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Opinion
MotoGP French GP

Why the slim hope Honda is counting on appears beyond Yamaha

OPINION: Honda raced with its new Kalex-designed chassis at the French Grand Prix and it delivered a step forward. But it won’t be the cure to its problems many hope it will be. Once again, it looks like Honda will be relying on its prized rider finding a happy middle ground to negate its problems with raw talent

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Where once MotoGP’s Japanese powerhouses Honda and Yamaha were the undisputed dominators of the championship, times have shifted and the European onslaught has set in – with Ducati, KTM and Aprilia the benchmarks now.

This wasn’t an overnight takeover. Ducati has been slogging away since 2003 to deliver a title challenger and went through some abysmal times in the early 2010s before finally building a bike that was a true frontrunner - its years with Casey Stoner, including his championship campaign in 2007, flattered to deceive thanks to the Australian’s unearthly talent - in the last two years.

Aprilia’s embarrassing early years of its comeback pegged it firmly as the paddock’s laughing stock before it started to make genuine strides in 2021 with a maiden podium that gave way to a first win and title challenge in 2022.

And KTM has steadily improved since starting its time in MotoGP in 2017, 3.5s off the pace in the opening qualifying of that year. Having shown intermittent form through 2020, 2021 and 2022, the Austrian manufacturer now appears to have built a genuine title contender after poaching numerous Ducati engineers over the winter.

Narrow-mindedness and a steadfast belief bordering on arrogance that its ways of working were the best set in the rot for Yamaha and Honda. Last year, the latter failed to win a grand prix for the second time in three campaigns, while Yamaha has gone from champions in 2021 to runners-up in 2022 to scoring just one podium so far in a tough 2023 in which Fabio Quartararo has conceded “we are too far away” from the title already.

Honda, of course, ended its victory drought at the Circuit of the Americas in April with LCR’s Alex Rins. But this is currently looking like an exceptional circumstance, Rins’ riding style minimising the Honda’s acceleration problems at the flowing Texas venue.

Over the winter, both took steps to reverse their fortunes. The most significant was Honda entrusting chassis development to German manufacturer Kalex. The marque’s chassis have won every Moto2 title since 2013, and at the French GP last weekend became the second most successful manufacturer in the intermediate class, behind Honda and overhauling Yamaha. What’s more, Kalex is a tiny company of just 10 people.

Rins ended Honda's win drought at COTA, but that appears to be an outlier for the LCR rider

Rins ended Honda's win drought at COTA, but that appears to be an outlier for the LCR rider

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The Honda/Kalex tie-up began with a swingarm that debuted late last year. At the French GP, it rolled out the German company’s chassis for Marc Marquez to try as injury meant the Spaniard missed its first try-out in the post-Spanish GP Jerez test.

Marquez made it straight through to Q2 from Friday practice on the new frame, and from Saturday had both of his bikes fitted with the frame. Joan Mir had one of the Kalex frames, with his second bike fitted with the chassis he had been using up to that point.

Clearly, the new frame was a step in the right direction. Marquez qualified second on the grid, was fourth in the sprint race having battled for the podium and was on course for second in the grand prix before crashing out.

"We need to change something for the future to be more competitive, to be safer because every year all the Honda riders we are in the top ranking of crashing" Marc Marquez

“I’m very, very happy about the race,” Marquez said on Sunday at Le Mans. “It’s a shame we didn’t receive any good results with all the hard work we did. We crashed with one lap and a half remaining. But I was riding in a very good way.

“It was a long time ago that I was feeling like this myself – not with the bike. Myself, I was riding well, I was going into the corner with some sliding - I was braking late. I was able to fight against the other riders. I’m happy about that.”

This was a telling comment, for two reasons. First, it stayed true to sentiments he had expressed throughout the weekend, that the new frame was good – but it wasn’t going to be the major boost Honda needed.

“Of course, the chassis is a small difference, but it’s not the solution,” he explained. “Mir was using the chassis and Mir is a world champion, and you saw he was struggling, he was in the back and he crashed again. So, we need to change something for the future to be more competitive, to be safer because every year all the Honda riders we are in the top ranking of crashing.

“It’s not only me; Mir crashed three, four times in Jerez, here three times. So, we need to keep working with the team to improve.”

Marquez isn't convinced that the Kalex chassis is the silver bullet Honda needs

Marquez isn't convinced that the Kalex chassis is the silver bullet Honda needs

Photo by: Honda Racing

In that grand prix, only LCR’s Takaaki Nakagami got the chequered flag for Honda. Alex Rins, Mir and Marquez all had front-end crashes, though the latter’s was down to him having a moment exiting Turn 6 which unsettled him into Turn 7. And Nakagami admitted that he didn’t crash because he wasn’t pushing hard enough to test the front end.

Marquez explained that the new Kalex chassis didn’t have the same braking and turning performance as his old Honda-built chassis, but “you have more warnings” from the front on the new frame and was less “critical” on the front end.

This goes some way to explaining why Marquez was able to push as he did in his battle with Pramac’s Jorge Martin in the grand prix and ride in a way that felt much more natural. But he was still undone by the RC213V's deficiencies, as poor acceleration ultimately caused the moment exiting Turn 6 that led to his Turn 7 fall.

It’s likely this problem isn’t going to be fixed this season under the current engine development restrictions. But Honda was offered a glimpse at Le Mans of what is possible if it can just get its bike in a position where Marquez can let his talent take over, as was very much the case for much his years dominating the championship from 2013-2019.

This, though, will undoubtedly raise fears that Honda could regress to its old ways, by building a bike that Marquez could tame and the rest of its stable struggled. And so we are still a long way off from knowing if Honda has truly learned from its past mistakes.

Getting its bike to a point where its star talent can extract the maximum from it is also something Yamaha will have to make do with if it has any aspirations of winning the title in 2023. Quartararo was seventh in the French GP having qualified down in 13th and crashed out of the sprint. He refused to call this a comeback as it was a position awarded to him by a high attrition rate.

The entire Le Mans weekend saw Quartararo essentially pick apart everything that was going wrong at Yamaha in 2023. Yamaha, like Honda, opened up its doors to outside influence in the form of ex-Formula 1 engine design chief Luca Marmorini’s company to help with its underpowered motor.

While Yamaha has found a bit of top speed, Quartararo said at Le Mans that it had negatively impacted the M1’s other strong points – then, after the grand prix, said the amount of power being generated wasn’t enough to make the aerodynamics of the bike work properly.

It's been a trying season to date for Quartararo, who crashed out at Jerez and has since reverted to 2021 settings

It's been a trying season to date for Quartararo, who crashed out at Jerez and has since reverted to 2021 settings

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Quartararo also noted at Le Mans that everything Yamaha tried at the post-race Jerez test was useless. When asked by Motorsport.com if he was confident the Japanese marque knew how to fix its problems, he admitted that he wasn’t.

But while Honda looks to be taking a step forward, albeit a very small one, Yamaha seems stuck. This has forced Quartararo to essentially wind back the clock and start using 2021 settings on his M1. Doing so at Le Mans, he felt his pace in the sprint and GP was strong, and without an arm pump issue on the Sunday could have been 0.5s per lap quicker than he was.

“From the beginning of the year we have been trying thousands of things, of settings, and we just decided to go with the 2021 setting and go,” he said. “Whatever problem we have, that’s it. I need to adapt to the problem and see.

Quartararo is 45 points off the championship lead after five rounds, while Marquez is 82 having missed three rounds with injury. Both riders’ situations in 2023 are remarkably similar

“We tried a lot of things on the bike and the best we had is always to bring back the base from two years ago. We have decided to keep it like this.”

Quartararo is 45 points off the championship lead after five rounds, while Marquez is 82 having missed three rounds with injury. Both riders’ situations in 2023 are remarkably similar and have been for some time with both having made the difference for their respective marques.

That looks like it will continue through 2023, regardless of what small steps either Honda or Yamaha make in bettering their bikes.

Can Quartararo resurrect his title prospects to prevent a Ducati steamroller?

Can Quartararo resurrect his title prospects to prevent a Ducati steamroller?

Photo by: Marc Fleury

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