Forget Hamilton And Vettel, The Best Duel In Modern Motorsport Is On Two Wheels
Photography by Will Broadhead
Malaysia, 1996. A slightly awkward looking 17-year-old sits astride his 125cc Aprilia grand prix motorcycle, ready to embark on his first season of world championship racing. The young Italian would finish that year’s championship in 9th position, with one win, but would go on to dominate the sport for years to come. The name Valentino Rossi is synonymous with MotoGP, the famous Day-Glo-splashed leathers and sun and moon helmet, those race win celebrations, and of course the yellow “46.” Nine world titles, seven of them in the premier class, and the only rider to win across four different classes, “The Doctor” surely has a reasonable claim to being the greatest of all time. But is his magic fading? Will the new(ish) kid on the block eclipse his records and take his crown? The king is dead, long live the king?
It’s no secret that Rossi hasn’t won a world championship since 2009, and at 39 years of age he is in the twilight of his career, or at least he ought to be; in fact by other riders’ standards he should have probably retired already. Vale keeps banging in the results though, and although he doesn’t win relentlessly anymore (rarely, in fact), his consistency sees him sitting second in the championship on a motorcycle that is so far behind the direct competition of Ducati and Honda that Yamaha took the unprecedented step of apologizing publicly to their riders for providing such a weak package.
The problem is, sitting above him in the championship is the next generation of enigmatic talent, a rider that is already eclipsing the bright star of Rossi before it has even set. To speak about Marc Marquez as the new kid on the block feels silly though, as he is well established by now, and this year is his sixth season of premier class action. But we must remember that he is still only 25 years old, and when Rossi made his debut, Marquez was just three. He has won four premier class crowns already—the first of which came in his debut season—a feat only ever accomplished by American legend Kenny Roberts; but Marquez achieved this feat as a 20-year-old, the youngest ever.
It isn’t just the stats that are impressive either. Nobody, but nobody, can ride a bike like Marquez. All of the riders push to find the limit, but the often wild and exaggerated style exhibited by the young Spaniard has led to a change in the way that the racers ride a GP bike in general. Even Valentino had to learn to ride again, adapting his style to stay with this young hooligan, who seemingly manages to enter bends completely out of control, back wheel flailing, and yet emerges out of the other end upright. Indeed Marc has adopted his own way of saving certain crashes, and while picking the bike up on your knee to save a front end tuck isn’t wholly unusual, Marquez has been known to hold a folded front wheel well beyond the crash point, using elbows, knees and incredible strength to defy the laws of physics to lift up what is essentially a crashed motorcycle. So much so in fact, that Alpinestars have adapted the sliders on his leathers to cover a greater area, such is the frequency at which he performs these “maneuvers.”
Of course, pushing the boundaries so much invariably leads to crashes, and although Marquez has calmed down a lot since his younger days, he still lacks the total consistency of Rossi, as do many other riders, which is why the old man should still be regarded as an extremely competitive force at the top level, regardless of wins and age. What is certainly true is that we are enjoying a unique perspective of two of the greatest riders ever, facing off against one another. Whilst the old arguments of whether Rossi was better than Agostini have always raged, being riders of very different eras it is almost impossible to compare those guys. Rossi versus Marquez though, is very much happening week in, week out, and has provided some fabulous controversy and fireworks over the past few years. The young man from Cervera has not been shy of going toe to toe with the man who was once plastered over posters on his bedroom wall; both riders have banged bars and fairings; both riders have knocked each other off in some incredibly tough racing that has boiled over into foul play.
Whilst dangerous riding is not something anyone would condone, the rivalry between these two racers has been wonderful for the sport and MotoGP is easily one of the most exciting and closely fought championships in the world. As well as Rossi and Marquez, there are many other fabulous riders with just as great a chance of success, the likes of Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Mavrick Vinalez to name but a few. None of those riders quite capture the public like the Punch and Judy show of Rossi and Marquez though, and with Marc’s supreme skill, he is surely the rightful heir to the premier class throne when Rossi does finally hang up his leathers.
The 46 star still shines brightly though, he is still capable, and if given a competitive bike by his factory he could still be a contender in his 40th year on the planet. I would love to see another title go to Tavullia, and the huge plethora of yellow-clad fans around Silverstone this past weekend would undoubtedly agree with me, but with riders like Marc Marquez about, it will be a tough and exciting fight to get there.