In the third slice of Motorsport Week’s six-chapter look at the 2021 MotoGP world championship season, we review Honda’s tough campaign that proved pivotal in finally seeing it have to tackle the limitations of its RC213-V for 2022 as a result of lead rider Marc Marquez’s continued fight with injury.
Following a tough 2020 campaign in which its star rider Marc Marquez was absent following a nasty accident in the season opening Spanish Grand Prix, Honda were keen to snap back in 2021 and reclaim the titles it lost to Suzuki and Joan Mir.
Unfortunately for the Japanese constructor its championship hopes were immediately thrown onto the back foot as Marquez failed to make opening two encounters of the season as he continued to recover from a broken right arm, further manifesting into problems getting the bone to heal.
The Losail International provided only misery for the factory though as its riders struggled to find a rhythm with the venue, a sole eighth-place run for Espargaro its only top ten showing across the opening two rounds-while LCR’s duo failed to even score a single point between them.
Marquez ultimately made his long-awaited return for the third round of the year in Portugal, though as a result of being unable to train his injured right arm in the way he wanted he lacked the strength to manipulate his machine in the way he was used to, particularly in right-handed bends.
Despite this he managed to claim a solid seventh in his first race in nine months, before cracking the top ten once again at Jerez-banishing the demons that forced to him to abandon his quest for a seventh premier class world title less than a year prior.
Things would take a downturn from here though as he suffered three successive crashes, including from the lead at a wet Le Mans as the slippery track meant his lack of strength wasn’t such a penalty.
Around this time Marquez admitted he simply wasn’t able to ride the way he could prior to his Jerez crash, his usual style of pushing his bike to-and often past-the limit and being able to save it from crashing no longer possible due to his injury.
Salvation was on the way though with the predominantly left-handed Sachsenring circuit coming up-a track Marquez had never been beaten in the premier class- and he was hopeful of a decent result as his physical condition improved little by little as each event passed.
The expectation that his riding limitations wouldn’t play such a role at the Sachsenring were immediately ratified as he stormed to a first win since 2019 having fended off the advances of KTM’s Miguel Oliveira, a massive confidence boost for the Spaniard-though he wasn’t getting ahead of himself as he expected a challenging remainder of the year, instead choosing to focus on being fully-fit for 2022.
Following a fourth DNF of the year after getting involved in a silly crash with Pramac’s Jorge Martin in the British GP at Silverstone, Marquez seemed to click up a gear as the MotoGP circus landed back in Spain for the Aragon GP.
Marquez showed impressive race speed as he was the only rider able to have anything for eventual winner Francesco Bagnaia, the duo enjoying a stunning battle in the closing stages as the Honda ace attacked Ducati’s man on several occasions, eventually missing out on supremacy by just 0.673s.
Rather unexpectedly-coming from the man himself-Marquez backed up his blistering Aragon form with a strong run to fourth at Misano, before then really getting into his stride as he scored a pair of wins in the United States GP as well as the second Misano event after Bagnaia crashed out in the closing stages.
It’s fair to say things were looking decidedly hopeful in the Honda camp as Marquez continued to look ever more like his old self every race that went by, while the likes of brother Alex and Espargaro started to find more speed courtesy of the cooler conditions that were ever more prevalent as the season entered its twilight stages.
The RC213-V provided little feeling when temperatures were higher, though Marc-and Nakagami to an extent-could largely overcome this due to their similar riding styles.
As soon as Espargaro was given cooler track conditions at Silverstone his form drastically improved, scoring a debut pole for Honda before bagging his best race result of the year with fifth on Sunday, with his season being crowned with a brilliant run to second as he completed HRC’s first 1-2 since 2018 behind Marc in the Emilia Romagna GP.
Suddenly though Honda were dealt a blinding blow as Marc was forced to miss the final two races after aggravating an old eye injury after crashing a motocross bike while training ahead of the Algarve GP, a medical problem that could potentially even put him in doubt for the start of the 2022 campaign.
While this wasn’t a massive problem for Honda’s already non-existent championship chances in 2021, Marc’s latest set-back means that he will likely not be able to test Honda’s new bike ahead of next season-putting more pressure on its remaining riders to make the right decisions in terms of development.
Honda’s need to make a more user-friendly machine for 2022 is borne out when you examine the final points table for 2021, Marc managing sixth overall despite not scoring in eight of the 18 encounters with the next highest Honda representative was Espargaro down in 12th.
“Overall though it’s going well, the bike feels good and we are fast even with the strong wind conditions we had,” said Espargaro at Jerez.
“We were able to try a different aero package that made us a bit faster, it’s something that’s difficult to play with but we are making good steps forward and just need to keep working.”
Nakagami added meanwhile that he could immediately run times similar to that of the leaders in April’s Spanish GP without trying, a hallmark of a machine that offers the potential for greater usability.
“On lap four I was already able to set a 1:37.6s and I didn’t push really hard and the lap-time is already there so after that we’ve tried to find an improvement with the feeling on the front of the bike, it was pretty good.”
Honda still has a lot of work to do to make sure its new RC213-V is ready to challenge from the get-go in Qatar in March, though with the might of HRC behind the project expect the brand to be right at the forefront of the action-and not with just a hopefully fully-fit six-time premier class champion.