Honda’s fall from grace in MotoGP is self‑inflicted
Honda is accustomed to making racing history. The latest milestone, in mid-June at the German Grand Prix, was most unwelcome. It was the first race since 1981 when not a single Honda featured in the championship points.
It was all the more painful because it came at a circuit which they have dominated. Career Honda man Danny Pedrosa’s victory at the Sachsenring outside Chemnitz in 2010, was the start of a run of success interrupted only by the Covid cancellation in 2020. Danny won for the next two years before Marc Marquez embarked on his own eight-race unbeaten run at the German GP.
Marc’s absence this year, recuperating from a fourth bout of surgery to his right arm, was a major factor in 2022’s failure. There were others. His factory team-mate Pol Espargaro pulled in hurt after a heavy practice tumble, Alex Marquez retired with a seized-up rear ride-height device, Taka Nakagami fell off, while race-rusty factory tester Stefan Bradl – subbing for Marc – finished 16th and last, more than 20 seconds adrift of the final point-scorer in 15th.
These reasons did little to mitigate the stark reality. Honda is in the throes of an extended nightmare that began when Marc crashed in the opening round of 2020, breaking his right humerus, and triggering a saga of repeated problems and surgeries that continues to this day. He is currently recuperating from a fourth operation in which the upper arm bone was sawn in two, twisted through 30 degrees and screwed together again with a fourth titanium plate. He is unlikely to return this year, or even in the early rounds of next year. Or possibly ever.
This has left Honda terribly exposed. Their V4 RC213V was launched in 2012 and immediately won races. The following year Marquez joined MotoGP and swept the field to become the youngest-ever champion as a class rookie. It was the start of a dominant spell during which the bike was refined and developed around his rather peculiar, very aggressive riding style. By 2020 the bike was so specialised that not only did others have trouble riding it, they also crashed a lot. Marc’s Honda was fast, but potentially poisonous. That year, however, further changes made it hard even for Marc’s cat-like reflexes. That ruinous crash at Jerez followed an earlier run-off out of the lead into the gravel trap, then a heroic charge back to a challenging third from 16th.
Marc came back in 2021 for three more race wins including, ironically, another at the Sachsenring. Even below full strength he could still master the RC213V, but the other Honda riders were still very much at sea. Engine design had been frozen for two years because of Covid, but 2022 was supposed to bring epiphany. Not only was the V4 both more powerful and more user-friendly (went the mantra), but a complete reworking of the chassis had changed the weight balance to adapt the bike to Michelin’s grippy rear tyre. Pol Espargaro set second-best and then best time at the two-preseason tests, enthused about a bike that at last suited his style, then led the opening race at Qatar, finally finishing a strong third.
Problem solved? Anything but. Since then, the Spanish rider has struggled for results and suffered a string of crashes; while Marc had to ride like a hero for a best of fourth at Jerez, before opting for further surgery. Satellite riders Alex Marquez and Taka Nakagami have likewise suffered many crashes and poor results. Both are expected to lose their Honda rides next year.
It is the usual way with Honda (with Japan in general) that heads will roll. Those sleeping the most uneasily surely belong not to Spanish team manager Alberto Puig, responsible for hiring the riders, but to HRC’s own staff, with technical manager Takeo Yokoyama right in the firing line. Previously highly respected during the years of Marc’s domination, Yokoyama is now himself very exposed.
Whether or not that means the traditional fate of a posting to assistant chief designer of after-market luggage accessory fastenings remains to be seen, but HRC staff might be able to glean some comfort from another unwelcome 2022 statistic clocked up by their traditional rival. At the Dutch TT at Assen, last race before the summer break, and for the first time since 1985, there was not a single Yamaha in the points. Championship leader Fabio Quartararo fell off twice, and was out; team-mate Franco Morbidelli and satellite teamster Darryn Binder also fell, out of lowly positions. The only Yamaha to finish was veteran Andrea Dovizioso’s in 16th.
For by what is surely a major coincidence, Yamaha have also managed to build a bike that only one man can ride with any degree of success. Indeed, defending champion Quartararo is close to being flawless. The other Yamaha riders can only watch and wonder, and from a considerable distance.