HRC in ’19: Don’t be fooled

It would be easy to assume that Honda are in a spot of bother after the first test of 2019 at Sepang. Of the four riders they have in MotoGP, three are injured, Jorge Lorenzo badly enough to be forced to skip the test in Malaysia. Of the other two, Marc Márquez is still a long way off full fitness, recovering from deeply invasive shoulder surgery, and Cal Crutchlow was riding around with a kilo of metal in the foot he nearly destroyed at Phillip Island. Only Takaaki Nakagami was fully fit, but he is not part of HRC’s development programme. 

The standings at the end of the three-day test might even reinforce that impression. LCR Honda’s Crutchlow was the first of the RC213V riders, in a reasonably respectable sixth place. Nakagami was the next Honda rider, in ninth, nine tenths slower than Danilo Petrucci’s quickest lap. Marc Márquez got no further than eleventh, a few hundredths behind the Japanese LCR Honda man. It was hardly the domination we have seen in earlier years.

Is Honda really in as much trouble as the Sepang test appears to show? I rather suspect that precisely the opposite is true. Given just how close the field was – twelve riders within a second by the end of three days – the relative rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is always tempting to read too much into the fastest lap times, and the injuries of the Honda riders make those times even more deceptive. Injuries make riders less willing to push right to the very limit at a test, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t providing useful feedback. The trick is to focus on what you are in a position to test, leaving the rest for later.

In Marc Márquez’ case, that meant not worrying about the tendency of the front end to fold under extreme pressure, and concentrate on improving rear grip and acceleration. “This test I wasn’t concentrating on the front, as I wasn’t pushing like always,” he said at Sepang. “I’m not riding with my normal riding style on corner entry. We tried the engine, then we tried a completely different character of the bike. We are not going into the details at the moment, we are just going for very big things, if it’s working or not working, and get some information. The most important thing is to work on the engine, because from Qatar until the end of the season, we cannot touch it.”

It was top speed Honda are chasing, the one area where they really came up short against the Ducati. This is a question of honour: they are not called Honda MOTOR Company for nothing. But the trick is to balance top end speed with manageable acceleration, the quicker and more easily you can get out of the corner, the faster you go at the end of the straight. At Sepang, the Hondas were consistently within a couple of km/h of the Ducati, their work over the winter having paid off. The 2019 bike features a different air intake, which flows directly through the headstock, instead of being routed round the frame. That allows for a bigger airbox, which in turn means more power. New exhausts also appeared on the bike, to help manage the extra horses on tap.

Ignore the headline times, and it shows just how strong the 2019 Honda RC213V is. In terms of race pace, both Márquez and Crutchlow were impressive. Márquez did not do many laps, but he made all of them count, circulating consistently in the high 1’59s and low 2’00s. Crutchlow posted plenty of laps in that range too, a sign that both men were focusing on development, rather than engaging in the manhood-measuring contest which testing can quickly descend into. “Marc didn’t push himself,” Crutchlow noted. “I think he pushed the bike to a good limit and he was competitive. He could’ve gone faster. He’s testing, as am I.”

But even when trying to be as prudent as possible and focus on bike development and avoiding risks, Márquez couldn’t completely suppress his competitive instincts. On the first day of the test, a quick lap on his final run put him at the top of the timesheets. That, too, was a matter of honour, as well as proving to himself that he hadn’t lost any speed over the winter.

That fast time is just another piece of the jigsaw falling into place. The Honda riders were happy at the Valencia and Jerez tests in November, and content with the progress made at Sepang. In previous years, Honda riders left Sepang worried how far behind schedule they felt they were. This year, no such concerns were expressed. Given that Marc Márquez has won five of the last six championships that should really worry his rivals.

By David Emmett @motomatters

By CormacGP @cormacgp

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