When it was made clear that there would be no Ten Kate and Honda Europe partnership running the WorldSBK efforts of the world’s biggest manufacturer in 2019, there was a general feeling of shock in the paddock.
This was almost matched by the amazement that Honda was going to return to WorldSBK for the first time since 2002 with an official HRC effort, blessed by the big bosses from Honda Motor Company, but run at races by an amalgam of the former Japanese Superbike Championship Moriwaki Honda team and former World Champions with Ducati, Althea Racing, from Italy.
Speaking at the official launch of the Moriwaki Althea Honda Team and its multi-coloured CBR1000RR in final race trim, Soichi Yamana, the Motorcycle Department Manager of Motor Sports Division of Honda Motor explained a few things about the for-real return of Honda with full official support.
The whole project is a big return to WorldSBK for Honda, so when was the decision finally made to come back as a factory team?
“We have been thinking about this, because the CBR1000RR is quite important for us in the Superbike market,” said Yamana-san. “So we have been thinking about this for quite a long time actually, but I think it started to become realised last year, sometime towards the end of last year.”
When quizzed as to why Honda Europe’s previous partners, Ten Kate, were seemingly told so late in the process that it left them scrabbling to try and find another 2019 solution - and none is forthcoming so far - Yamana said, “In that situation we actually followed the contract condition. So, something this kind of thing can happen in racing.
“We have been through this before with our other activities also, so we did not think that it was too much of a problem. In my speech I said that we thank the co-operation with Ten Kate for a long time, and we thank them for taking the championship and a lot of wins. But to be perfectly honest with you, we haven’t seen any winning, let alone get a championship, for quite a long time now. So we feel that we need to change the situation, and also get a more efficient way to get more wins.”
Why then the co-operation with Moriwaki and Althea rather than just an official HRC team? Why not a full HRC effort?
“Again this is something to do with the possibility, realisation and efficiency,” said Yamana-san. “We thought about many options, including going alone as an HRC works team. But finally we decided that with experienced guys like Althea and Moriwaki, the fight for the championship is much more realistic than the other options.”
The team tested, just one it appears, although some say they went to Buriram in Thailand twice.
“We tested just one time in Chang, with the current setup,” said Yamana. “The bikes are pretty much the same as the ones from Japan. I am not sure the detail of what exactly has been changed, but what I understand it is pretty much the same. Maybe some adjustment here or there, depending on the race.”
So with this return to WorldSBK, does Honda see WorldSBK as the place to make development, or is Suzuka Eight-Hours the most important thing and WorldSBK development will come from that?
“Obviously we take the Eight-Hours as quite an important race,” said Yamana. “It is actually the identity of Honda. Suzuka is our home circuit, so for sure we take that as a very serious and very important race. But to be able to win that race I think we need a lot of input and a lot of know-how, knowledge of other categories that use the CBR. That is what we thought is important.”
The impression given in recent years, well over a decade in reality, is that is that Honda has not been interesting in WorldSBK. So why is it important again now?
“There are a couple of things we need to explain,” said Yamana-san. “One is the rise of the Asian market. Because in Asia we have like 70-80 per cent of motorcycle business based in Asia. In this market it used to be like a car or scooter market. These days a lot of Asian countries are getting wealthier, and there are more wealthy people around.
“They are asking us for high performance, top-level bikes. And other manufacturers are finding the opportunity to penetrate into that market. So we felt that we cannot ignore that situation anymore. So we tried to use this activity to make our Superbike more up market, more high tech image, and therefore we can persuade them to buy ours and not others. For the 600, we are now pushing very hard to give more high performance, sporty image through the ARC – Asian Road Race Championship.”
As a final question Yamana-san was asked if Honda WorldSSP and Honda Australia efforts would soon receive some more direct help. The answer appears to be not, and not yet.
“At the moment we do not have any plans for that,” said the Honda man. “It is primarily Asian activity or WorldSSP. For ASBK, maybe. We have to see how this WorldSBK project comes, and then maybe we can utilise some aspect of this.”