Lorenzo and Honda: will they win?

by Mat Oxley on 7th June 2018

Jorge Lorenzo’s shock move to Repsol Honda caught pretty much everyone by surprise. What are the precedents and how will the deal work out?



In December 1988, a letter from Rothmans Honda chattered through fax machines of editorial offices around the world, announcing that reigning 500cc world champion Eddie Lawson was quitting Marlboro Yamaha Team Agostini to race Rothmans Hondas the following season.


Editors and journalists stared at the letter in disbelief.


A few days later their befuddlement was complete when a fax arrived from Marlboro Yamaha Team Agostini, announcing that Rothmans Honda’s former world champion Freddie Spencer would ride YZR500s in 1989.


‘Steady’ Eddie on a Honda? ‘Fast’ Freddie on a Yamaha? It was like the sky had fallen in. Californian Lawson had won three world titles for Yamaha and Louisianan Spencer had won three world titles for Honda. Their duels on their YZR500s and NSR500s were the stuff of legend. Each name was synonymous with each brand; it seemed inconceivable that both were defecting. One American Lawson fan was so upset he christened his former hero the anti-Christ.


The winter of 1988/1989 was definitely Grand Prix racing’s silliest of silly seasons. Or was it? How about the winter of 1957/1958 when the dominant Italian manufacturers – Gilera, MV Agusta, Mondial and Moto Guzzi – all agreed to withdraw from Grand Prix racing, because a slump in motorcycle sales had hit them hard?


Soon after crafty Count Domenico Agusta announced that MV Agusta would continue racing. The marque went on to win the next 17 500c world championships, all the way to 1974. The Count wasn’t too bothered by the slump in bike sales because he made most of his money selling helicopters to dodgy regimes around the world (full story in Motor Sport magazine, out at the end of July).


Jorge Lorenzo’s move to Honda isn’t quite as dramatic as that, but it’s a remarkable moment in MotoGP history, not least because of the way it came about: the first MotoGP world champion to successfully adapt to the Ducati tricked us all by signing for Honda at the very moment we thought he was about to run back to Yamaha. It’s a very brave move. Only time will tell if it’s the right move.


The combination of Lorenzo and Marc Márquez at Repsol Honda creates one of the strongest teams in Grand Prix history: up there with Phil Read and Bill Ivy at Yamaha in the 1960s, Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read at MV in the 1970s; Lawson, Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan at Rothmans Honda in the 1980s, Lawson and Wayne Rainey at Team Roberts Marlboro Yamaha in the 1990s and Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi at Yamaha in the 2000s. It’s also reminiscent of two towering Formula 1 talents: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost together at McLaren Honda in 1988 and 1989.


The move gives Lorenzo the chance to make some history of his own. If he wins races on the RC213V – which he surely will – he will become only the fifth rider to achieve premier-class victories on three different makes of motorcycle, following in the wheel tracks of Lawson (Yamaha/Honda/Cagiva), Loris Capirossi (Yamaha/Honda/Ducati), Randy Mamola (Suzuki/Honda/Yamaha) and Mike Hailwood (Norton/MV/Honda).


All top riders are motivated to win, while some are motivated to achieve things that no one else has achieved. On Sunday, Lorenzo did what Rossi had already done, win with a second brand, but he also did what Rossi hasn’t done, win on a Ducati.


If Lorenzo wants, there may still be time for him to switch factories again and make some major history, which might go forever unbeaten: the first rider to win premier-class races on four different makes of motorcycle.


Why did Lorenzo – who raced a Honda RS250RW with HRC and Repsol backing in 2005 – make the move to Repsol Honda? He had obviously fallen out with Ducati and why would he want to ride a YZR-M1 for an independent team when he could ride an RC213V for the biggest factory team of them all?


And why did Honda sign him? During recent years people have suggested that HRC invests all its hopes in Márquez, so all that’s required is a second rider who will win some races, help with development and maintain a happy garage.



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I think the arrival of Alberto Puig as team manager at Repsol Honda has a lot to do with it. Most MotoGP teams are run by management types. Ex-racers are different; they understand the sport from the inside and they go racing with the same mentality they had when they were opening the throttle.


Puig – the second Spaniard to win a premier-class Grand Prix – is an old-school warrior racer. While some team bosses might be worried about upsetting their star rider, Puig believes that giving Márquez an even stronger team-mate should get even more out of him. He also wants his team to dominate, which, after all, is what he’s paid to do.


It may have taken Lorenzo 24 races to fully gel with the Ducati, but he got there in the end, so the RC213V shouldn’t be an impossible challenge.


Lorenzo uses a riding style that’s the polar opposite of Márquez’s technique: it’s all about staying steady on the bike, releasing the brakes early, swooping into corners, maintaining momentum, which reduces the need for large throttle openings, therefore stressing the tyres less. So surely that’s a nightmare in the making on an RC213V, which Márquez rides like a rodeo bull?


Not really, because Lorenzo’s technique isn’t so dissimilar to the way Dani Pedrosa rides his RC213V. The late, great Angel Nieto once opined that Pedrosa rides like an angel; so there’s no reason why Lorenzo’s graceful, sweeping style shouldn’t work the same, but better, because he’s not as tiny as the man he’s replacing. Many of Pedrosa’s rivals are quite sure that the 1.6-metre tall Spaniard he would’ve won the MotoGP title at least once if he was bigger, so he could move around the bike more.


MotoGP factories are happy to develop their bikes in two different directions – one way for Márquez, another for Pedrosa or Lorenzo – because they learn more that way and because sometimes they can apply the lessons learned from one rider to the other. Indeed that’s one reason HRC was so keen on Pedrosa, because he gave them unique feedback and information.


“The bike has to do more for me,” he told me a while back. “That’s why I’m very sensitive to settings changes and I can judge changes more deeply.”


And that’s the whole point of being in a factory team (along with the big, fat salary): you get the bike tailormade to fit your way of riding.


How will Márquez and Lorenzo get on? That will be fascinating to observe, especially as the championship pressure builds. Lorenzo isn’t the easiest man to have on the other side of your garage but Márquez seems impossible to faze. Indeed, both men have rock-solid psyches, so they’ll need to play some very artful mind-games if they’re to have any effect on each other.


On the racetrack, Márquez will surely have the advantage, at least initially. Next season will be his seventh season aboard the RC213V. He wins more MotoGP races than anyone else thanks in part to his obsessive desire for having maximum knowledge about how his bike will react to each and every situation. That’s why he often falls off in practice, because the only 100 per cent sure way of locating the limit is to trip over it.


Whatever happens, all those fans who are sad because they never got to see Márquez versus Casey Stoner race each other can now rejoice that they will get to see Márquez versus Lorenzo race compete on the same bike.


Hopefully their clash will be less fraught than the most famous in-house championship battle, which happened 50 years ago, when factory Yamaha team-mates Read and Ivy contested the 1968 125cc and 250cc world championships.


Ivy was bike racing’s first rock and roll superstar. Read was one of the sport’s most ruthless characters. When Honda and Suzuki quit Grand Prix racing at the end of 1967, Yamaha had the 1968 125 and 250 championships all to itself, so the decision was made for Read to win the 125 title and Ivy the 250.


At first, everything went to plan. Read secured the 125 title at Brno, with three races to go. An hour or so later, when Read took his place alongside Ivy on the 250 grid, he dropped his bombshell.


“Bill had been telling everyone, ‘I’m going to win the 250 title, I’m going to beat Ready,’” recalls the man who won 52 GPs and seven world championships. “I’d heard all this, so as we lined up for the 250s I said to him, ‘OK Bill, if you think you can beat me when we’re riding to orders, well, now you’re going have to race me for it.’ He said, ‘ah, f***ing hell, Phil’. So we raced, I won and he was second.”


Read double-crossed his team-mate because Yamaha was also about to quit GPs. “Yamaha telexed me saying, please Phil san, keep to team orders, so I asked them what was happening about next season and they wouldn’t reply. So I thought, bugger it, I’m going to go for it.”


The Read/Ivy duel for the 250 crown went down to the final round at Monza. “All year I’d made sure that whenever I finished second in the 250s behind Bill it was very, very close,” adds Read. “When I beat Bill in the final race we ended up equal on points, so they decided the title on time difference, and I won by two minutes.”


Read had, therefore, won the 250 title as well as the 125 crown, but first there were protests to deal with. The feud descended into farce when Ivy filed a protest, claiming that Read’s number plates didn’t comply with regulations. If Ivy had won the race, Read had intended to protest that Ivy was below the FIM’s 60-kilo minimum weight limit.


Phil Read’s mechanic Ferry Brouwer still remembers the weekend. “It would’ve been more fun going to a funeral,” he says.


Ivy lost his life the following year when his Jawa V4 seized as he rode through the village of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, part of the 5.4-mile Sachsenring street circuit that hosted the East German GP.


Decades later, Read is still affected by Ivy’s death.


“A few years ago Phil and I attended a classic racing event at the Sachsenring,” adds Brouwer. “Phil asked me to drive him to the spot where Billy got killed. When we got there he cried like a child. But I’d say that what happened in ’68 was a racing incident. It’s like when two riders run into each other, people are inclined to side with the guy who came off worst. But looking at it from Phil’s side, I might have done the same. Suppose he had obeyed Yamaha’s orders and the FIM had got to the bottom of it, he could have been suspended.”


If you attend the German Grand Prix, a visit to the Hohenstein-Ernstthal street that claimed Ivy is essential.


 

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