At the Dutch TT, at the Assen circuit in Holland, a wiry man is standing at the back of the Repsol Honda MotoGP team garage against a partition wall. He is tanned, with short hair and laughter lines, and bouncy on his feet. Chatting to team boss Livio Suppo during practice, you might mistake him for a former racer, but then you notice the striking similarity to the young man nearby who then puts a bespoke Shoei NXR helmet over his head. Julià Márquez is at all his eldest son’s races. He’s not obtrusive. His voice can’t be heard over everyone else’s. He doesn’t dress in team colours. He’s just there if Marc needs him.
The same goes for Alex, Marc’s brother, who is three years younger and achieving great success in the Moto3 junior category. Both brothers still live at home with their parents in Cervera, an hour’s drive north of Barcelona. In private, Marc drives a BMW M5, which he won for being the best MotoGP qualifier last season, or a white van with no windows and a built-in workshop, which he prefers because it’s more practical.
The Márquez household now has a separate room to store all the trophies, but otherwise everything is just as it’s always been. The brothers live, eat and train together. The wild world of MotoGP, with its huge motor homes, leggy models and the wheeling and dealing of competitive top-class motorsport, intrudes into their lives as little as possible.
Some things have changed, Alex admits, when pushed. “In the past I used to get Marc’s helmets, gloves and bikes handed down to me. Dad would take Marc to one race while Mum drove me to another, then the following weekend it would be the other way around. But that’s not necessary any more now that we’re both in the MotoGP paddock.”
Since the age of 11, Marc has been managed by 1999 125cc world champion Emilio Alzamora. The 41-year-old Spaniard is advisor, mentor and something of a hard taskmaster, but if you’re good enough to satisfy his demands, you can climb a long, long way towards the top.
When he started working with Marc in 2004, he would have seen potential, but had no idea of the size of the diamond in the rough he had found. Sure, Marc was junior Catalan enduro champion aged eight, then made his world championship debut aged 15 and was first crowned world champion in the 125cc category at 17, but others have done that too. After moving up from 125cc to Moto2, he first stood out for his crashes and injuries. It took him two seasons to win the title, in 2012; the previous year’s winner was Stefan Bradl of Germany.
But the Honda factory team were still adamant that they wanted him to replace the retired Australian genius Casey Stoner in the top flight of the sport, even if that would mean having to ignore protocol. Rookies normally have to gain experience with smaller teams before they get a ride with a big factory outfit.
Team boss Livio Suppo will never forget Marc’s first test on a MotoGP bike. “It was in Valencia. The first day it rained and we couldn’t get out to test. Some of the others were getting nervous, but when we finally got going on the second day, Marc got on the bike and broke the record for one section on his first stint. He was quicker than Stoner, [Valentino] Rossi and [Dani] Pedrosa. I took a picture of his data on screen with my phone. It was unbelievable.”
Suppo is a cunning old bird who ran the Ducati team before the Japanese led him to the Honda Racing Corporation so that he could finally put the cheeky Rossi and his Yamaha in their place. Suppo is not the type to be impressed easily. “You can judge young riders after their first season. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.” For someone to be quicker than the benchmark on their first outing, that was unheard of, even in the Darwinian world of 1,000cc motorcycle racing.
When riders like Marc Márquez hurtle round the track on their electronically enhanced 250hp missiles, they can tilt at up to 69 degrees to the track. (When they lean that far, the rider’s head disappears from the picture on the gyroscopic onboard cameras and it’s not knee and elbow touching the tarmac; sometimes even a shoulder does.) The force generated is borne by two spots the size of credit cards on the standardised Bridgestone tyres, whose surface temperature can pass 200°C. Wheel rims get so hot that you can’t touch them without wearing gloves.
Repsol Honda’s chief engineer, Klaus Nöhles, a former world championship motorcycle rider, knows everything there is to know about his riders’ preferences, and what they really signify. “Marc needs the front wheel to be extremely stable. To put it bluntly, he doesn’t care about what the back wheel is doing. He is the only person whose rear wheel comes off the tarmac when he leans over fully because he brakes so hard coming into the corners.”
And yet, he sometimes hits the floor, skids into the gravel or has to brake to an emergency stop. “Finding the limit is all part of it,” Marc says with a grin and shrugs his shoulders. “Otherwise you won’t be quick enough.” He used to crash a lot; now he knows the limit without necessarily having to go beyond it.
But could his speed be due to his being used to electronic driving aids, as rumoured by some? Suppo denies it. “He is so quick because he’s so quick. On the contrary, electronics help weaker riders look disproportionately good.”
Nöhles says that the Repsol Honda working methods are the most structured he has ever witnessed in his career. “They come to the track with a specific idea and then only ever change one thing. They never do anything in a panic.” That is largely down to the calm and wise ways of Santi Hernandez, the head of Marc’s engineering team. The Spaniard, who lives in London and has a great gift for smoking, is the young guy with the beard thrilled in the background whenever Marc wins. “It’s so easy working with Marc,” he says. “He says exactly what he wants and then goes faster than expected. He is also amazingly honest. If he makes a mistake and crashes, he comes into the pits and apologises. So we don’t even have to start looking for mistakes in the set-up.”
Marc works through disappointments very quickly, in no time beaming his sunshine smile, which, says brother Alex, “the whole family has”. Says Suppo: “Casey Stoner was a prodigy on the bike, but he and Marc have completely different personalities. Marc arrives laughing every time and is happy to be here. That affects the whole team, which I’m grateful to him for on a daily basis. There’s no one who doesn’t like working for him. Marc makes us all younger.”
The young man’s self-confidence is incredible. Last year, in front of 100,000 fanatic home fans in Valencia, he had to finish the final race of the season no worse than third to become the youngest world champion in history. Marc tapped his team boss on the shoulder before the start and said reassuringly, “Don’t worry. Even if you tied one hand behind my back, I’d finish third.” First was Jorge Lorenzo, second Dani Pedrosa and third Marc Márquez. No risk taken, but he got the job done.
He works well with his teammate Pedrosa, who, traditionally, ought to be his greatest rival. “They get on, they have a laugh, they even go and eat together,” says Suppo. Such camaraderie between competing teammates is unthinkable in other sports. The key to it here is probably mutual respect, helped by the fact that they’re in an extremely dangerous sport and so reliant on one another when they’re going wheel-to-wheel at 350kph and there’s no carbon chassis to protect the body if something goes wrong. It wasn’t always like this, though. The two had a few nasty scrapes as they fought for the lead in the championship last season and for a while there seemed to be trouble in the air. There’s no evidence of it now. They talked it through, man to man, says Suppo, who expresses his “respect for the way the two of them dealt with the situation”.
Dani Pedrosa has been at the top of MotoGP for a decade and is the wiliest rider in the field after Valentino Rossi. Marc’s current advantage, says Pedrosa, comes because he “isn’t just quick; he’s hard to overtake, too. He brakes when he’s already leaning way over to come into the corner, which makes him very wide. There’s no way of getting around him on the outside. The only chance you have is to come in on his inside as you brake – but then you’ve still got to make the corner.” Stefan Bradl agrees: “We’re all trying to crack him, but no one’s worked out how yet.”
Maybe it’s down to training on dirt tracks, where Marc got used to riding sliding motorbikes. “Marc has perfected braking with his leg splayed out wide,” says Klaus Nöhles. “He props himself up with a leg on the tarmac, while the bike seems to dance and career out of control. Look closely and you can see that he is only guiding the bike very loosely, letting it find its own way, rather than clinging onto it for dear life like the other riders seem to. It’s as if Marc has greater faith in his bike’s abilities than the others do.”
In addition to his consistent brilliance, there are magic Márquez moments where, out of nowhere, he manages to get one over the rest of the field, almost as if for fun, sapping spirits even more. Such as securing pole position by a large margin on a circuit that favours Yamaha bikes – the kind with quick, open corners – ahead of three Yamahas and a Ducati, and then the other Hondas. And what does he have to say about that? A grin all over his face.
Whoever gets a MotoGP pole receives a watch from a sponsor. Marc keeps the first one each year for himself. He gives the second to his father, then he works his way through the team. Engineer Santi Hernandez now has four and always wears the most recent one. The others are in his flat in London, where he also has a signed helmet from last year’s world championship title. “One day,” says Hernandez, “one day, I’ll look back and won’t be able to believe that I was part of all this and got to work with someone like Marc.”
Who can stop him going to greater success if even his rivals barely think they have a chance? Team boss Suppo knows. “Having a short, successful career is one thing. Having a long successful one is something else completely. Marc has what it takes to be even more successful than Valentino Rossi. The only think that could possibly get in his way is if he falls in love with some stunning Brazilian and she whisks him off to a desert island.”