Decoding Honda’s (and Mir’s) MotoGP revival in India
A decade ago, a third-place finish and a fifth-place finish would be nothing much at all to write home about for the two Repsol-liveried Hondas on the grid – especially if those results had come across two races that also featured at least one works Honda hitting the deck.
But so dire have things been as of late that, especially coming off of an unpromising-sounding in-season test, its Indian Grand Prix was an unmistakable ray of sunshine, in particular for one of its riders.
Marc Marquez was again the quicker Honda, but for once not by a monumental amount, which allowed Joan Mir to both narrowly outqualify Marquez and capitalise on his crash on Sunday – while in the process more than tripling his points tally for 2023.
The fact of the matter was, there were major caveats to the results attained by both Marquez and Mir. They both hitched a ride with Marco Bezzecchi on Friday to get themselves into that all-important top 10. They then both followed Pecco Bagnaia in Q2 to end up on the second row on the grid.
As Marquez repeatedly pointed out, something that flattered him was that Luca Marini’s collision with Bezzecchi had removed two likely insurmountable obstacles between him and a sprint race podium, and that the Hondas still could not run with those lead Ducatis.
“Today the clear thing is that three riders were faster than us in the racetrack,” he said on Sunday. “After these three riders, I was the fourth one. Very close to [Fabio] Quartararo but I believe I was able to be a bit faster.
“It’s true that to follow those three Ducatis – Bezzecchi was on another level, but Martin and Bagnaia – was another risk.”
That risk came across with Marquez tipping off in the grand prix, although he remounted to finish a credible ninth. It had also come across in Mir hitting the deck the day before in the sprint.
Still, it was also inescapable that the Honda was better than it had been recently and better than what anyone expected it to be.
“I’m happy that Honda has been much more competitive than the last couple of months,” said tester Stefan Bradl, currently riding for Honda satellite squad LCR in place of the injured Alex Rins.
“That’s a thing that I want to investigate for Japan, to see what they did, what we can do also in LCR to make a step.”
For Marquez, though, the step forward isn’t really something that can be explained by ‘what they did’.
His explanation for why Honda was initially so lively to start the weekend is that it was a matter of adaptability to a new circuit and “talented riders” – like himself, Mir but also Fabio Quartararo producing above-average results for Yamaha – making the difference.
But by Sunday the Honda was still holding its own – and in Marquez’s eyes there was also a clear parallel to be drawn to another track where he’s been historically amazing and where the Honda, even in its questionable 2023 state, remains such a potent force.
“It’s a very similar – not exactly the same, but very similar – race track compared to Austin,” said Marquez. He, of course, missed the Circuit of the Americas round through injury this year, but Rins picked up the slack by winning for Honda when Bagnaia crashed out of the lead.
“A lot of stop-and-go corners, the accelerations you need to do a big pick-up. It’s not necessarily to use lean angle on accelerations, and this is our weak point.
“Corners like at Montmelo, Catalunya, it’s where we struggle more and we suffered a lot during the weekend. But in these racetracks that are stop-and-go and pick-up and first-gear corners, normally our bike there is working good, very similar to the best bike [presumably Ducati].”
There was a pretty similar explanation from LCR Honda’s Takaaki Nakagami, too (even though Nakagami himself had a pretty muted weekend) – Honda doesn’t do well with edge grip, but edge grip wasn’t really being called upon by Buddh.
Another point of differentiation was that this weekend, like Austria, featured a harder Michelin rear tyre casing – albeit this is something Marquez expected to hinder him rather than help, being a difficult fit for his riding style.
He’s now interested to see whether the same performance trend will show up again at Motegi, another stop-and-go circuit but with the standard casing – and with actual data from past years for teams to lean on.
Mir back from the abyss
But if Marquez’s performance was a 2023 outlier, it was hardly a massive one in the context of his season.
For Mir, it absolutely was a massive outlier – and he feels it could’ve been even better than a fifth place on Sunday, perhaps even a podium, if not for a rear tyre vibration that developed over the course of the race distance. “It’s better to have this problem from the front,” he said.
Unlike Marquez, Mir didn’t paint Honda’s upturn as having a simple explanation. “It’s a bit of a mystery, eh?” he said – but what he said later made it clear that he saw his own personal improvement on the RC213V as being responsible for a big, big part of the overall brighter picture.
“Well, for sure, Marc made a step, he was able to be a little bit stronger than the previous weekends, I agree.
“But for me, the one that was able to make a big step, to be at his level or similar – it’s us, no? We made a great step this weekend.
“Of course the Misano test was important. I could make a lot of laps, and if you check that test, in the last laps, they were very fast, with used tyres. It means I understood something there. We understood something, that I could get some confidence back.
“And when we came to this track, completely new, and with our ability to adapt a bit quicker than probably the others, we were faster straight away. “[But] we could continue working and growing during the weekend, that was great – I didn’t expect it.”
It is certainly feasible that just having extensive mileage in high-grip conditions like those of the Misano test outside of the pressure of a race weekend helped Mir figure some things out and, crucially, rebuild his confidence. He is not an axiomatic mismatch with the RC213V – the pre-season had suggested as much.
But the grip in India was pretty decent, too, in the end, so there will still be tougher tests for him when it’s slippery again, to not fall into another funk like the one that defined his dreadful Catalan Grand Prix.
Given all the uncertainty surrounding Marquez’s future, though, it has to be music to Honda’s ears that Mir, apart from being pretty fast, is so optimistic about the source of his improvement.
What will be less nice to hear is that its two works riders are still split on what to do about the 2024 prototype chassis that had debuted in Misano.
It is even clearer now than it was after the Misano test that Marquez flat-out didn’t like it and has no plans to try it any further. Mir, though, was hopeful of having it to race with for the rest of the season coming out of Misano – and even a great weekend in India on the current bike hasn’t changed his tune.
“Now we are able to have a base that I am able to feel comfortable with. I think we should have something more risky, to continue with our evolution.”