It is no secret that Honda are struggling with the engine for the RC213V MotoGP. HRC have been making the engine ever more aggressive for the past three years, but in 2015, they finally went too far. The power delivery of the RC213V was too difficult to contain, even with Honda's electronics, and HRC suffered their worst season in MotoGP since 2010.
Things had not been looking much better for 2016 either. The engine Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez tested at Valencia and Jerez last November was at best a marginal improvement, with a bit more power at the bottom end, but still delivered in a very aggressive manner. Added to this, HRC have had problems with the new unified software which is compulsory for 2016. Where Ducati, and to a lesser extent Yamaha have managed to integrate the less complex spec software into their engines, Honda have yet to get a handle on it. That has made assessing the engine character even more difficult for Pedrosa and Márquez, the Repsol Honda riders finding it hard to pinpoint aggressive and abrupt throttle response on the engine character, the cruder software, or the interaction between the two.
It is a problem which Honda is now acknowledging publicly. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto admitted to the Spanish sports daily Marca that they were having trouble making their engine less aggressive. At a Honda event in Spain, where the Japanese factory was promoting their Civic Type R sports coupe car, Pedrosa and Márquez repeated their concerns about the engine. "We are at a stage where it is hard to say where we are," Pedrosa said. "The engine still needs some work," Márquez added, "that will be the key to understanding the whole package."
Pedrosa told reporters that Honda was already at work on a new engine. "We saw the engineers in Japan, but they were busy analyzing the data." Though Pedrosa and Márquez gave little away, there are signs that the engine changes could be quite major, with the final engine specification not being ready until the first race in Qatar. A report by Peter McLaren of Crash.net suggested that Honda's satellite riders will be stuck using the 2015 engine for the first MotoGP test at Sepang. McLaren reports that the satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow, Tito Rabat and Jack Miller may even be using a complete 2015 bike, rather than just a 2015 engine in a 2016 chassis.
This is unusual for Honda. Normally, HRC brings the base model for the upcoming season for all of their riders at the Sepang test, with the factory Repsol Honda riders having extra configurations of chassis to test. The Repsol Honda riders may test minor engine upgrades at Sepang, but by then, the engine is usually pretty much settled.
That caused a huge problem for Honda in 2015. The extreme heat and humidity of Sepang helped tame the aggressive nature of the engine in February of 2015, lulling HRC into a false sense of security. Once they arrived in Qatar, with much cooler temperatures, they discovered that the engine was still far too aggressive. By then, the engine specification was fixed, and had to be frozen for the 2015 season.
Leaving the satellite riders with the 2015 engine is a clue that Honda will not settle on the final engine specification until quite late. With testing due at Phillip Island and Qatar after the test at Sepang, HRC will have a chance to test the engine in range of temperatures and climates, before choosing a final design. With the engine specification still being changed, it would be a waste of resources to manufacture enough engines for all of the satellite riders, when those engines will most likely be discarded for improved designs.
Though it remains speculation, it seems likely that the Repsol Honda riders will use both the Sepang and Phillip Island tests to steer the development direction of the 2016 engine. A near-final version would then be tested at the last test of the year, at Qatar from 2nd to 4th of March, with the finalized engines only being ready for all of the Honda riders at the season opener at Qatar on 20th March.
So far in testing, the Honda RC213V has looked like a very poor package, weaker than both the Yamaha M1, which was outstanding in 2015 and will only get better in 2016, and the Ducati GP16, which was already very good in 2015, and which has adapted to the unified software exceptionally well. The very different approach Honda are taking to pre-season testing for 2016 point to some rather major changes for the coming year. HRC face an uphill task in the coming year, with new electronics and Michelin tires adding to their existing problems with their engine. But their strategy underlines once again that you can never write them off. Winning is too important for Honda.
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