‘Marc is a genius’  reckons Honda MotoGP team-mate Espargaro

| | MotoGP
Picture: GeeBee Images

Honda’s Pol Espargaro has high expectations for his second year as an HRC rider after a rollercoaster rookie season in Repsol colours.

Espargaro’s switch from KTM to the RC213V proved tricky from the outset and was further hindered by his teammate’s initial absence in preseason. The lack of information from Marc Marquez both as 2021 got underway and from the preceding year due to his rehabilitation, left an important gap in the usually well-oiled HRC machine.

A summer reset, however, brought renewed confidence for the Catalan, with his maiden pole position for the squad at Silverstone, a near miss at the podium the same weekend and a historic one-two for Honda at Misano two months later. It’s a trend the 31-year-old hopes to continue as the new season prepares, having overcome the injury that forced him to miss the final race at Valencia.

“We didn’t start last year in the way which we should, or we would like but at the end you need to take things as they come,” Espargaro explained. “We were working hard at the beginning of the year to try to improve the situation, all of us not just me; also the satellite team and the Repsol Honda team.

“Without Marc it was hard, without his information. We needed to build up something great to end the year or to do a proper year. By the end of the year I start to feel good, after the pole position, almost the podium in Silverstone and then the Misano races. I started to grow my self confidence and everything started to be much better.

“I wanted to finish the year doing a great race in Valencia. I could have had some options with the results I was doing. I was in the top three, to end up the year in the top eight or top seven of the championship and I think that was my goal but then everything end up as it started. In a bad way.

“I’m building myself in a different way this preseason,” he continued. ”I’m working hard, doing different things to try to come as a better rider in this new year and new project and also I know that Honda is working hard to bring us the best package possible for the beginning of 2022. This preseason is going to start in Malaysia so really looking forward to jump on the bike again.

“At the beginning of the year I didn’t know how to improve the problems,” Espargaro explained, reflecting on the challenges faced when switching from four seasons on the KTM to the infamously tricky Honda.

“I was too new for this bike, I was quite weak on information and I couldn’t really take the proper lines. We were trying different things to try to improve the bike but I knew it would take time and time was the thing we didn’t have. Knowing that we had just five days of testing, as we are going to have this year too, is not easy. This is not making better the situation for the rookie riders in the new teams so it was tough at that moment. But at the end, as I said, we end up very, very good.”

September’s test at Misano brought fresh confidence and upgrades in the Honda camp, with Espargaro and Marquez also getting their first chances to ride the 22 prototype. The results were obvious, with the number 44 animated in his optimism from the off and the pair securing a double podium on their return to the Adriatic coast. Injury, on both sides of the garage, curtailed what could have been a stellar end of season for the Repsol team but with the new year bringing a new bike, should the grid be worried?

“Expectations are high for the next year,” Pol agreed. “I don’t want to say a number because after, if things doesn’t go as well, this is not going to help us but for sure we need to start in the place we ended up. Fighting for the top places. This is the way we need to start the season and if we can do that just at the beginning of the year we are going to end much better, as we showed last year. So definitely we need to start in exactly the place where we finished in Valencia.

“The bike is better but still is too early to talk about how much better because first of all we need to put the bike on the track together with the other bikes and see where we are.

“We are not the only ones playing this game and we are not the only ones putting a new bike on the track. Everyone is doing the same and everyone is going to do a step up. How good is gonna be the bike? We will see in a few days in Malaysia. Is no sense saying that the bike is much better if we ride two-tenths faster but the others improve half a second.

“Is something that we need to keep working on and then we are going to see in the first races of the year. Even if in the first races we are not on the top, this doesn’t mean anything. The new bike takes time and luckily we are going to have five days - which I think is enough but if not no panic, we are going to have more days to improve the bike. Also having all four riders of the factory at full performance, this means that the bike is going to be much better sooner.

“The grip was something important for all of us,” he said, discussing the requests from across the HRC camp, “but also we have seen in the past year the Ducatis are super strong on the straights, is their key to overtake and their key to fight for the races. So if we want to do a good season next year, more Ducatis are going to be on the grid so this means that we need to be faster on the straights to try to fight with them, to get positions back or even to defend them. Everything is important, everything matters but I think the way is good. We need to keep a little bit calm and see what’s going on in the next two tests.”

The utter domination of Marquez in recent years has repeatedly brought claims that Honda have built the bike around its star, but Espargaro doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think the old bike was based on Marc and that’s why Marc was taking big advantage. The bike is based on the riders comments, riders say something and engineers do what the rider says and then the riders try to be as fast as they can.

“In the old bikes Marc was a genius and is a genius, because his way of riding is the best one. Is not the bike was fitting more to him than the others, is because he’s good. That’s it.

“The new bike is different, this is true. It’s based more on the rear grip. Honda has taken all the comments of all the riders to try to do a different bike and when Honda bring the bike, the bike was better. During the year we were complaining of several problems and finally, Honda bring something super different which all the riders comments were quite unified, and we were quite happy with the changes. But it’s just the beginning.

“We need to put the bike in different places, in different tracks, we need to see if the bike is still faster as we saw at Misano or in Jerez, and we need to stay calm because new things can turn quickly and turn the situation so we need to keep calm and see how it’s going. Also Marc coming in the preseason is going to be super important, for all of us to try to set the best bike to start the season in that five days.

“Hopefully I have more chance to ride with Marc this year,” Espargaro commented on his sometime absent teammate. “Hopefully he’ll stay healthy all the year and we can start together the season which is going to be great. Being on the side of Marc, he’s a guy that is used to ride with these low grip, I would say, problems. So he was adapting his style to this low grip and he’s able to take the maximum performance. His experience on the bike also helps him quite a lot and he has adapted his style to this super good.

“For me, at the beginning of the year especially, was super hard to know how to ride the bike in this way. To take the maximum potential on the accelerations. How to not spin too much, but being fast at the same time. This is very important and his way of taking the throttle, the administration on the throttle through the corner by opening the throttle plus picking up the bike, this was something that I really need to learn. I’m working quite a lot on it in preseason to try to be better next year, even if the next year bike is a little bit different, which I think it’s gonna allow all of us to improve the condition of the throttle opening in a different way. Also to take a little bit more advantage on the qualifying time, this is going to be important. Being at the side of Marc, it’s good because he is always taking the maximum performance of the bike and showing to you what you can do with this bike and this is nice. Is the best way to push yourself to the limit.”

With just under three weeks before the official tests begin in Malaysia on Saturday February 5th, Espargaro’s winter preparation is in full swing. While 2021 was tough for the Granollers-born Andorran resident, he is confident that his mental preparation withstood the challenges and is instead concentrating on the physical demands of an intense 21-race calendar and adapting to the new riding style required.

“Mentally, it’s something that I think this year was not weak,” he confirmed. “Luckily, even with high pressure and the bad results, I could stay mentally healthy, which is nice. Physically, I think I train more than I need for a MotoGP bike. Sometimes, for sure you are so tired riding the bike but I don’t think it’s my problem at the moment.

“Technically, is something that I discovered, the way of opening the throttle. It’s important to do in a different way than I was doing, with this low grip, I couldn’t open as aggressive as I normally do. Then also I couldn’t use the rear brake as I normally was doing, in the other categories even or on the other bikes. For me this was one of the reasons that I was struggling so much during the year. We discovered different tools to improve this entry side without using so much rear brake but I was suffering a lot. So for sure I’m training in a different way, doing different kinds of motorcycle disciplines which allows me to be more sensitive on the throttle opening and in the rear brake entry and hopefully this is going to help me on that 2022 season.”