Honda have clearly been working as they had new equipment ready in time for Stefan Bradl to test at Jerez in January. Not many Japanese manufacturers managed this. At the Official Qatar Test I could see three different chassis (old and new), three aero packages, one of them looked radically different, Ducati-like but bigger, and I spotted different exhausts earlier in the test.
Both the Repsol Honda Team riders surprised me. I know Stefan Bradl came strong at the end of last season but I think he has exceeded everyone's expectations, including his own team. It was a real shame he crashed and knocked himself around at the test because up until that point he was usually in the top five. As a test rider, his workload is huge and while doing testing a rider is not free to play with the bike set up as they want in order to go faster. They must back-to-back components with the same base setting, which for a racer is not a fun job as it often holds you back from showing what you can really do. Still, Stefan was fast and his long runs impressive.
I believe Honda are progressing with their mission of understanding how to make the RC213V more usable for all riders.
Pol Espargaro was the surprise of the Qatar test for me. His first go on the Honda was very impressive. Alberto Puig said they are happy that Pol likes the bike and that when he tries, the lap time comes, which is a good sign. Pol's fast laps and long runs were very competitive, but it was not just on track that I noticed Pol. He looks and sounds genuinely and completely focused on his mission. He came across like he has no time for excuses and plans to succeed. When I put all the information I have together I come to this conclusion... I would not be surprised if Pol pulls off a podium at one of the races at Qatar. Yes I know, that's a big ask at your first race on the Honda, but I really think he's up for it.
Back to the Honda's. Turning doesn't seem to be a strong point of the Honda, grip on entry or exit doesn't either, but looking from the outside they don't seem to be as affected as some of their opposition by changing grip levels. Maybe it's a case of – if you've never had something in the first place then you don't miss it when it's not there? I'm just guessing of course.
The straights are long in Qatar and the Honda is fast. Not quite Ducati-fast, but not far off.
Off the line? The Honda riders' starts took some time to make progress. They had a new front start device to try out and use in conjunction with their rear start device. I never saw any impressive starts from any Honda riders right up until the closing hrs of the final day when both Taka Nakagami and Pol really cracked it! Maybe the Honda engineers had to make adjustments, maybe it was simply the riders took time to figure it out. Either way, they now look ready.