Last season, Honda’s MotoGP title hopes were upheld by an unlikely saviour in the shape of satellite squad LCR and Taka Nakagami – whose consistency in a mad year at least kept him near the front of the standings for much of an abject season for his marque.
But when the 2021 MotoGP season kicked off, Nakagami and new team-mate Alex Marquez had a torrid time, with both riders struggling to find any form of consistency at all and chalking up four non-scores from the two races in Qatar.
Since then, things have improved, but only very gradually, and the performances we’re seeing from both riders are a long way away from the podium pace that both had this time last year.
LCR’s two riders have combined for 68 points, compared to their 94 at the same stage last season.
New recruit Marquez was a double podium finisher in his rookie season last year, taking the factory Repsol Honda to second place in the wet at Le Mans and repeating the feat in dry conditions at Aragon.
Nine races into 2021 and it’s a very different story, with a best finish of sixth coming at another wet Le Mans race. Eighth in Portugal is his best dry result of the year, and so far he’s crashed out of a third of the season’s races.
“I must say we expected better results,” team boss Lucio Cecchinello recently admitted to MotoGP.com regarding the younger Marquez, “but also we have to be very honest, that every time you start a project with a new rider, it sometimes can take time to establish the right communication between the rider and the engineers, to let them understand each other, and of course from our side to provide the best bike for him.
“At this moment we know that we need to improve, and we have no doubt on Alex’s potential, we just need a bit more time.”
Nakagami never quite made it onto the podium last year despite coming close on occasion, including being cruelly denied a maiden win at the Red Bull Ring when a red flag brought his charge to the end. However, while he might not have been spraying champagne, he was putting together a remarkably consistent season that left him in title contention almost until the end.
That’s not going to be repeated in 2021. Despite a best result of fourth at Jerez, he’s been outside the top eight more than he’s been in it, and after half the season he sits 11th, a huge 115 points from championship leader Fabio Quartararo.
“Of course we expect a podium with him [Nakagami], but I think it will arrive soon because he feels very good with the bike, it’s just a matter of the last fine-tuning,” Cecchinello insisted.
Team-mate Marquez is back in 15th, another 14 points behind Nakagami with an average score of only three points per race. Highlighting their plight even more starkly, both riders are behind fellow Honda rider Marc Marquez, who missed the opening two rounds and is still not fully recovered from serious injury.
So what exactly has gone just so badly wrong for the LCR duo? We know that they’ve got the talent to be competitive in MotoGP, something that both of them demonstrated last year, so it’s hardly a case that both have somehow lost their edge over the winter break.
Likewise, while some of their opponents are being more consistent than they were last year, the level of opposition hasn’t been dramatically altered either. It’s still primarily the same people on the same bikes, and the problems at LCR seem to have more to do with what’s going on with the team rather than its rivals.
Of course, there’s one easy assumption to make about the state of the issues they’re facing, and it’s one reflected in the performance of Repsol Honda newcomer Pol Espargaro as well. Simply put, the Honda is the hardest bike on the grid to ride, and a tumultuous winter for the Japanese manufacturer hasn’t made it any easier.
In the middle of a COVID development freeze introduced to save money in the face of the pandemic, there hasn’t been a chance to fix some of the fundamental issues with the bike that have already plagued Honda over the past years – in particular, an engine that makes the whole package aggressive and rider-unfriendly.
But perhaps even more importantly, Honda has lost not just the opportunity to work on the engine, but also the riders responsible for that work. Marc Marquez, of course, sat out the entire 2020 season and 2021 pre-season, meaning that the first time he was able to sample the new machine was when he jumped straight into a race weekend in Portugal, three rounds in.
Perhaps even more vital, though, is the absence of Cal Crutchlow. The British rider was a fundamental part of Honda’s development, acting in many ways as a counterweight to Marquez’s supreme talent and ability to ride anything. It’s entirely possible that without that voice in the camp, the engineers have tried to do what they do best: build a machine that only one man can ride and damn the consequences for everyone else.
Of course, when that one supreme talent isn’t fit enough to ride, it means you’ve got a disastrous year, and it’s actually testament to Nakagami and Marquez junior that they enjoyed such a successful season last year as both Marquez and Crutchlow battled injury.
But there’s perhaps another factor that’s been impacted by the return of Marquez and the arrival of Espargaro. In 2020, Alex Marquez was a factory Repsol Honda rider, and Nakagami quickly took on the mantle of team leader when the two faster men were injured.
As such, considerable resources were devoted their way, with the full might of HRC behind Marquez and with Nakagami getting the kind of special attention that he’s always dreamed of but never quite been rewarded for.
This year, it’s very much a case of being back to satellite status for both of them. With that comes less access to new parts, less input into development and, perhaps most crucially of all, only a skeleton staff of backroom engineers compared to the team available to crunch numbers for the factory bikes.
That said, Cecchinelli insists he’s happy with his team’s lot: “We are definitely happy, we are receiving a lot of parts from HRC to test, we are more than honoured and glad to provide feedback for them, and it’s always an interesting job.”
Perhaps what we’re witnessing isn’t so much as a dip compared to 2020 for LCR but rather a return to its normal place on the hyper-competitive grid – and without a considerable investment in the team from Honda, it’s hard to see how that’s going to be turned around any time soon.