It was more like a scene from the Muppets Show on Friday morning. Two old boys shouting at the television screen while expressing their opinions with very loud voices. My great friend Dr. Martin Raines and I were in the middle of a Zoom call when the first MotoGP™ practice session in Portimao was drawing to a close. A couple of minutes from the finish as the number 93 flashed to the top of the timing screen, the subject of the Zoom call went out of the window as we screamed our approval – how can he do it? Marc Marquez was at the front on his return to the MotoGP™ racetrack.
The agonising 265-day wait was finally over but how could he be leading after such a long time out of the saddle. This was a track the eight-time World Champion had never raced on before. The track for the first session was not in perfect condition and Marquez had already admitted he was going to suffer over the weekend with pain and lack of strength from the humerus he had broken so badly crashing at the opening round last year in Jerez.
Martin and I had been discussing all week just how careful he would have to be to protect the injury, to gain strength and heal. Even Marquez must know this, and any points scored in the tortuous 25 lap race on Sunday would be a starting point we agreed. What I totally forgot was that protect and careful are two words that Marquez could never use in a game of Scrabble because he simply does not understand their meaning.
I thought back to the last interview I did with him after he had won the 2017 MotoGP™ title at the final round in Valencia. It had been a difficult year for him and his Repsol Honda team and Marquez had decided to try and ride a little more conservatively, not take so many risks and ride for the points. Halfway through the season, his hairdresser told him his hair was starting to fall out. There was no baldness in the family, and he rushed to the doctor who confirmed the loss of hair. He suggested to Marc that the loss was caused by stress. Marc immediately worked out the solution. Stop trying to not be Marc Marquez and return to his old ways. Elbows and knees in constant contact with the tarmac may have suffered but he kept his hair and retained his title.
In the end, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins pushed Marquez back to third in that first session but he was back. He confirmed that return with sixth place and a second row start in qualifying. Anybody who doubted his intent and sheer downright guts and determination could not have watched Marquez at his best in the opening two corners of the race. From that second row, he charged into the riders in front of him like a raging bull who had finally been released after being fenced in for over 12 months. Marquez was up into third place, but would he last the pace? He had done no more than six continuous fast laps around the undulating, demanding circuit. The eight-time World Champion just gritted his teeth, reminded himself of sitting at home watching his rivals perform on the television and got on with the job he does better than anybody else in the world.
Somehow, he survived those last ten excruciating, painful laps to finish seventh, thirteen seconds behind race winner Fabio Quartararo. It was his first Grand Prix finish for 518 days and, back in the Repsol Honda garage, the tears flowed: surely a combination of pain and relief. Marquez showed he is a true warrior constructed from the same mould as the likes of Mick Doohan and Barry Sheene, who returned from horrendous injuries to win World titles.
The story continues at Jerez in two weeks’ time. Before then there is plenty of zooming and lawns to be cut for the two old boys before the shouting at the screen starts once again.