Why Honda’s latest MotoGP tech update is its biggest philosophical change
Honda is mired in its worst period in its MotoGP history since its full-time return in 1982, as it currently competes in its second winless campaign in three years.
So bad are Honda’s current problems that Marc Marquez remains its top rider in the 2022 standings by 14 points despite not having raced since the Italian Grand Prix.
Ahead of the summer break, Honda boss Alberto Puig admitted Honda has to “change the way of thinking” back at its Japanese base to dig itself out of the hole it has found itself in.
Honda’s woes are a combination of factors. The major injury problems for Marquez back in 2020 highlighted just how much he was making the difference on an RC213V that was almost impossible for any other rider to get the best out of.
Riding below his peak in 2021 and his eye injury woes at the end of the year meant Marquez was not able to contribute much to the development of the 2022 bike.
Honda made a massive change in concept with its bike for this year, making it more rear-biased to try and cure the rear grip problems which plagued its riders in 2021.
This hasn’t worked, and moreover changed the way in which Marquez could ride the bike. Famed for his aggressive entry to corners and his feel of the front tyre, Marquez was unable to employ his normal riding style in the races he did contest this year before his absence following Mugello to have a fourth major operation on his right arm.
When he returned to the paddock in Austria, Marquez said Honda had to “change the concept” – both with its bike and how it operated in general.
Assessing Honda’s year so far on Thursday at Aragon, HRC’s technical chief Takeo Yokoyama said: “We made a radical change on the bike from '21 to '22. In the beginning we were more confident that we were on the right direction.
“But obviously we cannot be as confident as we used to be of course. Of course now it’s time to study and make the decision on what to do with next year’s bike.
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images
“Obviously, we have found out some things are going as we expected, but some other things are not working as expected. So, we need to make some kind of combination for the next year. So, we will not stay completely like we are doing now, but we will not go back to the old concept.”
While all eyes were on Marquez last week at the two-day post-San Marino GP test at Misano, which marked his first ride on a MotoGP bike since Mugello, it was what was going in the Honda garages that proved most significant.
In a major departure from conventional working practices, Honda ran a swingarm built by Kalex instead of its own internally-designed component.
Kalex has been the all-conquering chassis manufacturer in the Moto2 class, winning its 10th-successive constructors’ championship this season as it remains the bike of choice for most teams. Kalex has built something in the region of 50 swingarms in 2022 for the 24 riders that run its chassis in Moto2.
The Kalex swingarm is also a general departure in the design of that piece of rear suspension in MotoGP, as most – including Honda – have worked with carbon fibre swingarms in recent years.
Marquez did test it at Misano, but remained tight-lipped on just what he felt about it. However, LCR’s Takaaki Nakagami sung its praised at Aragon.
“For a long time we focused on the carbon swingarm, but Misano test Kalex brought an aluminium swingarm and I had some question marks about the performance,” Nakagami said. “But once I tested a couple of laps, I felt something interesting. There was totally no negative at all, I felt quite good. It was positive, honestly. So, I explained the pure feeling of the bike to HRC and also the Kalex engineer.”
Farming out swingarm design, regardless of the technical benefits – which Honda will surely be hoping will help with its rear grip problems chiefly – is a massive shift in philosophy from the traditionally insular Japanese manufacturers.
Pol Espargaro said at Misano that Honda’s decision not to give him much to test despite the problems it still faced in 2022 was down to Japanese marque’s being scared of its secrets slipping out to rivals. While that probably remains, they are at least becoming happier to open its doors to outside influence.
At Yamaha, it has brought in ex-Formula 1 engine chief Luca Marmorini as a consultant to help with the development of the underpowered M1’s motor for 2023. Reigning world champion Fabio Quartararo raved about the gains Yamaha had made with its new engine when he tested it at Misano last week.
Takaaki Nakagami, Team LCR Honda
Photo by: MotoGP
While the likes of Honda and Yamaha will likely never follow in the working path of European manufacturers, it does appear like they have finally realised being stuck in their ways is more damaging than taking risks.
This was made abundantly clear by Yokoyama at Aragon, who noted: “In general, we are the sixth manufacturer – we are on the bottom [of the table]. So, we need to climb up as quickly as possible. So, we just try to do everything we can do. We have got to know the people from Kalex, we had some discussions and we could understand that they can make something really quickly. We know very well that their technology is very high, so we decided to collaborate. That’s not the end of the story. We’re doing everything for everything.”
The machining of the new Kalex swingarms won’t have been an immediate process. This has obviously been in the works for a few months. However, that is still quicker than Japanese marque’s tend to roll out updates.
In an episode of Autosport’s Tank Slappers Podcast, Suzuki’s Alex Rins offered this insight on the working methods of Japanese MotoGP manufacturers.
“We are talking like the Japanese are so bad, but they are so good,” he said. “They take their time to produce and improve the things. Like, for example we can see in the championship that maybe Ducati has some new aero parts, also Aprilia – Italian guys – are trying to improve their aero. Not copying Ducati, but looking at Ducati. I pushed Suzuki also to improve in some areas and it takes time. But when they bring it, they have an explanation why they took such a long time.”
Given how tight MotoGP is now, it is very easy to lose ground in the pecking order from one week to the next. Outsourcing something like swingarm design to Kalex not only brings in much-needed fresh perspective and the technical expertise of a top, championship-winning brand. But it means resources can at Honda in Japan can then be reallocated to other areas of the bikes.
During FP1 at Aragon, no Honda rider tested the new swingarm but will likely make an appearance later today in FP2.
The new Kalex swingarm isn’t going to transform Honda’s season and suddenly thrust it up the order. But the fact it is now very evidently expanding its horizons to overturn its results dearth suggests that MotoGP’s Japanese manufacturers have learned their lesson.
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