Team presentations tend to be rather turgid affairs. Hours of talk for a few brief moments of enlightenment. Which is why we sit through all those hours of talk, of course, because if you listen carefully and read between the lines, you might learn a thing or two.
Past experience left the MotoGP media looking at the Honda motorsport Q&A with some trepidation. Would it be worth sitting through the long presentations to dig out nuggets of interest?
That calculation changed on Thursday night, when HRC announced that Marc Marquez had been riding a motorcycle again, and would be present at the launch on Friday. Both developments which meant the media would get a chance to talk to Marquez about his eye injury, about the accident which caused it, and and how soon we might expect to see him on track again.
Riders pretty much universally hate media debriefs, and they hate them twice as much when they are done via Zoom. If we are lucky, they look disinterested. Usually, we are met with disdain. So seeing Marc Marquez looking positively cheerful and smiling was unexpected to say the least. He looked more cheerful than we have seen him since his return from injury at the beginning of last year.
The long road back
That in itself is instructive, but the details he gave of his condition gave plenty of reason to be optimistic. Marquez explained that he had 20 minutes at a local enduro circuit, run by Josep Garcia, FIM Enduro2 world champion, when he made the fateful decision to do a couple more laps. "I said, I’ll do 2 more laps before I go," Marquez explained. "At that point I crashed in a right corner. I had a kind of high side. I hit my head on the ground."
He had not immediately suffered ill effects, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "I got up, I stood up. I took the bike again and said I needed to go. I continued on my enduro trip. Then I arrived at home and took shower."
It was only later that he noticed something was wrong. "After 3 hours I start to feel something strange in the vision, something strange in the head." It was a worrying moment, because it brought back bad memories of the aftermath of Sepang 2011, when he crashed and damaged the nerve in his eye the first time. He turned to Dr. Sánchez Dalmau, who treated him after that injury. "Straight away I called the doctor and said I have this feeling. He said don’t panic. Wait 1 week, maybe it’s normal. Then after 1 week we will see if the problem is there."
Marquez and his entourage had waited a week to tell the media about his vision problems, on the advice of his doctor. The doctor first wanted to see if his vision restored itself of its own accord. "In the first week we didn’t say straight away because it was the advice of the doctor. He said, please, calm down, because sometime in the first weeks it can fix alone. But if in the first week it doesn’t then it’s a long time," Marquez said. But his vision did not return after a week. "It was a long period," Marquez said wryly.
The first month had been hard, he said. "In the first month I couldn’t have a normal life. I was on the sofa, I stand up, I was like 1 hour I try to go on the seat but it was impossible. The feeling was not great. So yeah, it’s difficult."
But after the first month, his situation started to improve. "Especially last month started better. When I started to feel better one week ago I started cycling with the road bicycle. Then cycling with mountain bike. The feeling was good, was better." That culminated in Dr. Sanchez giving the go ahead for Marquez to ride a motocross bike. "This week when I had doctor check he confirmed that feeling and allowed me to ride a bike."
Getting back in the saddle
Why had he chosen a motocross bike to make his return on? "One, because it was the bike I was injured on," Marquez explained. "And it’s a bike that is really demanding. For some jumps, you need completely all the vision."
That turned out well for Marquez. "The result was very positive. Now just I’m looking to the next step. All the Repsol team is trying to organize a test with CBR 1000 or the RCV [RC213V-S street bike]. Let’s see if we can organize soon and try in a GP circuit."
How soon? With the Sepang test imminent, the bet would be sooner rather than later. And which circuit? The Iberian peninsula has four circuits which host a grand prix, though given it is January, the further south the better. So either Jerez or Portimão are the most likely candidates.
The aim of testing on an asphalt circuit is to see how his vision holds up at high speed, and when he gets tired. "I want to follow the advice of doctor," Marquez explained. "He wants to see in a GP circuit with high speed alone. I mean, a one-day test with a lot of laps. To see when I get tired if I have some problems or not. My doctor want to evaluate all these things before allowing me to be at the Malaysian test."
Sepang or not Sepang?
Marquez spoke throughout of a conservative approach to his recovery, taking things step by step. Though he made it clear that he hoped to be at the Sepang test, he was careful not to say he would be there. But listening to Pol Espargaro and Takaaki Nakagami, who also spoke at the launch, they seemed convinced that Marquez would be ready to ride at Sepang.
"Marc coming in the preseason is going to be super important for all of us to try to set the best bike during those five days before starting the season," Pol Espargaro said. "Also Marc said he will come back in Malaysia, so four riders in Malaysia," Nakagami told us. "I'm really happy to hear Marc will come back in Malaysia."
What can we read into Marquez' statements. It seems that the Repsol Honda rider was genuinely scared at the start of his injury. Unsurprisingly, given how the last time he suffered an eye injury in 2011, he came very close to being forced to end his career, with only surgery and excellent treatment saving his sight. But as his vision returned to normal, he grew ever more confident.
The fact that he has managed without surgery has also given Marquez confidence. He and his doctor have followed a very conservative path, trying to delay a decision on surgery for as long as possible. That was the right decision, it appears at the moment, with Marquez believing he is back at full fitness.
He has also had time to work on rehabilitating his right shoulder, the shoulder which was fixed with surgery in the winter of 2019/2020, and which caused problems again for him after the massive smash in Jerez in 2020, which would end up costing him the 2020 season, and the first half of 2021. Having treatment for the double vision in his eyes interfered with the recovery of his shoulder, but he was still able to work on it.
Whether the shoulder is completely healed is something Marc Marquez is keen to find out. Right now, everything is looking good, but he will need to start riding a MotoGP bike to make an accurate assessment. "We are planning the perfect way because shoulder is much better, the arm is much better," he said. "But we need to understand the better way to work during the season to not have the same problems like last year, these kinds of irritations. Then the pain arrives, and then everything becomes more difficult. We need to prepare all these things."
What Marquez' words, and more importantly, his demeanor, have done is flip the script we started the week with. At a stroke the speculation over Marquez' future is pretty much over, replaced by the question of whether he will be at the Sepang test, or if he will have to wait until Mandalika the week after. But there is little doubt he will be fit and ready to race at the season opener in Qatar on March 6th.
The new machine
Marquez being back for the Sepang test would be important for the development of the 2022 Honda RC213V. Marquez rode the radically redesigned bike at Misano, and felt it was better. Nakagami and Espargaro had worked with it at the Jerez test, as did Alex Marquez briefly, and all had praise for the bike.
The biggest difference between the old and the new RC213V is the weight balance. Previously, the bike had a massive forward weight bias, which gave it an incredible front end, capable of braking late and turning in hard. That came at a cost, however, as the weight on the front meant less on the rear, and that in turn meant less rear grip.
Anyone not named Marc Marquez struggled with the rear grip, unable to find drive and being forced to take risks on corner entry to make up for the ground lost on corner exit. "Last season we definitely really struggled about the rear grip," Nakagami explained. "And unfortunately, we tried many things, but the main problem did not disappear. So we struggled a lot for the qualifying lap and race distance. Then I have to take extra risk. And then unfortunately I had some crashes during practice and the races. So it was really tough."
Pol Espargaro had also struggled, especially at the beginning of the season. Examining Marc Marquez' data had given him a hint at how to get more out of the RC213V. "Technically it's something I discovered, the way of opening the throttle, it's important to do it in a different way than I was doing. With this low grip, I couldn't open as aggressive as I normally do. Then I couldn't use the rear brake as I normally was doing in the other categories or on the other bikes. I was playing so much on the entry with the rear brake, and this last year I couldn't do that. And for me this was one of the reasons that I was struggling so much during last year."
Fixing corner entry
While his team had made some changes to the bike, Espargaro had changed his riding, and this had made a huge difference. "We discovered different tools to improve this entry side without using so much rear brake, but I was suffering a lot," he said. He was changing his approach to training, riding more flat track and motocross to work on his throttle control in low grip conditions, he explained. "So for sure I'm training in a different way, doing a different kind of motorcycle disciplines which allow me to be more sensitive on the throttle opening and on the rear brake entry. Hopefully this is going to help me in the 2022 season."
A lack of grip was not an issue for Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro explained. "On the old bike, Marc was a genius and is a genius, because his way of riding is the best one. It's not that the bike was fitting him more than the others, it's because he's good. He is a guy who is used to ride with this low grip, I would say problems. So he was adapting his style to this low grip and he is able to take the maximum performance from this low grip."
This is where Espargaro had learned from Marquez. "For me, at the beginning of the year especially, it was super hard to know how to ride the bike in this way, to take the maximum potential in acceleration. How to not spin too much, but being fast at the same time. And this is very important, and his way of taking the throttle and the administration of the throttle in the corner, by opening the throttle plus picking up the bike, this is something that I really need to learn and I'm working quite a lot on it in the preseason, to try to be better next year."
The changes to the 2022 bike are to move the weight balance further backward and to create more mechanical rear grip, to get more drive out of corners. "Next year's bike is a bit different, it's based on the rear grip which I think it's going to allow all of us to improve the condition of the throttle opening in a different way," Espargaro said.
"Definitely the new bike is big improved about the rear grip and also engine performance," Takaaki Nakagami agreed. "Many parts of the racing bike have improved. As you can see from the outside, there is a big change of the shape. And you can see how Honda is working so hard during the season."
That is also an important factor for 2022. Throughout his career, Marquez has relied on corner entry to make the difference, outbraking his rivals to take victory. He accepted a lack of rear grip because he could ride around it, using his exceptional throttle control and smoothness to match drive to grip, and his ability to pick the bike up early and use as much of the tire as possible. His only request was for more horsepower, to match the speed of the Ducatis along the straight. That was what brought him the title in 2019.
If the 2022 bike has more rearward weight bias, Marquez will have to find new ways of stopping and turning the bike to outbrake his rivals. Motorcycle design, and especially racing motorcycle design is a lesson in compromise, in choosing your disappointments, deciding which area you are prepared to sacrifice in order to gain elsewhere.
Throughout Marquez' time in MotoGP, rear grip has been sacrificed for braking and turning. For the 2022 bike, HRC are going in the opposite direction. The question is, can Marquez make the same about-face? There is no doubting his talent. But requiring a change in riding philosophy comes on top of many other complications – shoulder, eyes, arm – which Marquez faces. He has a lot to deal with.
One reason to focus on grip was to improve corner exit and top speed, to take advantage of the added horsepower the new Honda has. "What we asked for, as Taka said before, the grip was something important for all of us," Pol Espargaro told us. "But also if we have seen in the past year that the Ducatis are super strong in the straights, it's the key to overtake, and their key to fight for the races. So if we want to do a good season, next year, more Ducatis are going to be on the grid, so this means that we need to be faster on the straights to try to fight with them, to try to get positions back, and even to defend them."
This is the challenge facing all four Honda riders. With eight Ducatis on the grid, that is a lot of fast bikes to have to get in front of. And even if the 2022 Honda RC213V is an improvement on the 2021 bike, the other factories are not standing still. It's all very well the new bike having more horsepower than last year, but if the Ducatis are faster again, Honda won't be making any headway against them.
With this in mind, Pol Espargaro was cautious in his appraisal of the new bike. "Well, I mean the bike is better, but it's still too early to talk about how much better it is," Espargaro said. "Because first of all, we need to put the bike on the track together with the other bikes, and see where we are. We are not the only ones playing in this game, and we are not the only ones putting a new bike on the track."
The point was not so much how much faster the Honda was, according to Pol Espargaro, but how much faster the Honda was compared to the other bikes on the MotoGP grid. "Everyone is doing the same, and everyone is going to do a step up. So how good is the bike going to be? We will see in a few days in Malaysia, together with the other bikes. There's no sense saying the bike is much better if we ride two tenths faster but the others improve half a second. It's something that we need to keep working on. So everything is important, everything matters, but I think the way is good, but we need to keep a little bit calm and see what is going on in the next two tests."
Light at the end of the tunnel?
If you are a Honda fan, is there reason to be optimistic? All four of HRC's riders have proven themselves to be capable of fighting for podiums, and of course, Marc Marquez is the best and most successful rider of his generation, the rider with the most victories now that Valentino Rossi has retired. Marquez looked cheerful and motivated, and confident that he would be racing this season at close to full fitness. The Honda RC213V has more rear grip and more horsepower, and should be an easier bike to make go fast. A complete redesign always brings teething problems, but HRC has the resources to solve them relatively quickly.
So yes, the future is looking bright for Honda. They even have a new logo to go with this new era. And the fact that HRC can head into 2022 with confidence, and a fit Marc Marquez behind them, will give their rivals pause for thought. 2022 just got immeasurably tougher.
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