As Marc Marquez edges closer to his pre-injury MotoGP form, however slowly, the sight of a Repsol-coloured Honda running up front in MotoGP races is becoming familiar once more.
The crashes are frequent but the pace is good, especially at the more favourable tracks – true, a 2019-spec Marquez would’ve won comfortably at Aragon, but the 2021-spec Marquez we have still came pretty close.
But even when the six-time champ was still sidelined, a Repsol Honda did run up front at Aragon last year, and so did an LCR Honda, courtesy of Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami respectively. Yet in 2021, as a pair of LCR team-mates, neither showed much of anything at the Alcaniz-based venue – and the elder Marquez’s new factory Honda team-mate had arguably an even bleaker time.
“I struggled so much to get the grip in these conditions of hot and greasy,” said Pol Espargaro, whose Silverstone mini-resurgence was predictably snuffed out by the Aragon heat.
“[With a] greasy track feeling, I’m lost completely. I don’t know actually, how to ride the bike. If I brake late, I lock the front and I lock the rear, if I brake early I lose a lot of time in the brakes and then I do not recover in the acceleration because I spin a lot and I have a huge side spin.
“For me it’s hard, it’s difficult. Okay, I’ve been close at the end to Taka, one second or something, but I was 20 seconds off Marc, which is … not possible, that’s way too much.”
A 13th-place finisher at a track where he’s been at least competitive if not really spectacular in his prior MotoGP career, Espargaro cut an all-too-familiar in 2021 dejected figure, though perhaps given faith in a way forward by his Silverstone pole.
“In low temperature or high grip or even time attack I’m understanding how to ride the bike, I’m fast, I’m one of the fastest, and this is good because I understand how to do a time attack without crashing,” he said.
“But in these hot conditions I don’t know, and I need to discover. Now I’m super bad, and it’s painful. I feel very bad. To not perform well, I’m feeling that- it’s not like I’ve done a mistake, it’s like I don’t know what to do to be faster, in those conditions – it’s painful.”
Honda had turned to Espargaro as its latest bet in finally finding its perfect wingman to the elder Marquez that it’s been looking for Dani Pedrosa had run out of steam. Espargaro ticked the boxes – an in-form rider on what appeared to be a similar bike, the KTM RC16, that he’d helped develop into a race winner. And in pre-season testing, his signing looked like an obvious success.
Of course, that’s a different lifetime now, and Espargaro’s form in the actual racing portion of the season has been nowhere near what would warrant a renewal. And Misano, which is expected to offer similar conditions to Aragon, is unlikely to change that.
Pol Espargaro on his low-grip struggles:
“It produces like a crazy feeling like you are floating on the bike, it’s not stopping where you need, always feeling that you’re going to lose the rear, always sliding a little, then because the rear for sure is not there the front is suffering double…
“In the other bikes for sure I had my tools when I had these problems, to avoid them or to try to use different ways of approaching the corners or exiting the corners, but here everything I do, it’s useless
“It’s something really wrong, I’m doing things not good, and this is bad.”
The form of Honda’s other MotoGP riders adds to the overall rider line-up headache.
Take Aragon. It was by far Alex Marquez’s best track in MotoGP last year, yet he had no confidence in the 2021 package at the track, and ultimately exited the race after clipping Nakagami’s rear wheel when the Japanese rider had checked up to avoid hitting Iker Lecuona.
Nakagami’s race was not compromised, yet he could do very little in traffic, at a track where he’d put the 2019-spec bike on pole a year prior.
“I mean, we saw with Marc [that the bike could be fast], just the other thing that I’m a little bit worried is Nakagami, last year he was really fast here – he was not able to be fast this year,” admitted the younger Marquez. “Yes, in the warm-up, yes, in some practice, but just in some laps, not constant overall.
“So a little bit worried for that, you know? We know that Marc in this track and left-hand [corners], he’s really fast, he has something more than the other riders, but it’s something like that we need to be really realistic, that Marc today and all weekend with Honda made the difference to us.”
The easy, Aragon-specific explanation is that the two ’20 races were held with the track temperature around 30°C, while this year’s race was 48 °C. And, of course, it does look like this year’s package is less competitive related to the grid than last year’s was.
But even if it’s as simple as that, it contributes to a sense of deja vu that is overwhelming. In 2019 Marc Marquez was responsible for a frankly obscene 420 of Honda’s 426 manufacturer points, towering above the rest of the roster. The year after, his injury prompted suggestions that Honda would prioritise making a more versatile, user-friendly bike.
Whether it did or didn’t is for the riders involved to judge. Espargaro, who’d earlier this year lamented the lack of a unified development approach and even went as far as to publicly hope for concession status, has long changed his rhetoric.
When asked post-Aragon what Honda could do to help him, he said: “They are trying, but at the end, Marc did an amazing race. For sure they are trying to help me, they always want to try to help me. But if I would be Honda… I don’t know what I would say, because Marc has been fighting for winning the race, and I’ve been 20 seconds [off].
“At the end, it’s myself, I need improve in that situation, not Honda, Honda has been almost in the top of the podium today – so I should be better, I should be faster.”
He probably should be, yes. And Marc Marquez’s pace does mean the Honda situation is no longer as dire as it looked at some points in these past couple of years.
But if Marquez does get close enough to his 2019 self to reign again, Espargaro’s struggles surely have to prompt some major self-reflection for Honda.
Not just because a 2019 can always be followed by 2020, but because if Espargaro, fresh off being really fast with KTM, becomes the latest casualty of RC213V, making your pitch to potential star recruits to replace him, Nakagami or the younger Marquez will only get harder.