VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - If 20-year-old Spanish rookie Marc Marquez seals his maiden MotoGP crown in Valencia on Sunday, one of those queueing up to congratulate him will be the man he will replace as the youngest ever champion, American Freddie Spencer.
Honda rider Marquez, who has been smashing records since his debut in 125cc at the age of 15, has a 13-point lead over title holder and compatriot Jorge Lorenzo of Yamaha going into the last of 18 races and a fourth place finish or better at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Cheste will clinch the title.
Spencer won his maiden world crown at the age of 21 in 1983, also on a Honda, when he pipped Kenny Roberts of Yamaha after finishing second behind his American compatriot in the final race of the year at Imola.
“Many people ask me how do you feel about someone coming along and breaking your records,” Spencer said when he met Marquez for the first time in June.
“I think it’s great,” added the 51-year-old, who won three world titles and amassed 27 victories in all classes during a glittering career.
”I really appreciate when someone comes along and pushes that envelope and has the ability to make the difference in whatever way that might be.
“It’s important for grand prix racing and I really mean that. If you do win I’ll be the first one to congratulate you.”
With his toothy grin and boyish good looks, Marquez is a very different character to the sometimes prickly Lorenzo, who became the first Spaniard with two top-flight world titles when he won his second crown last year.
The pair clashed at the Spanish grand prix in May when a typically aggressive move from Marquez on the final corner, ironically named after Lorenzo, denied the 26-year-old second place behind Dani Pedrosa.
Lorenzo was furious and when Marquez tried to speak to him in the paddock after the race he brushed him away.
Later, on the podium, Lorenzo congratulated Marquez’s team mate Pedrosa, patting him on the back, but ignored the young pretender, who said the incident was “one of things that happens in a race”.
The title rivals had apparently buried the hatchet by the time of Thursday’s news conference previewing Sunday’s showdown, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras.
“I think Marc and myself should be very proud as two Spaniards fighting for the MotoGP world title,” Lorenzo said.
Since the inaugural world championship in 1949, there have been 15 occasions on which the premier-class title has been decided at the final race.
The first was in 1950 when Italian Umberto Masetti beat off the challenge of Geoff Duke by finishing second behind the Briton at Monza to win by a single point.
The last was in 2006 when Valentino Rossi, a boyhood hero to Marquez, crashed on the fifth lap in Valencia and lost out to American Nicky Hayden.
Spencer, whose own career was not without controversial incidents like the one involving Marquez and Lorenzo at Jerez, believes what makes Marquez special is his confidence.
Born in the Catalan town of Cervera to the north west of Barcelona, Marquez first blazed a trail in 2010 when he won 10 races from 12 poles to secure his maiden 125cc title.
He finished second in Moto2 behind Stefan Bradl the following year before going one better in 2012 and was then drafted into the Repsol Honda MotoGP team alongside Pedrosa to replace retiring Australian former champion Casey Stoner.
“Riding at the very top level certainly is about belief,” Spencer said.
“That uniqueness, and I can see it in his riding, is about him performing and him believing he can get the job done and that’s a confidence.”
The experienced Lorenzo, who missed the race in Germany after badly injuring his collarbone, has more wins to his name this year, with seven to six for Marquez, and has led more than twice as many laps, 208 to 82.
Marquez has also picked up three penalty points and one more will see him slapped with a back-of-the-grid penalty.
He set down a marker by going quickest ahead of Lorenzo and Pedrosa in Friday’s first practice session and will seek a ninth pole in qualifying on Saturday before the race on Sunday.
Writing by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by xxxxxxxxx