Whither HRC? The Tribulations Of Honda
It is no secret that the atmosphere among the riders in the Repsol Honda garage is, to say the least, a little strained. The wall which divides the garages of Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa is, more than any other garage dividing wall, a symbol of the problems which wrack the team. The wall divides the riders, but also the technicians and the data, with virtually nothing shared between the two sides of the garage.
The blame for this split has mainly been put on Dani Pedrosa's side of the garage, but that belies the history of problems that the Repsol team has had. Ever since Valentino Rossi took himself and his crew to Yamaha, the team has struggled, and often been riven by strife. Alex Barros was the first replacement for Rossi, but neither the Brazilian nor his teammate Nicky Hayden won a single race in 2004, something that non-factory riders Sete Gibernau, Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada managed to do repeatedly.
In 2005, Max Biaggi finally got the chance he had wanted for so long, moving into the Repsol Honda team with his technical guru Erv Kanemoto. But the Repsol team's year got off to a bad start, Biaggi crashing into Hayden in pitlane at the first test the two men had together. The rest of Biaggi's year was not much better, the Italian not winning a single race, while Hayden took his maiden victory at Laguna Seca. The season ended in bitter recriminations, Biaggi dropped from the team after voicing trenchant criticism of Honda, and left without a ride for the following year.
The next year saw the arrival of Dani Pedrosa and his mentor Alberto Puig. That year was the team's best year since Rossi's departure, Nicky Hayden's consistent run of podiums and a couple of victories securing the 2006 world title, and Pedrosa adding a pair of wins to the team's total. Since then, though, the number of wins has declined, with Pedrosa bagging two wins every season. The team is seemingly stalled, and as the stagnation continues, the temperature inside the team continues to drop.
The latest low point in relations between Repsol's two riders came at Le Mans. The two men never speak, and this weekend was no exception. But after Andrea Dovizioso ended up on the podium, the Italian's language was clear for everyone to read. "I'm so happy to be going to Mugello in 3rd position in the championship, being in front of Dani is really important," Dovizioso told the press conference. Afterwards, Dovizioso repeated that being ahead of Pedrosa in the championship was an important factor in the balance of power inside the Repsol Honda team. "For sure it is important. For the development of the bike, HRC has the potential to follow both riders, but if you are the first rider in the team, you have more power," Dovi told MotoMatters.com.
For the real problem at Repsol Honda is the totally different directions that Dovizioso and Pedrosa want to take the bike. The machine is working reasonably well for the Italian, while the Spaniard has failed completely to get the bike to work as he wants. When asked at Le Mans whether the latest version of the RC212V chassis was working for him, Pedrosa was curt. "I can't say this. I can't say it's working really. I mean the bike is going, but, I don't feel nothing special, because I can make one lap good, one lap bad, it's like you can easily make a mistake with this bike. I cannot be so constant, even though I try."
Nicky Hayden summed it up best: "It's like they're riding two different machines," the Marlboro Ducati rider commented, after having followed both men closely in France. So it is with the satellite bikes, with Interwetten's Hiroshi Aoyama reporting exactly the same problems that Pedrosa had spoken of, while LCR's Randy de Puniet is getting on rather well with the bike. The fact that the bikes look different is partly a result of the fact that they are, to some extent, with Dovizioso and Pedrosa pursuing different chassis developments, and still no clear winner emerging.
That the bikes are so completely different is potentially a bigger problem than the wall dividing the Repsol Honda garage. Data is not shared, not just out of a sense of secrecy and the desire to gain a competitive advantage over each other, but also because the data is almost entirely useless. With Dovizioso and Pedrosa running such radically different setups, the data from the other side of the garage is meaningless. If Dovi were to use Dani's setup data, it would merely produce a bike that he simply couldn't ride, and vice versa.
And this is the reason for the Cold War currently underway between the two sides of the garage. With each rider trying to pull development in a completely different direction, dominance inside the team is crucial to getting the changes they want. HRC is in danger of being forced to build either two different bikes, or a bike that only one rider can really get the best out of. That this is not the best strategy has been demonstrated by Yamaha, who have a bike that almost anyone can ride fast, and currently have two riders at the top of the championship table, picking up from where they left off last year. Two riders, what's more, who cannot use much of each other's data either, though the discrepancy is much less than with the Hondas.
The irony is that inside HRC, real changes are underway. The culture inside the team is opening up significantly, HRC showing a remarkable openness over the past year or so. Criticism has been accepted and acted on, and Honda tradition has been thrown over. HRC has openly accepted the blame for not building a winning bike, something which was unthinkable 5 years ago. Showa, a Honda subsidiary, has been pushed aside, and suspension sourced from Swedish giant Ohlins. HRC has broken the paddock's unspoken rules in poaching technicians from Yamaha, hoping to benefit from the experience the engineers gained while at Honda's arch rival. And then there was Livio Suppo, the former Ducati team manager moving to HRC to raise sponsorship and perhaps play a role in the team next season.
Honda's aggressiveness has already drawn comment in the paddock, and they are acting fast to try to address their issues. Rumors persist that Casey Stoner has already signed for Honda, a move that could prove highly beneficial for the Japanese factory. Whether or not HRC has signed the Australian, it is clear that they are looking to address their development problems. Honda badly wants another World Championship, and their current lineup - as talented as they clearly are - seem incapable of delivering. Either Pedrosa or Dovizioso - or perhaps even both - will be forced to look elsewhere for a ride by the end of the year, as Honda continues to search for a solution.
Right now, Honda appears to have a problem, but that situation is unlikely to last for long. This time next year, things could look very different indeed for Honda, as the process of change continues to roll through the organization. That change is now unstoppable, and will see a few big names trampled underfoot in the process. Honda now has the bit between its teeth, and that is a prospect that should strike fear into the hearts of its opponents.