Is MotoGP Champion Marc Marquez the Next Valentino Rossi?

Not exactly. The starstruck young prodigy is overtaking his longtime idol on his own terms.

The REPSOL Honda pit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley is thick with white-haired corporate reps, women so attractive someone’s probably paying them, and flag-waving Spaniards whose enthusiasm borders on the embarrassing. Marc Marquez, wearing a smile and his kangaroo-skin racing leathers, is taking selfies with fans and signing whatever is put in front of him. He’s a 21-year-old boy king still in awe of his castle and the people who come to pay him obeisance.

The fans stay with him all afternoon, eventually pushing their way into a roped-off press conference, crowding in front of writers and cameramen just to be near the champ as he deflects the first of the two questions hanging in the air. Will he tie MotoGP’s long-standing record of 10 straight victories? Maybe. Probably. One more to go. Then there’s the unspoken question: Is he the best racer on Earth?

This is harder to answer and nearly impossible to ask. If Marquez is the best racer on Earth, what is Valentino Rossi?

The short answer is that MotoGP’s charismatic Italian poster child remains, for now, the main attraction. Rossi is trapped under an avalanche of his own fame a few hundred feet down the alley from Honda. His crowd outnumbers the Marquez contingent four to one. There are models posing in Monster Energy-branded bustiers and men who look overcome by their sudden proximity to the seven-time champ, who has—over the course of a 12-year career—assured his place in the MotoGP pantheon along the likes of the dominant Mick Doohan (10 straight in 1997) and Giacomo Agostini (10 straight in 1988). Rossi is a youthful 35 with a wiry build, a quick laugh, and shrewd eyes. It may well play out that Rossi will be thought of as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. He’s Marc Marquez’s hero.

It’s a strange thing to beat your hero, but that’s precisely what Marquez has been doing since the second race of last season, Marquez’s first campaign at his sports highest level. Marquez is a natural, dominant enough to earn comparisons to the likes of Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, and Michael Jordan. But Rossi is really the only fair comparison. “The Doctor”—so known for his prodigious love of women, though it could also refer to his surgical deconstruction of racetracks—came out on top in five of his first six seasons. Still, he didn’t win his first time out. And he hasn’t summited the podium 10 straight times.

Unlike Rossi, Marquez hasn’t figured out a way to eloquently put what he does into words. And he hasn’t gotten over the spotlight, which he plainly enjoys. Rossi keeps his playboy lifestyle quiet (well, mostly: He still has the Italian phrase for “Long Live Pussy” on his racing suit). Marquez wants to talk about how excited he is just to be here.

To be fair to the younger rider, it’s a tall order to explain his dominance. He’s not doing any one thing above and beyond—he’s doing everything just a little bit better, a little bit faster. In his sparse rider’s room, he offers a sheepish analysis that isn’t an analysis at all: “The off season is when you work hard.” This kid, all of 5’6” and 130 pounds and with a constant smile, seems wholly different than the man who rides Honda number 93.

“It’s so nice for the family that their son arrives at the World Championship and then wins the World Championship,” Marquez says. “My father’s enjoying the moment.”

Rossi, whose father raced for Suzuki, talks in very different terms. Here’s what he tells the press about racing against Marquez, somewhat cryptically: “I have to improve to learn from him.” This rider, perhaps the best all time, is adjusting his tried-and-true style in an almost last-ditch attempt to make it all the way up the podium.

Marquez might blush when hears his idol compliment him, but when the upstart straddles his bike, he’s all ice. It’s August 10, a gray afternoon. There are nearly 62,000 people in the stands. If Marquez is smiling, the expression is hidden underneath his helmet as he lines up at the pole position for the eighth time this season. Getting the jump on the field at the start hasn’t been crucial to his success, and in Indy, he almost immediately drops to fifth as Andrea Dovizioso takes the early lead and Rossi gives chase.

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Other riders speak of Marquez with a combination of surprise, frustration, admiration, disappointment, annoyance. No one has a bad thing to say about him personally, but they’re all pretty damn tired of getting their asses kicked by a guy who can probably make one can of shaving gel last a year.

At the Circuit of the Americas, the second event of the 2013 season, Marquez became the youngest rider to ever win a MotoGP event. He followed that with five more victories and six second-place finishes, earning 334 points to clinch the season’s overall championship. On the day he tacked on those final points, he’d been alive for 20 years and 266 days. He couldn’t legally buy a cerveza stateside.

“Every so often, someone comes along and resets the bar,” says Kentucky native Nicky Hayden. “I think he’s really exciting, and at this point I think people are tuning in just to see if anybody’s going to beat him.”

“I don’t think any rider at this moment has this capacity to go over the limit and not crash,” says Lorenzo, MotoGP’s 2012 Champion, looking especially pained when asked to talk about the man he can’t seem to beat. “For me it’s a very special and motivating challenge.”

“We call him ‘The Cat’ because, whatever happens, he always lands on his feet,” says England’s Cal Crutchlow.

Asked if Marquez’s dominance has been good for the sport, Rossi gave a brief answer and a wry smile. “For Marc, positive,” he said. “For us, a little bit less.”

This isn’t exactly WWE-style trash talk, but it’s enough to keep Marquez’s ears burning.

“Honestly, the feeling is a bit strange. When I was 14 years old, I was in my home, and they were there fighting for championships already,” he says of Rossi and most of his other rivals. Now that he’s at the center of the action—within shouting distance of the center of attention, Marquez is deferential and almost overly respectful. He’d rather praise his opponents than talk about how he’s defeated them.

Photo: DAVID W CERNY / Reuters / Corbis

This humility has helped him build healthy friendships with Rossi and the rest of his rivals, but a by-product of his dominance is an increasing sense of aloofness. “Of course, the relationship with them is not the same,” he says. “With a guy that’s not fighting for the top positions, the relationship is better.” He laughs at this. “With some guys you have a better relationship, with the other ones you have a little bit more distance,” he adds. “On the track, if you need to overtake somebody, you will overtake them.”

It’s odd when Marquez talks in second person because he does superhuman things on a regular basis, digging his pucks into the tarmac in high-speed turns, whipping his bike around with his magnesium forearm guards. “You” don’t do that. Nobody should do that. Yet, for the rest of the field, it might be the only way to get back on top.

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There has been no passing of the torch between Rossi and Marquez, especially given that the elder statesman is under contract to race for Yamaha for another two years. But if there was ever a moment when it looked like the student became the master, it was the 2013 race at Laguna Seca. The pass took place on the Corkscrew, an S turn with a blind entry and an elevation drop of five-and-a-half stories. For riders, who rely on gravity alone to keep their tires on the road (cars have wings to generate downforce), the drop is especially terrifying.

Trailing into the entrance of the Corkscrew, Marquez gained a small edge on the outside, then ran wide into the apron, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirtying his tires. Back on the pavement, he magically held on, taking a suicidal line that somehow catapulted him ahead of Rossi, who finished in third place, 4.498 seconds back. The move wasn’t simply a crafty ploy by the youngster, it was almost the exact same move Rossi used to overtake Australia’s Casey Stoner in the Corkscrew in 2008. Afterward, in the pit, Rossi lunged at Marquez and jokingly choked the winner before embracing him as both laughed.

At Indianapolis, Marquez recovered from a slow start, moving up from fifth to third, behind Rossi and Lorenzo. He hangs back for a while then sees a hole. He slides past Lorenzo with 17 laps to go and takes Rossi on the next winding turn. It happens so fast that the teammates don’t have time to work in concert. They’re suddenly battling and Marquez is out in front, looking comfortable and pushing his bike as hard as he can.

With only pavement and cloudy daylight in front of him, Marquez slices through the turns, never letting up. Resting isn’t an option when you’re topping out at 215 miles per hour or leaning into curves at 67 degrees. With that much-hyped 10th win on the line, Marquez sticks to his race plan: no limit, no mistakes.

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Marquez was born in Cervera, Spain, about an hour west of Barcelona, where his life on two wheels started at age 4, when his parents gave him a minibike for Christmas. He started racing the following year, and made it to the 125cc-class professional league in 2008, winning the title two years later, when he was 17. In 2011, he rose up to Moto2, the second-highest class in all of Grand Prix racing, earning Rookie of the Year honors despite an accident in Malaysia that left one of his ocular nerves temporarily paralyzed and caused him to see double for months. Following successful surgery, he returned in 2012 and won the championship, setting him up for the move to the top league.

Marquez, it is worth noting, has a great bike. He likes to credit his crew, but the Honda RC213V is a work of art. And it’s not lost on anyone that his teammate, 29-year-old Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, is at the top of the standings behind him. Still, Marquez’s talent has shown through at every level without a consistent ride. Back in the 125cc class, his first year as a pro, he started one race with his bike out of gear and still won. In another contest, he passed 22 racers in a single lap. In 2013, when asked about the Honda’s supposed technological advantages—many of which are utilized by the Yamaha riders, too—Marquez admitted he was still learning how to utilize all the gauges and added features on his bike. This year, after a broken leg cost him the chance to participate in almost all of the league’s sanctioned pre-season bike-testing practice sessions, many wondered if he’d even factor in the first race at Qatar. He won, beating Rossi by a quarter of a second.

To understand Marquez, it’s important to understand that he spends a lot of time competing away from the public eye. When he’s not on the circuit, he goes home to Cervera, Spain, a hilltop town in Catalonia where everyone has known the champ since he was a baby.

“It’s very difficult to be a normal guy,” Marquez says of his pequeña ciudad. “It’s a small town, and people come and knock your door. You can’t be as relaxed.”

He’s got a little brother, Alex Marquez, who’s in first place in Moto3, the current equivalent of the old 125cc class. In their downtime, they spend hours on the couch destroying each other in various PlayStation games, but they don’t have too much downtime. On and off the bike, they train together, push each other. Marc might not come out and say it, but Rossi, Doohan, and Agostini are not as present in his life as his little brother.

Photo: BRENT SMITH / Reuters / Corbis

“He helps me because we always train together,” says Marc. “My brother always wants to be closer to me and I want to be farther from him. It’s difficult because he’s getting better and better, so it’s motivation for him and for me.”

Here’s how Marquez beats his brother and everyone else: He brakes deep into turns and swivels his 350-pound ride on its front tire, often lifting the rear tire off the track before gunning the bike when he’s hit his preferred line. He is the only racer alive who does this consistently without falling off.

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Marquez crossed the Brickyard’s finish line 1.803 seconds before Lorenzo, who later complained about Marc’s tactics: “I have my opinion of the overtakings, and Marc has his view of the overtakings. For me, when you have to change your line because other riders don’t let you enter your line, it’s a little bit too much.” Unfortunately, the rules weren’t on Jorge’s side, and Rossi rolled in 6.558 seconds after the victor, fist-bumping him as they coasted around the American track. There was still time before the podium celebration, so Marc guided his trusty bike near his garage, dismounted, took a second or to to soak in the moment, then dove over a railing into a swarm of his crew. Then it was off to get the trophy. Passing a group of models, he cracked open a Red Bull, hoisted a trophy, and relished a few moments with Rossi. They parted ways to head back to their teams, Marquez with his 10-win streak, Rossi with another top three.

“He’s 35. He will do two more years with Yamaha. He’ll be 37, and I think he’ll continue,” Marquez says of Rossi. “I always say he’s my hero. In 2008—I think it was my fifth or sixth race—I met him the first time, and he already knew my name, my bike, my team. Valentino is here because he loves this world. It’s not his job. Valentino’s here because loves MotoGP and he enjoys every weekend.”

And there’s the answer to that uncomfortable question. Marc Marquez is the greatest motorcycle racer on Earth, and Valentino Rossi is a living legend doing what he does best. Rossi doesn’t have to be the best to be great. Marquez is the best, but he hasn’t yet earned great—that takes time.

The perfection doesn’t last, however. Marquez finishes fourth in the next race, comes back for another win, then crashes out of the next two. Rossi gains ground, with Pedrosa right behind him. The dominant season looks to be fading, until the crop heads to Japan.

Riding in front of his Honda faithful at Motegi, Marquez has to deal with yet another less-than-ideal start, while Rossi bursts out. Lorenzo takes the lead on lap five as Marquez battles his way just to get to third. The youngster rides a few feet behind his hero, who’s taking turns so sharp that sparks are flying off his bike as it scrapes the track. Even though they’re not battling for the victory, both riders know that if Marquez comes in second, those 20 points are enough to ensure that, no matter what happens for the rest of the season, nobody else can beat him.

By now, the TV guys barely care that Lorenzo is winning by far. With 10 laps to go, Marquez makes his move, grabbing a lead over Rossi that lasts for less than a second, as the master takes a corner so tight that Marquez can’t keep up. But the Doctor can’t make it last—on the next lap, Marquez snakes by, as his dad, watching from the Honda garage, twists and leans, willing his boy on, nearly screaming in nervous excitement.

Marquez’s lead never gets comfortable, but he holds off Rossi to finish in second, 1.638 seconds behind Lorenzo to get to 312 points for the season, his second championship. While Lorenzo celebrates his now-meaningless victory somewhere ahead, Marc gets a track-side greeting from Alex and a gaggle of photographers. He does a rear-tire burnout while holding a number 93 flag, yet manages to stall his bike out in the process. With one more push from Alex, he gets back in gear and heads to the track’s gravel area, where he’s met by a man in a samurai costume who wants him to cut a string holding down a balloon with “1” written on it. Marquez obliges, then heads back to his pit, where his crew tosses him in the air.

“Marquez had something a little extra, so it was impossible,” Rossi tells the press. “I think that Marc deserves the championship. He won a lot of races and in a lot of conditions. He doesn’t make mistakes, and he improved his level, so congratulations to Marc.”

Marquez, for his part, takes a stab at recasting himself. “Maybe for the people it looks easy because I’m always smiling, but there is a lot of pressure,” he says, before undercutting the effort to make himself seem serious by adding, “It’s like a dream right now.”

There are still three races left in the season, with Marquez’s rivals vying for second place. The last contest is in Spain on November 9, and then the champ will finally get to relax back in Cervera, where his bedroom walls were once covered with posters of Valentino Rossi. Marquez is not the kid he once was—even the kid he was last year—but he’s also not equal to his hero. For now, he’s just the guy who wins. 

Photos by Christian Pondella / Getty Images