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How Honda's stubbornness has left it in a MotoGP no-man's land

OPINION: The debacle that has brought Honda to the brink of a widely mooted split with its biggest asset confirms the failure of its working method in the current MotoGP ecosystem. Its fall from grace can only be halted by incorporating the philosophy that has revitalised the European manufacturers, but which HRC refuses to apply

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The principle that when things go wrong they can always go worse suits Honda like a glove. It has hit rock bottom in the last two weeks. Neither Marc Marquez, Alex Rins nor Joan Mir, their three most competitive riders, took part in the last two stops of the calendar, at Sachsenring and Assen, as they were injured.

The most glaring case is that of Marquez, the mainstay of the whole set-up, who decided not to ride in Germany on Sunday after tallying five crashes in two and a half days, breaking several bones. Despite travelling to the Dutch GP and taking to the track on both Friday and Saturday, the Spaniard also sat out the long race after aggravating a cracked rib he sustained seven days earlier.

Honda, the manufacturer with the most muscle in the championship, is at the bottom of the constructors' table and there is no sign of that decline slowing. Marquez, meanwhile, went into this season with the sole focus on getting back to winning ways after enduring the toughest period of his life due to his management of an arm injury sustained in July 2020. Now fully recovered after undergoing four operations, he made it clear to Honda bosses after the last intervention a year ago of his intention to fulfil his contract, which expires in 2024, as long as he had the necessary tools to fight for victories.

"If not, I'll make a living," he told them, according to the documentary All In, which he produced and was released just before the season started.

Three months have passed, but Marquez still hasn't seen the chequered flag in a Sunday race. His mood has an air of desperation, which only lends weight to the arguments of those who believe his only chance of fulfilling his goals is a split with his current team before his contract expires. That's especially because while Honda appears to know how to turn this situation around, it is unwilling to implement the necessary changes to make an effective recovery.

It's been a disastrous year for Marquez, who far from fighting for wins hasn't even finished a full grand prix distance in 2023

It's been a disastrous year for Marquez, who far from fighting for wins hasn't even finished a full grand prix distance in 2023

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. This trio were much more severely affected than Ducati, KTM and Aprilia during that period, as Japan was shut down until recently. In fact, the entire world championship circus that travelled to Motegi last September still required a special visa to enter the country.

That blockade, combined with the long-term absence of Marquez as he spent a year without racing, the giant step taken by Ducati both in terms of performance and in achieving numerical dominance, combined with the evident improvement of Aprilia and KTM explains the apparent bewilderment of Yamaha and Honda following Suzuki's call to pull the plug at the end of 2022. That disorientation is apparent because individuals within both companies have a diagnosis of their issues, and also the remedy to solve it.

The problem is that it is a very sensitive issue, which makes it difficult to discuss openly. The crux of the matter is cultural, and no one wants to speak out publicly so as not to be singled out.

Autosport understands that the possibility of Honda hiring senior and senior engineers from another manufacturer, other than Japanese, is out of the question, at least in the short term

"Japanese engineers, especially those at Honda, are very proud," a technician who has been involved with Japanese teams for almost 10 years told this writer. "And that prevents them from recognising that their European counterparts may have been ahead of them in certain areas, such as aerodynamics."

The same source makes the analogy of what has happened in Formula 1 with Aston Martin, which has gone from seventh in the constructors' standings to third from one year to the next.

"What they have done is to sign key people from the teams that were winning, in this case, Red Bull and Mercedes," adds the authoritative voice, who refers to the signings of Dan Fallows and Eric Blandin, among others. Honda signed Ken Kawauchi as technical manager for 2023 after Suzuki's MotoGP departure with the intention of streamlining the communication between the trackside team and the factory in Japan. But all that has been gained from the change is a bit of order.

Apart from Marquez, who attracts most of the attention, Honda's most regular spokesman is team manager Alberto Puig. However operational decisions are taken by HRC's top management, led by president Koji Watanabe, then articulated through chief technical officer Shinichi Kokubu and HRC director Tetsuhiro Kuwata. This trio would have to authorise the incorporation of technical specialists in those areas, such as aerodynamics, where the RC213V is plausibly below the other prototypes.

Honda moved to sign Kawauchi from Suzuki, but more senior hires from inside the paddock won't be forthcoming

Honda moved to sign Kawauchi from Suzuki, but more senior hires from inside the paddock won't be forthcoming

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

In this regard, Autosport understands that the possibility of Honda hiring senior and senior engineers from another manufacturer, other than Japanese, is out of the question, at least in the short term. That can be interpreted perfectly between the lines, looking back at Marquez and Puig's last appearance at Assen on Sunday.

"We didn't get to the root of the problem, and that's not the way to solve it," replied Puig, when asked about the margin he believes a hypothetical recovery would require. "We are far behind our rivals, we are far behind. It would be too optimistic to think about having a competitive bike in two months.

"The European brands, in the last few years, were very aggressive in their approach to bike development and took risks. The Japanese are much more conservative, but, with the parts that are currently on the table, and based on the results, surely they have to change that approach and be more reactive than they have been so far."

The most worrying thing then is not the time it would take, but that the foundations have not even been laid for it to begin to happen. For his part, Marquez navigated his way around the issue when directly asked if he had tried to convince his Japanese bosses of the need to go looking for talent at Ducati, KTM or Aprilia.

"Obviously I care about the project and I've had meetings, like the one in Austria last year, that go in that direction," replied Marquez. "But the rider evaluates it with feedback, how the project is progressing. And yesterday [Saturday], I took the same bike as in Portimao, because the things that have been arriving haven't worked.

"It's up to the people who make the decisions to do their job, because I have enough to do with getting the maximum out of the bike on the track. There are things that are out of my hands."

Marquez's tone has been increasingly fed up with his situation, heightening rumours of an impending departure from Honda

Marquez's tone has been increasingly fed up with his situation, heightening rumours of an impending departure from Honda

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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