Honda WorldSBK Operations Manager Chris Pike Interview: Honda Aiming For Step-By-Step Progress In WorldSBK

2017 was a crisis for Honda in WorldSBK, but the future looks much brighter now

If you'd said in November, at the first WorldSBK test of the year, that Honda would have been in the fight for podiums in the early season races you'd have received a lot of puzzled looks. The program struggled through a turbulent 2017 but has come out the other side to an impressive start to the campaign.

In Thailand Leon Camier proved the promise of the season opener in Australia by fighting for the podium. It was a dogged performance by the Englishman, but one that came from realizing the potential of the Fireblade rather than exceeding it.

For Chris Pike, Honda Motor Europe's newly installed Operations Manager for WorldSBK, the early rounds are all about understanding a base level for the team as he settles into his new role. The former engineer has worked in MotoGP, WorldSBK and the Endurance World Championship in recent years and brings with him a vast array of knowledge of skill that he hopes can be translated into his new role.

“Honestly, I wanted to try to move into a different area within the sport and see if I could hold my own in that area,” said Pike when asked about his new role. “I've worked on the engineering side and wanted to try something new. The WorldSBK season is a good balance for everyone and it's a busy traveling schedule but the time away from MotoGP or WorldSBK showed me that I like traveling.

“When I look at WorldSBK we've already made a lot of progress this year. The chassis and electronics have improved and the bike is in a much better position than it has been in the last few years. We've got some really good engineers in the team and we're building up some really good data about how the chassis and electronics work for this bike.”

Pirelli vs Bridgestone

One of the key concerns in recent years for Honda in WorldSBK has been a lack of support from Japan. For Pike the data points learned in Europe haven't always been relevant to the data accrued in the Japanese championship, and the lack of official HRC support is something that he feels can be worked around. In WorldSBK it has been a long time since there was official Japanese support for the program, so with a lack of support from Asia, the song remains the same in Europe.

“We're with Pirelli in WorldSBK, so the feedback that we have is very relevant to us whereas if we were to get support from HRC it would be data that was very Bridgestone based. I think that now we have such a better understanding of the chassis and how to get the most from it and that's why we've seen the improvements in results.

“For us, as Honda Motor Europe, we want to take an active role in the development of the bike with input from the Ten Kate team, because they're our primary team and we want to try and control the development as much as possible. Triple M are a new team but they seem well organized. For them, and PJ [Jacobsen], they're new to the Superbike so the goal is to start seeing some steady progress in another few rounds time.”

Improvement: reality or mirage?

With a data set of only four races it's clear that the package is improved, but Australia is such a lottery and Thailand is held in such unique conditions that it will take some time for the true picture to develop for Honda. The only certainty is that they are in a much more competitive position than we have seen from them recently.

A lot of that has been as a result of the work undertaken by Camier in leading the development of the bike. The former British champion has brought a clear thought process to the table, and after a year where Stefan Bradl, Jake Gagne, Davide Giugliano, and Takumi Takahashi tried to fill Nicky Hayden's boots on the development side, it's clear the benefit of calmness that Camier has offered. His feedback and work ethic have been praised within the Red Bull Honda squad but for Pike all three can bear fruit this season.

“Leon is obviously a talented rider and he's helped us to improve the bike over the winter. Jake Gagne has some experience from last year and he's been able to make some steady improvements. That's really all we're looking for from Jake at the moment; we don't expect him to be going out and winning the next race. He needs to find his place on the grid and improve and it's the same for PJ this year too. For Honda, the only goal that we've set is to keep improving and to keep the momentum going from the winter tests and these early rounds. We'll try to build a good base for 2019 to try to make the next step forward.”

Cosworth vs Magneti Marelli

The biggest step forward for Honda was expected to come from electronics and a switch to Magneti Marelli. Having used Cosworth electronics since 2014 it was one of the scapegoats for their form in 2017. The strong start to the season has clearly forced a reconsideration but the plan is still to make the switch. The problem for Honda is that at Aragon they are expected to have to homologate an ECU for all Honda machinery in 2018.

With Triple M having been using the Marelli unit, in anticipation of the Red Bull squad making the switch, it will be very interesting to see if this now occurs. If Red Bull Honda decide to continue using Cosworth for this season it would be likely that the expense of Triple M switching would fall on Honda.

For Pike the electronics questions is still one that hangs in the air. “We still don't know when we'll switch the electronics to Magneti Marelli. It's not a simple thing of just switching to the other electronics package we need to have enough parts for all three bikes and enough spares. There's still delays on some parts and the only schedule that we have is 'as soon as possible.' Some parts are coming through but we're still short of where we want to be.

“We tested the Marelli unit and it was OK, but the weather wasn't great and that kind of put a hand brake on the couple of days for us for what we could have achieved. We did some positive things, and at least the engineers in the Red Bull Honda team did get a lot more of an understanding of the Marelli system and what it can do. It's very different to the Cosworth system so they need to understand it and adapt the Marelli system to make it a bit easier to work with.”

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... surely deserves at least one comment.  They still seem to be going on about having sufficient parts in order to change electronics over, I was amazed at this same reasoning months ago.  Of course actually doing things can tend to be more difficult than sitting at home in front of a keyboard sipping on coffee, but I struggle to understand what is meant here.  Far as I can tell, the electronics package on a bike consists of an ECU, wiring harness, actuators and sensors.  The former and the latter are surely not one-offs built to suit, they are motorsport spec standard components that can just be bought.  The harness is almost certainly custom made and doing them properly is a lot of work, but not months of work when you've got Red Bull plastered all over the bike?

I have no direct knowledge of race spec systems, but things that the ECU controls are typically throttle bodies, coils, and perhaps some control over the clutch if that is allowed.  I'd be surprised if the Marelli ECU could not be configured to actuate whatever throttle body arrangement they run, stick coils are almost universal across brands these days...  So what parts is he referring to?

All that aside it was great to see Camier getting up there in the last race, that's good progress - even if it all seems a bit contrived under the new rules.

I just wish Leon Camier well, and hope that the team behind him, and the factory, would be as committed as he, obviously, is, in every ride. Leon is one of the best reasons to watch WSBK.

It just makes no sense for the Honda Asia support not to be there, because with some real collaboration and knowledge sharing the WSBK ride would likely be much more competitive. I really don't believe that the data would be entirely based upon the Bridgestones either. And the puzzling thing is that collaboration would be inexpensive and really only involves some effective communication between the HRC/Satellite racing efforts. I guess though this is why people write about the bureauracy of most of the factory efforts. Disappointing, but a competitive advantage for KTM and Ducati.