When a rider wins back-to-back world titles on a certain bike it’s not the done thing to say it’s a nightmare to ride. Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding have been doing just that, but there is now a light at the end of the tunnel for both…
Is the Honda RC213V the best bike in the world? Perhaps. But only if you are brave enough to try to beat it into submission. Fast does not equate to easy.
“A bull.” Asked to choose one word to describe his Honda RC213V, Marc Márquez chose an animal known for being impossible to dominate and dangerous when provoked. After his first ride on the bike, Cal Crutchlow pointed to that same quality. “If you look at how Marc rides, he’s riding the bike like an animal.”
Crutchlow’s delight at signing for the CWM LCR Honda team and getting a chance to ride the RC213V was quickly tempered by the scale of the task facing him at the Valencia test last November.
Both he and Scott Redding had been itching to get their hands on the bike, Crutchlow after his detour at Ducati, Redding after spending his first year in MotoGP on the woefully underpowered Honda RCV1000R production bike. Their initial reaction after riding the bike was identical. “It’s a difficult bike to ride,” Redding said. Crutchlow agreed. “It is difficult to ride, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a lot more physically demanding than any other MotoGP bike I’ve ridden.”
They had been given prior warning, by none other than HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto himself. Reviewing the 2014 season, Nakamoto admitted “our bike this year was more difficult to ride than the 2013 bike.” That reality may have been masked by Marc Márquez’ incredible start to the 2014 season, racking up a string of ten straight wins, and dominating the championship. But the results of the other Honda riders told a different story.
In 2013, Dani Pedrosa took three wins, 13 podiums and 300 points, last year it was just one win, 10 podiums and 246 points. Stefan Bradl had a pole and a podium in 2013, and scored 156 points, despite missing two races due to injury. In 2014, he never got near the podium, and scored 117 points in 18 races.
What makes the bike so hard to ride? There is no simple answer to this question. Going fast on the RC213V requires a counter-intuitive approach. “It’s definitely tough to ride, and tough to get your head around,” says Crutchlow. “The riding style is quite a lot different,” says Redding. “Try to go faster with this bike, you just go slower.” He was forcing himself to be patient with everything he does on the bike. “I’m counting in my head: wait… go… wait… go…”
Looking for clues in the data of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez does not help. “Dani and Marc have completely different styles, so which way to go is another thing,” says Crutchlow. “No rider ever rides the same but Marc uses so much rear brake and Dani doesn’t use any. One has the bike completely sideways, the other has it quite in line.”
Redding believes he knows why Márquez uses so much rear brake, but it leads to yet another counter-intuitive lesson in riding the bike. “If you can keep the rear down you can get the bike stopped faster. That can change the way you get into the corner. You see Marc, and he’s sliding in the braking. I know why he’s doing it, it’s because his apex is a lot different. The strangest thing to me is that where the apex should be, it’s not. You’re coming into a corner, and you’re not aiming for the kerb at the apex, you’re aiming for two metres later. It’s a real strange way about it.”
Crutchlow is similarly bemused by the riding style the Honda needs. “We use completely different lines to the Yamaha. It’s so funny that they go round the track at the same sort of speed, but they are two completely different bikes, where you can gain the lap time with the Honda is in a completely different area from where you do with the Yamaha.”
At the heart of the difference is the differing strengths of the two bikes. Where the Honda is incredibly strong is in braking. “Going into the corner, it’s incredible. What you can get away with is quite incredible. The bike turns really very well, you can brake deep into the corner and still make the it. It’s impressive.” This approach to braking was where Redding had been struggling. Coming from underpowered Moto2 bikes, then the Open class Honda, carrying corner speed had been key for the Gloucestershire youngster. “I need to keep learning: turning with the rear, braking with angle, all these things make a difference.”
The RC213V has been designed around the engine. Carried high in the frame, this lifts the centre of mass. The aim is to create weight transfer, especially under braking. As the rider jams on the brakes, the weight pitches forward onto the front tyre. The rear end helps; Honda’s complex torductor, the torque sensor on the output shaft of the bike, helps the electronics meter the torque output extremely finely.
This is a massive help in engine braking, creating optimum drag from the rear wheel without upsetting the attitude of the bike. It’s why Marc Márquez can hammer into corners with the rear wheel floating and not have to worry about what the tyre will do once it hits the floor. It quickly sorts itself out, and he can turn the bike in sharper and later.
Doing that requires the confidence to be aggressive. “You have to be more aggressive going into the corner and on the brake, a lot more,” Crutchlow said. “And how you brake with the bike is very strange. A strange way to brake is making the bike stop a lot better. You can move a lot on the bike, and you can be hard on the bike, the bike’s quite aggressive, it likes to be ridden aggressively.”
Aggression going into the corner had to make way for smoothness coming out, however. “You have to be a lot smoother on opening the throttle,” Crutchlow explains. This was an area that Shuhei Nakamoto acknowledged needed work: “We try to find the torque to make the bike easy to ride, but the result was the opposite. The riders say we have too much torque.” The bike has so much power that actually converting that into forward motion is difficult.
The issue is that the Honda lacks side grip, a problem made worse by the addition of the heat-resistant layer to the Bridgestone tyres last year. “Coming out of the corner there’s nowhere near as much grip as some of the other bikes, and you have to play with the bike to create the grip. Where the other guys are maybe on 100% throttle, we’re on 50%.” Both Redding and Crutchlow are used to carrying corner speed and accelerating while the bike is still leaned far over. That doesn’t work with the RC213V. “This is why we see Marc and Dani pick the bike up immediately,” Crutchlow explains. “But you have to try to create the grip a lot more. If you start the spin early, it won’t recover, it continues to spin.”
This is one area where the Yamaha can compete with the Honda. Carrying more corner speed, the Yamaha riders can get on the gas earlier, and accelerate. That’s why the Honda never seems to pull the gap, which its greater horsepower should allow it to. The RC213V must wait to be picked up onto the fatter part of the tyre. The new seat unit that all four RC213V riders now have should create more grip, and feel at the rear.
If this works, then the Honda RC213V will be even harder to beat. But that won’t make taming the beast any easier.
The Yamaha is no cakewalk either but is the it any easier to ride? Up to a point. Watch Jorge Lorenzo glide imperiously around a track and it looks totally effortless. Use that word in front of Lorenzo’s team boss Wilco Zeelenberg and you get an earful. “It may look easy, but Jorge uses a lot of energy to be so smooth.” Using the precision offered by the Yamaha requires concentration and calmness at speed. It is the biggest challenge Bradley Smith faces. “The faster I try to go, the slower I go. The less you push, the faster you are…”