There’s something quite intoxicating about watching someone come into an international sport with a fresh face and a derring-do attitude and upset the established order. So with F1 on a four-week break just a race after having had a three-week break (honestly, who designs these calendars?), I booked a cheap flight or six and headed to Indianapolis, to see MotoGP rookie sensation Marc Marquez strut his stuff. It was hard to be disappointed in what I saw.
Getting the Australian sporting media to look past the end of its (locally-focused) nose is hard at the best of times, with footy, footy and more footy the order of the day (what type of footy depending on what state you live in). So it was great that Inside Sport saw something in the Marquez phenomenon, and off I went to the US for them to find out more. In a media landscape where seemingly most of it is breathlessly reporting on what football player A said about player B, or what so-and-so said on Twitter yesterday while brutalising the English language in 140 characters, Inside Sport stands out like a beacon, 20-plus years strong and loaded with actual feature content the likes of which it’s hard to find in Australia. But I digress …
Marquez has a firm handshake, a developing sense of humour (he’s got quite an earnest sarcasm to him), and displayed remarkably better English than the last time I’d come across his path not even a year ago, but that’s probably in fitting with his penchant for being a quick learner. Sunday at Indy was his fourth victory in 10 MotoGP starts, consolidating his championship lead while winning from pole and obliterating the circuit lap record. What’s more, he does it in a style that grizzled veterans of the sport struggle to completely comprehend. I spent a half-hour on the inside of Turn 9 at Indy on Saturday, watching him sit off the side of the bike while tipping it into the sweeping right-hander behind the pits, playing dare with the grass on the outside as his bike drifted through the turn light years quicker than anyone else’s. The occasional explosion of grass as he missed his ideal line by a millimetre or two showed just how close to the ragged edge he rides, and it was massively impressive.
Maybe because I was at Indy, my mind started wandering back to when we last had a newcomer explode on to the F1 scene in a similar fashion, and memories of Lewis Hamilton’s 2007 season started flooding back. He was older (22 to Marquez’s 20) and had a preparation for the big-time unlike any rookie before or since, but the excitement permeating through MotoGP at the moment is reminiscent of ’07 and Hamilton’s rise to being a title contender from day one. It was North America (Montreal and Indy) that saw his first victories and set him on his way, and had McLaren been able to manage its drivers better, Hamilton could have done what Marquez is threatening to do, and win at the pinnacle of his sport on the first attempt. That Hamilton has only one title to his name despite being, arguably, the most talented (if not most complete) driver of his generation is one of the great shames in some respects, even taking away all of the on-again off-again girlfriend business and banal daily updates about Roscoe on Twitter.
I’ve done Indy multiple times now and you can’t get a better place for motorsport in the US. The place reeks of history, acknowledges its past brilliantly while moving very much in step with the present, and the whole town lives and breathes motorsport. The circuit for the bikes, the F1 layout in reverse, is pretty rubbish to be honest, but for the sport to be there is enough. F1 should have never left – we know why it did of course, but give me a proper racing venue over a slick Tilke-drome any day of the week, no matter how shiny and impressive the newer cookie-cutter venues are.
Back to Marquez. Asked if the Indy circuit was too flat, if the ugly tarmac changes made it less than ideal, what he’d change, he grinned after winning there for the third consecutive year and said “nothing”. Once the laughter had died down, the racer in him came out. We shouldn’t always race on the same types of circuit, he reasoned. Old, new, elevation changes, flat, whatever … it should be a diverse and challenging world championship, nothing more, nothing less. Fellow podium-finishers Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo nodded in agreement, as did some of the press, many of whom have no doubt become jaded by the endless kilometre-long straights and ever-tightening right-hand radius first turns that make up many of the venues on certain other motorsport calendars.
And with that, Marquez and everyone else in the paddock was off, manically tearing down pit garages and dismantling equipment for the absurd back-to-back that is Indianapolis and Brno in the Czech Republic, which is followed by Silverstone the week after that. Fine if you turn left when you get on the plane, I guess. As I said, who designs these calendars?
The best news to come out of the weekend is that Indy will be on the MotoGP calendar next year and likely beyond. Yes, some circuit modifications are in order (Turn 4 at Indy may be the worst corner in the sport, just a dull, useless waste of time before the riders can twist the throttle again), and the whole place is likely to be re-surfaced before next year’s race. It’s a win for MotoGP, a win for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a win for common sense. And for me, as I’ll undoubtedly be back to visit a place where motorsport – local and global – really matters.