It is unusual to hear a top-level racer admit he will be approaching a certain moment with trepidation, but then again Honda’s new recruit Pol Espargaro is no ordinary modern racer. PR soundbites playing down the occasion do not come easy to him, because he wears his heart on his sleeve, for better and for worse, but usually for better.
Espargaro’s first taste of the Honda RC213V is now due to come on March 6, the first of five days of full-grid collective testing in Qatar now that the planned prior Sepang test has been shelved. And he deserves full credit for admitting he sees it as a momentous occasion.
“What I will find in the first test, it’s going to be a lot of nerves,” Espargaro says. “I’m going to be super, super nervous, shaking, for sure.
“The day before I will not sleep because this is a chapter in my life because I’ve been always trying to imagine.
“But I’m just looking forward to that moment, because it’s a moment I will remember for the rest of my life, and I want to really enjoy it.”
Whether Espargaro’s trepidation will have to do with more than just some natural newcomer nervousness, he does not say. But it seems only too fair to extrapolate. The RC213V has not been overly kind as of late to a whole roster of riders relatively new to it.
Only Marc Marquez has gotten any sort of consistency out of the Repsol-coloured bikes in recent years. Dani Pedrosa, who subsequently joined Espargaro at KTM as test rider, was pretty deflated by the end of his tenure at the works Honda team, and his replacement Jorge Lorenzo never got off the ground (figuratively, but also kind of literally).
And while Alex Marquez and Stefan Bradl, the makeshift Honda 2020 line-up after Lorenzo retired and Marquez senior got injured, had their moments last year, neither delivered with any sort of regularity.
But Espargaro has enough self-belief not to be deterred by those examples, and there’s a lot of logic to why he should do better right away. Remember, before the KTM RC16 became one of the best bikes on the grid, it was a physical, fairly recalcitrant machine that was regularly compared to the Honda – and it was Espargaro who was getting the best out of it.
In 2019, he towered head and shoulders above the rest of the KTM contingent on a limited bike. In 2020, the bike became a lot less limited and the other riders got a lot closer to Espargaro – but despite the wins by Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira it was still the Spaniard who led KTM’s charge in the riders’ standings.
Espargaro describes his new machine as “pretty small, the kind of small, short bike where you can manage it in the way you want”.
“They tend to move around a little bit more,” he says, evoking images of Marquez hustling the Honda around – but also of Espargaro doing the same to the KTM.
“It’s the kind of bike I like to ride – you have a big impact on the bike, you’re the guy telling the bike ‘you need to do that’ and sometimes you need to force the bike to make something that it maybe doesn’t want to. And it’s my way of doing it.”
Yet the KTM-to-Honda parallels cannot be enough to exorcise any concerns. The fact remains, the riders who have succeeded in MotoGP as of late have largely been those who opted to stick rather than twist.
The impression is there have been more failed rider transfers between manufacturers than successful in recent years, at least at the very sharp end. And Jack Miller, whose move from a Honda to a Ducati represents one of the more successful ones, posited at one point that it takes a rider three years to fully get to grips with a change in MotoGP machinery.
Espargaro won’t be counting on that much time to adapt, and sounds as if he’s expecting to deliver right away.
“The first year will not be easy but I did not come to Repsol Honda to play for the top six in the championship,” Espargaro says.
“I came here to achieve the best goal in my sporting career, which is to be world champion one day and for sure win races, and this goes by being here, in Repsol Honda.
“The goals for the season, it cannot [be anything but] being on the podium or trying to win races, or even win the world title.”