Marc Márquez is the 2018 MotoGP world champion, winning round 16 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan after rival Andrea Dovizioso, having led the first 20 laps, lost the front in a final-laps engagement.

Dovizioso qualified on pole, with Márquez sixth on the second row. Through practice, the factory Ducati rider noted that Márquez’s pace was strong, but journalists prefer the printed information sheets that pour from the official copiers.

At first, Márquez wasn’t so sure. At the end of the first day he said, “Right now, I’d say I’d be lucky to reach the final lap together with Dovizioso. I don’t have his pace for the moment.”

After the race, Márquez saw things differently. “I had great pace during practice, confirming it in warm-up on very used tires. Starting from sixth, I thought I’d need to be perfect in the first few laps, and luckily by the end of lap one I was behind Dovi.”

Remember the golfer’s expression, “The more I practice, the luckier I get”?

“I watched where he was stronger,” Márquez explained, “then made a first attack nine laps from the end. But I made a small mistake and he got back past me and started to push. I was able to stick with him and wanted to use the same strategy as in Thailand—I didn’t want to attack on the last lap. I knew he could beat me on the last lap anyway, as he had better acceleration.”

In other words, because of the Ducati’s acceleration advantage, Márquez would need a couple of laps to consolidate a pass. “I thought I could try and attack before the last lap because I felt I had something extra to give.”

Twin Ring Motegi
Marc Márquez (93) started Sunday’s race at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit from sixth position on the grid. The 25-year-old Spaniard has an uncanny ability to manage the unexpected in a way others seemingly cannot.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Dovizioso said, “I’ll need to rewatch the race because when Márquez got in front of me he was riding strangely to prevent me from passing. He couldn’t have stuck behind me riding like that. There were a few points where I could pass him but I had to create the situation. I anticipated corner entry so I could be close to him on exit, but I asked too much of the front tire and went down.”

That left second to Cal Crutchlow, who, during the race, had mulled the idea that he could pass both men ahead of him and leave them to sort out who would be second. This looked possible because two riders together are so often slower than either one on his own.

Crutchlow said, “The problem was that Dovi was yo-yoing the pace again. Now we know the strategy of Ducati, which they have done for four or five races in a row now: They do two or three fast laps, then they slow the pace down, and then they do two or three fast laps again. That was allowing Álex [Rins, on a Suzuki] and the group behind to catch up. I should probably have attacked Dovi earlier and then let them fight it out for second place.”

Álvaro Bautista
Angel Nieto Team Ducati rider Álvaro Bautista will replace Jorge Lorenzo—whose fractured left arm may require surgery—this weekend at Phillip Island in Australia on the second factory Ducati. Bautista will move to World Superbike with Ducati in 2019.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

What was this “yo-yoing the pace”? One clue is a conversation I had with Márquez a few years ago in the Bridgestone era. He said that a rider can feel a tire is overheating because it becomes “bouncy.” Sometimes resting such a tire allows it to recover, he said, but it is possible for it to become so hot that this no longer works.

Did this happen to Aleix Espargaró, who said: “From the start, the instrument cluster was showing an alarm for front-tire pressure and temperature, which went to abnormal levels. It was impossible to ride. The wheel locked up in braking even when going straight, and I was forced to retire.” Or did a forgetful team member fail to let his front tire down to working pressure?

In any case, Dovizioso’s yo-yoing allowed Rins to make up more than 1.5 seconds. “I could hear Álex behind me,” Crutchlow said. “He was opening the throttle about 20 meters [65 feet] earlier than me because our grip is not like theirs.”

And what is that grip difference? The Honda, its chassis made stiff to permit super-hard braking, is too stiff to hook up at lean angles that are easier for the corner-speed Suzukis. “But we were using the stronger point on our bike,” Crutchlow added, which is braking.

And Márquez’s view? “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Perhaps [Dovizioso] was trying to save the tire.” (Motegi has several hard-braking areas. Remember Ben Spies’ brake problem there in 2012?) “Or perhaps it was just a strategy. I have to say it was strange on his part, as tire consumption isn’t really an issue here.”

Rins attempted to pass Crutchlow. “It was difficult to pass him,” he said, “because he was braking really hard.” The Suzukis have gained strength in recent races, but face the same tire-conservation issues as the others. Rins continued, “On the start, I overtook many riders. I destroyed a little bit the front tire there and then, with Cal, I had some chattering at the front.”

There is the experience difference. Márquez, too, overtook many riders at the start, but he did so in ways that left him able to win.

Dovizioso summed up Márquez: “He can be quick right from lap one. He reacts quickly to any changes in the conditions. He can always ride on the limit for many laps without making a mistake. Many riders have some of these qualities, but he has them all.”

Álex Rins
Friday’s second practice was wet. Knowing the forecast for Sunday was dry, only 16 riders, Álex Rins (42) included, took to the damp circuit. Rins finished third in the 25-lap race behind Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

I would add one more quality. Márquez has confidence that he can handle the unforeseeable (or even chaos) better than can his opponents. This resembles techniques in chess in which moves of unknown consequences are made to create a situation in which the opponent falters. About Dovizioso, Márquez said, “He was pushing really hard and made a mistake.”

Valentino Rossi was fourth, saying, “This is our potential.” In other words, our bike is good enough for fourth but can no longer challenge the leaders, which now include Honda, Ducati, and Suzuki. Speaking of his oft-repeated message to Yamaha higher-ups regarding their present long drought of success, Rossi said, “I keep saying the same things during those meetings. I might as well leave a recording and a photo of myself on the table rather than [attending] myself.”

Johann Zarco, who qualified second on a Tech 3 Yamaha, only 0.068 second off Dovizioso’s time, lost positions in the first corners after the start and was unable to regain contact with the leaders.

Márquez celebrates his 69th career Grand Prix victory
Third for two laps, second for 18, first for four: Márquez celebrates his 69th career Grand Prix victory and seventh championship on the podium at Motegi. The Repsol Honda rider has 43 wins in the premier class, including eight this season.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Other manufacturers have had long droughts as well. Honda, delighted with its new methodology of relying, Formula 1-style, upon data rather than rider feedback, achieved little from 2004 through mid-2010, save for the late Nicky Hayden’s 2006 title. Ducati, evidently certain that its analytical/predictive methods would soon “come good,” were content to watch Casey Stoner’s 2007 world title be followed by second in 2008, then fourth in 2009 and ’10, with worse yet to come.

What this tells us is that a manufacturer’s entrenched methods are often dearer to its leadership than championships won. This resembles what happens in science, as pointed out in Thomas Kuhn’s small book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He shows that outdated theories are not brought down by new data, for they continue to be defended by their prestigious creators until they die. Only then do professional journals dare to publish the work of younger researchers.

In both cases, race teams had to bring in “new brooms,” decisive leaders with authority for radical change. Yamaha made such a change at the end of 2003 when it chose Masao Furusawa as MotoGP technical manager. Furusawa’s masterstroke was to put the changes he made out of reach of bureaucratic interference. He did so by letting Yamaha’s new and very expensive rider choice, Rossi, choose the combination he liked best. That was the 90-degree crank and the 16-valve cylinder head.

The championship is decided, but Rossi is only nine points behind Dovizioso, who said, “Valentino is always there. He’s not so strong this year, but at the end, he always makes the points. He is the fastest Yamaha rider, and we have to be careful about him.”