently large wage demand would inescapably start to cut into the R&D budget.
Less money on development means less progress on improving the Honda RC213V. And less development progress means a bike which is currently hard to ride stays that way. Sure, Marc Márquez cruised to the 2019 championship, but if the Ducati GP20 is a step forward, and Yamaha find more horsepower for the M1, and the Suzuki takes another step forward next year, then Márquez would face a much tougher challenge in 2020. And an even tougher one in 2021. Eventually, his salary demands could end up costing him a title.
Marc Márquez is clearly a phenomenon, and will continue to rack up the wins and rake in the titles. He is currently the quickest route for Honda to winning the MotoGP title. But Márquez doesn't come cheap. That may be a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.
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