Will Espargaró be able to ride the Honda?

MotoGP

Pol Espargaró joins Repsol Honda from KTM, where he was the strongest rider on the factory’s V4. Does that mean he will be fast on the RC213V V4? And what do HRC need to do to make the bike better?

Pol Espargaró, Honda RC213V 2021

Espargaró tries an RC213V for size at his Andorra home earlier this week

Repsol Honda

You won’t find many MotoGP riders that prefer a fire-breathing V4 to an easy-going inline-four, but Pol Espargaró is one of them.

Espargaró contested his first three seasons in MotoGP with Yamaha, but he didn’t enjoy the YZR-M1 and failed to score a single podium on the bike. In 2017 he joined KTM’s all-new MotoGP project and last year he was KTM’s top points scorer on the RC16, with five podiums

“I don’t like the feeling of a bike that controls everything you do, like the Yamaha,” he told me during an interview at Motegi in 2019. “You cannot over-brake and you cannot open the throttle a bit early. This isn’t fun. For me to go fast I need to fight.

“The first day I jumped on the KTM at Valencia in 2016 the bike was honestly a disaster but I had the feeling that it was wild and I love this. I like the feeling that the bike can throw you into the sky at any moment. I’ve been injured doing that, but I like this wildness and I really enjoy fighting.”

Engine configuration has a huge effect on the dynamics of a MotoGP bike. This blog has already examined this subject in detail but basically, the inline-four’s longer crankshaft makes the bike slower and more stable, while the V4’s shorter crankshaft makes the bike more powerful and twitchier.

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Espargaró enjoys V4s because by preparing well physically and mentally and by riding in a certain way, there’s more for the rider to invent. Also a V4 is a better battle bike because while inline-four riders want the bike nicely settled so they can sweep through corners with huge speed V4 riders can dive to the apex, flick the bike on its side, pick it up and gas it out. This has obvious advantages when you’re defending or attacking.

There’s no doubt that Espargaró knows how to get the most out of a V4. The big question now is how will he go on Honda’s RC213V?

The KTM and Honda share some similarities, most importantly their 90-degree V4 engines. Early RC16s even looked similar to the RC213V, which was hardly surprising because several HRC staffers had defected to KTM.

Last year KTM finally turned the corner, from also-rans to race winners, making some people wonder whether Espargaró will regret leaving the Austrian manufacturer. But the 29-year-old has wanted to ride for Repsol Honda for years, so this is a lifelong ambition fulfilled.

It’s very difficult to predict how a particular rider will gel with a particular machine because racing motorcycles aren’t that straightforward. Multiple factors have to coalesce – mind, muscle and metal. But if anyone can make the Honda work it’s Espargaró. He is certainly many times more suited to the RC213V than smooth-riding Jorge Lorenzo, who was totally bamboozled by the bike in 2019.

Espargaró likes to ride at the edge of control, rather like the team’s six-times MotoGP champion Marc Márquez. He is a full-commitment rider who is happy to flirt with disaster to get the maximum out a motorcycle and he doesn’t care if the bike is dancing around beneath him.

Pol Espargaró, 2020 KTM

Espargaró is mentally and physically prepared to ride more demanding V4 MotoGP bikes

Red Bull

Espargaró’s fitness regime is tailored to give him the strength to physically dominate a V4. Like Márquez he is very muscular, so he can turn the bike into corners on a knife-edge and handle headshakes on the exits.

Remember that one reason for Takaaki Nakagami’s transformation last year was a new training regime designed to make him as strong as Márquez.

Márquez’s absence from the 2020 MotoGP championship and Cal Crutchlow’s injury problems gave Honda its first winless season since 1981. This was a huge black cloud for Honda, but every cloud has a silver lining, which may brighten Honda’s 2021 campaign.

HRC engineers were able to change focus, from trying to make their otherworldly talented number-one rider even faster to working to make the RC213V friendlier for its other riders.

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“Historically, when Honda has a really strong champion rider our philosophy is to make the bike more and more fitted to that rider and that’s what we were doing for six or seven years with Marc,” said HRC’s MotoGP technical director Takeo Yokoyama towards the end of last season.

“Then suddenly our top rider was gone, so we had to refresh what we had to do, because the riding styles of our other riders were not the same as Marc’s. This was challenging for us but at the same time it was a good moment to sit down with all the engineers and think about which areas we needed to work on to get the maximum from our rider line-up.”

The RC213V definitely changed as a result of this new focus.

“If Marc hadn’t been injured the bike probably wouldn’t be the same as it is now, because we followed the feedback of our existing riders,” added Yokoyama.

Input from Nakagami, Alex Márquez, Cal Crutchlow and Stefan Bradl had HRC engineers looking at new directions in chassis design, but we won’t know exactly what direction they’ve taken for 2021 until pre-season testing starts next month.

Recent development of the RC213V has been complicated by Michelin’s new-for-2020 rear slick, which didn’t work well with the Honda or Ducati. HRC spent much of last season adapting the bike to the tyre and made a lot more progress than Ducati, which should give Honda’s riders a better start to 2021.

“The change from the previous tyre was more massive than we predicted,” explained Yokoyama. “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 found a way.”

Alex Marquez, 2020 Honda

Alex Márquez’s 2020 RC213V. Expect a new chassis on the bike when testing starts next month

Mat Oxley

Another MotoGP technician, who preferred to remain anonymous, believes that the 2020 rear’s extra grip may have contributed to Márquez’s crash during the baking-hot Spanish GP, from which he is still recovering.

“Increasing rear grip with the 2020 tyre moved the grip balance of the motorcycle to the rear, so the rear overcame the front,” he said. “This is especially true in the heat, because when the tyre temperature goes crazy you lose more grip and friction coefficient from the front tyre than the rear, so the rear tyre pushes the front even more.”

Honda’s MotoGP test rider Bradl, who rode Marc Márquez’s bikes for the remainder of 2020, believes that HRC has made good progress with the rear but needs to go further in 2021.

“We are getting faster because we have more understanding of how to use the tyres, especially the rear,” said Bradl at the season-ending Portuguese GP, where he qualified on the second row and finished seventh. “We need to keep working at making the rear tyre even better and more useful over a single lap – the lap times are so close in qualifying than you must get maximum performance out of the rear tyre for one lap.

“Also it seems like we need a little longer than the others to understand the track condition each weekend. That’s another thing we want to improve for 2021, so we can be competitive from the start of the weekend.”

Currently the biggest task for every team at every race is attempting to square the triangle of the Michelins, the motorcycle and the track conditions. This dominates the work of engineers every weekend, because the Michelins are so sensitive to different asphalts and temperatures.

Therefore the ideal motorcycle is a machine that allows the rider to attack corners in either style according to the grip level – either braking like crazy to the apex when there isn’t much grip or releasing the brakes earlier and sweeping through corners when there is enough grip to use the edge of the tyres.

Last year KTM made a breakthrough in this area, so that at some tracks its riders were able to use either technique. Espargaró’s input could be vital here in helping HRC achieve similar all-round performance. In fact HRC has tried this in the past, trying to increase the RC213V’s corner-speed capabilities with Dani Pedrosa, but in so doing the bike lost its strongest strength in aggressively attacking the apex. MotoGP is always a game of balancing a motorcycle’s strengths and weaknesses.

Espargaró certainly has a lot of work ahead of him, especially because there’s less off-season testing than ever before. Last autumn’s traditional post-season tests were cancelled due to Covid, so riders have only two three-day pre-season tests to prepare for the 2021 world championship: firstly at Sepang, Malaysia, February 19 to 21, then Losail, Qatar, March 10 to 12. All Covid permitting, of course.

On top of that Espargaró will be Honda’s lead rider if Marc Márquez is unable to start the season…