Despite such a rich history and tradition on two wheels, with the TT at Assen among the world’s premier motorcycle events, the Netherlands haven’t had a rider to match the support, until now. Since Henk van Kessel claimed the 50cc Grand Prix title in 1974, the Dutch have waited for a man with the talent to fly their flag on the world stage. Step forward Michael van der Mark.
‘Magic Mike’ is far from your typical racer. After all, not every superbike rider has an HGV truck-driving licence and an 80-year-old boxing coach for a personal trainer, but van der Mark is living proof that there is no hard and fast rule for being successful, other than that dedication to your craft and a strong work ethic will take you a long way.
A relatively late starter in motorsport, Van der Mark didn’t even ride a motorcycle until the age of 12 but made up for lost time with a stunning first season in the Dutch Junior Cup, finishing fourth overall on a Aprilia RS125. With a year’s experience under his belt, Michael made great strides in his second season to finish runner-up before graduating to the Dutch National Championship, making an instant impression there too.
At the age of just 15, Michael was already making his presence felt on an international level, making his debut as a wildcard at Assen while competing with the likes of Efren Vazquez, Luis Salom, Danny Kent and Scott Redding in the CEV Spanish Championship, and acquitting himself well. Back-to-back Dutch titles saw Michael handed what he thought would be his big break as a regular Grand Prix rider but a lack of funding saw his Lambretta team fold before the end of 2010. As it happened, their demise proved a blessing in disguise for the Dutchman who was taken under the wing of the Ten Kate family.
Dreams of a career in MotoGP had to be put on hold as van der Mark switched to the superbike paddock, signing for the Ten Kate junior squad in the Superstock 600 class. Michael was competitive from the outset, coming within eleven points of the title in his rookie season but the Rotterdam rider wouldn’t be denied second time around, claiming his first championship at European-level.
The pinnacle of Superbikes was now looking the likely destination as van der Mark signed for PATA Honda’s World Supersport outfit, claiming a podium finish at the very first attempt. The season may have been dominated by Kenan Sofuoglu and eventual champion Sam Lowes but van der Mark was winning admirers with his performances, especially given the broken foot which hampered him during the summer.
2014 would prove to be the breakthrough year for Michael as a world-class competitor, even if it didn’t exactly start in auspicious fashion. While taking the fight to Sofuoglu, van der Mark crashed out of the leading group before later admitting that he become too pre-occupied with the title favourite. Although he couldn’t reel in the Turkish rider at Aragon, Michael got his season up and running with second at Aragon but the 21-year-old would truly come of age on his return back home.
Despite being pipped to pole position by Florian Marino, van der Mark was confident of a maiden victory but disaster struck, or to be more specific, a fever. At one stage, he feared he would be unable to race at all before treatment from Clinica Mobile saw him fit to take the start and Michael stunned everyone with his display. Not only did he win, but he crushed the opposition, waltzing to victory by over nine seconds to the delight of the capacity crowd.
It’s not uncommon for the floodgates to open when a rider takes his first victory and van der Mark is living proof. Another podium at Imola was followed by two nail-biting battles at Donington Park and Sepang where Jules Cluzel threw everything he had at the PATA Honda, only to be beaten at the very last corner.
Michael was showing the world that he could win any type of race, be it a serene demonstration at the front or a slugfest with his title rival, Michael was a class above the rest. He even followed his father into endurance racing, trying his hand at the world-famous Suzuka 8 Hour in 2013 and surprise surprise, the Dutchman delivered there too by becoming the first rider of his nationality to win the event alongside Leon Haslam and Takumi Takahashi for MuSashi Harc-Pro Honda.
Either side of a return to Japan to successfully retain the crown, van der Mark continued his dominance of the World Supersport Championship with victories at Portimao and Jerez, the second of which proved enough to wrap up the title with two races to spare, Cluzel having crashed out while desperately trying to keep the PATA Honda at bay. The Frenchman would restore some pride with a home win of his own at Magny Cours but van der Mark signed off his Supersport career with another display of dominance under the lights in Qatar, his technical co-ordinator Pieter Breddels adding he had shown “the true class of a world champion”.
Graduation to World Superbikes was the natural step-up for van der Mark and although it meant a slight parting of the ways, Ronald ten Kate admitted he couldn’t stand in his rider’s way when Honda came calling.
In a way, I’m a little sad that we have to let Michael go from his contract with Ten Kate Racing for 2015. But in reality, I am absolutely happy and proud that he has been given this fantastic opportunity with Honda. There is now a clear plan and vision to grow his impressive talent in the future. We have been working with Michael for four years so this next step for him feels completely natural. He fully deserves this chance and we are all looking forward to taking these next steps together with him.”
Michael is under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge facing him, not least with the defending champion on the other side of the garage, but the early signs are positive. Van der Mark has been a fixture in the top ten during testing and with Sylvain Guintoli recovering from injury, the Dutchman is relishing the pressure of carrying Honda’s hopes.
It’s a good and safe place to be with Honda. World Superbikes in 2015 is going to be really interesting – there are new technical regulations and I think there will be a few surprises. Although the electronics will be a big change for me, I have shown that I can ride a superbike and now I really can’t wait to get started.”
You can sense the excitement ahead of his SBK debut but behind the infectious personality hides a steely determination to succeed and a decisive approach on the track. The Netherlands has waited long enough for a world-class talent and it looks as though their patience is about to pay off. The reaction when their new superstar took victory in the Supersport class last year was euphoric. Just imagine the response if he wins the big one at Assen this year. You know what, ‘Magic Mike’ may well pull that rabbit out of the hat.