MotoGP without a win in the 2022 season: The key to Honda's revival?
In the 2022 season, Honda had to come through very tough races with only two podiums at the season opener in Qatar for third place by Pol Espargaro, and at the eighteenth round in Australia for second place by Marc Marquez. These hardships gave Honda solid determination to return to winning in the upcoming 2023 season with the hugely talented four riders: Marc Marquez and Joan Mir for Repsol Honda Team, Alex Rins for LCR Honda Castrol, and Takaaki Nakagami for LCR Honda IDEMITSU.
Now the first official three-day pre-season testing at Sepang International Circuit is awaiting just around the corner, Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC General Manager of the Race Operations Management Office, speaks frankly and honestly about the prospect of the 2023 season in two parts interview. For this Part-1, we will first discuss why Honda could not clinch the title in the 2022 MotoGP and what they have done to deal with it, then move on to the expectation for the two Repsol Honda Team riders, Marc Marquez and Joan Mir.
First of all, we would like to know the reason why Honda had to struggle in the 2022 season. Were the specifications of the last year’s RC213V different from those of the previous years?
“Not only the engine update itself, we reconsidered the concept of our bike last year. In the previous seasons, by keeping step with the Michelin tire’s evolution, we have managed to exploit the front tires’ characteristics. On the other hand, there had always been something to improve with the rear. Although we tried many things to find a solution for these issues, room for improvement became smaller and smaller when you didn’t change the concept of the bike. Therefore, we strived to develop our bike to improve lap times by using more of the rear tire, which was the key concept for our 2022 models.
Does the overall result of the 2022 season mean you didn’t get enough performance you were aiming for?
“In terms of exploiting more of the rear grip, we thought it was successful at a certain level. However, the range of improvement varied depending on the racetracks, so we could not make the rear grip level consistent. Meanwhile, when we tried to strengthen the front side, which was our strong point, the evaluation and analysis of the new parts to improve the front performance became complicated due to the rear grip inconsistency becoming apparent to us. It took a considerable amount of time to find out these problems, which was the overall situation for us in the 2022 season.
Since we are chasing championship leaders, we tend to aim for a “smash hit” for the improvement to make a big step forward. Despite these ambitions, we could not find a vital direction we should’ve been heading for. This was the reason we lost last year.”
Marc Marquez returned to the race at the Aragon GP (Rd15) in September after his right arm surgery in early summer. In the Australian GP (Rd18), he fought a very close battle for victory until the final turn of the final lap to finish second place. After seeing the Hondas struggle so far in the season both in the qualifying and the race, Marc’s performance in that race seemed that he was retrieving his competitiveness.
“Marc didn’t race in the middle of the season, and we provided him with the updated aero parts that weekend. With the characteristics of the Phillip Island Circuit, we could see a fruitful and clear improvement. Also, Marc’s fitness was getting back to the level he was hoping for, which was why his performance was getting better in the final stages of the season.”
Does it mean you finally found lights over the dark tunnel of the 2022 season?
“I think we did. Although we still have many things to try, such as aerodynamics and so on, we confirmed to have made solid evolution with the potential of our bike from the viewpoint of various parameters that could be influential to the performance. The bitter experience in the 2022 season taught us that we weren’t in the right direction regarding the development and setup of our bike. So, in the second half of the 2022 season, we sorted out our strong points and weaknesses by discussing “where should we narrow down to improve our lap time?”, ” We have to concentrate on the area that can significantly contribute to the better lap time,” then tackled with them and kept on analyzing. We are now working on it continuously for the upcoming season.”
After his return to the race, Marquez’s physical conditions look steadily improving. In fact, he did a fierce battle for victory at the Australian GP. Did he recover his fitness almost as perfectly as he used to?
“Yes, I think he is recovering steadily and surely. Compared to his physical condition at Mugello (Rd08 the Italian GP) when he decided to have surgery and be absent from races for a few months, now he is a totally different person! Right after his return from surgery and rehabilitation, it was true that he didn’t have enough muscles as he used to have in the past. Now he works out very hard to prepare for the pre-season testing, so we think he is ready.”
Before his right arm fracture, he had to have surgery for his shoulder during the winter in 2018 and 2019, which forced him into tough off-seasons. Maybe it is the first time for him in these five years that he is off to the pre-season Sepang testing with full fitness.
“Exactly. In fact, they were very stressful things for Marc. He had left shoulder surgery after the 2018 season and another surgery for his right shoulder when the 2019 championship finished. He also suffered a relapse into diplopia. That is to say, he was unable to fight the championships from the beginning to the end in satisfactory conditions these years. But finally, now we are ready for this season with full fitness.”
Are you confident he will fight for the championship after winning the title in 2019?
“For sure, we will try to make it happen. And so will Marc. After enduring tough three years, now he thinks the time has come to fight for victory. That’s why he had surgery after Mugello last year. If he hadn’t set his target into the 2023 season, he wouldn’t have had that surgery.
If you think about the 2023 season, you have to have surgery at that time. He made his decision because, without that surgery, he wouldn’t be able to ride the bike with his maximum in 2023. Obviously, it was his target. Therefore, we believe Marc will demonstrate his best performance to fight for the championship. The rest is up to the bike we are developing now.”
This year, Marc’s teammate is Joan Mir, the 2020 MotoGP championship for Suzuki. What impression do you have of him?
“We were interested in him and had a very close relationship in his Moto3 days. Joan won the Moto3 championship in 2017 with our bike. We had already confirmed his potential back then, so we always watched him closely when he stepped up to the Moto2 class the following year. Fortunately, now he rides for Honda to fight for the 2023 MotoGP championship. Regardless of his career in our competitor, Joan would be always on our shortlist.”
So, you expect him to fight for the title as World Champion.
“Why not? Although we went separate ways for some reasons these few years, now we are very glad to work together again with him, so it is the best opportunity to aim for the best.”
Does his riding style fit the Honda’s characteristics?
“You’ll never know until you try, but both of our newcomers (Joan Mir and Alex Rins) have long limbs and very tall heights. I presume they made good use of their physical characteristics to bring out the best of their bikes and achieved good results. Now they have just started tackling with our bike and thinking about the best way to bring out the best of the Honda for going fast. With this approach, I believe they will demonstrate their best performance by exploiting their physical characteristics. And this is what we expect from them.”
This season, Joan’s crew chief will be Giacomo Guidotti, former Taka Nakagami’s crew chief. Why did you rearrange the personnel?
“There are some reasons for it. Firstly, we needed an experienced engineer with skilled criteria in order to make the evaluation more precise and accurate for developing the bike. Therefore, we asked Ramón Aurín, who was the crew chief of the race team until last year, to be the new crew chief for our test team. Then we asked former Taka’s crew chief Giacomo to come to Joan’s team because we think they have good harmony. And Klaus Nöhles will be in charge of Taka’s new crew chief. In the last year’s final race, the Valencian GP, Giacomo had to rest due to injury, and Klaus stood in for him to work with Taka. Klaus is younger than other crew chiefs, so we think he will be appropriate for Taka’s new challenge.”
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