If you looked very carefully at the Repsol Honda 2019 livery, you could see a difference. A touch more black under the tail. A dash more white on the tank, and a different line here and there. But other than a large sticker celebrating 25 years of collaboration between Repsol and HRC, the differences were almost impossible to see.
And why should they change? In the previous 24 seasons together, Repsol and Honda have won the premier class championship 14 times, a strike rate of nearly 60%. Marc Márquez, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Nicky Hayden, and Alex Crivillé have all become world champions wearing Repsol colors. Repsol Honda riders have a combined 168 wins, 427 podiums, and 177 poles between them. So why ditch that in pursuit of novelty? The Repsol livery is proven, and it is timeless. And so it stays as it was, no matter how much the crowd bays for change.
There was much talk of this long shared history at the Repsol Honda team launch in Madrid. Mick Doohan and Alex Crivillé were present, standing alongside Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo on the stage, a conscious callback to an era when the Repsol Honda team dominated the 500cc era, and two riders won almost every race they started. There was much talk of a "Dream Team", both in reference to the 500cc pairing of the late 1990s, and to the two men who will race in MotoGP in 2019.
Whether the moniker is deserved is open to question in both cases. In the 1990s, Doohan crushed his rivals, including his young and talented Spanish teammate Alex Crivillé. Crivillé won his fair share of races, but Doohan cleaned up in the premier class, winning 7, 8, 9, 12 races in a season.
As for 2019, it is still too early to tell whether the pairing of Márquez and Lorenzo will be as dominant as that late '90s team. Márquez has been hard to beat so far in his career, but is coming off massive shoulder surgery which is far more intensive than almost anything he has faced before. Lorenzo won plenty on the Yamaha, was capable of winning on the Ducati once they gave him what he needed, but now has another bike to adapt to. We expect him to be at the front, but there are no guarantees in MotoGP. Especially now, with the field so strong in both breadth and depth.
Managing a "Dream Team" is about as easy as you might expect. Having two riders gunning for the championship leads inevitably to a clash of egos. (And don't fool yourself: your favorite rider, like every other, is driven primarily by ego, or they would see motorcycle racing for the entertaining exercise in futility which it is, and find it hard to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. Or as Mick Doohan put it, "Striving for second doesn't really get you anywhere.") So there was much talk of how to handle that war of ambition inside a team.
HRC Director Tetsuhiro Kuwata dismissed this as normal inside any top team. Managing two top riders was just the cost of doing business. "For us of course we should manage," he said. "I have no doubt that we can manage both riders and the team. Both riders are very professional riders and they know the expectations. We will try to improve the machine, the team, everything. This is a challenge and Honda likes a challenge so it is maybe tough but this makes us stronger than in the past."
Pressuring the bosses
It was a challenge Honda had faced in the past, as Mick Doohan explained. "Even when I was racing with Alex back in the day we had equal equipment, there was no clear No.1. Yes, I was winning the world championships, but there was no priority for what I was receiving."
That didn't stop him from trying to get his own way, of course, as he did with switching between big bang and screamer engine configurations on Honda's NSR500, but in the end, it is up to the rider to cope. "I was pushing to get everything done my way and I’m sure these guys will be doing that. At the end of the day it comes down to the individual, how hard he pushes and making the most of the package they have."
Why leave a dream?
Having two riders striving for the championship did not add any real pressure, as far as Marc Márquez was concerned. Being in the Repsol Honda team meant the pressure was already sky high, as the very point of the team was to win the championship. "You look at it in the way the team actually requires it and the pressure you have around you," Márquez said. "Being in this team means fighting for victories, podiums and the championship. If not, it's actually failure. You can talk about 'Dream Team' or whatever, but the results are what's important. So we hope we can celebrate something beautiful at the end of the year."
Being a part of that had been Márquez' dream ever since he was a child. His determination to join Repsol even went so far that he turned down an opportunity to move up to MotoGP in 2012. "It was very clear to me actually," he said. "I had been in Moto2 and I wanted to get into the Repsol team. And actually I had some other offers to get into MotoGP but it wasn't Repsol so I didn't want to go with them, because I wanted to win the title with Repsol." The wait paid off. He succeeded at the first attempt in 2013.
Fulfilling that childhood dream was one reason not to leave for a different factory, Márquez explained. "The journalists often ask me if I'm going to change teams, but why? Why should I change?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm in the best team, my 'Dream Team', and I have no reason to change. Especially the family, this togetherness that we have and the relationship with Honda and Repsol. Everything is just great and what's most important is for all of us to have the same goal and actually achieve our goals, that we set every year."
When Jorge phone Alberto
For Jorge Lorenzo, joining the Repsol Honda team had been more serendipity than planning. As he struggled through the first few races of 2018, it looked like he could find himself out of a ride. Lorenzo found himself contemplating retirement, and that reignited his ambition.
"You know more or less how my season has been, last year. The beginning of the season has been very hard, very tough for me because I was training more than ever and putting all my energy more than ever but the results were not coming for several reasons," Lorenzo said. "So my valuation as a rider was going down very quickly, unfortunately. And when it happens and the results didn't come, I was feeling a little depression in my state of mind when I started realizing that my future could be very complicated."
That sense sparked a fire inside of Lorenzo again, and was determined to find a way to stay in MotoGP, and put himself in a position to win. "When that happened, I really started to feel the love for racing and the love for competing and trying to win. Then I start trying to do whatever it takes to keep in the sport and one of the things I did was try to speak directly to Honda. At the beginning it was not so simple, but finally and luckily for me this possibility arrived and I was very happy, extremely happy, and proud. I accepted the challenge without any doubts. It was a great moment."
It is worth bearing in mind that it was Jorge Lorenzo who reached out to Alberto Puig, Repsol Honda team manager, and not the other way around. HRC find themselves with their 'Dream Team' almost by accident rather than by design. While the paddock was full of rumors of who would take the seat of the departing Dani Pedrosa (it was clear at the Sepang test that his days in the Repsol team were up), with names such as Jack Miller being bandied about, Lorenzo was on the phone to Alberto Puig, opening the way to this moment in Madrid.
Making the linking of Lorenzo and Repsol Honda even more magical was its timing. On the Sunday at Mugello, Jorge Lorenzo dominated the race to win in utterly convincing fashion, removing any doubt about his ability. The next day, the news leaked out that Lorenzo had signed with Repsol Honda in the week leading up to Mugello. Two weeks later, Lorenzo backed up his first with with Ducati with a second at Barcelona, firmly reestablishing his status as a superstar.
Was Repsol Honda signing Jorge Lorenzo a stroke of genius, or a stroke of luck? The latter does not necessarily rule out the former.
Agile, small, low
Of course, we won't really know whether Lorenzo and the Honda RC213V is a winning combination until the season gets underway. Now under contract to Honda, Lorenzo was at last free to talk about his impressions of the Honda. He had been impressed by the quality and intensity of everything HRC did. "From Valencia and Jerez I saw so many people in the box listening to what I had to say about the motorbike and the same details. The precision of every single part of the motorcycle and the quality here is a different level."
The initial signs were good for Lorenzo. Despite still struggling with injuries to his wrist and foot picked up in Thailand, Lorenzo adapted quickly at Valencia, and was on the pace in Jerez, ending the final day of testing in fourth place, just over a tenth behind his new teammate Marc Márquez.
"It is still early because I wasn’t at 100% as I had problems with my foot and my left wrist because of the injuries from Aragon and Thailand," Lorenzo said. "So I couldn’t ride as I wanted to but I could say I was at 80% and I was fast enough. I think I was fourth quickest once. I really liked the bike from the first day in Valencia as it is very agile and turns very well. Obviously there is not a perfect motorbike but in general I really like the team and they were very warm to me."
Not as physical as Cal says
Cal Crutchlow has long said that the Honda RC213V is the most physical bike he has ridden, but that was not Lorenzo's experience when he jumped on it for the first time. "I don't agree with Cal's comments. I don't know because he's been in Honda for several years already, so maybe the bike changed, or he doesn't remember how hard the other bikes were. My feeling is that the bike is not as physical as the Ducati, and that in that area I will not have so many problems in the future. In Jerez I wasn't completely fit and I could ride quite well, so I don’t worry about that area honestly."
The Honda is much more compact than the Ducati, and this was one of the points which Lorenzo praised, the other being its agility. "Firstly, when I got on to the bike it felt smaller compared to my last bike," Lorenzo said. "You feel safer, closer to the ground, and going into the corners you feel that you are much closer to your body or your knee. So this is a good thing as it gives me more confidence, especially in conditions with no grip or in the rain for example. Another good thing is the stronger quality the bike has at this moment is the agility in the corners is really good. I will select these two particular strong points."
Though Repsol Honda may believe they have assembled their 'Dream Team' with Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo, they will be starting off the 2019 season very much on the back foot. Márquez is in the long process of recovery from major surgery on his shoulder, while Jorge Lorenzo fractured his scaphoid in a training crash before the weekend. Lorenzo's injury put a spanner into Honda's preparations for the launch, as he was unable to put his leathers on for the photo shoot which took place the day before the launch. So unusually, the launch happened without the massive dump of photos which accompanies such occasions. That will have to happen at a much later date.
Lorenzo explained what happened with the accident. "It was my first day riding the bike, riding dirt track in some Italian track. And yes, it happened very quickly, because one mistake was not to check properly the track and in some parts of the track there was some mud that was difficult to see. Because the surface looked perfect, dry, but instead there was this mud and when I entered this zone, the front closed and I had a very stupid crash. But unfortunately my wrist was not completely healed from Thailand crash so I didn't have 100 percent mobility and this effect a little bit the pressure on the scaphoid, the scaphoid broke."
Scaphoid fractures are very awkward injuries, as the bone takes such a long time to heal. To speed the process, surgeons insert a screw to keep the fracture closed and help it heal, even for mere mortals. But while motorcycle racers possess a superhuman determination to recover from injury and ability to withstand pain, two weeks is too short even for Jorge Lorenzo to be fit enough to take part in the Sepang test, so he will be replaced by HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, currently lapping on the RC213V at the Jerez WorldSBK test.
Lorenzo's aim is now to be fit for the Qatar test, starting on the 23rd February. That gives him a month to recover and be ready to ride. "Obviously the perfect solution would be to be able to ride and test in Sepang, but understanding all the situation and the lack of days from here to Sepang, we decided that I will not test at Sepang and I will test one month or 34 days [after the injury] at the Qatar test," he said.
"I don’t think I'll be 100 percent at the Qatar test, probably 80-85%, to be 90-95% at the Qatar race. It's like that. Obviously I didn’t' expect to crash three days ago. It was a big thing because I think it was very unlucky crash, an unlucky situation. But now we this situation and we've got to work as well as possible with the physio, with the machines, with everything and we have our plan to make it. I think on Friday I will start to move a little bit the wrist and little by little we will recover well from this injury."
Broken scaphoids may be widely regarded as complicated injuries, but they pale in comparison to the state of Marc Márquez' shoulder. The shoulder joint had been getting progressively worse after a series of dislocations starting in 2013, when he crashed during warm up at Silverstone. After dislocating it several times during training in 2018, he could put off surgery no longer. A bizarre incident when it popped out while celebrating the title at Motegi merely underlined the inevitable.
But the surgery Márquez had was far from simple. A bone graft to help retain the shoulder, plus work on ligaments and soft tissue to reconstruct the damage done over the years made for a long, painful, and complicated operation, and Márquez still has a long way to go before his shoulder is back at full strength.
"Obviously the shoulder will not be 100 percent in Sepang," Márquez explained. "But my target is try to be 100 percent or as close as possible in Qatar GP. But yeah, the surgery has been more aggressive and more difficult than we expected. I was in surgery for four hours, because it was more complicated than even the doctors expected. But anyway they already say that minimum will be 3-4 months, but I'm working quite hard, we are already one month and a half and the shoulder is going in a good way so this is the most important."
Tough road back
Even Márquez had been taken aback at the toll the surgery had taken on him. "I've had injuries before and they hurt but you always improve, but here for a couple of weeks it really, really hurt," he said. "You know for me to say 'no, no, I'd rather be here at the hospital for a few more days' - I couldn't see myself at home. So it was a complicated surgery, but we are almost ready and I can already go to gym and start to put some strength in my muscles, but I want to be ready for Malaysia because we are both injured! So it's important for us to try the new parts etc, somebody has got to do it!"
"How it will be in Sepang I don’t know," he continued. "I have two weeks and now it's good because every day I feel some improvement. Every day is better and better, but of course about the physical condition – because Sepang's one of the most difficult circuits – that will be the most difficult thing."
One of the hardest things about the off season had been the tedium of not being able to train. "It's been one of the most boring winters in my life!" Márquez joked. "But yes I had to sacrifice this winter and to recover and I want to thank the effort from everyone but especially from my physiotherapist because he's been there 24 hours a day."
At least Márquez will get some time on the bike before the season starts. That was very different in 2014, when he broke his leg in February and had to start the season with almost no preparation. "Of course in 2014 I had a difficult pre-season too, because I got injured after the first test and I was out for one month and a half before the first race, but then that season was the best one for me," Márquez said.
Between caution and ambition
This was different, though. "This is completely different for me as it was a big surgery on the shoulder which I had struggled with all last year. Now I feel more fixed, but at the moment I don’t have the power or the stability that I want. It is normal though, I told the doctors I want to be fast on the recovery but the doctors said the body is the body. It is different for you and for me. This is the thing, we are working in the best way to be 100% but I think it will be important to start slowly because I don’t want to repeat it again. I don’t want to have a small crash and be in the same situation again so I need to be patient. Tests I will have more of but my shoulder I only have one so step-by-step."
The scale of this surgery, and the impact it could have into the future, should not be underestimated. In an ideal world, Márquez would focus on recovery and rehabilitation for three to four months, then get back on the bike at full strength. But if he had waited four months after his surgery in December, he would miss out on the first race of the season at Qatar, which would make defending his 2018 title a much more difficult task than it already is.
And so Márquez will get on the bike at Sepang, just two months after a huge operation on one of the most important joints in the body. He won't be at full strength, and he won't have full mobility. And he might even be a little bit tentative about crashing, knowing that any damage he does now will be a serious blow to his championship hopes, and perhaps even threaten his career as a racer. But his ambition pushes him on to ride, to make sure the bike is in the best possible shape at the start of the season.
As far as that is concerned, the injuries to Márquez and Lorenzo may not have that much of an effect. For the first time in several years, HRC have not made a significant change to the engine, moving back from revolution – screamer to big bang, forward rotation to reversing the crankshaft – to evolution. Now they can focus on improving the chassis, a work of continuous development which can happen throughout the season, and not something they have to get right at Qatar, because of the engine development freeze.
On this front, the signs were positive at both Valencia and Jerez. Márquez had been able to run the medium front consistently, meaning he needed to take less risk on corner entry, which should reduce the risk of crashing. Repsol Honda's talk of a 'Dream Team' may well yet turn out to be justified.
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