Last year, Marc Márquez won the first ten races of the season on his way to his second successive MotoGP championship. He ended the season with a grand total of thirteen wins, eventually tying up the title at Motegi, with three races still to go. He could have wrapped it up a race earlier, had he not crashed trying to keep pace with Valentino Rossi at Misano. Márquez and the Honda RC213V reigned supreme, clearly the best package on the grid.
Eight months later, and Márquez trails the championship leader Rossi by 49 points, having won only one race, and taken one other podium finish at Jerez. Márquez has crashed out of two races, nearly crashing out of a third as well, and is 101 points down on his total after the same number of races last year. The Honda RC213V is being universally blamed for Márquez' decline, with a series of crashes by Cal Crutchlow, Scott Redding and Dani Pedrosa also being put down to an overloaded front end. The question on everyone's lips is, how did the RC213V go from being the best bike on the grid to being behind the Yamaha and the Ducati? How could Honda get it so badly wrong in just a few short months?
The answer to that question is, of course, that they didn't. There is clearly a problem with the Honda – the obvious culprit being an overabundance of horsepower and aggressive engine braking – but it is hardly a terrible motorcycle. The bike is still faster than it was last year, race times dropping on average by over a second. But the problems Honda are facing did not happen overnight. The supremacy of Márquez has masked a slow and steady decline of the RC213V, the bike losing its advantage over the past couple of seasons.
That decline comes most clearly to light when you look at the performance of the satellite Honda riders in 2013 and 2014. For those two seasons, Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl stayed with the same teams, riding the same bike. It was Bautista's fourth and fifth seasons in MotoGP, and Bradl's second and third years in the class. The only thing that changed was the bike. With an extra year of experience, both men should have improved from 2013 to 2014, both in terms of points and in terms of the gap to the race winner.
The opposite is true, however. In 2013, Stefan Bradl looked like making the step to being a regular podium contender, consistently finishing in the top five. Of the fourteen races he finished, he was inside the top five for eight of them, taking five fifth places, two fourth places and a superb podium at Laguna Seca. It was there where he also grabbed his first, and so far only pole position. The gap to the winner was still significant – 22.355 seconds, on average – but Bradl's career was on an upward trend, the LCR Honda rider getting better every race.
That all changed in 2014. In thirteen races, he finished in the top five just five times, with a best result of fourth. His scoring average declined from 11.14 points per race to 9.75, and the gap to the winner got bigger, rather than smaller. On average, Bradl finished nearly four seconds a race further behind the winner in 2014 than he had done the year before. If you take Le Mans 2013 out of the equation, where the German finished over a minute behind the winner, then his gap in 2014 increases by 6.9 seconds. In 2013, Bradl finished seventh in the championship with a total of 156 points, despite missing two races after breaking his leg at Sepang. In 2014, after starting in all eighteen races, he scored just 117 points, and ended the year in ninth.
The same story holds true for Alvaro Bautista. The Spaniard had a strong first year with the Gresini Honda team in 2012, ending the year in fifth, with 178 points. In 2013, he was sixth, with 171 points, but still good for three fourth place finishes. He was finishing some 18.710 seconds behind the race winner, on average, and looking very competitive, especially given the fact that he was racing with Nissin brakes and Showa suspension, rather than the Brembos and Ohlins used by the rest of the paddock.
A year later, and Bautista was struggling. Though he bagged a single podium in 2014, holding off Pol Espargaro and Dani Pedrosa to take third at Le Mans, that was his only top five finish that season. His next best finish was a pair of sixth places, which with a pair of sevenths, a pair of eighths and a pair of tenth places, saw him constantly battling around eighth spot. His average points haul dropped from 10.69 points per race to 8.09, his gap to the winner growing massively, from 18.710 to 31.895.
Admittedly, for most of those races, Bradl and Bautista were losing to another Honda. In 2013, the RC213V won eight races, in 2014 it won fourteen races. But the bike was not getting any easier to ride. In 2013, both Bradl and Bautista crashed out of two races each. In 2014, Bradl crashed out of five races, finishing just thirteen during the season. Alvaro Bautista had it even tougher, suffering seven race crashes in 2014, making it home only eleven times that year.
All this makes it obvious that Honda's poor start to the 2015 season has not come out of thin air. The performance of the RC213V has been in slow and gradual decline for the past eighteen months, at least, and perhaps longer. The utter dominance of Marc Márquez at the start of the 2014 season tricked us into believing the bike was unbeatable, while the truth was much more mixed. Márquez' success was not so much due to the brilliance of the RC213V, as to his own ability and a mixture of problems for his rivals. The Yamahas struggled at the start of 2014 with less fuel and a modified tire, and Jorge Lorenzo started the season badly out of shape. Ducati were at the start of the odyssey which would lead to the GP15, the GP14 still suffering from some major performance problems. Those issues made the Honda look much better than it actually was, the gaze of the fans and media fixed on Márquez spraying champagne on the podium, rather than Bradl and Bautista shaking their heads in the garages.
2015 is merely the point at which the cracks have become too large to be papered over any longer. The inherent weaknesses of the bike are now being shown up by the massive steps forward made by Yamaha and Ducati over the winter. The Yamaha now brakes as well as it turns, Jorge Lorenzo is fit and hungry, and Valentino Rossi has made a remarkable adaptation to the riding style which 2015 demands. Gigi Dall'Igna has completed his transformation of Ducati's racing department, and the engineers there have produced the miraculously fast GP15. Where the Honda is a second or so quicker per race, Yamaha is over ten seconds faster, Ducati getting on for twenty seconds. The competition is a good deal stiffer now than it was in the past.
All this does not mean that the Honda RC213V is a bad motorcycle. On the contrary, its riders have put the bike on the podium three times this year, including victory for Marc Márquez at Austin. But the bike has gotten harder to ride year by year for the past couple of seasons, and the 2015 machine is now at the limit of the manageable. It is still very quick – Márquez has put the bike on pole for three out of the first six races – but getting it to the finish line is hard work. The bike is fast at the limit, but keeping it there for 27 or so laps is a very difficult business indeed.
HRC will fix this, and fix it sooner rather than later. That is what Honda does. But they have left themselves with a lot of work to do in a very short time. They will have to counter the slow, backward slide of the last two years with a frenetic burst of activity to make the bike truly competitive once again.
You can read more about Honda's declining performance in my blog in the latest issue of On Track Off Road magazine.