2019 was something of a Jekyll and Hyde year for Honda. On the one hand, Marc Marquez wrapped up the championship with four races to go, winning twelve races and finishing second in six others, Honda took the manufacturers' crown, and the Repsol Honda team won the teams title. On paper, it looked like a clean sweep for HRC.
On the other hand, the next Honda rider in the championship was Cal Crutchlow, down in ninth place, nearly 300 points behind Marquez. Marquez scored all but 6 of the 426 points which won Honda the manufacturers' championship. And the reigning champion almost single-handedly won the team title for Repsol Honda at Valencia, after a series of injuries ruled his teammate Jorge Lorenzo out for most of the season.
In 2019, Honda had a bike capable of winning, but only if it had Marc Marquez aboard it. That this is a risky position to be in is obvious from the fact that the six-time MotoGP™ champ is coming off major shoulder surgery for the second winter in a row. Marquez seems to bounce extremely well when he crashes – and when I analyzed his 2018 crashes, it was clear he was taking calculated risks at low speed, crashing very rarely at high speed – but there is always a risk of something more serious happening. Without Marc Marquez, Honda would have been in real trouble last year.
Test recap: everything we know ahead of the winter break
So for 2020, HRC need to add some rideability to the Honda RC213V. The bike is fast enough to match the Ducatis, it just needs to be a little more rider-friendly. At Valencia and Jerez, Marquez and Cal Crutchlow tried prototypes of a new engine, and a couple of new chassis. Though both riders were guarded about exactly what the changes had brought, they felt the engine and the chassis were a step in the right direction. The engine was a fraction less vicious, and the frames they tested gave a little more confidence in braking on corner entry. Marquez had complained throughout 2019 that he needed to use a lot of lean angle to get the bike to turn.
The 2020 bike seems to be a little more flexible in its setup options. "The 2019 bike we had to stick to a really small window I felt, to get around the track¸" Cal Crutchlow said at Valencia. "Whereas this one I think we can maybe play a lot more with the setting of the bike, which may make it a little easier to ride but not the big step we need."
Honda will need to make that step, or at least part of it, before the 2020 season starts, if they are not to rely solely on the outlandish talent of Marc Marquez to retain the title. They are more vulnerable than they have been for some time: with the retirement of Jorge Lorenzo, Marc's brother Alex has stepped into the factory Repsol Honda team. The RC213V is not an easy bike for a rookie, so little can be expected of Alex until he has some experience under his belt.
The dynamics having two brothers in the same team will be fascinating to watch, especially two brothers of such disparate experience. Marc Marquez enters his eighth season in the premier class having just wrapped up his sixth MotoGP™ title, and clear favourite to follow it up with a seventh. He is dominating the series the way that Valentino Rossi did in the first decade of the 21st Century, and Mick Doohan did the decade before. He is a generational talent, and at the peak of his abilities.
Alex Marquez: “The dream’s come true!”
By contrast, Alex Marquez is a rookie, with very limited experience in MotoGP™. Like his brother, he has titles in both smaller classes. Unlike his brother, he took longer to finally clinch a Moto2™ crown, and he moves up to the premier class at 23 years of age, having spent five years in the intermediate class. The experience of Maverick Viñales, Alex Rins, Joan Mir, and Fabio Quartararo is that it is better to move up quickly, rather than spend years in Moto2™. And of course, it is easier to adapt to MotoGP™ on a rider-friendly Yamaha or Suzuki, which require less of a drastic change of riding style.
Yet the younger Marquez has shown real signs of promise. Alex ended the Valencia test nearly 2.4 seconds behind Maverick Viñales, fastest at the test. A week later in Jerez, he had cut the gap to 1.4 seconds, this time behind brother Marc. He was easily the fastest of the three rookies, and just 0.6 behind Cal Crutchlow. Emulating his brother and winning the MotoGP™ title at his first attempt is extremely unlikely – in no small part because he would have to beat Marc Marquez to do so – but Alex Marquez looks like having a solid debut season.
2020 may well turn out to be Cal Crutchlow's final year in MotoGP™, the popular Englishman seriously considering retiring at the end of this season. The LCR Honda rider has achieved the goals he set himself when he came to MotoGP™, and with daughter Willow rapidly approaching school age, retiring to spend more time with his family is an ever more attractive option.
Like all riders, however, Crutchlow still has a burning ambition. He still wants to compete, and still believes he can win, races if not championships. He had three podiums in 2019, and that was with an RC213V that had a tendency to push the front on corner entry, its engine braking very sensitive to set up.
If the 2020 bike is easier to ride, as Crutchlow suggested during the Valencia test, then he could have an even stronger season this year. And if he does, could that make him change his mind?
Takaaki Nakagami faces a tougher challenge than his LCR Honda teammate. Despite holding out for a chance to ride a 2020 bike, the Japanese rider is stuck with last year's Honda RC213V. Coming off shoulder surgery, having to handle the handful which the 2019 bike is will not be easy. At least Nakagami has had longer to recover, having skipped the final three races of 2019 to have surgery before the end of the season.
2020 will be an important year for Nakagami. He is fortunate to have the backing of Idemitsu, and that Honda are keen to have a Japanese rider in MotoGP™. But with everyone out of contract at the end of this year, nobody's seat is safe. And there is a wave of talented young Japanese riders on their way up, the Asia Talent Cup proving to be an excellent breeding ground. Nakagami showed promise in 2019, but that was on the more rider-friendly 2018 bike. He will have to wrestle the 2019 bike into submission on his way to regular top tens if he is to show he deserves a long-term future in MotoGP™.
Where do Honda stand in the run up to the 2020 MotoGP™ season? With Marc Marquez under contract, they are favourites once again to lift the rider championship. But with Yamaha, Suzuki, and Ducati all looking much stronger in testing, the team and manufacturer titles will be much harder to defend. Marc Marquez had a dominant year in 2019, but a few things fell into place to make it look easier than it was. HRC have a lot of work to do to ensure their run of championships continues.
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