The news that Marc Marquez has had a third operation on the right arm that he broke at the opening round of the 2020 MotoGP world championship means the crash is now set to impact not only the season past but the upcoming year as well.
The Honda rider spent eight hours under the knife yesterday as doctors removed a piece of bone from his pelvis and then inserted it into his humerus in an attempt to boost bone growth.
It’s not an insignificant operation and could put him out of action for at least six months as the injury is stabilised.
The silver lining for Marquez, of course, is that Thursday’s surgery was a relatively straightforward one despite the length of the operation, and it’s one that he should make a full recovery from given enough time.
So what does that mean for Marquez’s 2021 season? Realistically it means the chance of the six-time MotoGP champion lining up on the grid at the opening race in Qatar, now only four months away, is very unlikely indeed.
Marquez has learned in the toughest possible way the dangers of racing back into action too quickly.
“You get back on it and you’re halfway through a day of testing asking yourself ‘why am I two fucking seconds off?’” :: Kevin Schwantz
Compromised in his initial surgery as doctors seemingly worked to over-strengthen the initial repair job, it was his return to action five days later at the second of two races at Jerez that did the damage.
Having weakened the titanium plate in his arm and worked the screws loose, he’s had to undergo a third operation now because the two surgeries in two weeks left his bone so badly damaged that it hasn’t subsequently healed up.
With a theoretical return in June 2021, that might well mean that his championship ambitions will be all but done before he even gets on track.
On paper, the season will start as usual in late March at Qatar, with scheduled races in the USA, Argentina, Spain, France and Italy before he might be fit enough to rejoin the grid.
That’s not set in stone just yet, though. Right now it looks like both races in the Americas – at Austin in Texas and at Termas de Rio Hondo in northern Argentina – could be casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, potentially making things a little more favourable for Marquez.
However, no one expects him to return with the same speed he had previously, at least not initially.
As 1993 world champion Kevin Schwantz told The Race last month, it always takes time to get back to speed – and time’s a factor that Marquez won’t have if he’s hoping to regain his crown from Joan Mir.
“I was always convinced that after the time I took off, it took me twice as long to come back again, and I never missed an entire season,” Schwantz said.
“If I was off for a month, I knew I needed to come back as soon as I could even if I wasn’t 100% physically, because I would need to get my head back to speed.
“The worst-case scenario is that you get back on that fucker, you’re 100% fit, you’re thinking ‘I’ve crashed my mountain bike, I’ve crashed my first bike, I am ready!’ – then you get back on it and you’re halfway through a day of testing asking yourself ‘why am I two fucking seconds off?’
“Your brain isn’t acclimated to 220mph, and it takes time to get your depth perception and your sense of speed working; you almost have to relearn it all.”
Even if Marquez is able to return to action on schedule, it means that Honda will need to find a replacement for him for a third of the season.
That’s something it seems that outgoing Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso – an ex-Honda man – was contemplating when he decided to take a sabbatical in 2021.
Dovizioso is believed to be eyeing up the chance to replace Marquez, though that might not quite work out for him given Honda’s decision to extend test rider Stefan Bradl’s contract for another year.
Bradl did an excellent job this year, thrown into the deep end and replacing Marquez for almost the entire season.
He impressed particularly at the final race of the year at Portimao with a top seven finish, and it’s hard to imagine that if Honda only needs a replacement for a part of the year it will look beyond the German.
Finally, there’s one more area where Marquez’s extended absence will also play a role: in the development of Honda’s RC213V.
Without both him and long-time tester-cum-racer Cal Crutchlow – who’s stepping back from racing as Yamaha’s new test rider – the direction of development will be steered over the winter by Taka Nakagami and Marquez’s younger brother Alex.
And, with HRC technical boss Takeo Yokoyama already admitting to The Race that he believes Marquez’s absence has made the bike more user-friendly, it could well be that he returns to a machine subtly different from what he’s been used to.
“When Honda has an incredible champion, our philosophy is to adapt the bike more and more to them,” Yokoyama admitted earlier this year.
“That’s what we’ve been doing for the past seven years – and then suddenly that brief was gone.
“We never meant to go in a different way from what Marc would suggest, but probably unconsciously we’ve done things in a different way” :: Honda’s Takeo Yokoyama
“We weren’t lost, but we had to reflect on what we were doing because the riding style of the others is different.
“So it was a good moment for us to sit down with all the engineers and think about what areas we had to work on without Marc.
“We had to take the maximum from what we had: the bike, the tyre, the rider line-up. It was challenging but it was quite refreshing.
“If I imagine Marc hadn’t got injured at the start of the season, maybe I can imagine that the bike of today wouldn’t be the same.
“We follow the feedback from the existing riders – Cal, Taka and Alex – and we never meant to go in a different way from what Marc would suggest, but probably unconsciously we’ve done things in a different way.
“I don’t think he’ll come back tomorrow, get on Alex’s bike and say ‘this isn’t my bike’.
“He’ll be faster than he was in Jerez, because what we’ve been working on is what the bike, the tyres, the track layouts require.
“Will the bike be less aggressive? Probably 50% yes, 50% no.”