Heads up: Marc Marquez is about to attempt a superhuman MotoGP feat
You've probably heard the stories; MotoGP motorcycle racers are not normal human beings. There have been many wild tales over the years of riders suffering shocking injuries, only to somehow wedge themselves back on the fastest motorcycles in the world and compete at the highest level of this hugely physical sport, and one such tale is unfolding right now.
Spaniard Marc Marquez is the greatest motorcycle racer on the planet right now, perhaps the single most ludicrously talented rider the sport has ever seen. His signature move is the "uncrash," in which he dashes into a corner at high speed and leans his Honda race bike to as much as 70 degrees from vertical, to the point where his crazy-sticky Michelin tires lose grip and both wheels start to slide sideways.
At this point, a mortal rider is doomed to complete the crash and slide off the track. But Marquez has pioneered a technique of delicately steering into the slide, pushing the bike back up with his knee, and employing an unprecedented kinetic wizardry to get the thing back up on two wheels. This is no fluke, this alien motorcycling machine does it two or three times every race weekend. It's become one of the great slow-mo drawcards of the sport.
Last weekend, just four laps into the 2020 Spanish GP, Marquez pulled off one of the most spectacular uncrash saves of his life, getting a sliding bike back on two wheels just in time to run off the track into a slippery gravel trap, where he somehow kept his slick-tired race bike upright and dirt-bike fishtailed his way back out onto the track. Just watch (desktop users will need to click through to Youtube to view):
This incident put him right at the back of a pack comprising the world's best motorcycle racers, who now had a head start. But the greats often rise to such challenges, and viewers were treated to one of the most thrilling come-from-behind races of all time as Marquez picked off his incredibly talented opponents one by one. By lap 21, he had gobbled up all but two other riders and was about to snatch second place; the kind of ride that would completely demoralize his competitors and drive fear into their hearts.
And then his luck ran out. On the same turn 4, he lost traction again, but this time the rear wheel grabbed savagely before he could save it. When this happens, the bike flicks up and over in what's known as a "highside" crash, flinging the rider into the air. I've had one myself, also on a Honda. The landing broke my sacrum, and although one of the consequences was getting a job writing for a little website called Gizmag, I still can't recommend the highside as any sort of fun.
The impact of such a fall is bad enough, but worse still, as bike and rider slid off the track, the front wheel of Marquez's Honda swung around and nailed him in the right forearm with enough force to send his whole body flying again. Check it out below (again, desktop users can click through to Youtube).
His dangling right arm told the story: this was a serious injury. And so it was: a broken right humerus with a side helping of chest trauma. Marquez was rushed to hospital, where surgeons put in a titanium plate and were very relieved to report no damage to the critical radial nerve, which could've caused paralysis of the right forearm and hand.
To you and I, that's six weeks in a cast. But Marquez is a MotoGP alien, and since time immemorial a procession of these strange creatures have strapped themselves up and got back on the bike despite a level of physical pain few of us have experienced. Today, four days after breaking his arm, Marquez has announced he's planning to race this weekend, and the MotoGP doctors, who are accustomed to dealing with such madmen, have tested and cleared him.
Remember, this is no regular motorcycle ride. A modern MotoGP bike makes more than 250 horsepower at the rear wheel, and travels at speeds over 350 km/h (218 mph). Riders are accelerating as hard as they can, braking as hard as they can, or climbing all over these bikes to make them corner. Riding at this level is a brutally physical experience, and Marquez's right hand needs to work that Honda's vicious throttle and savage carbon brakes with supremely delicate accuracy, while dealing with a range of other forces simultaneously.
Still, as we have established, Marquez is not a normal human being. He's going to take the Friday practice session off, and then jump on the bike and try to qualify Saturday, and if his team can't convince him to sit it out, he'll race Sunday – on the same track he just crashed twice at in Jerez.
Are there championship implications? Well, kind of. It's the start of the season and MotoGP racers can't afford to miss out on points if they want to compete for a championship. The 2020 title was Marquez's to lose even before the season started; he's won the last four and showed no signs of slowing down. So if he manages to do well this weekend, the other riders will be even more terrified of him.
Still, Michael Jordan had his flu game in 1997, where he could barely stand but somehow found the energy to drive a stake into the heart of the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals. Niki Lauda turned his Formula One car into a fireball at the German Grand Prix in 1976, burning most of his right ear off and putting himself in a coma, and he was back behind the wheel placing fourth just 39 days later. Jack Youngblood snapped his left fibula in an NFL playoff game, went straight back out on the field with a leg brace and managed to register a sack, helping the Rams beat the Cowboys.
These kinds of stories are sport at its best: the most phenomenally gifted athletes in the world facing down overwhelming odds and pushing their bodies through pain barriers the rest of us wouldn't contemplate. So here's a heads-up, sports fans: this weekend's MotoGP race could become another one of sport's finest moments. All the planets will need to align, but if anyone can do it, Marquez can. Don't miss it.
Update 27th July: The planets did not align. Marquez sat out the first two practice sessions, then came out for FP3 feeling good, circulating with times that put him in 19th place. He looked even stronger at the start of FP4, but then the pain kicked in and, in agreement with his team, he returned to the pits. He came out once more to have a crack at qualifying, but when the same pain hit in the first lap out he withdrew from the race. "Tonight," he said later, "I will sleep well, because I tried and it wasn't possible. Brno will be another race!"