Whither HRC? The Tribulations Of Honda

It is no secret that the atmosphere among the riders in the Repsol Honda garage is, to say the least, a little strained. The wall which divides the garages of Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa is, more than any other garage dividing wall, a symbol of the problems which wrack the team. The wall divides the riders, but also the technicians and the data, with virtually nothing shared between the two sides of the garage.

The blame for this split has mainly been put on Dani Pedrosa's side of the garage, but that belies the history of problems that the Repsol team has had. Ever since Valentino Rossi took himself and his crew to Yamaha, the team has struggled, and often been riven by strife. Alex Barros was the first replacement for Rossi, but neither the Brazilian nor his teammate Nicky Hayden won a single race in 2004, something that non-factory riders Sete Gibernau, Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada managed to do repeatedly.

In 2005, Max Biaggi finally got the chance he had wanted for so long, moving into the Repsol Honda team with his technical guru Erv Kanemoto. But the Repsol team's year got off to a bad start, Biaggi crashing into Hayden in pitlane at the first test the two men had together. The rest of Biaggi's year was not much better, the Italian not winning a single race, while Hayden took his maiden victory at Laguna Seca. The season ended in bitter recriminations, Biaggi dropped from the team after voicing trenchant criticism of Honda, and left without a ride for the following year.

The next year saw the arrival of Dani Pedrosa and his mentor Alberto Puig. That year was the team's best year since Rossi's departure, Nicky Hayden's consistent run of podiums and a couple of victories securing the 2006 world title, and Pedrosa adding a pair of wins to the team's total. Since then, though, the number of wins has declined, with Pedrosa bagging two wins every season. The team is seemingly stalled, and as the stagnation continues, the temperature inside the team continues to drop.

The latest low point in relations between Repsol's two riders came at Le Mans. The two men never speak, and this weekend was no exception. But after Andrea Dovizioso ended up on the podium, the Italian's language was clear for everyone to read. "I'm so happy to be going to Mugello in 3rd position in the championship, being in front of Dani is really important," Dovizioso told the press conference. Afterwards, Dovizioso repeated that being ahead of Pedrosa in the championship was an important factor in the balance of power inside the Repsol Honda team. "For sure it is important. For the development of the bike, HRC has the potential to follow both riders, but if you are the first rider in the team, you have more power," Dovi told MotoMatters.com.

For the real problem at Repsol Honda is the totally different directions that Dovizioso and Pedrosa want to take the bike. The machine is working reasonably well for the Italian, while the Spaniard has failed completely to get the bike to work as he wants. When asked at Le Mans whether the latest version of the RC212V chassis was working for him, Pedrosa was curt. "I can't say this. I can't say it's working really. I mean the bike is going, but, I don't feel nothing special, because I can make one lap good, one lap bad, it's like you can easily make a mistake with this bike. I cannot be so constant, even though I try."

Nicky Hayden summed it up best: "It's like they're riding two different machines," the Marlboro Ducati rider commented, after having followed both men closely in France. So it is with the satellite bikes, with Interwetten's Hiroshi Aoyama reporting exactly the same problems that Pedrosa had spoken of, while LCR's Randy de Puniet is getting on rather well with the bike. The fact that the bikes look different is partly a result of the fact that they are, to some extent, with Dovizioso and Pedrosa pursuing different chassis developments, and still no clear winner emerging.

That the bikes are so completely different is potentially a bigger problem than the wall dividing the Repsol Honda garage. Data is not shared, not just out of a sense of secrecy and the desire to gain a competitive advantage over each other, but also because the data is almost entirely useless. With Dovizioso and Pedrosa running such radically different setups, the data from the other side of the garage is meaningless. If Dovi were to use Dani's setup data, it would merely produce a bike that he simply couldn't ride, and vice versa.

And this is the reason for the Cold War currently underway between the two sides of the garage. With each rider trying to pull development in a completely different direction, dominance inside the team is crucial to getting the changes they want. HRC is in danger of being forced to build either two different bikes, or a bike that only one rider can really get the best out of. That this is not the best strategy has been demonstrated by Yamaha, who have a bike that almost anyone can ride fast, and currently have two riders at the top of the championship table, picking up from where they left off last year. Two riders, what's more, who cannot use much of each other's data either, though the discrepancy is much less than with the Hondas.

The irony is that inside HRC, real changes are underway. The culture inside the team is opening up significantly, HRC showing a remarkable openness over the past year or so. Criticism has been accepted and acted on, and Honda tradition has been thrown over. HRC has openly accepted the blame for not building a winning bike, something which was unthinkable 5 years ago. Showa, a Honda subsidiary, has been pushed aside, and suspension sourced from Swedish giant Ohlins. HRC has broken the paddock's unspoken rules in poaching technicians from Yamaha, hoping to benefit from the experience the engineers gained while at Honda's arch rival. And then there was Livio Suppo, the former Ducati team manager moving to HRC to raise sponsorship and perhaps play a role in the team next season.

Honda's aggressiveness has already drawn comment in the paddock, and they are acting fast to try to address their issues. Rumors persist that Casey Stoner has already signed for Honda, a move that could prove highly beneficial for the Japanese factory. Whether or not HRC has signed the Australian, it is clear that they are looking to address their development problems. Honda badly wants another World Championship, and their current lineup - as talented as they clearly are - seem incapable of delivering. Either Pedrosa or Dovizioso - or perhaps even both - will be forced to look elsewhere for a ride by the end of the year, as Honda continues to search for a solution.

Right now, Honda appears to have a problem, but that situation is unlikely to last for long. This time next year, things could look very different indeed for Honda, as the process of change continues to roll through the organization. That change is now unstoppable, and will see a few big names trampled underfoot in the process. Honda now has the bit between its teeth, and that is a prospect that should strike fear into the hearts of its opponents.

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Great story, David. I like Nicky's comment, and he was behind them both for long enough to know.

I can understand Dovi's excitement at beating his teammate, particularly when it was Dani's (Puig's) side of the garage to close the books on the data to everyone. I think it was a bit over the top, since he only just got him and Dani was having problems, but so be it.

I do remember Puig openly criticising Nicky as being a poor development rider, but look how he's helped turn that Ducati around, and now look at where the Honda is at under the direction of HRC/Dani/crew. With the high corner speeds of the 800s, stability and balance are increasingly important, something the Honda seems to have in short supply.

Honda's inability to listen to their riders, ostensibly because they know best, has been an issue for a number of years. Look at the experiences of Rossi, Biaggi, Hayden and others. The chickens are home, and they are roosting.

I'm looking forward to seeing this play out the rest of the season.

Pedrosa will likely win a race this year. I doubt Dovisioso will. I can now see Dovi making me a fool in 3 days. Pedrosa and Honda are each others best bets. I just can't see another rider coming in and turning Honda around besides Rossi. If not him, then the solution will come more from HRC than from rider guidance.

As for Hayden turning that Ducati around, I think that's more reflective of his style. He's a bit of a slow learner. He's a great rider but it took him a while to get up to speed in MotoGP and now it's just taken him a year to get used to the Ducati. To be fair, it's the string of riders that came in fast as soon as they sat on a motogp bike that has set the bar higher. If Hayden could put in a 2005 Laguna Seca effort I think he could win there again this year.

. . . . . . pretty well. Nicky Hayden is not, and never will be, a genius rider, an 'alien'. What he is, is a very good, talented rider with a strong work ethic. He's never been one to come up with quick, brilliant solutions. Rather, he grinds the problem down to the solution, no matter how much work it takes, no matter how long it takes (assuming he's got the necessary length of support from his team).

Winning a race is fun for us to watch. Winning a race, or rather multiple races, is not necessary for winning a championship. We watched Hayden win the championship once already with an effort that had a lot of viewers screaming that 'the best guy didn't win that year'. Yes he did - the best guy is defined by total points at the end of the season. Everything else is just talk.

As viewers, we're getting too used to 'aliens'; and forgetting that 'alien' status can be quickly lost by a few DNF's. Meanwhile, that boring guy who always does top-5 or top-3 quietly slides ahead in the points standings . . . . .

'Aliens' are overrated.

And not just Laguna Seca, I think if Nicky can up his finishings one or two places every weekend, coupled with a couple of badly timed (but statistically inevitable) DNF's, the 'best guy' could end up not winning again this year.

Hayden isn't a genius rider, but it's undeniable that he is adept at figuring out a bike's issues and developing a machine. Both of his team bosses have said as much. Ex-HRC president lauded Nicky Hayden's ability to develop and qualified him as one of the better riders to depend on. Ducati has also praised Nicky's extremely detailed feedback and attributes much of the improvements to the GP10 to his feedback.

Quick brilliant solutions don't come from riders. They don't come from the Rossis or the Stoners (although their input plays a part in it). They come from brilliant engineers and crew chiefs. They come from the Burgesses, the Zeelenbergs and the Gabarinis. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly that much of Hayden's recent up-turn is a result of what he has deemed "better communication." Juan Martinez is a brilliant CC as we know working with Gibernau.

Pete Benson was very good too, and got a bad rap working with Dovi. You can't diminish that almost telepathic connection between a rider and crew chief that results in winning setups. Right now, I think that only rider in GP that can create magic on his own is Jorge Lorenzo. I think Rossi knows very well that his success is highly dependent on Burgesses expertise.

What I like about your thinking though is reinforcing the old adage: "In order to finish first, you must first finish." I think Stoner has lost this concept. He's no longer riding smart. I think this is where Jorge has revealed the MOST growth. Even though he looked like he was blasting away from the field in LeMans, he was lapping within a comfortable margin. He wasn't trying to turn 1'34s. So yeah, conceivably, these "aliens" will have a few DNFs this year.

Lorenzo can do it on his own? He's got Forcada on his side of the garage. Forcada is must be remarkable crew chief b/c they've engineered a bike that makes Lorenzo happy and is capable of beating the Rossi/Burgess tandem. How many times has that happened with any regularity?

I think it's safe to say that Forcada is an unsung hero of the Fiat Yamaha operation. If you take Forcada out of the equation, Lorenzo doesn't have the same success, imo. Same thing if you take Burgess away from Rossi.

BTW, Zeelenberg is a team manager. He's the Davide Brivio of Lorenzo's garage.

"Honda badly wants another World Championship..."

I hope this is true. If they want it and can continue the investment they have been making, they should be capable. I have said this for some time now: HRC needs a strong, capable rider to lead (not develop) the bike and team to where they need to be.

The house of cards that is silly season is built upon how HRC proceeds. If HRC makes a major rider move (which seems inevitable as long as they have the resources), the musical chairs will become chaos.

MotoTheory.com - MotoGP Data & Statistics

To be honest, the entire line-up is suffering because of the development path HRC chose in entrusting it to Dani Pedrosa. HRC lost their way. They admitted to it. I think this dichotomous development path they are taking is to cover all the bases. I don't think they intend to be divisive, but I think they are desperate for answers and more than anything, results! I don't think either Dovi or Dani are the right guys to lead the development of the motorcycle. Neither of which are very strong in development.

We have all seen the RC212V go down the toilet with Dani at the development helm. The guy simply relies too heavily on electronics. Dovi hasn't demonstrated that he has been able to set up, or translate to the engineers what needs to be done to make the bike faster or more consistent. Two times this season, he has had to make "big changes" before the race just to be competitive. That is not the sign of a rider knowing what is going on and how to fix it.

Brookespeed is dead-on about Nicky Hayden. He is a "slow learner." Hayden's main problem is his strength. In that, Hayden has an uncanny ability to ride around problems. He's incredibly detailed in his feedback. But he has to do so many laps because his ability to ride around problems. What I do see in him this year is the ability to discern the bike's behavior quicker. I mean he's had to, with the limited testing time, need to get up at the front on Friday, etc. At the end of the day though, I think Nicky learned a lot about development working with Rossi. It also helps to have a brilliant crew chief like he has now. And honestly, I don't think Rossi would be as prolific in the four stroke era if not for Burgess. The miracle solutions that Rossi usually gets on race day are Burgess-concoctions.

"Honda badly wants another World Championship"

A few months ago, Honda's President/CEO T. Ito, commenting on Honda's withdrawl from F1 said...(Honda) "will devote ALL its engineering resources to coming up with advanced environmental solutions". If their "best & brightest" who traditional were in HRC are now (tilting) at windmills, who will bring forth the next WC winning bike?

This hardly sounds like the "environment" conducive to "badly wanting another championship". Sadly, I believe, Honda has moved on to its greener future, where racing "polluting" fossil fueled motorcycles is a quaint tradition respectful of their founder & not what they see themselves as.

This article highlights Honda's biggest problem: HRC has let the tail wag the dog for far too long with respect to demanding riders (read: Pedrosa and Dovi) and personalities with little benefit added (read: Puig). They have realized what they need to do on the technical side to return to greatness, now I think they need to realign their personnel to fix that issue. HRC needs to install a very strong personality at the top of the racing organization to right the helm, then flush their current riders, and develop a team with one goal: winning (not infighting or contract-retaining). I think 2011 with Livio Suppo at the top and Jorge Lorenzo as lead rider would go a long way towards returning HRC to greatness; they can keep Dovi if he continues to perform, but should let Pedrosa slide (and Suzuki can pick him and Puig up at a cut rate). I don't think Stoner is the right fit; Ducati really seems to me to be the best place for him now and in the future.

the same bullsh*t that happened to hayden when you joined repso...the bike being developed for someone else...it sorta sucks, eh dani.

I disagree with many posts that Dani's the problem why Honda is where it is. Dani himself stated (towards HRC) "... maybe they'll listen this time" in the past. So it's questionable that he ever got his will with development.

And if someone says Dani needs electronics to be fast, please show the reference, because the same was said about Stoner until it became clear Stoner uses minimal TC and no launch control.

Further Dani is still 1 of the 4 aliens, not only for me. And so far there is no 5th.

What none appears to realize is the influence the team climate has on the rider. Sure, pro-riders should be able to cope with an arctic climate like at Repsol Honda, but it's probably not a coincidence that both Marlboro Ducati and Fiat Yamaha are said to have a "familiar" kind of working atmosphere while having the most success in the 800's era.

I don't think HRC will throw out Pedrosa, I expect Dani to leave before, that is, I expect him to be the first of the FabFours to sign a contract, either Ducati or Yamaha. Watching his comments to journalist questions, it appears he's fed up to the brim with Honda. And I don't think he'll wait until the others got one of the 4 factory rides at Yamaha and Ducati.

The rumor that Casey has signed a Honda contract, ..., no, can't see this happen. Why? For the money? Casey is young, Honda as it currently is, is a career ender, so Casey will sink his career for 1 or 2 years big money? Is he so stupid? Don't think so.

And last, I'm skeptic that Honda will get out of this misery in the 800's era. They had the money, the riders, the technical competence in the past, but success didn't happen. So why should that change?

how long do you think stoner plans on being in GP?
personally i think he'll be gone before he's 30. its well known that he prefers the quiet life, and has already mentioned racing v8's in australia.
i can see stoner going to HRC for 2 or 3 years, winning a title then hanging up his leathers.
it seems to me that hrc and Dani are both sick of each other.. it will be interesting to see how he goes on a yamaha or ducati

Dani on the Yamaha, he'd be right up front with Rossi and Lorenzo. Dovi on the Yamaha? Same position as now, usually 4th-6th with an occasional podium.

I too feel that Dani will leave Honda before he is asked to leave. Why wait? Unless Honda waves the magic wand and suddenly the bike is rideable for him, his personal stock will continue to decline to the point where he is vying for a Suzuki ride with 3 or 4 other riders.

I feel that some of that arctic coldness in the team is attributable to Dani himself, who has shown a remarkable lack of warmth and comraderie. It looks as though he talks only when necessary, not exactly conducive to a warm, familial team like at Ducati or Yamaha. Throw Puig's charm school reject act in and you've got a wall of ice, Thag.

Interesting note about Honda and it's green focus though. It really makes little sense to throw many millions of Euros every year at a project that arguably does little for the bottom line, and has even less to fo with the company's trajectory.

Fun for us weirdos though...

As a long-time Honda watcher (differentiated from an HRC-watcher), I would advise Caution in reading too much into Ito-san's comments about R&D. He was referring to the company as a whole, not any of the Racing divisions like HRC and HPD, etc.

Honda is primarily a Car Company these days. And a HUGE car company at that. So the CEO's comments must be seen in that light. The Car Company franchise is eco based, so spending lots of R&D money on Eco-friendly CAR solutions is warranted.

I view HRC PRIMARILY as a Marketing exercise funded by the world-wide motocycle division (which as I mentioned before, is dwarfed by the car business). Honda's image in the motorcycle marketplace is tied closely to its Performance image. This is HRC's value. I would only worry about HRC if I saw Honda drop all their performance motorcycles. No sign of that yet.

How much HRC can spend is probably determined by how much Honda Motorcycles (or whatever that division is called) wants to contribute, plus whatever HRC brings in on it's own (sponsorships, etc.).

(Similarly, I don't think Yamaha's MotoGP effort is funded by the Musical Instrument business. And yes, they are the same company).

I expect HRC can spend what it needs to spend to remain competitive. Certainly more than Ducati can spend.

Does Honda overall spend more money on eco-friendly car solutions? Sure. Does it matter to HRC? I doubt it.

HRC's main bottom line purpose in the Honda universe is to raise the profile of Honda in the performance mototcycle world in particular, and the motorcycle world in general. It's not to sell Fits or Civics.

To that end, they need to win. It should not matter if the rest of the company spends more money developing high-mileage cars. HRC's mission is to win. Period.

referred to as a career ender- unless you happen to crash it in practice at the jerez... (doohan). seemed like honda has always had a dominant bike whenever there was a quality rider on it. spencer, lawson, gardner, criville, doohan, rossi... and even hayden went well on the bike.

i'd like to see where anyone on the inside has referred to hayden as a good development rider- not that i don't believe it, it's just that i've never read it. he doesn't seem as technical as other riders, he seems to ride as hard as he can.

Nicky a bit with the comments that he is a slow learner. I understand no one is attacking him, it's just opinion but the biggest reason I disagree would be the year he won the championship in 06, he did it all along the while HRC was changing parts left and right, week in and week out. You can't be a slow learner if you podium one week on a particluar chasis, brake, exhaust or whatever and the next week or two HRC wants him to "develop the bike" in the midst of a championship chase.

As for Dani, I believe there is zero chance of him winning the championship this year or any other. Why? Because he and Puig have no faith in Honda as of right now and I'm not so sure Honda have it in him with the attitude he portrays. I do hope Honda gets back in the picture soon and would love to see someone else in his seat next year that would truly love the opportunity. I also think Dovi can be the rider everyone wants him to be. He has alot on the line this week as does Dani with all this talk going on inside the team.

I think almost all of Honda's problems are rooted in 2003. No, not the year they angered Rossi and caused him to leave for Yamaha, the year that Kato died which caused the MSMA to make a reactionary vote to reduce capacity by 200cc. At the time Honda was convinced that the bikes should have modest power and be more flickable like the outgoing 500s of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They pushed for an 800cc formula with 21L b/c they thought it would work perfectly for their narrow-angle, mass-centralized V4 format.

Could they have been more wrong? In my opinion, they were so dreadfully, awfully, horribly wrong that it has rocked HRC to it's core. In 2007 Ducati showed up with trick F1 fuel management, trick Bridgestone tires, and a high revving 800cc engine that had at least 20 peak horsepower on the rest of the field. It was an unmitigated disaster for HRC which sent them scrambling to develop a pneumatic-valve engine (b/c they were too proud to buy the technology like Yamaha, Suzuki, or Kawasaki). To make matters worse, Michelin was losing a political battle against the control tire that Dorna were so eager to enforce (to cut costs) so Honda ended up developing an entirely new engine and an entirely new chassis.

HRC haven't lost their way, they are at civil war b/c the old leadership was so miserably myopic and so wholly without understanding that they drafted a formula (according to reports it was their formula) that vilified their company, created exponential cost growth during difficult economic times, and eliminated all of their technical advantages. The civil war will not stop until they win. They will not win until the war is over. Peace will have to be brokered by an outside agent. [Enter Livio Suppo stage left].


Are you saying that the 800cc bikes were not an anti-American conspiracy to build a bike specifically for Pedrosa and undermine the point-and-squirt style of a real man riding a liter bike like Nicky Hayden? I think you may find some people here that will find that hard to believe and willing to back it up with 'facts'.

I agree that anything more like a 500 stinkwheel would be attractive, but I'd disagree that this has anything to a specific formula but rather relentless and rapid change at a pace that has only benefited those prepared to meet opportunity. (That sentence needed an intermission).

I really wish I had something significant to add! All of these comments are quite interesting.
But good work on the article, David! I enjoyed it very much.

and great discussion.
Reasonable, educated comments, w/o the name calling and bs found on other sites.

Rumours persist of Casey joining Honda, the problem could be that he's so good he'll just ride around the problems and make it look fast when everyone else is struggling, just like Ducati in the previous few years.

Then Honda will be in the same position of trying to figure out why Stoner is so fast and everyone else is nowhere.

I too think Stoner would do well on the Honda. I would not be surprised if he made the move. A fresh start might do him wonders.

I absolutely agree with Aalange - what a superb article and incredibly interesting comments, all conducted to the usual high MotoMatters standard.

I'm also happy with the earlier post about Mugello and the detail of the track and the insights given, the insight provided by the reports into the riders' press conferences.

I have to confess that I was a little disappointed initially this season. I had become used to David's amazing pre-race analysis articles. A race weekend began for me with them: they absolutely set me up and equipped me. And, the weekend didn't end until the Monday/Tuesday when I would devour the post-race analysis - the best putting everything into its proper perspective anywhere. I recognise that things have changed this season [and every congratulations to David that all his hard work have paid off in better access at tracks and recognition for this superb site]. Being the grumpy old curmudgeon that I am, it has taken me just a little while to get a handle on the new way and I finally have. Thank you, for a wonderful site - the only motorbiking site I visit - that really engages me.

... so "whithered" now, eh?


Three Honda riders in the Top 5 - and half of the Top 10 - is marked improvement for the new bike, however it all came to be.