MotoGP: Who can challenge Marc Marquez-Honda in 2020? A championship overview

As we head into the 2020 MotoGP season, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is – Can anyone challenge Honda's Marc Marquez?

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah July 17, 2020 11:16:48 IST
MotoGP: Who can challenge Marc Marquez-Honda in 2020? A championship overview

Over the last few years, whenever ‘competitiveness’ is referred to in MotoGP, it throws up a strange paradox.

Over the years the sport has taken various measures to ensure that the grid remains as bunched up as possible, while Marc Marquez and Honda have built a seemingly unshakable dominance at the front.

Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta frequently endorses the extremely close field in MotoGP while Repsol Honda’s Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama described Marquez as “somebody from another planet” – which seems to be the only way to aptly describe the genius rider. As we head into the 2020 MotoGP season, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is – Can anyone challenge Honda's Marc Marquez?

Decoding Marquez’s dominance

Let’s take a moment to understand the unthinkable extent to which Marquez and Honda have stamped their authority over the series. Marquez has won six world championships since his MotoGP debut in 2013 with the Repsol Honda team (barring 2015, where he finished third as Jorge Lorenzo won). Simply put, no rider on the current grid has beaten Marquez to a MotoGP world title.

Looking at the 2019 season provides an added picture of how truly unstoppable Marquez is on his Repsol Honda bike: He notched up nine victories, while no other rival had more than two, while the Spaniard finished outside of the top two just once. These scarcely believable results allowed him to score the most championship points in premier class history and amass about 50 percent more championship points than his closest challenger, Andrea Dovizioso of Ducati. Interestingly, Marquez had declared then that his newfound lofty standards would offer a “problem” as expectations would only increase. He even went on to call the 2019 results “not normal”, suggesting it wouldn't be easy to replicate, which can be seen as a small glimmer of hope for the champion’s rivals considering he may not be ‘as’ dominant going forward.

Two crucial factors contribute to Marquez’s extended stay at the top. The first is continuity – he has been with Repsol Honda since his MotoGP debut and has built the entire team and machinery around himself. This is a unique competitive advantage which none of his rivals have (yet). He has extended his contract with Repsol Honda up to 2024 – exemplifying the adage that one must never change a winning team! As Marquez said when he signed this long-term contract, “Honda Racing Corporation gives me the confidence to extend this partnership to obtain our common goal and continue our story of success.”

The second crucial advantage Marquez has mastered is the power of consistency. Marquez had earlier admitted that consistency was his weak point, most notably observed in his 2015 title defeat, so it is creditable that he has managed to convert it into a strength. In the upcoming 2020 season, Marquez will be propelled by the opportunity to equalise the legendary Valentino Rossi’s record of seven premier class titles. Given the shortened calendar, Marquez’s consistency will be a bigger strength than ever before. Who can challenge Marquez? Over the years, Marquez’s rivals have worn a changing face. Earlier, it was the old guard comprising stalwarts such as Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, now changed the grid contemporaries are Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati), Maverick Vinales (Yamaha), Alex Rins (Suzuki). There is also an emerging brigade of young blood – with the charge led by young Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha).

For the past three seasons, the rider who has come closest to challenging Marquez for the title is Dovizioso – who finished second in the riders’ standings each time. In 2017, the championship battle went down to the last race – but in 2018 and 2019, Marquez sealed the title well in advance. Year 2020 brings unique circumstances for Dovizioso – starting with the fact that he does not have a contract signed with Ducati for 2021 owing to financial disagreements between both parties. While this may impact his immediate stability, it will also ensure that he has plenty to prove. At 34 years, he is currently the third oldest rider on the grid. Moreover, Dovizioso suffered from a broken collarbone a few weeks ago. Although he has been declared fit to ride at Jerez, it well might remain a point of concern. While the recently-concluded Jerez test showed seemingly disappointing timesheet results, Dovizioso spun it positively, saying, “Thanks to this test, we can now focus on the important aspects of the race without wasting time."

Another name that comes up as a potential challenger to Marquez is Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales. In 2019, Vinales had a mixed season. Through the season, he had seven podiums including two race wins. In fact, he was the only one to challenge and beat Marquez in a straight fight – at Assen and Sepang. However, Vinales has lacked race management, consistency and the ability to fight back up the order in races where he gets away or qualifies poorly.

Ahead of the 2020 season, Vinales showed tremendous promise through winter testing, as well as at the recent Jerez tests where he topped the timesheets in the second session.

Suzuki has been viewed as the team with the outside chance in the championship challenge, their rider Alex Rins will be one to watch out for. He finished fourth in the riders’ championship in 2019, grabbing two victories along the way. He, along with teammate Joan Mir, remain interesting candidates. It is impossible to write off Valentino Rossi, who will be hungry for a final hurrah before possibly moving to the satellite Yamaha seat next season. Also, who better to stop Marquez from equalising Rossi’s MotoGP titles record than Rossi himself!

From the new guard, the most unexpected rival to Marquez last season was 20-year-old rookie rider Fabio Quartararo (SRT Yamaha) who surprised all by his sheer talent and pace. Despite the lack of premier class experience and without securing a single win in 2019, Quartararo earned seven podiums. He also shone in qualifying, grabbing six poles, second only to Marquez’s tally of nine poles. Marquez had previously admitted that he considers Quartararo to be his biggest challenger in 2020. This season, Quartararo continues with the Yamaha satellite team but receives ‘upgraded’ machinery – his bike will be on par with those of Rossi and Vinales in the factory team, and not the ‘B-spec’ bike he had in 2019. Expect to see Quartararo putting up a great show and capitalising on the experience he has accumulated while he continues to hone his raw talent.

Another young rider to keep an eye on is Jack Miller – the Pramac Ducati rider who will move to the factory seat in 2021. Miller has plenty to prove, especially since his factory contract only spans a single season. Veteran rider Cal Crutchlow (Miller’s teammate at Pramac Ducati) opined that "Jack is probably one of the only guys here that has the talent to beat Marc over a season. I see him as the guy who's able to step up and take the fight to Marc over the coming years." An interesting rookie story that will be closely tracked is Alex Marquez – Marc’s younger brother who makes his MotoGP debut as his teammate at Repsol Honda. Alex is the reigning Moto2 champion and will be looking to cement his place in the Honda stable despite his upcoming demotion in 2021 to LCR Honda. Plus, never underestimate the power of some good old sibling rivalry as Alex attempts to step out of his brother’s shadow!

Opportunity for a challenge

While on all historic evidence points to yet another season where Marquez and Honda ruthlessly obliterate the competition, 2020 may just throw up some surprises. The condensed and cramped calendar will pose challenges and offer opportunities that could upheave the status quo. The eight-month gap since the last MotoGP race also means that Marquez cannot simply leverage his existing winning momentum, and gives his rivals the chance to level up. The unprecedented global situation also means that mental strength is more important than ever. In addition, the massive shake-up on the 2021 grid will also mean that riders are differently motivated this season as they look to make an impression, or extend their time in the series. Interestingly, Miller owed these sweeping changes to Marquez’s dominance, saying, “I remember thinking last year that I felt the rider market in MotoGP was in for a bit of a shake-up in the short-term because of the way Marc has been on the top, most of the time since he's been in.”

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