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Honda RC213V

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There are modern tracks on the MotoGP calendar, and there are old tracks. The modern tracks offer plenty of run off and nice wide tarmac, but are usually too tight and convoluted to give free rein to a MotoGP bike.

The old tracks are fast, flowing, offer plenty of overtaking opportunities, and are a real challenge, but they also tend to be narrow, and, frankly, dangerously lacking in run off. The riders find the new tracks irritating, but enjoy the safety, and they love the old tracks, but fear the consequences of a bad mistake.

The Automotodrom Brno seems like the perfect compromise. Fast and flowing, challenging, and big enough to give a MotoGP bike its legs. But also wide, with plenty of run off in most places, and plenty of grip from the track.

It has a stadium section, giving fans the chance to follow the action through a section of track. But it also flows up and down a hill, and through the woods, a ribbon of tarmac snaking through a beautiful natural setting, high on a hill above the city of Brno.

That location offers its own challenges. Up on the hill, it is usually a little cooler than down in the town. The woods exhale oxygen which gives the bikes a little power boost.

But they also hold moisture, the combination of high hills and thick woods raising the possibility of rain. Fortunately, the track retains its grip in the wet, though the rain can still shake up a race.

The Jerez MotoGP test provided three of the four MotoGP rookies with a chance to get familiar with their new bikes and their new teams.

The second test is often more important than the first one, as the rookies have had a chance to think about and absorb the data from the first test directly after Valencia, and approach the test with less pressure.

Expectations are mixed for Franco Morbidelli joining the Marc VDS MotoGP team. The last Moto2 champion to move up to MotoGP with Marc VDS was Tito Rabat, and Rabat endured two long and difficult years with the squad.

Morbidelli will be hoping that the Honda RC213V will be a little easier to adapt to than it was for Rabat, and that he will be able to pick up the pace more quickly.

So far, Morbidelli’s progress has been promising. The reigning Moto2 champion ended the Jerez test as eleventh overall among MotoGP riders, 1.260 behind the fastest man Andrea Dovizioso.

Best of all for Morbidelli, he was just a few hundredths behind MotoGP regulars Jack Miller and Scott Redding. There is still much room for improvement, but things are looking positive.

We spoke to Morbidelli on Thursday, his second day on the bike. Here’s what he had to say about the test.

When riders get off to a blinding start in the first couple of races, it is easy to get carried away and start penciling their name onto the championship trophy. Doing that after just two races is plainly ridiculous.

Doing it after three races is hardly any better. Yet the temptation to do so remains strong: when a narrative presents itself, it is hard to resist following it.

That has been the case so far this year. In Moto3, Joan Mir has looked untouchable winning the first two races from tough fights. In Moto2, Franco Morbidelli had dominated, controlling races from start to finish.

And coming into Austin, Maverick Viñales had won the first two races of the season quite comfortably, nobody anywhere close to being able to match him.

During practice, a new narrative presented itself in MotoGP. Marc Márquez has dominated the racing at the Circuit of The Americas since it first joined the calendar, winning all four races held there before this year.

Maverick Viñales has dominated the opening two races of the year, and came to Austin looking capable of ending Márquez’ winning streak.

There is a move afoot among MotoGP riders to have qualifying changed. Or rather, to have the way the selection is done for Q1 and Q2. A lot of riders have complained about the current system of prequalifying using combined times from FP1 through FP3.

The riders complain that they lose too much time to trying to set a fast lap in each session, just in case conditions change. The current counter proposal from the riders is to use just the FP3 times to select which riders go through to Q2 directly, and allow the teams to spend Friday focusing on setup.

Saturday morning exposed the weakness of such an idea. A combination of cold tires, strong wind, a bumpy track, poor tire selection on Friday night, and the narrow temperature working range of the Michelins saw eight riders crash a total of ten times in FP3.

Alex Rins crashed so heavily he broke both the radius and ulna in his left arm, and put himself out of action for Austin and Jerez, and possibly for Le Mans as well. The rest escaped relatively unscathed, but with many a temper blazing.

Basing passage into Q2 solely on FP3 results was not without risks of its own, Valentino Rossi told the Italian media. “Today, that would have been a stupid idea, because we would have had to take a lot of risks in difficult conditions,” Rossi said.

If there had been a total of ten crashes in a session in which most riders hadn’t pushed to improve their time, how many would have fallen if they had all been pushing to get through to Q2?

It looks like we have been wrong all along. As usual. All this time, we thought it was the engine which was the problem for Honda.

This would be a major issue, as engine designs are sealed and fixed for an entire season in MotoGP, at least for factories which have gathered sufficient podium credits to qualify as competitive under the rules. With nine wins last year, and a MotoGP title, Honda definitely does that.

Maybe the problem isn’t the engine after all, however.

Honda riders are starting to express the apparently unpopular opinion inside HRC that maybe the solution isn’t to rejig the engine again by playing around with firing orders, crankshaft counterweights, and other internal moving parts now set in aspic until the season ends at Valencia.

Perhaps, they suggest, Honda could take a look at its chassis, and try finding solutions there.

Cal Crutchlow was the most vociferous, though that is an extremely relative term when speaking of rider statements about the Japanese manufacturer they ride for. “I think we need to start working with the chassis a bit more,” Crutchlow told us after another hard day at a very physical track.

“That’s not a comment against my manufacturer, against my team, it’s just a comment that we’ve looked at the engine for the last two years, and I believe that a lot will come from the chassis. Sure, some electronics, but I think it’s chassis. I’ve ridden other bikes, so I know what the chassis is doing. And I believe that’s where we could improve a lot. Because the engine is sealed, that’s done, it’s done and dusted.”

The most remarkable statistic about the Grand Prix of The Americas is surely this: Since his ascent to the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has won every single race he has competed in, at a circuit in the United States of America.

He won both US races during his two years in Moto2 as well. In fact, you have to go back to 2010, and Márquez’s final year in 125s to find the reigning world champion’s last defeat on US soil. America agrees with Marc Márquez, though that does not automatically include all Americans as well.

So after a decidedly mediocre start to his defense of the 2016 MotoGP title, the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas is the right place to get his season back on track. He comes to COTA knowing he can win, and knowing he can win on an uncompetitive machine.

That knowledge alone will be worth a tenth or two in Austin, perhaps enough to give him the edge over the all-conquering hero of the hour Maverick Viñales.

Why does COTA suit Márquez so well? It is really hard to say. Perhaps because it offers so many opportunities to make up time on the brakes. First, there’s the uphill monster of Turn 1, perhaps the weirdest first corner of the season (fittingly keeping Austin weird).

Then there’s Turn 11, the hard, sharp hairpin before the long back straight, at the end of which there is Turn 12, another spot requiring hard braking. And at the end of the lap, the two final corners, Turn 19 and Turn 20, which are shorter, but just as fierce.

Perhaps it’s not so much the braking, but more the strange section of combination corners stretching between Turn 2 and Turn 10. They are the kind of corners that reward the ability to turn on a dime, and the all-front-end, all-the-time Honda deals well with those.

Or perhaps the corners through the Stadium Section, and around the Grand Plaza.

Scouring through the timesheets after the second day of the MotoGP test at Phillip Island, and reading through everything the riders have said, a picture emerges, not just of what happened on Thursday, but also how history has affected them.

Seeing Marc Márquez’s workload, his approach, the things he is working on, and it is hard not to think back to his past three seasons in MotoGP. The lessons learned in each of those seasons color everything he is working at Phillip Island, and give us a glimpse of his objective for 2017.

On Thursday, Márquez put in 107 laps around Phillip Island. That is 20% more than most of his rivals, and nearly double the amount that some of them rode.

Asked if he was playing games in suggesting the 2017 Honda RC213V was not ready, Márquez was curt. “I don’t play games, because if I’m ready I would not make 107 laps! Because my hands are destroyed.”

Why put in so many laps? A look at the past three seasons offers an insight. In 2014, Márquez destroyed the field in the first part of the season, winning ten races in a row, and a total of thirteen.

For a man with a thirst for victory matched perhaps only by Valentino Rossi, this was an ecstatic period. It also lured him into a false sense of security, the bike suffering as a result. This was not helped by Honda’s insistence on building a bike as powerful as possible, with no view of making it easy to use.

2015 was a watershed year for Márquez. He crashed out of so many races trying to win them that he threw away any chance of defending his title. He put the lessons learned into 2016, and won the title last year by learning to settle for points.

Sometimes, after the race, you could see from the expression on his face that not winning races had caused him something approaching physical pain.

There’s this thing called sandbagging in motorcycle racing. You’ve probably heard about it. It’s where a rider doesn’t show his hand completely ahead of the season, doesn’t smile in public, hangs a tale of woe on the media, about how he is struggling with the bike, and how much work they have to do.

Then, when the flag drops and the racing starts for real, the rider goes out and completely destroys the opposition.

The key to sandbagging is not to give too much away on the timesheets. Riders find all sorts of smart ways of doing this. Working on one sector at a time, perhaps. Pushing for the first half of the lap, then backing off for the second half.

On the next run, they back off in the second half of the lap, and push for the second half. The bare lap time shows up as unimpressive, but put the two halves together and you have something very impressive indeed.

Marc Márquez appears to be trying to sandbag at Phillip Island, but he is not doing a very good job of it.

He has the act down just fine: lots of criticism of the bike, a lot of concerns about which areas still need work, pointing out that Phillip Island tends to hide the weak point of the Honda RC213V. The point where he is falling down on is hiding it out on track.

The MotoGP launch season is still upon us, and now that we have seen the teams and bikes from Ducati, Suzuki, and Yamaha – it is time for Honda to take the wraps off the team its campaigning for its title defense. Debuting the 2017 Honda RC213V at a press event in Indonesia, not much has changed outwardly for the 240+ horsepower GP bike, though there a subtle differences to be seen, if you look closely and compare it to last year’s bike. The Repsol Honda fairings cover the biggest change that we know of, as reports from the test tracks confirm that Honda is experimenting with a “big-bang like” firing order on its V4 engine, a change from the “screamer” configuration of last season, which was handful for Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa to manage.

In a few hours time, the grandstands at the Sepang International Circuit will echo with the booming assault of MotoGP machines being pushed to their limits. The entire MotoGP grid has assembled for the first test of the preseason, meaning that the 2017 MotoGP season is about to get underway, at last.

That, at least, is the plan. The reality is that the grandstands may echo only to the sporadic rasp of a MotoGP bike being warmed up, and the occasional intrepid test rider being sent out to test conditions.

The resurfaced Sepang continues to be plagued by drainage problems, water remaining on the track for a long time. In high humidity, relatively low track temperatures and without the burning tropical sun, the water left by unusually heavy rains is not evaporating.

Parts of the track remain wet all day, making it impossible to push the bikes to the limit, and very risky to try.

Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio expressed the concerns shared by most teams.

“You never know how many hours you can test, because the track remains wet for a long time. And if it rains a lot in the evening, maybe you have to wait a long time in the morning. So it’s a little bit of a question mark now, how much you can test.”

youtu.be/-ViNxSMoqTc

So 2016 is officially at an end, and the first test of 2017 is in the books. By the end of what is essentially a week of hard work, the entire paddock – riders, mechanics, journalists – are completely exhausted, and tired of it all.

The frisson of the first test of 2017, with so many riders swapping teams and new bikes being debuted, made it all much more interesting. But we are still all glad it’s over.

First, there was the last day of testing to get out of the way. The last day of the test is perhaps the most dangerous. A mixture of tiredness and competitiveness means riders are pushing hard in sometimes tricky conditions.