What started out as an end-of-season flat track blow-out for Marquez and his mates has suddenly gone full factory
hree years ago, when Marc Marquez rode out in front of 5000 Spanish fans for the first time on the clay of the Superprestigio track in Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi, it was for an end-of-season fun run with some friends. A celebration event to mark the rookie’s first ever MotoGP title-winning season.
Lining up alongside amigos like Moto2 title contender and neighbour Tito Rabat and fellow MotoGP racer Bradley Smith, the event was seen as a light-hearted way to let off some steam. It was nothing new: back in the 1990s the top 500 GP riders did similar on supermotos in the Paris-based Guidon d’Or. These days it’s flat track, the preferred discipline for training away from the Grand Prix circuits, and the venue’s Barcelona, the new capital city of MotoGP.
But when Marquez rolled his super-trick Honda CRF450 to the start gate on Saturday night to face-off against two of the world’s best flat trackers in the form of Americans Jared Mees and Brad ‘The Bullet’ Baker, the easy-going atmosphere of that first meeting was missing. Superprestigio in 2015 is serious business.
The plan for the original event was simple – to bring together the best in the world of road racing and the cream of the USA’s flat trackers, and then get them racing on a track and to a format that made for an open contest.
Running on a hard-packed clay track only 200 metres long and using barely modified 450cc motocross bikes instead of the fast and powerful Harley-Davidsons associated with AMA Grand Mile races, the new event did just that. The racing was tight and desperate, culminating in an epic finale between Marquez and reigning AMA champion Baker.
Since then the Superprestigio has very much remained the Marquez show. The 22-year-old is still one of the key members of the organising committee, and, as he was in 2014, the star everyone wants to see, with hordes of teenage girls screaming his name outside the stadium before the event gets underway.
But the event is starting to evolve – ticket sales were up 50% to over 8000 this year – and many racers and observers who’ve been coming for a few years, plus a few who elected to sit it out in 2015 – would tell you that the whole nature of Superprestigio has changed. That end-of-term feel-good vibe has been replaced by an ultra-competitive battle on factory-supported machines.
No-one is more aware of this shift than Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider and 2014 Superprestigio podium finisher Bradley Smith. “I’d have liked to come back to do it this year,” he told MCN, “but I simply can’t afford to spend £10,000 on a single weekend’s fun.”
And even £10,000 might not be enough to compete at the sharp end. A wander into the Marquez corner of the pit area, nestled under the stands of the former Olympic basketball arena, reveals the same crew that attends him in the Repsol Honda MotoGP garage. His Honda CRF450 has as many HRC stickers as his RC213V – it’s clear to see how the home rider’s upped his game.
Riding a bike rumoured to have cost upwards of £30,000 and sporting parts direct from the same HRC workshops that help prepare the factory Honda MXGP machines, his Honda single is something special, even if Marquez himself is quick to laugh off allegations that the whole nature of the race has changed since it began.
“Of course it’s a serious race, but after the 2015 season I’ve had, the last thing I want is another weekend of battles,” he joked in the pre-event press conference. “The racing on track is close, but afterwards we’ll still go to the bar and party together.”
However, his American rival Baker, now the first man to win the event twice after holding off Marquez for 16 laps in Saturday’s grand final, was much more forthright about the newfound abilities of the European Grand Prix racers who turn up.
“The level is a lot higher now,” he said once the dust had settled. “You can tell that they have the bike set-up now, and they’re all taking it a lot more seriously. It’s become a lot harder to even make it through the open class, let alone into the superfinal.
“I won’t say it makes it any less enjoyable now than it was at the start in 2014, but you’re a lot more focused all night. You’re not as relaxed, because we have to try all the time now. We can’t go out and have an easy race – we have to race hard in every heat.
“I was just thinking to myself at the start gates before the final race – it really sucks that Jared and I have to help each other out now to win this thing! Usually, nobody’s helping anybody when we race, but if it’s not me who wins I want it to be him, and we needed to help each other out all night.”
While the atmosphere in the temporary paddock might be evolving, the new-found competitiveness of Superprestigio does have one big bonus – even closer racing action, as the American masters are forced to work harder as the Europeans pick up the art of riding a dirt oval. With the Grand Prix stars able to perfect their craft under the expert eyes of seven-time US Grand National champion Chris Carr, who supervised a training camp earlier in the week at Marquez’s hometown of Ruffea, Baker says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get the better of the GP elite.
“The first year it was pretty easy – they were all over the place, and you could slice your way through. This year, if I made a bad start, I had to work for it! I’ve had the pleasure to meet a lot of them and help them out, to share the knowledge – and I always want a challenge!”
But despite that, when it came down to the wire on Saturday night, the European road racers were still unable to stop the American dirt rider, with Marquez admitting afterwards that Baker’s incredible experience means that in reality he’ll never be able to match the AMA champ’s level.
“I was really close to him at the end, but I only do one race a year,” he told MCN. Even though I train a lot on dirt, we’re not racing – and when you’re not used to being there all season long, it’s difficult to believe that he’ll do a right line, to know where to overtake, to know how hard to push. I could’ve gone crazy in the last corner, but it’s not worth the risk. It’s worth remembering that next season isn’t far away!”
Full Factory fun
One of the biggest sources of controversy. Marquez’s bike is rumoured to be running traction control. In the words of Brad Baker: “There’s an awful lot of buttons on Marc’s bars!”
Full-factory Öhlins forks and shocks, with Marquez’s MotoGP technician from the Swedish manufacturer in attendance to help with set-up.
Another source of debate – the race uses the 17in wheels more familiar to MotoGP than the 19in versions used in the American races.
There aren’t any. It’s all about scrubbing off speed by getting the bike sideways.
A CRF450 four-stroke single like that of his rivals, but blueprinted and rumoured to have some factory Honda magic bestowed upon it.
Instead of special off-road tyres, Superprestigio has a one-make agreement with Michelin, running 17in rain tyres.
Words: Simon Patterson Photos: James Archibald