Honda's MotoGP Riders Ready for Historic Season
LOSAIL INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, Qatar, March 10, 2019
The long wait is finally over – this weekend Honda's MotoGP riders commence their 2019 World Championship campaigns at the traditional Qatar Grand Prix curtain raiser.
Reigning MotoGP king Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team RC213V), new team-mate Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team RC213V), Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda CASTROL RC213V) and Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IDEMITSU RC213V) have a simple target for 2019: to help Honda retain the coveted triple crown of the Riders, Constructors and Teams World Championships.
This is an historic year for both Honda and MotoGP. In June, Honda will mark the 60th anniversary of its participation in the World Championships and MotoGP will mark its own 70th birthday.
Honda aims to create more history during this important season. If the company retains its MotoGP Constructors World Championship it will reach the record-breaking landmark of 25 premier-class manufacturers titles.
The all-Spanish pairing of Marquez and Lorenzo creates arguably the strongest team in Grand Prix history. Certainly this year's Repsol Honda line-up is the first-ever premier-class team to go into a season with its riders holding the last seven world titles between them. Marquez is the winner of the 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 titles, while Lorenzo won the crown in 2010, 2012 and 2015 crowns. And to make 2019 even more special – it marks the 25th year of partnership between Repsol and Honda.
This season the remarkable Marquez aims for his sixth MotoGP crown in seven attempts. Last year he became the youngest rider in history to achieve five titles, taking the record from Honda's 2001, 2002 and 2003 champion Valentino Rossi. He also achieved nine wins from 18 races, bringing his victory total to 70, including 44 in the premier-class. There is no doubt whatsoever that the 26-year-old Spaniard has the talent and the machine to succeed again.
The RC213V has once again undergone an intensive off-season of development by Honda Racing Corporation engineers who have focused on improving straight-line speed and front-end feel; two aspects of performance that should help Marquez and his fellow 2019 RC213V riders achieve even stronger results.
However, there is one issue that Marquez has yet to fully resolve. Last December he underwent surgery to fix his left shoulder, which had become weak through repeated dislocations. The operation was a success but requires a lengthy rehabilitation, so the youngster is unlikely to be at full strength this weekend.
During much of the last few months Marquez has undergone five hours of physio every day, which enabled him to ride at the opening preseason tests at Sepang, Malaysia, in early February and at the final preseason tests at Losail, where he was in much better shape. At both tests he made good progress with his team and his new machine.
So far Marquez has scored one MotoGP victory in Qatar – in 2014 – but last year he came within 0.027 seconds of taking his second win in MotoGP's only floodlit night-time race. His aim this weekend is to take home a solid result, then continue his rehabilitation until he is back to full strength for the remainder of the championship, which concludes at Valencia, Spain, on November 17. Marquez has one other Losail victory to his name; he won the 2012 Moto2 race at the track on his way to that year's Moto2 title.
The arrival of Lorenzo at Repsol Honda has created a thrill of excitement in race fans around the world. The 31-year-old born on the Balearic island of Mallorca is one of the greatest riders of the age, with a total of 68 Grand Prix victories across the three classes, including 47 in the class of kings. Like Marquez, he made his name in the smaller categories, taking the 2006 and 2007 250cc world titles before graduating to MotoGP in 2008.
And like Marquez, Lorenzo is also recovering from injury. The Spaniard had a very unlucky fall while dirt-bike training in January. The accident left him with a broken scaphoid bone in his left wrist, which he had pinned. As a result of the injury he missed the Sepang tests, delaying his debut in full Repsol Honda colors until the Losail tests, where the wrist did cause some issues, but was strong enough to allow him to work on several vital areas of performance, including machine ergonomics.
Lorenzo has an amazing record at Losail, where the flowing circuit layout suits his smooth-as-glass riding technique. He won the very first 125cc Grand Prix staged at the track in October 2004, when he beat current MotoGP rival Andrea Dovizioso by a few millimeters. In 2006 and 2007 he won the Qatar 250cc Grand Prix and he has stood on the top step of the MotoGP podium on three occasions, in 2012, 2013 and 2016.
Crutchlow is a three-times MotoGP race winner but the 33-year-old Briton has never had the greatest of times at Losail and has yet to make the top three at the desert venue, although last year he achieved his best result there, less than two seconds outside a podium finish. Crutchlow is nothing if not a fighter, so although he wasn't particularly happy with his progress during pre-season testing at the track he will do everything in his power to make sure he is on the pace this weekend.
This is Crutchlow's fifth season as a Honda MotoGP rider, although earlier he rode Honda machinery in both Superbike and Supersport classes in British and international competition. Last year he was set for his best-ever MotoGP championship finish until he fell at speed during practice for October's Australian GP, sustaining an ankle fracture that ruled him out of the last three races. Crutchlow was off bikes for 111 days before his comeback at the Sepang tests, where he was immediately up to speed, helping HRC engineers with development of the 2019 RC213V.
Honda's fourth man on the MotoGP grid is Nakagami, who cannot wait to start his second season in the premier class. The 27-year-old from Chiba is the latest Japanese star to fight for MotoGP glory, following in the wheel tracks of many great riders from the home of Honda. Nakagami commenced his full-time World Championship career in the 125cc class in 2008, graduated to Moto2 in 2010, won his first two Grands Prix, then moved up to MotoGP last season.
Rookie seasons in MotoGP – riding bikes that can surpass 340km/h (210mph) – are never easy, but Nakagami acquitted himself very well, learning step by step and working to avoid the kind of mistakes that can set riders back. He scored points at 11 of the 17 races and saved his best till last with a stirring ride to sixth place in the rain-lashed, season-ending Valencia GP.
This year Nakagami races 2018-spec RC213V machines. He made his first acquaintance with the bikes during post-season testing last November. At Jerez he stunned the paddock by outpacing everyone, including World Champion Marquez. During the winter months he upgraded his training regime to increase upper-body strength, which is vital to control MotoGP bikes, both on the throttle and on the brakes.
Nakagami goes well at Losail. He scored his first-ever Grand Prix podium at the track – in the 2013 Moto2 race – and last year finished just 1.3 seconds outside the points in his first race on a MotoGP machine. This year his goal is to aim for top-five results whenever possible.
This year Honda also defends the triple crown in the Moto3 World Championship, with the 2018 teams title taken by Fausto Gresini's Italian squad. So far Honda has won 17 riders and 18 constructors titles in MotoGP's smallest class with a fantastic array of machinery, from the exotic five-cylinder RC149 125cc four-stroke of the 1960s to the RS125 single-cylinder two-stroke and to the current NSF250RW single-cylinder four-stroke.
The NS250RW, which is also used by riders in national Moto3 events around the world, has been the dominant machine since the advent of the new Moto3 category in 2012, winning seven riders and constructors crowns. The latest iteration of the NS250RW seems likely to be as competitive as ever, with Honda riders dominating last week's final preseason tests at Losail.
Fastest man at the tests was 23-year-old Italian Romano Fenati (Snipers Team Honda NSF250RW), who finished on the podium in his GP debut at Losail in April 2012, riding the first version of the NS250RW. The man who beat him that night was current MotoGP star Maverick Vinales, who was riding an FTR Honda NSF250RW.
Fenati isn't the only NSF250RW rider in the mix, because second quickest was 18-year-old team-mate Tony Arbolino (Snipers Team Honda NSF250RW) and all but one of the fastest eight riders were powered by Honda. All these youngsters have the prospect of Moto2 and MotoGP careers ahead of them if they can conquer Moto3.
Last September Lorenzo Dalla Porta (Leopard Racing Honda NSF250RW) proved that he has it what it takes by winning the San Marino Grand Prix. The 21-year-old Italian was a close fourth fastest during those Losail tests and last year finished the Qatar GP in third place, so he will have high hopes of fighting for victory in the first race of 2019. Next up was Niccolo Antonelli (Sic58 Squadra Corse Honda NSF250RW) who is aiming to bounce back from a challenging 2018.
Briton John McPhee (Petronas Sprinta Racing Honda NSF250RW) completed the final tests in sixth place and sang the praises of the 2019 NSF250RW, which offers finer handling and more torque for faster corner exits. This year McPhee contests his sixth Moto3 season with Honda machinery, riding for the team owned and run by Sepang International Circuit, home of the Malaysian MotoGP round.
Also running an excellent pace in the final preseason outing were Marcos Ramirez (Leopard Racing Honda NSF250RW), Tatsuki Suzuki (Sic58 Squadra Corse Honda NSF250RW) and Kaito Toba (Honda Team Asia Honda NSF250RW), who were seventh, eighth and 11th fastest. Gabriel Rodrigo (Kömmerling Gresini Moto3 Honda NSF250RW) is racing to be fit for the first race of the season after fracturing a collarbone during the tests. The Argentine had the break plated and hopes to be able to ride this weekend.
Qatar has twice made history in MotoGP. In 2004 the country became the first Middle Eastern nation to host a motorcycle Grand Prix and four years later it became the first track to stage a Grand Prix under floodlights, a tradition that continues to this day.
The 5.4km/3.34-mile track is lit by an amazing 5.4 million watt lighting system. The circuit layout is a fast and flowing test for man and machine, with the layout of individual corners inspired by famous corners at racetracks from around the world. Excellent corner speed and machine agility are vitally important at Losail with only one straight worthy of the name – the 1.068km/0.664 mile start-finish – which demands plenty of horsepower and allows the fastest motorcycles to reach 350kmh/217mph.
The unique evening timing of the races adds an extra challenge for riders and teams, who need to make the right call on bike settings and tire choice according to the track temperature at the start of each race. The opening Moto3 races is scheduled for 17:00, with the Moto2 race following at 18:20 and the headline MotoGP race at 20:00.
Losail is situated a short drive north of Qatar's fast-developing capital of Doha, the host city of the next football World Cup in 2022. After the season-opening race the MotoGP paddock travels to South America for the Argentine GP on March 31, then to the USA for the Grand Prix of the Americas on April 14. The European segment of the series commences at Jerez, Spain, on May 5.
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team:
“Finally, it's time to go racing once again! This winter has been different due to the surgery, I worked hard with five hours of physio per day with only one goal: arrive in the best conditions in the first race of the year. At the Qatar test I felt much better than at the Malaysia test and now I can say that I arrive almost 100 percent. Honda have done a lot to improve the bike and in the test we were feeling strong, especially for a circuit which usually isn't the best for us, but we have to keep improving. Qatar is always a special round, not just because it is the first of the year but also because of the conditions. We will have to pay special attention to the temperature and consider everything before the race.”
Jorge Lorenzo, Repsol Honda Team:
“Lining up on the grid in Qatar is something I have been picturing during the entire off-season. It's a new era for me and for the team, it is a special moment to be riding for the Repsol Honda Team. I am ready to give everything to achieve the best results I can on the Honda. Unfortunately I am not yet at my maximum with the bike, but I still believe we can achieve a good result here in Qatar. As with every year, MotoGP is looking very competitive and we certainly have the package we need to fight with the best after some more time. I know we can achieve greatness.”
Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda CASTROL:
“It's great that we are finally going racing again because it's been a long winter, especially for me because I've been recovering from my Phillip Island injury and then trying to get strong to ride the bike again. We had a good test at Sepang and a not-so-perfect test in Qatar. Honda and my team are working well and really hard to check the data from that test, so we know what we need to do to further improve the feeling I'm getting from the bike. I'm confident they will come up the right answers and I'm happy to be in Qatar, getting ready to race again, even if the track hasn't been the best for me over the years. Last year I had my best-ever ride there, so hopefully that's a good sign for us and we can build on that. The main thing is to get through the weekend and keep building the strength of my ankle for the next races.”
Takaaki Nakagami, LCR Honda IDEMITSU:
“I already have a very good feeling with the bikes I am riding this year, so I can't wait to go racing again. Then we will see how my work over the off-season has helped me improve my performance. When we tested in Qatar two weeks ago my IDEMITSU team worked so well with me, helping me run a very good pace, which makes us optimistic for the first race. There is always a great sense of expectation at the first race and a special atmosphere, especially racing under the floodlights. As always, I will do my best for the team, for Honda and for all my fans.”
Romano Fenati, Snipers Team:
“From the last test we got excellent sensations, a really good feeling, even in difficult track conditions. We really worked well and we feel ready to face this first weekend. The race could be different, we are perfectly aware of that, but we'll give our best to get the best possible result.”
Tony Arbolino, Snipers Team:
“We come from a very positive test as we tried many things and found different solutions in windy and not so windy conditions. Now we just have to wait for the race, which could be another story. We did a good lap time in the test and when this happens it means that we are going the right way and we are ready for the weekend. We'll give our best!”
John McPhee, Petronas Sprinta Racing:
“I feel ready for the start of the season – I have a good base set-up for the bike and everybody in the team is working hard. We understand the bike and we know what works and what doesn't. I think I can be up there with the riders who have been winning races in the last couple of years, although it is difficult to say exactly where everybody is right now. I will give 100 percent and I think I can do a good job, but it is a long season so we have to take it race by race and see where we are at the end of the season.”