MotoGP and the headache of taking concussion seriously

Marc Marquez is out of the Algarve MotoGP with concussion but many are questioning the true extent of his injury... so why isn't concussion taken seriously?

Marc Marquez, Honda MotoGP 2021.jpg

Let’s face it, we watch MotoGP for the fantastic racing action but we stay for the paddock gossip… that’s what our website traffic figures suggest, anyway.

And this weekend’s Algarve MotoGP in Portimao, the penultimate round of the 2021 MotoGP World Championship is proving a fertile ground for conjecture, in part because there is no title fighting ‘trash talk’ to sink our teeth into.

Instead, the attention surrounds a rider that isn’t even present this weekend; Marc Marquez.

The winner of the last two grands prix at COTA and Misano has withdrawn after suffering what was termed a ‘slight concussion’ in an accident while training, one that left him feeling a little unwell over the ensuing days.

Certainly plausible and an excuse that would be accepted if it was from anyone other than Marquez, the rider whose reputation for fearsome speed is matched only by his dogged - to a fault - determination to ride even when his limbs aren’t quite where they should be.

Maybe it’s the boredom of the post-title resolution that’s fuelling what may have started as a slight of comment and has since snowballed into a big story, but Repsol Honda’s rather covert manner of communication - both in its quote-less press release and from the monotone voice of boss Alberto Puig - haven’t exactly helped.

Honda wants to focus on the race, everyone else wants it to dish out some facts to feast on.

At the heart of the speculation is few can understand why Marquez in particular would rule himself out because of ‘slight concussion’. After all, this is the man that broke his arm, underwent surgery and was back on a MotoGP bike three days later.

Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro is one of them, suggesting his injury is actually more serious, not that he nor anyone hopes this is the case… but also not that he nor anyone actually knows any more than has been shared. 

“If it’s a head concussion it must be hard. If it wasn’t like this Marc would be here racing for sure. We know him in the paddock. But it’s difficult to judge. Every injury is different. If the crash was done in the last GP we’d know the type of crash.

"Anyway, he’s not here racing. I don’t know if concussion is the right word. I think it’s something bigger."

Why isn’t concussion in MotoGP considered reason enough?

What is perhaps most querysome about the whole matter, assuming Marquez indeed does have concussion, is why that isn’t considered a serious enough reason not to race when, by all accounts, it is an injury that can show up days after an incident, last for months and - if impacted again - can be fatal.

It doesn’t quite help that the rules and regulations over concussion at MotoGP level are murky at best.

Despite campaigns to take ‘light head injuries’ more seriously, doctors are largely reliant on feedback from a rider as to how they feel, which - when combined with competitive spirit and adrenaline - can lead to symptoms not being expressed accurately. 

More than likely some riders - because of fibbing or doing so unknowingly - have raced in the near past when they perhaps shouldn’t have done.

The domestic British Superbike series recognises the potential for concussion to develop or worsen in the coming hours or days, which means any rider that is diagnosed with it is - by the letter of the rules - forced to sit out the next seven days at least.

Beyond the fact one's ability to react could be compromised or symptoms worsen later on, there is also a serious concern around a so-called 'second impact syndrome' whereby another accident with a blow to the head becomes more serious.

This is defined as: "Experiencing a second concussion before signs and symptoms of a first concussion have resolved may result in rapid and usually fatal brain swelling. It's important for athletes never to return to sports while they're still experiencing signs and symptoms of concussion."

Consider this in the context of MotoGP where impacts can be heavy at low speeds, let alone those that occur at the more customary high-speed.

So one could theorise that Marquez - as a rider with an alarmingly lofty number of accidents this year on a Honda one could describe as 'unpredictable' - might be taking the view of responsibility, not just for himself but others around him. 

It’s quiet… too quiet

Admittedly, there is something a touch bleak to be speculating over a rider’s injury in his absence. The man himself is probably right now, coffee in hand, reading the news and chuckling to himself that everyone is getting in a lather over nothing.

That said, there are some red flags, in part because Honda isn’t exactly known for being backwards in coming forwards. Translation, there are examples in the past of it attempting to throw the scent but by being vague ends up drawing more attention to itself.

Firstly, Marquez isn’t exactly inexperienced when it comes to both crashing and bouncing back. Beyond the injury that destroyed his 2020 MotoGP season, Marquez is renowned for his frequency of crashes, not least on his return to action in 2021 with huge, high-speed falls at Jerez, Assen and Silverstone. 

Nearly each time Marquez dusts himself off and dials it up to 11 as soon as he gets out on the bike again. Rivals and commentators are viewing this ability to shrug off extreme incidents as a sign that Marquez’s personal decision not to race this weekend is at odds with his normal approach.

Then again, view it a different way and Marquez might be using those same examples as motivation not to risk anything going into the winter. 

Indeed, with no title on the line and little more to prove after three wins that suggest he is getting back to his best, for a man that has carried niggles into the winter for the past three seasons, the notion of calling it quits now to preserve his fitness and focus on refining his performance - rather than recovery - probably has appeal.

No-one wants to discover Marquez is injured badly - immediately or later - and it is entirely possible that the man himself, having notably eased off on his media exposure this year, simply wants to convalesce privately.

Alas, the growing talk means Marquez or Honda might have to come out with something more positive to quell it - no doubt a frustration when you’re simply trying to recover - but either something is indeed up or the MotoGP paddock needs to really sit down and think carefully about what concussion actually means...