The 2021 MotoGP season will bring something new for Honda rider Marc Marquez: a new face on the other side of the garage, with Pol Espargaro becoming the fourth team-mate the eight-time world champion will have had since joining the team in 2013.
He was first partnered by Dani Pedrosa when Marquez joined Honda as a rookie (and promptly won the championship), and Pedrosa remained on the other side of the garage until 2019, when Jorge Lorenzo stepped in to replace him.
Lorenzo retiring at the end of the season after a horrible year opened the door for Marquez’s younger brother Alex to get a factory Honda MotoGP chance fresh from winning the Moto2 title.
However, their partnership was to be a short one, with only a single race together as team-mates before the elder brother was ruled out of the entire 2020 season thanks to injury.
And even before the racing actually began in the COVID-delayed championship, news came through that Alex was to be replaced for 2021, with Pol Espargaro being handed his dream opportunity and jumping across from KTM.
So, with Marc Marquez getting a new rival – and one who’s replaced his brother to boot – on the other side of the box, how’s the relationship between the pair likely to be?
Well, if history is anything to go by, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to see much in the way of fireworks from this pair.
Sure, it’s been well-established that Espargaro is a fiery character who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Launching feuds in 2020 with fellow KTM rider Miguel Oliveira and with former team-mate Johann Zarco, he wasn’t shy about expressing himself when he felt that he had been wronged.
And Marquez isn’t exactly a shrinking violet himself, with plenty of historical examples of the 27-year-old being less than diplomatic.
However, what the pair seemingly share is an ability to keep that anger in check when they’re working.
While they’re able to throw shade with the best of them, it’s never been something that affects their race preparation or strategy – something that will come as a relief to Honda’s management.
For Marquez, that ability to focus is in part thanks to the way he’s structured the works Honda team around him and his closest confidants.
“When you fight against one of the greatest riders in the world you tend to improve much faster. The best way to improve yourself is to be beside the guy who is the same, or even better than you” :: Pol Espargaro
That group is almost a team within a team thanks to the incredibly loyal staff working directly for him, and it might mean that even if things do take a turn for the worst, rather than getting locked in a Valentino Rossi/Lorenzo style feud with Espargaro, Marquez simply finds himself setting his own path with minimal contact.
More likely, however, is that the pair will be able to form if not quite a close friendship then a strong working relationship, given shared goals, a common language and little in the way of the sort of malicious history that many rivals of a similar age share.
In fact, Espargaro is adamant that despite the age-old adage of how the first person you have to beat is your team-mate, he’s looking forward to the challenges and benefits of working with Marquez.
“To share the team with Marc was another reason I wanted to come into the Repsol Honda team,” he said this week.
“I have been fighting with Marc in the smaller categories for many years and I had so much fun, I’ve grown with him by fighting race-by-race and this makes me the rider I am today.
“When you fight against one of the greatest riders in the world you tend to improve much faster. The best way to improve yourself is to be beside the guy who is the same, or even better, than you.
“So that’s why I moved, I want to see my level compared to Marc – who is for sure one of the best on the grid.”
Of course, for now all this is largely irrelevant given that it’s most likely that Espargaro will start the season not with Marquez as a team-mate but with Honda test rider Stefan Bradl instead taking on the role.
Marquez is still battling to fully recover from the injuries he sustained back in July last year and looks set to be ruled out of action for at least another six months.
That means it could be the middle of the season before Espargaro gets the chance to properly measure himself against MotoGP’s primary benchmark.