Why Honda and KTM are back: MotoGP Qatar analysis

MotoGP

One race doesn’t make a championship, but the performance of Honda’s all-new RC213V and KTM’s new-concept RC16 suggests both will be back in the fray this year. Here’s why

Marc Márquez, 2022 MotoGP

Pol Espargaró, Márquez, Binder, Mir and Bastianini in the early stages

Honda

Honda hasn’t undertaken a top-to-bottom, front-to-back redesign of its MotoGP bike since it replaced its V5 RC211V with the V4 RC212V in 2007. And yet the all-new RC213V very nearly won its debut race at Losail on Sunday, despite the shortest pre-season in several decades.

This suggests that Honda is out of the hole in which it’s been since Marc Márquez got hurt two years ago. “This was probably the most difficult part of HRC history,” according to HRC technical director Takeo Yokoyama.

Pol Espargaró led the Qatar GP for 17 of the 22 laps, setting a furious pace and finally crossing the line 1.3 seconds behind winner Enea Bastianini’s Ducati and a second behind runner-up Brad Binder’s KTM.

Márquez, riding his first race since last October, following a winter sat mostly on the sofa, waiting for his double-vision to subside, finished fifth, four seconds behind the winner.

Both raced soft front and rear tyres. Perhaps if they’d chosen the medium rear used by Bastianini and Binder they’d have been able to fight to the end. Instead they were both sliding, spinning and not going forward for the last quarter of the race.

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Perhaps most significantly the Repsol Honda pair had just one crash between them all weekend, when Márquez fell in warm-up, trying the medium front, which is why he opted for the safe option for the race.

Last year Márquez crashed the old RC213V 22 times in 14 race weekends, while Espargaró fell 20 times in 18 weekends. HRC won’t know what to do with the millions it will save on crash parts.

So far the new bike – which is more rear-biased to take full advantage of Michelin’s current rear slick – suits Espargaró better because he’s always used the rear tyre more than the front to attack corners. Not wonder he was grinning all weekend, after a confidence-battering first season with Honda last year.

“Last season, corner entry was a nightmare for me,” he said at Losail. “I couldn’t use the rear brake, because when I put the bike into a corner the rear was floating. I never had the feeling that the rear was in full contact with asphalt. Then I lost confidence after several huge crashes on entry. That’s what’s changed most – now I have the confidence to go into corners without thinking about high-siding on entry.

Enea Bastianini, 2022 MotoGP

Binder, Bastianini and Pol Espargaró on the podium

Red Bull

“Now I’m using the rear brake more and I’m hammering more with the engine-braking – sliding a bit more into the corner, with control. When I can do this it gives me a lot of speed.”

Espargaró chose soft/soft for the race because he expected a big group at the front, with slower lap times. Instead he led from the first lap, pushing like hell to keep his unexpected lead.

“When you can ride all weekend like you want it’s another life” Marc Márquez

“In a group I could’ve saved the tyres and saved some fuel, because everyone is on the limit with fuel here. But I was leading the race, pushing the tyres and engine to their limit. When it was seven laps to go I knew my tyres were finished and I started to lose the rear tyre into right-handers and then the front started to lock. My riding style in corner entry is based on the rear brake, to take stress out of the front rear, so as soon as rear was locking I knew I was done.”

Espargaró lost the lead and second place at Turn 1 on lap 18, when Bastianini came past him on the straight.

“I got Enea’s slipstream and my speed increased so much I thought I’d end up in the gravel, but finally I just went wide out of the track, Brad overtook me and I got third. At the end of the day I’m happy. This is a clear message that Honda is back and not only with Marc, also with me.”

Márquez was smiling most of the weekend too – more because of the improvement in his body than in his bike.

“Last year was a nightmare with the pain and irritation inside my [right] shoulder,” he said. “When you can ride all weekend like you want and not depending on your physical condition it’s another life.”

The six-times MotoGP king has always been a front-end rider, winning all those titles by charging into corners, exploiting the front tyre like no one else can. So he needs to adapt his riding technique to suit the bike and vice versa.

“Before I was very fast on corner entry, now I’m not very fast but also I don’t feel the front, so I don’t feel the limit,” he added. “Honestly I feel slow but the lap times come – this is good. But then if I try to be faster I go slower. It’s a bit strange, so I still haven’t found the full potential of the bike or the way to use all the potential.

Pol Espargaro, 2022 MotogP

Pol Espargaró, Binder, Bastianini, Márquez brake from 220mph, chases by Mir and Aleix Espargaró

Honda

“Honda did an amazing job with the bike, so big thanks to them. I think the only brand that can change from one year to the other like this is Honda. It’s such a big difference that it’s like I’ve changed manufacturers, but in a good way.

“The race was really fast, the pace was incredible and I didn’t have the speed. I was struggling, especially with front confidence. I pushed, tried my 100% but when I saw it wasn’t possible and had a few moments I gave up and finished the race. It was a good race.

“Pol was riding a bit better than me all weekend. The way he gets the lap time is a bit easier – he’s able to stop the bike on entry, using a lot of rear brake. I still can’t use this amount of rear brake or I lose the rear. It’s good to have a good reference like Pol inside the box.”

Binder’s runner-up result was huge for KTM, which had never bettered sixth place at Losail, because it signalled a renaissance for the brand after a difficult 2021.

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KTM got lost last year, following a change in the front-tyre allocation and Miguel Oliveira’s mid-season injury. And at last month’s opening pre-season tests the RC16 still wasn’t right.

That all changed next time out at Mandalika, where KTM brought new parts, including aero updates.

KTM worked extra hard on aero, not just wings but the entire body, during the winter and now has more aero kit on its bike than any other factory, apart from Ducati, because downforce aero is increasingly important for all aspects of performance: braking, cornering and exiting.

“This year we built the bike for the aero, rather than building the aero for the bike,” said RC16 project leader Sebastian Risse after Sunday’s race.

It also looks like KTM has gone longer with the RC16, just like Honda has with the RC213V, to use more of the rear tyre and less of the front. So all the V4s – the Aprilia, Ducati, Honda and KTM – have all gone in the same direction. That’s what spec tyres do.

“The setting of the bike is completely different and the size of the bike is different,” said Binder. “The length and height are quite different to what we had, so in general it’s a different package and by working with the aero we have been able to win a lot of margin in the front tyre, so you don’t feel so on the limit all the time, so I’m able to be a bit more aggressive with the front and really put the bike where I want. Now the bike turns a bit better, which always makes life a bit easier.”

Aleix Espargaró, 2022 MotoGP

Espargaró and the Aprilia were less than a second off their second podium

Aprilia

Improving the turning has solved one of KTM’s biggest problems – the exit phase of the corner – because by turning the bike quicker gives the rider much more room to get on the throttle sooner and harder.

Binder got an awesome start from the third row – he was third into the first corner – which set him up for a great race.

“That was a huge benefit because I was able to stay calm and protect the tyres a bit, because we knew we would be bit on the limit, especially the rear. When Pol went to low 4s I thought he was out of there, so I just tried to stay consistent, but when Enea came past I had nothing for him.”

Of course team-mate Miguel Oliveira didn’t have a good weekend, but if Binder has found the way forward, maybe the Portuguese will be able to follow that way and get back to the front.

Finally, Aprilia. Aleix Espargaró was in the fight for the podium, ending the race in fourth, less than a second behind his third-placed younger brother. The RS-GP was the second fastest bike in the race, a fraction slower than Joan Mir’s Suzuki, at 219.6mph/353.6kmh.

“I’m so please to have the weapon to fight with these guys,” beamed the elder Espargaró.”

Márquez’s Honda reached 219.2mph/352.9 and Binder’s KTM 215.5mph/346.9kmh.

Mandalika will be very different: very twisty, not much of a straight – and what will the asphalt be like?