Hopes for the big red wing

GeeBee sees Red Bull Honda through the lens and lends his thoughts

It has been back to proper work in the last two weeks, pushing the little button. My first assignment for 2018 was at the Ten Kate Racing workshops in Netherlands to shoot Red Bull Honda Fireblades along with new riders Leon Camier and Jake Gagne in their 2018 garb. Whilst the livery on the bike remains almost identical, there have been a lot of changes over the winter in the Honda camp as they try to put their terrible 2017 behind them.

No one could have predicted the tragic circumstances in which we lost Nicky Hayden but at this time last year, with a new machine and the big bucks of Red Bull behind them, expectations were high.

In reality the new race bike, with no development as the season started, was a step backwards from 2016. British Superbike and MotoAmerica teams suffered a similar fate and it took the teams in those series almost the entire season to become competitive. It was only at the Suzuka 8HR that the HRC bike looked anything like the race machine it should be.

So where now for the Dutch squad? It’s over 10 years since James Toseland won the WorldSBK Championship on a Ten Kate Honda and in an attempt to shake things up Honda Europe and Ten Kate Racing have made a number of changes in personnel and team structure. Company founder, Gerrit Ten Kate, has for the last few years taken a back seat in the racing operation, concentrating on the workshop and dealership he has in Nieuwleusen, and nephew Ronald took charge of the race teams in WorldSBK and WolrdSSP.  This season Ronald will also step aside and concentrate more on the business at the workshops with former racer Kervin Bos taking up the reins at the race team.

News also broke at the weekend that Honda Motor Europe’s Marco Chini has left his role as WorldSBK Operations Manager. Having been at the Ten Kate workshop last week for the pre-season photoshoot I was aware of this but some parts of the press suggesting that this was another piece of the shake-up are wide of the mark. As far as I know Chini has made the decision himself feeling that it was time to move on to new chapter in his career.

The rider line up has finally taken shape after a half season cruelly upset by Nicky’s passing and also the fact that Stefan Bradl was sidelined through injury for a large part. Last year’s stand-in man, Jake Gagne gets the reward of a full time ride for his patience and performances last year and he will be partnered by Leon Camier, who moves from MV Agusta.

I have known Leon since he raced 125cc in the British Championship alongside a young Aussie kid called Stoner. What ever happened to him? Leon was/is as equally as talented but has always seemed to miss out on the ‘big’ rides. He won the 2009 British Championship on a Yamaha R1 with GSE Racing, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that he went through the whole season with just one bike, often didn’t ride in Free Practice, only qualifying and the races, and wrapped up the title with a few races in hand. That for me shows his ability to get the most out of what he is given.

The same can be said for his performances at MV. It’s something I picked up on more last season but if you look at the results, he is consistently within the top 10 and always roughly the same distance behind the Kawasaki and Ducati. That suggests to me that were he on a green or red bike he would be right at the nose of the race every weekend. Towards the end of last year he was shouting for a podium position on a machine that was under-powered and in a team that was under funded. He could be the perfect man to pull Honda out of the current doldrums that they are in.

Chatting away whilst doing the photoshoot he appeared genuinely upbeat about the season ahead. He is fully aware that there is still a lot of development work to do in the first tests and races of this year but he has set a realistic target of achieving a podium finish at some point in the year.

His optimism was shared by Bos who has seen the spark in Camier’s eyes and feels his eagerness to succeed. He agreed that Honda had to figuratively press CTRL-ALT-DELETE over the winter but reckons they are ready to hit the ground running.

The final piece in the jigsaw of changes is the little box of magic that sits just behind the dashboard.

For many years Ten Kate persisted with Cosworth Engineering as their engine development and electronics partner. Whilst everyone else was migrating to the Magneti Marelli system it was almost as if the Ten Kate squad were being different on purpose. The plan is to use the Italian system for 2018. However at the recent tests in Jerez and Portimao the team persisted with the existing electronics package, mainly because they have not been supplied with sufficient stock to prepare all the bikes and as a result have had little or no time to prepare the base settings to build from.

Camier was honest enough to acknowledge that it wasn’t going to make the Honda a race winner overnight. He has used the Marelli system all through the MV project and has seen that particular team develop and learn its many features and capabilities. He considers that it is in the fine-tuning of the electronics where the Marelli system wins over. He explained that there are times when you know what adjustment needs to be made, you make it, and you get the expected feeling. That must do wonders for a rider’s confidence and if he can transfer that to his new team there is no reason why collectively they can’t be performing at a higher level, and challenging for podium spots.

Gagne flew in from California for the shoot before heading to Spain and Portugal for the first tests over the coming weeks. He seemed really chilled and relaxed with the prospect of his full time move from MotoAmerica to WorldSBK. Kervin Bos feels that he has the potential to match Camier as the season goes on. He watched from the sidelines in Qatar when Davide Giugliano set much faster qualifying times but Gagne quietly and steadily improved in the races till he was lapping the same as the Italian. He has a feeling that Jake will be a dark horse who will quietly get on with his work and consistently surprise people with his race day performances.

The recent tests in Jerez and Portimao turned out to be extremely positive for Honda with Camier posting genuinely fast times, albeit on a qualifying tyre. What would appear to have been his race pace was still a little way off the Kawasaki’s of Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes, but he has made huge strides on the team’s performances from last year within the space of a few weeks. It augurs well for the season ahead.

I really hope that the fortunes of the team can turn around. I have known many of the technicians for as long as I have worked in WorldSBK and I feel some of their pain when things have not been going so well. I also think that the Red Bull livery is one of the sharpest in the paddock. That alone puts a few bhp in the tank for me. Let’s hope it can give the big red wing some lift.