In every sport there comes a time when a special talent emerges. There are many ways to describe them: prodigy, phenomenon, genius, whizkid or wunderkind.
These huge talents sometimes fizzle out or prove a false alarm, but on the rare occasions an individual does emerge, that is what everyone has been waiting for. One who can lift a sport to the front pages of newspapers, appeal to a broader audience, singlehandedly take a sport to the next level – a veritable gamechanger.
MotoGP has had its fair share of characters who upped the ante, influenced more than just their immediate environment and transcended to a global audience.
They include John Surtees, Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, Jarno Saarinen, Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts (senior), Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi – all legends of the two-wheel brigade. They not only raised the bar within their own discipline, but also appealed to a much broader audience and grew the sport through the strength of their character and individuality.
This year MotoGP will witness such a phenomenon in the form of diminutive Marc Marquez. Born in 1993, Marquez has been a sensation throughout his junior two-wheel career, with the 2010 125cc World Championship and the 2012 Moto2 World Championship trophies already on his mantlepiece.
Those in the know and keen followers of the sport have been aware for some time now that the Catalan kid would be bursting on to the premier MotoGP class, but what they could not imagine is the impact he would have so rapidly on their sport.
Most recently, at the inaugural Grand Prix of the Americas, Márquez rewrote the MotoGP history books by becoming youngest ever winner. And this was no fluke as he overcame a committed charge from his vastly experienced and imposing team mate Dani Pedrosa, and beat a field littered with world champions, including Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Nicky Hayden.
It was a classic case of veni, vidi, vici. Marquez had arrived in fine style while sporting the broadest grin in the paddock, which only endeared him more to fans and media.
By their nature riders are not keen to shower rivals with compliments, and when they do it is begrudgingly as the nature of competition at the highest level does not allow for anything other than self-adulation.
Reigning world champion and Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo, whose own career started in similar fashion to fellow Spaniard Marquez, said after the race in Texas: “I want to congratulate... Marc, he’s the youngest rider in history to win a Grand Prix. He is a phenomenon.”
Nicky Hayden, the 2006 world champion, was also impressed, “He rides very hard and he is very hungry. You know, if he can stay healthy, he is really going to shake things up this season. He has been very, very impressive and very fast, which is a bit of his own style. And he could be a game-changer to MotoGP and all of road racing.”
“I would say to be quite this quick and even so consistently quick this early wasn’t expected, and for some of us riders we aren’t so pumped on it! Honestly, I think we wanted to give him a little more time, and he is going to be exciting for the sport,” admitted the Ducati rider.
Hayden touches on some very pertinent points, because the history of MotoGP is littered with ‘prodigies’ and ‘sensations’ who never quite fulfilled their potential.
In the early 90s when I covered the sport as a photographer, there were two huge names in the 250cc class who were ‘going to revolutionise the sport’ in the form of John Kocinski and Luca Cadalora. They never fulfilled the stellar predictions that abounded at the time, for a bunch of reasons that would fill a couple of books in trying to explain.
But Hayden, a veteran of the sport, in a way hinted at the reason why riders fail when speaking about Marquez, “He rides very hard and he is very hungry. You know, if he can stay healthy, he is really going to shake things up this season.”
There are messages in his words. The first, that the young Spaniard rides hard and with his own style. A style that has hardened MotoGP pundits shaking their heads watching him dip his Repsol Honda to unnatural angles, knees and elbows scraping the tar, shoulders a few centimetres off the ground. Phew! - describes the sight.
The other message, and perhaps most crucial to future success, is the ‘stay healthy’ bit. Crucial because the sport is also littered with ‘wannabe’ MotoGP stars who have come on to the scene, set it alight but a big crash (or two or three) later, the flame flickers and goes out. Sport is cruel more often than it is kind, and MotoGP is perhaps the cruellest in that respect.
But with Marquez you get the impression that he has all the attributes to become what he is being touted to be. His appeal is broad, his image pristine, his flame burning brightest.
He has the support team around him, providing him access to the best tools for his trade and ensure he does become the game changer in the future – the heir apparent to Valentino Rossi’s mighty mantle. That future is right now, so when you switch on to MotoGP next time on the telly keep a look out for the kid on bike number 93.