Thirty years ago, a young man burst onto the road-bike racing scene and smashed all records to smithereens. He made his debut in the sport’s top flight, Grand Prix motorcycle racing, when he was 19 and was world champion by the age of 21. The experts were convinced that his records would never be broken. The whizzkid was called ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer and the secret to his success was a youth spent honing his motor skills on US dirt tracks. Dirt-track bikes have no front brakes. You steer by opening up the throttle and shifting your weight and you’re always drifting slightly sideways.
In 2013, another young man made his mark in MotoGP, as top-flight racing has been known since 2002. He was so good that the usual route to the top was bypassed: rookies have to work their way up in satellite teams before they’re given a ride with the big factory teams. But Honda saw the future in Marc Márquez, the reigning champion of the lower Moto2 class.
At just 20 years of age, he would ride alongside experienced fellow Spaniard Dani Pedrosa for Repsol Honda. Marquez finished his first race on the podium. Then he won his second race. Last November he became the youngest MotoGP world champion in history at 20 years and 266 days. Like Fast Freddie, dirt track was also the secret to his success.The cradle of Marquez’s achievements is the vineyards surrounding his hometown of Lleida, about 150km west of Barcelona. Hidden among the grapes that go to make the Costers del Segre wine is a well-tended dirt track and a motocross course, with changing rooms and a small canteen. Not a typical spot to find a world champion, a man who now can’t go anywhere outside this place without being recognised. “The first photo you have taken with a fan tends to set off a chain reaction,” Marquez says. “I saw a banner in the stands in Spain once that said, ‘I’ll take my underwear off if you have your photo taken with me.’ Last year I autographed a woman’s breasts, a man’s backside, a baby and a €500 note. The person it belonged to presumably hoped it’s going to increase in value.”
Márquez, his younger brother Alex, a successful Moto3 rider, and Tito Rabat from Moto2, are all training here in Lleida. “They want to beat me,” says Márquez, “and I want to be half-a-second per lap quicker than them.” He says the competition here is as merciless as if it were a MotoGP race. “I love battling it out hard. I don’t get as much out of a race I’ve won by four or five seconds as one that gets the adrenalin pumping and is decided on the final turn. Like [in 2013] when Jorge Lorenzo edged me at Silverstone on the last turn, that didn’t annoy me. There’s a limit, but it depends on the situation. Everyone will try anything on the last corner.” As for his opponents: “Lorenzo’s strength is his consistency and [Valentino] Rossi is particularly strong on the last lap.” Márquez is aggressive; he drifts and often looks like he’s not in control. “I have to ride like that if I want to be quick. A rounded, relaxed style doesn’t work for me.”
Though Márquez has won world champion titles in MotoGP, Moto2 and the 125cc categories, he still lives at home, and sleeps in his childhood bedroom, with posters of FC Barcelona and Valentino Rossi on the walls. “Rossi was my idol. Dani Pedrosa was my yardstick.” He has since left both in his wake and is now the main rider at the Repsol Honda team. “Maybe it’ll be harder this year because everyone’s expecting great things of me. But I like pressure.” He has also now adjusted to his employer’s Japanese way of doing things. “The Japanese love to evaluate and discuss things. I wanted to change the handlebar grips at the first test. That was nothing to do with how the bike itself was performing; it was purely a matter of my own personal taste. They had to have a meeting to get them changed. But that meticulousness is what makes Honda successful.”
Márquez, who loves “big-balls” tracks, like Phillip Island in Australia with its blind bends that he takes at full throttle, combines fearlessness with impressive serenity. “I sleep incredibly well the night before a race. Nine, sometimes 10 hours.” His only concession on race day is “blue underwear when I’m practising and red when I’m racing.”
Just a few days after that relaxed afternoon in Lleida, Márquez becomes the trending topic in motorsport, after breaking his leg while riding on the dirt track. “It was a bit of a stupid crash,” he admits. “A friend came off his bike in front of me; I managed to avoid him. That should have been that, but I turned round to check on him – which is when my foot got stuck on the edge of the track and I broke my right fibula.” He hopes to be fit to defend his title in the 2014 MotoGP season. Missing almost all of the pre-season hasn’t given him too much cause for concern: he dominated the MotoGP test prior to the injury.
But does the break mean the end of Marquez’s dirt-track racing? “Hang on! That was the first time I’ve ever been injured on one.” And how does he plan to occupy his time until the start of the season? “Maybe I’ll finally apply for my motorbike licence.” The quickest man in the world on two wheels is permitted to drive a car on the road, but not a motorbike.