Honda’s MotoGP ‘comeback’

MotoGP

Honda has yet to win a MotoGP race in 2020, but its RC213Vs were as fast as anything at Aragon One and Two

Start of the 2020 MotoGP Teruel Grand Prix at Aragon

Race-favourite Nakagami leads into Turn One. His joy was short-lived

LCR Honda

Honda is having its toughest season since it returned to grand prix racing with the fabulous oval-piston NR500 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

With its two fastest riders – Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow – injured at the first race the company has struggled to get its RC213V close to the front during a season dominated by the inline-fours, which work better with Michelin’s 2020 rear slick.

Aragon, however, may have been a turning point, even though there wasn’t a single RC213V in the top ten at the end of Sunday’s race.

“I’m really surprised about the Hondas, they’re really fast,” said championship leader Joan Mir. “So I think they’ve found something, because all their riders are super-fast”

Rookie Repsol rider Alex Márquez scored his first dry-track MotoGP podium at Aragon One, after harrying Álex Rins for the win, Crutchlow started from the front row and, last weekend, LCR rider Takaaki Nakagami took pole position for the first time, while Márquez was once again among the fastest during free practice.

“My braking was too sharp, I locked the front, lost the front and had a crash. It was a stupid mistake.”

Nakagami was clear race favourite after showing stunningly fast and consistent pace – he was fastest or second fastest in FP1, FP2, FP3, Q2 and warm-up.

Only in the race did things go awry. Nakagami jostled with race-winner Franco Morbidelli at the first corner, got into the lead and then crashed at Turn Five.

“Before the race there was incredible pressure and maybe I couldn’t manage it,” he said. “This is the reason why I made a mistake. I closed the door at Turn One, Two, Three and also Turn Four. Into Turn Four I was slightly inside, then braking into Turn Five I was a little bit outside.

“My braking was too sharp, I locked the front, lost the front and had a crash. It was a stupid mistake. I can say only one thing, I was too fast. I was trying to keep my position in the lead, then I lost my line. I was thinking to make a good start, try to be strong in all the corners and go away soon as possible. That was the only thing in my mind.”

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Nonetheless, Nakagami’s new-found speed was important. So how to explain it?

Firstly, the RC213V has always liked Aragon. It’s a fast, open circuit with lots of direction changes, where the bike can use its strong points.

Secondly, Nakagami is a changed man this year. And thirdly, Márquez’s absence has allowed HRC to give him more resources. The 28-year-old former Moto2 winner rides a 2019 RC213V but the bike has been updated, with Öhlins’ 2020 forks (with carbon-fibre inners as well as carbon-fibre outers), the latest Brembo brakes and more recently Öhlins’ BDB50 rear shock, plus the latest electronics strategies.

Honda admits that 2020 has been a hugely challenging season, firstly because Michelin’s latest rear slick has proved a real conundrum to HRC (as it has to Ducati) and second because the company lost its star rider.

“We were in crisis,” said HRC technical director Takeo Yokoyama, referring to the exit of Márquez Senior and Crutchlow. “I have enough experience of the racing industry to know that from one day to the next day many things can change, so I knew the most important thing for us engineers was to keep our feet on the ground and keep doing what we have been doing, without panicking, because if you panic you don’t go forward.”

Yokoyama says adapting both the 2020 and 2019 RC213Vs to this year’s rear slick – which features a softer construction that’s been a huge challenge for the V4s, which use more aggressive cornering lines – has been his number-one problem.

Takaaki Nakagami at Aragon for the 2020 MotoGP Teruel Grand Prix

Nakagami on pole position and trying to get into the zone. In the end, his nerves got to him

LCR Honda

“Once the season started we realised that the change from the previous tyre was more massive than we predicted – we could see that on our data,” Yokoyama added. “So we changed many, many things: electronics, exhaust, intake, chassis set-up, chassis geometry and frame stiffness. If you feel like you don’t understand what you have to understand then the only thing is to keep trying many different things. Probably we have tried 100 new things. Maybe 90 of them were wrong, a failure, but from those failures we learned something and finally we have found a way.”

This explains why Honda is now moving forward while Ducati remains in deep trouble, unable to get the 2020 rear slick to work properly.

Yokoyama has been seriously impressed by Nakagami’s progress this year – until Sunday he had been the only rider to score points in every race – which explains HRC’s new multi-year contract with him, signed last week.

“Everything was on the shoulders of Taka, using an old bike. Finally now we can say that all three riders are competitive.”

“At the first race at Jerez, Taka didn’t ride very well,” explained Yokoyama. “We know he’s normally very fast at Jerez, so we were looking for good results at the first two races. After the first race he was disappointed and I was even more disappointed. Afterwards we had a very serious meeting. I said, ‘Taka, you are at the stage of you career where you must not destroy your career – you have to do more; I have to do more for you’.

“For the second race at Jerez his mind changed and also his riding style, because we started working more closely with him, showing him data from 2019, how Marc was riding. From there he was keener to try to understand every single detail and he started to make some steps.”

LCR team owner Lucio Cecchinello has also been impressed with the new Nakagami, although he sees Honda’s 2020 problems slightly differently.

“At the start of this season everybody thought the Honda was no longer a good package,” said the former 125 GP winner. “But in reality if you look at the 2020 bike – Cal [Crutchlow] was very fast at last November’s tests at Valencia and Jerez, again at Sepang in February and then we all saw what Marc could do at the first race at Jerez, so the bike package was already strong. After Marc’s and Cal’s injury we had Alex starting his MotoGP career and so everything was on the shoulders of Taka, using an old bike. Finally now we can say that all three riders are competitive.

“Definitely this year the overall bike package for everyone is very sensitive – sometimes we really struggle, sometimes Ducati, sometimes Suzuki, sometimes Yamaha. Everything keeps changing. One answer is the new rear tyre, because we cannot generate the heat we could before. Michelin’s target was to make a tyre to keep a more consistent performance during the race, which means you need to sacrifice how much heat you build into the tyre.”

Cecchinello says that the new BDB50 rear shock certainly creates a better traction balance between Michelin’s 2020 rear and its front tyre.

“Absolutely Taka gets better corner exits with the new shock,” added Cecchinello. “The front wheel is still on the ground – this is the key point.”

However, Cecchinello warns against too much confidence following Honda’s speed at Aragon.

“We have to keep our feet on ground because the Honda has always been fast here. We need to be aware that when we arrive at Valencia we will suffer a bit more against the Yamaha and Suzuki because it’s a tiny track where we cannot use all the power of our engine.”

Alex Marquez on track at Aragon in the 2020 MotoGP Teruel Grand Prix

Márquez was super-fast, until he made his first real mistake of his rookie season

Honda

Márquez’s pace at Aragon One and Two was sensational – at one stage of both races he was the fastest rider on the track. That’s an impressive improvement from a rider whose previous best dry-track performance was seventh at Misano Two.

That second ride at Misano was no coincidence because it followed a one-day test at the track which the younger Márquez cites as his season turning point.

“We need to separate the first part of the season, until the Misano test, because from that test to now it’s like I’m a different Alex with a different riding style,” said the reigning Moto2 champ.

“From the Qatar tests in February I didn’t have the opportunity to have day of testing with the bike, just to catch the feeling again.

“At the Misano test we tried many things on the bike but then I said, ‘Okay, now we have tried everything, now just leave me alone on track to try things with riding the bike’. I tried some things for my riding style to improve some things and catch the feeling and the confidence that you need with this bike. This was the key.

“It’s true that Honda made a good job and gave us good things to catch again the confidence I had at the first test at Sepang, but apart from that I think it was a change in mentality, a change in how to approach the weekend, which started at Misano Two.”

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Big brother Márquez likens his little bro to a diesel engine, while the six-times MotoGP champ is more like a petrol engine: slow-build power versus peaky power.

“Even in Moto2 and Moto3 Alex is a guy who always makes steps forward,” said Yokoyama at Aragon. “Maybe he doesn’t make big steps like some, but he always makes steps forward – he’s not up and down. This is his style, his character, his discipline. We know that the most important thing for him is to keep riding to keep understanding and to get more familiar with the bike.

“At the Misano test he kept riding and riding. In a test you don’t have so much pressure for the lap time, so he could concentrate on every single corner, how to ride better. That’s how he improved.

“In some ways Alex and Marc are similar in riding style and in other ways they aren’t. What is very similar is their discipline, their working method in the garage. Both of them are always very quiet. Not completely quiet, but they’re not like some riders who shout, yell and throw things. When they are in a difficult situation they just explain to us why they feel difficult, at which corner and whether it’s in braking, in the middle of the corner or at the exit. They try to explain in a very serious way, so their communication and their working method is very professional.”

Yokoyama still has no idea when Marc Márquez will return to racing. But he believes that whether Honda’s most successful premier-class rider of all time returns at the end of this season or waits until the start of 2021, he will be the same rider.

“I think nothing will affect Marc,” he said. “His recovery is going okay. It’s taking quite a long time, especially after the second surgery but he is making good process, so when he comes back he will be 100 per cent or close to 100 per cent”