For decades, Honda has been synonymous with success in MotoGP.
The Japanese manufacturer won its first world championship in 1983, when Freddie Spencer pipped “King” Kenny Roberts and Yamaha to the crown by a mere two points. In the 40 seasons since, Honda won exactly half of the MotoGP world championships contested.
There have been times of drought in that span, sure. There was a five-year gap between titles in the early ’90s and another at the end of the 2000s.
But there were periods of absolute, undisputed dominance, too. Mick Doohan won five straight titles between 1994 and 1998. When his career came to an abrupt end early in the 1999 season, teammate Alex Criville made it six in a row for the factory Honda team. Valentino Rossi won three straight championships with Honda in 2001, 2002 and 2003 before decamping for Yamaha. Marc Marquez won six of seven titles between 2013 and 2019.
Honda’s success in MotoGP borders on being unparalleled in other series. In that same 41-season span, McLaren was behind more Formula One drivers’ championships than any other manufacturer: 10. Even if you added in constructors’ championships earned in that time (seven), the English outfit still falls short of the 21 riders’ titles Honda has won in MotoGP since 1983.
Lucio Cecchinello has been closer than most to that success. The first seven years of his world championship racing career were all with Honda, and he’s served as team principal for LCR Honda since his namesake team moved into MotoGP in 2006.
“Honda has been very successful for many, many years,” Cecchinello told ESPN. “I got my first title as a rider with Honda, I got my first world-championship victory with Honda, and [LCR Honda has] 16 podiums and four wins in MotoGP with Honda. That history made them an attractive manufacturer for me to partner with when I brought my team into MotoGP.”
Now, though, times have changed.
Ahead of its home race at Motegi on Sunday, Honda’s full-time riders occupy 15th, 16th, 18th and 22nd in the 22-rider championship.
Marquez is arguably the most talented rider the sport has ever seen, with 85 wins and eight world championships across all classes, but even he is not immune to Honda’s woes: he had more crashes in the German grand prix weekend in June (five) than he has race finishes in all of 2023 (four).
This isn’t a just-this-year problem, either. In the past three-plus seasons, riders piloting Honda’s RC213V have won just four of 65 races and secured a best finish of seventh in the world championship standings (Marquez, 2021).
So how has it gotten so bad for the most successful, the most storied manufacturer in MotoGP (and maybe all of motor racing) history? Honda’s nadir is the manifestation of several seasons of missteps, a years-long story with an ensemble cast of culprits.
The curse of the golden goose
It seems counterintuitive, but this all starts smack in the middle of Marquez’s dominant run of six championships in seven seasons. How could Honda begin its slide during a period in which it won 69 races?
To start to answer that question, you have to ask yourself how many races during that span were won by riders other than Marquez. Thirteen. Other than Alex Rins’s shock win at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin earlier this season with LCR Honda, the last rider not named Marquez to win a race for Honda was another LCR rider: Cal Crutchlow in 2018.
Multiple sources told ESPN that while Marquez was racking up wins and championships, a series of his Honda stablemates began voicing concerns. The feedback from some of the most esteemed riders in the paddock, multiple world champions among them, was that the RC213V was becoming increasingly difficult to ride.
Sources said that the engineers and decision makers at Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) in Japan were so blinded by Marquez’s talents that they either didn’t believe his colleagues or didn’t care. After all, in Marquez, they had the golden goose; as long as they had him, the success would never end.
And then it did.
Marquez suffered a career-threatening arm injury during the opening race of the 2020 season at Jerez that forced him to miss the rest of the campaign in addition to several races spread throughout the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Last season, he told his doctors that he’d retire if they couldn’t find a solution.
“We have to remember that before he broke his arm, Marc Marquez was literally killing everyone on the racetrack of Jerez de la Frontera,” Cecchinello said. “He was lapping super fast.”
While he was out, multiple sources said that Honda’s bike development slowed significantly. The manufacturer seemed to wait for the return of their No. 1 rider so he could have a say in the direction of Honda’s development, although a source within the team pushed back against that notion.
That source attributed any slowdown to the COVID-19 lockdown. Multiple sources noted that while European manufacturers had the luxury of race teams and development teams working in tandem under one roof, restrictions in Japan left many of HRC’s engineers operating thousands of miles from either their family or their race team.
While Honda stood still, its rivals didn’t. Ducati has since established itself as the class of the field, winning the 2022 riders’ championship with Pecco Bagnaia, who leads this season’s standings, while Aprilia and KTM catapulted from pretenders to contenders — leaving Honda in their wake.
Standing still during the aero arms race
How has Ducati become the bike to beat in MotoGP? How have Aprilia and KTM gone from pretenders to contenders? There are myriad reasons, but one that unites all three is that they have embraced the dark arts of aerodynamics.
Keep an eye on the Hondas this weekend! 👀
— MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) August 18, 2023
The debate over wing elements’ use in MotoGP dates back to 2015. Ever since, Honda has reportedly been one of the biggest opponents to aero’s adoption in two-wheel racing while Ducati has been pushing the envelope on how to incorporate the tech.
Ducati and Aprilia have reportedly poached aerodynamicists from the Formula One program of fellow Italian icon Ferrari, while KTM has partnered with Red Bull Racing to borrow some know-how from its F1 operation. Their input has created holistic designs that have wing elements, ground effects and diffusers firmly in mind from the outset, and as a result, the three manufacturers have combined to win 41 of the past 65 races.
At Honda, multiple sources describe a bike that has been designed as if the sport has been teleported back to 2016, when aerodynamic aids were briefly banned. The RC213V is said to be an old-school bike, when the only aero concerns were how slippery you could make the fairings down the straights, with a few wings bolted on.
“Over the last five years especially, we have seen aerodynamics become a big focus in MotoGP,” Honda Racing Corporation director Tetsuhiro Kuwata told ESPN. “It looks like this will continue to be the case moving forward, because once you start to explore and work in this area, you cannot simply stop. From the perspective of the manufacturer, we will always work to make the best and fastest motorcycle within the rules. As long as aerodynamics are permitted within the rules, we will continue to work diligently in this area.”
MotoMatters’ David Emmett noted during this month’s test at Misano that “an F1 engineer who was working on aerodynamics” was embedded in Honda’s garage as the manufacturer desperately tries to catch up to its rivals in this space. Multiple sources told ESPN that a dedicated aerodynamicist is a recent addition to Honda’s team — one suggesting the position was only created within the past few months — which goes some way to illustrate how big the gap to its rivals is.
A culture clash between Japan and Europe
The roots of MotoGP are vast and far reaching.
Japanese manufacturers have been responsible for every riders’ championship, with two exceptions, dating back to 1975. Prior to the recent rise of Ducati, Aprilia and KTM, this is a sport that has long been dominated by Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki.
And yet, when you look at the riders on the bikes and the engineers in the garages and the executives cutting the checks, the vast majority of them are European. Even Honda and Yamaha have their race teams based in Spain and Italy, respectively, while the decision makers and engineering leads are back in Japan. In fact, all 11 teams on the MotoGP grid in 2023 have their headquarters in Europe.
Those teams who have everything under one roof have the luxury of being nimble in evolving their bikes. Ducati, Aprilia and KTM have prioritized speed in development, willing to deliver their riders updates despite uncertainty over their effectiveness.
The pattern at Honda is anything but nimble. Multiple sources described experiences in which the Japanese manufacturer was slow in deviating from premeditated plans of action. The brand has a reputation for studying and deliberating, only veering from the script outlined in preseason once it is certain it has a perfect solution.
This season suggests that Honda has begun to make progress in this regard. The 2023 campaign has seen the introduction of five new frames, a figure that has surprised sources in the paddock, two aero packages and a series of smaller upgrades.
“When [Honda] decided to rejoin Formula One [in 2015], supplying engines to McLaren, they had some difficult performances,” Cecchinello said. “But after years and years and years, they created the most powerful engine on the planet.
“This means that they have the technology, they are able to succeed, but normally their processes to reach a certain level are longer than others’. But, when they arrive, they are really perfect.”
The only way is forward
Multiple sources pointed to Honda’s success in F1 as reason for optimism in its rebuilding MotoGP program. The brand’s partnership with Red Bull Racing has yielded drivers’ championships in 2021 and 2022 plus constructors’ crowns in 2022 and 2023, while Max Verstappen could clinch his third title at the next round in Qatar.
That potential is recognized inside the halls of HRC.
“In racing, as in life, there are of course hard moments that you need to overcome,” Kuwata said. “Throughout HRC’s history, we have prided ourselves on overcoming the obstacles that have been put in our way.
“It is true that in the more recent history we came from a difficult period in F1 to enjoy a lot of success. … Certainly there are things to learn and understand from what we have been able to do in F1, but it is not as simple as copy-pasting what they did because the situations are slightly different.”
The dozens of engineers crowding Marquez at this month’s Misano test, including a dedicated aerodynamicist, are evidence that Honda recognizes the severity of the situation and is dedicated to making the changes required to return to glory. Motorsport.com’s Oriol Puigdemont reported earlier this month that HRC has launched a campaign to poach some of the brightest developmental minds from rival European manufacturers, further cementing that notion.
For Marquez, though, it might be too little, too late.
The 30-year-old’s contract expires after the 2024 season, although there has been significant speculation in the past month that he could walk away from the project a year early. Even if he does see out the final season of his deal, it’s difficult to imagine Marquez continuing with HRC in 2025 and beyond unless Honda returns to regularly competing for race wins in 2024.
The issues are understood and the resources are available, making Honda’s return to relevance practically inevitable. It’s merely a matter of when, and whether its golden goose will be around to usher in another prolonged period of success.