British riders have never had a great time aboard Honda machinery in premier-class Grand Prix racing. Only one Briton has won an elite-class Grand Prix on a Honda: the late, great Mike Hailwood, who came within a broken gearbox of securing the marque its first premier-class world championship in 1967.
Soichiro Honda had to wait another 16 years before his company took the crown, and then with a two-stroke, an engine for which the old man had only disdain. During GP racing’s two-stroke era a couple of Britons got the chance on factory Hondas – Niall Mackenzie and Ron Haslam – but neither got any further than the podium’s lower steps.
Next season, the 14th since MotoGP went four-stroke, two Brits have the chance to do what Hailwood did almost half a century ago. Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding will ride factory-specification Honda RC213V machines, which should be 99 per cent as fast as the official Repsol Honda RC213V, as ridden by reigning champ Marc Márquez.
You’ll struggle to find anyone in the paddock who doesn’t consider the RC213V to be the best bike. It has won 23 of 36 races over the past two years, but that stat doesn’t tell the full tale. All but four of those victories were achieved by double title winner Márquez, and in 2014 his team-mate Dani Pedrosa slipped to fourth, behind two Yamahas.
So, is the Honda really that good? The answer, of course, is that it depends who’s riding it. Technique is everything in bike racing – the supreme example of which is the success Casey Stoner enjoyed on Ducati’s Desmosedici (23 race wins and one world title) against Valentino Rossi’s form on the same machine (a big fat zero). Whatever Stoner was doing, Rossi couldn’t and neither could anyone else.
The RC213V likes to be over-ridden and that’s what Márquez does. He wrings the bike’s neck and lets it growl and shake beneath him, while he stands on the footrests, twisting and flexing his body to stay a millisecond ahead of disaster (though not all of the time).
So this is what Crutchlow and Redding need to do. Both are confident they can ride that way and certainly there’s a touch of wildness to their techniques. “The Honda is an aggressive bike and likes to be ridden aggressively,” says Crutchlow who had a miserable 2014 at Ducati after three promising years with Yamaha. “If you look at Marc he rides the bike like an animal and that’s good for my style. You can push the Honda a lot more, so you can get away with a small mistake and still make the corner.”
Redding’s technique is more visibly like Márquez’s – he hangs off the bike so far that he scrapes an elbow at every corner and is comfortable with the bike getting out of shape. The youngster spent 2011 and 2012 fighting with Márquez in Moto2, the intermediate class that is transforming riding technique away from the super-smooth style that only recently dominated MotoGP. Moto2, with its control engines and control everything, teaches riders to wrestle their machines to squeeze out that final thousandth of a second. No wonder Redding is relishing his first season on a factory MotoGP bike.
Last year the former 125cc and Moto2 winner contested his rookie MotoGP season aboard a cheaper, slower production Honda RCV1000R and served notice of his talent by beating far more experienced riders on the same bike.
“The RC213V is very different to what I rode in 2014, so the riding style is a lot different,” says Redding. “She gets a bit loose and with more set-up time I’ll be able to get the bike sliding to help get it turned on corner entry.
“You can really feel the horsepower difference. First time out during testing at Valencia, I changed into fifth and was just getting tucked in when the bike nearly came out from underneath me. It has jaws.”
Britain’s latest MotoGP hopes have found themselves good teams for 2015. Crutchlow, 29, rides for the Monaco-based LCR squad, owned by former 125cc Grand Prix winner Lucio Cecchinello, a wise man for whom Honda has the greatest respect. Redding returns to Marc VDS, the Belgium-based outfit that moulded him into a Moto2 world title challenger before his move to MotoGP. Marc VDS know how to get the best out of the 21-year-old – it has surrounded him with an entirely Anglo-Saxon crew.
Redding and Crutchlow have their first rides of the new year during pre-season testing at Sepang, Malaysia, in early February. The first race of the 2015 season takes place under the floodlights at Losail, Qatar, on March 29.
A final word on Pedrosa, who attracts a lot of criticism. Last season was the former 125 and 250 World Champion’s ninth on Honda’s factory MotoGP team, and still no world title. The Spaniard’s problem is simple: he is 1.6 metres tall and weighs 51 kilos. Very few successful bike racers are giants, but Pedrosa is so tiny that he can’t muscle the bike around, he can’t lean off as far as others to improve turning and can’t move about to modulate load between front and rear, which means more wheelies and wheelspin.
“Dani can’t wrestle the bike because he doesn’t have the muscle,” says Aussie Jack Miller, Honda’s latest MotoGP signing. “Marc isn’t a big bloke, but he’s big enough. It’s sad to say, but if Dani was a bit bigger, he’d be a multiple MotoGP champion.”
Just as technique plays a vital role, so does size, and while light weight and compactness might be the goal of every engineer, they’re not always ideal in a rider.