The 2014 MotoGP season has one dominant storyline so far, and it's "How many wins will Marquez score in a row?" The modern record set by Mick Doohan is in sight; winning every race this season is entering the realm of possibility. (UK bookmaker William Hill is taking bets at 9-2.)
A couple of races ago, Lorenzo had a dreadful weekend and was forthright in admitting that he'd been spooked by changeable conditions and memories of a previous crash. That was an example of a lack of confidence screwing a racer's competitiveness. We can all relate to that (at least, any of us who've raced at any level.)
What's more interesting though, is what's happening to Marc Marquez. You see, there are a lot of sports where being confident provides a psychological edge, but motorcycle racing (and in particular, road racing on modern circuits) is a rare example of a sport where confidence provides a physical advantage.
Let's take golf as an example of a sport (OK, a game) where confidence provides a psychological advantage. A player in his groove will find himself in situations where he could play a safe shot, or take a bigger risk for a higher reward. He'll take the riskier shot and, as long as he makes it, get an advantage over his competition. But his confidence has little impact on the statistical probability that he'll make the shot. Or, a baseball pitcher who feels confident will throw a fastball up and inside against a power hitter, looking for the strike rather than risk walking him on balls. That pitcher's confidence may earn him an extra 'k', but confidence doesn't actually affect hitters' performance. So in those situations, the confident player is really just betting that his luck will hold.
In MotoGP however, confidence literally makes a racer faster. At that level, everyone is operating within a narrow 1% band between keeping it on its wheels and crashing. In that narrow band, rider inputs have to be incredibly smooth. Although riders work hard and make forceful inputs in order to get the bike from upright to maximum lean in fractions of a second, there are many moments when they have to be very, very careful not to make any extraneous inputs.
Ironically, while they're sweating buckets, fighting arm pump, and their pulse is racing, they need to relax. A little tense grab at the brake--something a mortal rider wouldn't even notice--a little tense grip in mid-corner that transits the tiniest extra steering input; stuff you and I do all the time... if you're riding at the MotoGP level, that stuff is the difference between winning and crashing out.
If a rider's tense, he's more likely to do something--something he probably won't notice and which will likely pass undetected even on a data-logged MotoGP bike--that will make him crash. Tense riders can't feel the smallest signals that the tires are transmitting up through the suspension and chassis, to their butt, if their butt is clenched too tight.
That's what my old friend, mechanic, and ex-racer Ken Austin was getting at when he told me, "Great riders ride in a state of grace."
It's also what Valentino Rossi was trying to get back to, when he fired his longtime crew chief at the end of last season and the real reason that change of personnel seems to be working.
Every now and then, a MotoGP rider shows he's merely human (who was it that left his pit lane speed limiter engaged on that crazy start in Germany?) But don't kid yourself; they're not like us. Everyone has otherworldly speed, physical skills, and racecraft. And the rulesmakers have done a good job of ensuring that there's little to choose between the top factory rides. So a tiny advantage results in a big difference in the points table.
Right now, that 1% band that all MotoGP riders operate in seems nice and wide, and comfortable, to Marc Marquez. He's operating in the 1% of the 1%, and can get to the edge of the edge without making the micro-mistakes that come from carrying doubt in the mind and tension in the body.
Even his last few little crashes haven't shaken his confidence, which is literally making him the best rider.
Lorenzo's a cool customer, and normally the smoothest guy out there, but he knows how hard it is to get back to that place.
The question is, will anything shake Marquez' confidence? He may be -- he will be -- beaten in some individual race, but he will not be seriously challenged by any rider harboring even the slightest self doubt.