The news that Honda would be building a production racer to compete in MotoGP aroused much excitement among fans. There was quickly much speculation over just how quick it would be, and whether it would be possible for a talented rider to beat the satellite bikes on some tracks. Expectations received a boost when former world champion Casey Stoner tested the RCV1000R, praising its performance. Speculation reached fever pitch when HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto told the press at the launch of the bike that the RCV1000R was just 0.3 seconds a lap slower than the factory RC213V in the hands of a test rider. Was that in the hands of Casey Stoner, the press asked? Nakamoto was deliberately vague. 'Casey Stoner is a Honda test rider,' he said cryptically.
Once the bike hit the track in the hands of active MotoGP riders Nicky Hayden, Hiroshi Aoyama and Scott Redding at the Valencia test, it became apparent that the bike was a long way off the pace. At Sepang in February, the situation was the same. Nakamoto clarified his earlier statements: no, the times originally quoted were not set by Casey Stoner, who had only done a handful of laps in tricky conditions on the bike. They had been set by one of Honda's test riders. And yes, the biggest problem was the straights, as times at Sepang demonstrated. Test riders were losing around half a second along the two long straights at Sepang, Nakamoto said.
In the hands of active MotoGP riders, the gap was around 2 seconds at the Sepang tests. Nicky Hayden - of whom much had been expected, not least by himself - had made significant improvements, especially on corner entry. Turning in and braking was much improved, something which did not come as a surprise after the American's time on the Ducati. Once the bikes arrived at Qatar, the Honda made another step forward, Hayden cutting the deficit to 1.4 seconds from the fastest man Aleix Espargaro.
By the time the race rolled around, the Hondas had cut the deficit again. Comparing fastest laps of the race, Scott Redding set the quickest lap for production Honda rider, lapping just 0.841 slower than his teammate Alvaro Bautista, who set the quickest lap of the race. But consistency proved to be the undoing of the Hondas, Scott Redding and Nicky Hayden crossing the line just 0.035 seconds apart, but over 32 seconds down on the winner, Marc Marquez. Where the difference between the fastest and slowest flying laps of Redding and Hayden was nearly 2.4 seconds, for the front runners, that difference was just over a second.
The difference in performance and the big gap to the front has been cause for much speculation. Where are the Honda production racers losing out to the Factory Option bikes? Is it purely top speed, or is it a combination of speed and acceleration? And where does that lack of speed and acceleration come from?
Both Scott Redding and Nicky Hayden have blamed their lack of top speed on a lack of fuel. Though the Open class bikes are allowed to use up to 24 liters a race, the fuel tank on the RCV1000R will hold only 22.2 liters, Scott Redding told Bikesportnews at Silverstone, during the presentation of the Bennett's Insurance Search for a Star competition. 'We could have used more fuel as it’s more speed when you are underpowered, to an extent. We couldn’t use the full power we used in qualifying as we had to save fuel. Maybe if we had more fuel we could have latched on the group in front for ten laps,' Redding told Bikesportnews. Nicky Hayden had also complained that he had been unable to use full power, as the bike had been short on fuel.
Livio Suppo was unconvinced that the problem was fuel, however. The Honda boss told Motorcycle News that he felt the issue was one of electronics. 'We have been struggling a little bit to match our machine with the new Magneti Marelli software,' Suppo told MCN.
Is the issue straight horsepower - an issue which may be helped by having more fuel - or is the problem the electronics? Judging the issue precisely is hard to do, without access to full data from all of the bikes, but we can make an educated guess based on sector lap times. Like all tracks, the Losail circuit is split into four sectors, with the bikes times as they pass through each sector separately. The nature of the Losail circuit is such that the first three sectors consist largely of braking zones and corners, whereas the final sector contains a couple of short straights, then the final corner and the run onto the main straight, of over a kilometer in length. Sector 1 tests braking set up and fast changes of direction, though top speed plays an important part in the first part of the sector; sector 2 tests corner speed, braking and acceleration; sector 3 tests agility and the ability to get power down while the bike is still leaned over; and sector 4 is all about acceleration off the final corner and speed along the front straight. Differences in sector 3, especially should reveal differences in electronics, while sector 4 is about horsepower and acceleration off the corners. If electronics is an issue, the differences should be large in sector 3; if it's about horsepower and fuel, then sector 4 is where the gap is opened.
We averaged the sector times over the entire race, minus the first lap, for five riders. We took the times of Scott Redding and Nicky Hayden as the measure of the Honda RCV1000R; the times of Dani Pedrosa as the benchmark for the RC213V, Pedrosa not having spent too much time engaged in battle with other riders; the times of Aleix Espargaro as a more powerful Yamaha, but using the same electronics as the Open Honda; and the times of Valentino Rossi as a benchmark to see the difference between Yamaha's custom electronics and the Dorna-supplied championship electronics used by Espargaro.
First, the raw data for the average sector times for all five riders. Valentino Rossi is fastest in the first three sectors, with Pedrosa quickest on the final section, much as you would expect for the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Honda and the Yamaha. The times of Espargaro are close everywhere, while the gap to Hayden and Redding is large.
Looking at the average gap per sector gives a much clearer picture of the relative strengths of the bikes. The factory Honda and Yamaha are well-matched, the Open class Yamaha is closest in sector 2, and the production Hondas lose out most in the final sector.
To make the differences even more clear, we can compare the differences by percentage. The table below shows the gap between the rider's sector time and the fastest sector time as a percentage of the fastest sector time. It shows where bikes are losing and gaining more clearly.
From the percentage times, it is clear that Rossi's Yamaha gains most in the first two sectors of the track, compared to Pedrosa's Honda. A more interesting comparison is with Aleix' Espargaro's Forward Yamaha, which loses similar amounts to Rossi in the first and third sectors, but is closest to Rossi's time in the second sector. The final sector, with the final corner onto the straight, is a test of top speed and acceleration, and here, the seamless gearbox comes into its own, Espargaro losing most to Rossi and Pedrosa, both of whom have a seamless gearbox, while Aleix does not.
But the clearest picture emerges from the sector times of the Honda RCV1000R. In the first and last sectors, both Hayden and Redding lost most to Rossi and Pedrosa, staying closest in the middle two sections. Both men were within 1% of Rossi's sector times in sectors 2 and 3, but nearer 1.5% slower in sector 1, and around 2% in sector 4, the sections where top speed and acceleration matter most..
The comparison between Hayden and Redding is itself illuminating. Sector 2 is the only section of the track where the two men post similar times, just a thousandth of a second between them on average. Redding's better corner speed - a skill he acquired in Moto2 - pays off in sector 3, Redding 0.089 faster than Hayden through the difficult and twisty section. Hayden wins out in the final sector - 1.59% slower than Pedrosa, compared to Redding's 2.04% deficit - but at the end of the straight, and in the first couple of turns, Redding wins out again, with 1.13% to 1.46%. The fact that Redding is giving away 10kg to Nicky Hayden means the Englishman loses most out of the relatively slow final corner and onto the straight.
Though their styles may mean they are losing different amounts in different parts of the track, the place where they are losing big is very clear from the sector data. The RCV1000R loses most of its time coming off the final corner, and along the fast front straight. Top speed differences between the Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha are negligible, but there is a much bigger gap (8.4 km/h) to Aleix Espargaro's Forward Yamaha. It is possible that the gap for the Forward Yamaha is down partly to the lack of seamless gearbox, with no power lost as the riders shift up from 2nd to 6th along the straight. Electronics may be another part of the Forward Yamaha's gap, the anti-wheelie not as successful at maximizing thrust while keeping the front wheel down.
The difference between the RCV1000R and the factory bikes is vast, Hayden losing 15.4 km/h, Redding giving up 16.6 km/h. They both give up over 7 km/h to Aleix Espargaro along the straight. The big difference both in sector times and in top speed point to a lack of horsepower as being the main culprit. This point is underlined by the sector 3 times, the tricky section of the track containing 6 of the circuit's 16 corners. Espargaro is 0.42% slower than Rossi through that section, while Scott Redding is 0.64% off, in broadly comparable times. The two factory bikes are within 0.007 of each other, pointing to the biggest difference being electronics and seamless gearbox between the Factory Option and Open class bikes, rather than horsepower being much of a factor. The story from sectors 1 and 4, however, are all about power.
So is the problem with the Honda RCV1000R production racer one of electronics, or one of horsepower? Judging by the sector times, you have to say horsepower. Through the section where electronics play a large role, Scott Redding can match the time of Aleix Espargaro on the more powerful Yamaha using the same electronics. Through the sector where horsepower and acceleration play a role, the RCV1000R is being blown away, getting off the corner much slower and never reaching the top speeds of the faster bikes.
Would more fuel help? If both Hayden and Redding were complaining that they had to go careful on fuel, then not having fuel to burn along the straight will impact their performance. Having 1.8 liters more at Qatar would not close a 32-second gap by the end of the race, but it would add a couple of km/h more top speed, and perhaps a little more grunt off the corners. The added speed the Honda needs will not be found in electronics alone, not with differences this large. A little more fuel at tracks with fast straights and tight corners would definitely help get the production Hondas a little closer to the fray.
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