Leon Camier’s switch to the Red Bull Honda team for next year’s WorldSBK championship raised a lot of questions - the first being why he was moving to a bike that, on the face of it, is worse than the MV Agusta he was able to push into the top four a few times this year.
The answers are myriad and wide-ranging with the shortest explanation being ‘potential’. The MV is an old, under-powered, over-weight and under-funded bike that even a rider of Camier’s talent and a team that worked all the hours couldn’t quite put on the podium. The Honda, admittedly, has struggled in its first year even with the likes of Nicky Hayden and Stefan Bradl at its helm. But Camier has studied the Fireblade SP2 and sees the potential - not only in the bike but also in a re-jigged Ten Kate setup that is being looked upon more favourably by the Honda Europe suits.
“It looks a bit of a strange move with Honda struggling, or the bike not performing, to be in the top ten at any point but I felt like the few big changes - personnel and how to work - that are going on there behind the scenes, it should improve and they were really pushing hard to get me, which was a positive sign,” Camier told bikesportnews.com from his Andorran gin palace.
“I see it as an opportunity. Maybe at the beginning it is still going to be hard work, it won’t be an easy transition and I will not jump on it and be up the front straightaway but in the future I am hoping things will turn around a little bit. If I can have good influence with the bike’s development early on we should, later on, be looking at some strong results. Everything can keep moving forward and make it into a podium bike in the future.”
Camier hasn’t spent a lot of time behind the Honda on track except for the last couple of races where the MV was struggling.
“I spent some time behind the bike at the last couple of rounds, Jerez and Qatar in particular. There were some strong points and some weird points, because I haven’t seen a bike react in that way in some places, it looked a bit strange but it may be that was the way the rider had it set up,” added Camier, who has signed a one-year deal with Honda Europe which has another 12-month option attached to it.
“At Jerez, I saw both bikes one after another and Giugliano’s looked good and stable, just lacking in a few areas and not allowing him to do wanted given the way he rode the Ducati, or maybe his style was not getting the most out of it. I can’t tell until I ride it.
“Braking upright it looks good, turning mid-corner too but until I get on it I can’t tell. If it’s set-up right on its nose, the front tyre will be buckling after six laps. I spoke to Jake Gagne in Qatar and he says he was trying to get it on its nose as much as possible because they had no backing in with it.
“When I saw him on track, the thing was turning incredibly well - nearly as well as the Kawasaki - and then he crashed. But as I said, I need to ride it to know what the crack is.”
One criticism of the bike has always been the Cosworth electronics with Bradl saying he wanted to change to the Magneti Marelli system used on the MuSASHI Suzuka Eight-Hours bike. This is happening but Camier warns it won’t make a massive difference straightaway.
“They are going to change to Marelli, which won’t make anyone’s life easier in the beginning but it will down the line. That will not be an easy transition but we are planning when to make the switch. I am going to ride the bike as it is at Jerez - as it left Qatar - and from there we can make changes.
“Hopefully, we can get the bike out either with me or a test rider at the end of the year, just to make sure the Marelli works and then we are ready to go right at the beginning of next year. There isn’t a lot of point me doing the donkeywork to make sure it all works, anyone can do that.
“To make it as I want, as it needs to be, then I need a good understanding of the chassis at a good enough speed to make the right changes. There is no point in spending time on the shape of the traction control if the chassis setup isn’t right. That has to be at a good level first.
“My electronics guy Vicente Pechuàn Vilar who was with us at the start of this year but left halfway through is coming with me and is already doing some work. We’re going to try and do more than one test before Christmas. Jerez is already booked in and then I want another one.
With Honda’s efforts mostly directed at MotoGP, there won’t be the focus shown by Kawasaki – that puts all its money into WorldSBK – for example, but Camier is confident the team will be at the top of its game, getting the best they can from what it available to them.
“This isn’t like Kawasaki where they rock up at the track and the parts are ready, the team has to go and do the work themselves, so they are trying to organise an electronics test in December and then two more at the beginning of 2018. The only problem is the weather is shit in southern Europe but we will try and do as much as we can. I am pretty sure things will move forward next year.
“It seems like they are pretty serious about improving the situation, they are moving people around to make it better. I don’t know what the situation with engine development is yet.”
It still looks like a bit of a gamble as it’s better the devil you know, but Camier has evaluated his options and couldn’t be tempted to stay at MV even by the promise of a better-funded outfit in 2018.
“There is an element of gamble, yes. With the MV, everyone has been saying what a great job I’ve been doing, which is always nice, but the reality is if some people aren’t pulling their weight we wouldn’t improve the bike. It’s always a joint effort and there has always been a massive financial strain.
“There have been a lot of technical problems, things going wrong, but because that bike is so old, there is a limit to what it can do. There is still more to come from it, they needed budget and there was none. I think next year there will be more funding, more resource, which I had to take into consideration as well but I saw Honda making big changes and I believe with the right people, I can take the bike in the right direction.
“I kept seeing progress. Not with the reliability, sure, but it kept moving forward with performance. I have to admit there were times when I struggled to stay calm, it did start to frustrate me but the guys around me were working all the hours and you could see that. It wasn’t like anyone was sitting around; they were all pulling their hair out. I could see everyone was trying so hard - and that’s the best we could do and that’s all I could ask for.
“At the beginning of the year we missed a lot of Friday time, sometime even a complete day. I might get a couple of laps in each session or I might do one session and miss the other. Every weekend, something was going wrong but quite often it worked in races even if I was using something I hadn’t tried all weekend. I had to trust in it and ride my best.”
Why would it never work at Jerez, which on paper should be a top track for the MV? “I don’t fucking know. I don’t get it. Laguna was our worst track for the first two years, we couldn’t make any progress but then we figured it out.
“The first year we went to Jerez, it was one of our best tracks. It should be as there are no long straights, you don’t need a fast bike. In cool conditions, it was OK, in warm-up this year we were sixth but as soon as it got hot, we had nothing.
“I looked on the data, and I can see where the front wheel was locking as I went into corners from the second I hit the brakes. There was zero front grip. I was riding around with people I could usually annihilate but they were bunging it up the inside of me and there was nothing I could do. We never worked out why.
“Same with Qatar. We know we have a slow bike but I should have been able to be faster in the corners than the people I was with. We couldn’t come up with a setting that allowed me to do that.”
There is no preference for a team-mate in 2018 and Camier wouldn’t be drawn who is on the shortlist but he said: “A young rider will be fast but might crash their brains out. Developing a bike is something different; an older rider with more experience would come into play there. I’m not that concerned really, it is what it is. The right guy in the right situation with the right motivation would be best…”