Since the beginning of the season, the media has been buzzing with HRC’s tales of woe. After seven rounds, the factory sits fifth in the manufacturers championship, 91 points behind Yamaha and Ducati (who are tied for first place), and just 10 points ahead of Aprilia. To put that into perspective, all four Honda riders – Marc Márquez, Pol Espargaro, Alex Márquez, and Takaaki Nakagami – have contributed to Honda’s total of 52 points, while Aprilia’s stopgap second rider, promoted tester Lorenzo Savadori, has added just a single, solitary point to Aprilia’s total, Aleix Espargaro having scored the other 44.
The situation for the Repsol Honda team is, if anything, even worse. The factory Honda team – the richest team from the biggest and richest factory – lies in a lowly eighth place, two places and 4 points behind the satellite LCR Honda squad. Repsol Honda has four factory and two satellite teams ahead of them, though pedants might quibble with just how much of a satellite operation the Pramac Ducati squad really is. Pedants wouldn’t quibble with the asserting that Pramac has over twice as many points as Repsol Honda, however, the Italian squad have 124 points to Repsol’s 52.
So dire is the situation that Repsol Honda rider Pol Espargaro – drafted in from KTM to add a second prong to Repsol’s title challenge, HRC’s third attempt after ditching Dani Pedrosa, the last Honda rider not named Marc Márquez to win a MotoGP race – used his media debrief on Saturday at Barcelona to express his hope that Honda would be given concessions for the 2022 season.
Concessions, granted to manufacturers who have not scored a podium in the previous season, allow for extra testing for permanent MotoGP riders, and the ability to change the engine mid-season, would allow Honda to catch up with the other manufacturers, Espargaro said. “I would not be ashamed to have concessions and, to be honest, we need them right now, because we don’t have test days. I have only done five days of testing this season, which is nothing, the bike is not at the level that all of us would like and next year we will have the same test days and we will continue to be in the same difficult situation where we are now.”
Concessions for HRC are something of a pipe dream, however. Even last year, while Marc Márquez was absent throughout the season, Honda managed two podiums, Alex Márquez taking second at a wet Le Mans and a dry Aragon. The RC213V is not fundamentally changed from from 2020, despite a revised chassis, so surely, Honda should be able to score a podium in 2021, and avoid the humiliation of the richest and most powerful factory in MotoGP needing special treatment to be competitive.
There are three reasons to believe that Honda’s podium drought, and with it, Pol Espargaro’s hopes of concessions, will end this coming weekend. The first is that MotoGP returns to the Sachsenring, after an absence enforced by the pandemic. And the second is that Marc Márquez, the reason HRC got themselves into their current pickle, is starting to regain some of the form he lost after the long and difficult recovery from the humerus he broke at the first race of 2020 at Jerez.
The third, and most important, is the combination of the first two. Marc Márquez is unbeaten at the Sachsenring since 2010, an entire decade of domination in every race he competed in there between 2010 and 2019. He won once on a 125 Derbi, twice on a Moto2 Suter, and seven times on a Honda RC213V, from 2013 to 2019.
That is truly a remarkable record. Seven consecutive premier class wins is a rarely equaled feat. Only one other rider has managed it in what is often referred to as the modern era, the period since 1977 when the last of the 500cc four-strokes disappeared and the Isle of Man TT was dropped from the world championship, marking the first move away from the fatal road circuits and towards purpose-built closed circuits.
That other rider, you will not be surprised to learn, is Valentino Rossi. Between 2002 and 2008, the Italian dominated his home race, the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, winning on a 990cc Honda RC211V, a 990cc Yamaha M1, and an 800cc Yamaha M1. Even Casey Stoner, peerless at Phillip Island, could only manage to win six times in succession there before retiring.
As impressive as Rossi’s achievement is, it still doesn’t quite reach the level of Márquez’ Sachsenring stranglehold. Rossi entered the premier class in the 2000 season, but didn’t win at Mugello until 2002. Márquez has won every single MotoGP race he has competed in at the Sachsenring. In addition, he has won every Moto2 race he has competed in at the Sachsenring, as well as once in the 125cc class.
To find a rider who has won won more consecutive races at a single circuit, you have to go back to 1973, and Giacomo Agostini. The Italian legend managed the feat twice on the mighty MV Agusta, winning eight times in success at the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the east of Belgium between 1966 and 1973, and an unprecedented nine times in succession at Imatra in Finland.
Agostini’s record at Imatra is truly remarkable. Not only did he win nine times in a row in Finland, he actually won the race a tenth time in 1975, this time aboard a Yamaha, having abandoned MV Agusta in a fit of pique after the Italian factory signed his fierce rival Phil Read, who then had the temerity to win a championship. And Agostini added another seven 350cc victories at Imatra between 1965 and 1973, bringing his total to 17 in all classes.
Those were very different times, of course. At the time of Agostini’s dominance, his competition was mostly comprised of privateers on single-cylinder Nortons, and, in later years, a smattering of two-stroke Suzuki twins. MV Agusta was the only factory team worthy of the name, the Count who owned the team determined to do whatever it took to win. Agostini’s margin of victory was generally counted in minutes rather than seconds, with only a handful of riders finishing on the same lap.
So Márquez’ superiority at the Sachsenring, in the most competitive era in Grand Prix racing, is genuinely unique. Race wins are often counted in tenths, and yet the Spaniard’s average margin of victory across his seven MotoGP wins is 3.6 seconds. Only once has he won by less than a second, and that was in his first year in Moto2, when he beat Stefan Bradl by just under nine tenths of a second.
Why is Marc Márquez so good at the Sachsenring? There are a few explanations. Firstly, the track goes left. A lot. Of the 13 corners, only 3 go right: the first corner at the end of the front straight, the long tight third corner, the central part of the Omega-kurve, and the treacherous Turn 11, the fast right at the top of the hill which catches everyone out, after they have spent so much time on the left side of the tire.
Marc Márquez goes best on left-hand circuits, perhaps a result of spending so much time training on a dirt track bike, despite also adding right-hand turns to the track he trains on. He has spent a lot of time going fast and turning left.
He is also a master of low grip and changing conditions. On a damp or drying track, Márquez is peerless. He can seek out and exploit the available grip far more efficiently than anyone else, his pace seconds faster than his rivals. And the Sachsenring, in the central part of Eastern Germany, is subject to frequent summer storms in June and July, when MotoGP visits. Three of Márquez’ ten victories have either come in races in which rain was involved, including a flag-to-flag victory in 2016, and the bizarre mass pit lane start of 2014, when 14 riders decided the track was dry enough to start the race on their dry bikes after the warm up lap.
The Sachsenring also neutralizes a lot of the strengths of his rivals’ bikes, and masks the weaknesses of his own. The tight and twisty track leaves the Ducati nowhere to leave its horsepower, and the track has few corners where the Yamaha can use its drive grip. Most of the lap is spent on the edge of the tire, controlling the direction of the bike with the throttle. And that is something which nobody does better than Marc Márquez at the moment.
Unbeaten, but unbeatable?
Marque may be unbeaten in the last ten years at the Sachsenring, but does that make him unbeatable? His results since his comeback do not suggest a repeat of recent history is on the cards. But taking his recent results at face value is to overlook his potential in Germany, injury and dodgy Honda RC213V or no.
First and foremost, there is the fact that there are so few right-hand corners at the Sachsenring, and right handers are where Márquez has been suffering since his return. Pain and weakness in his right shoulder has prevented him from reaching what he believes is his potential, the Spaniard trying to compensate by going faster in the lefts. With 10 left handers and just 3 rights, he won’t have much compensating to do.
Secondly, there is the fact that the layout of the circuit negates some of the problems the Honda RC213V has been having so far this year. The Honda riders are all complaining of a lack of rear grip, forcing them to try to override the front of the bike even more than normal. But the fact that two thirds of the Sachsenring circuit is pretty much one long corner with a couple of changes of direction means rear grip is not much of a problem. There are very few places where the Honda riders would be able to use rear grip to gain drive, even if they did have any.
Back to business
Thirdly, and perhaps more worryingly for his rivals, at Barcelona, Marc Márquez showed signs of getting close to returning to his old level. After a mediocre qualifying, he quickly made up positions after the start, before crashing out. But far from being disappointed, his words served as a warning to his rivals.
“Today I enjoyed, I was pushing,” the Repsol Honda rider told us. “I mean, I was Marc and for me it was the best seven laps of the year. I was riding like I want.” He was no longer worried about crashing, and was willing to push to try to get a result. “On the grid I said, ‘today it’s time to take a risk’. I mean it doesn’t matter where we are, doesn’t matter where I come from. I mean I don’t care what people say, I just believe that today was the day to take a risk. Because for me, just burning fuel and tires riding for P12, P14 is not me.”
Márquez backed up his words on Monday, at the test. The Repsol Honda rider racked up a total of 87 laps, more than any other rider. He was destroyed afterward, he said, but happy to have been able to ride so much. With a week off and time to recover, the Spaniard should start the Sachsenring in the best form of the season, and something close to his old self.
All this points to one thing this weekend: the end of any hope that Honda will have concessions as a manufacturer in 2022. Marc Márquez, at a track where he has dominated for a decade, in the best shape of the season, at a track which minimizes both his weakness and the weakness of the bike, has to start the weekend the favorite, no matter what the first part of the season says.
At the Sachsenring, the battle will likely be for second place behind Marc Márquez. But then again, we said that about Austin in 2019 as well.
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