Once again, Honda’s results have been conditioned by an injury for Marc Marquez, although another dose of the eight-time world champion’s COTA magic would have ensured a podium - at least - without the start line technical issue.

But a week later in Portimao it was back to reality with Marquez, brother Alex (LCR Honda) and Pol Espargaro fighting tooth and nail over sixth place, 16-seconds behind race winner Fabio Quartararo.

“I know everybody expected more but as I already said, we are not ready to fight for the victory,” Marc Marquez said afterwards.

“One lap [in qualifying] is one lap, but the feeling was not good. For the race, we made a small change on the bike that helped me, but it was not enough.

“From the first laps I was riding uncomfortably… the speed was not there.

“We finished 16 seconds behind the leader. You can put 3-4 seconds down to the first laps, but after that I didn’t have the speed to recover positions.

“It’s not the position we would like to finish, but it was like this. Now  we go to Jerez and try to do another step.”

While the new RCV was highly competitive during pre-season testing at Sepang and Mandalika, then the Qatar season opener, Marquez was wary of how the bike would respond to different grip levels:

“It’s true that some Honda riders said ‘yeah, it’s an amazing bike’ but I said ‘be careful because the pre-season has a lot of rubber on the track and then we will have different conditions for the races’.

“We need to check how Jerez is, then we have an important [Monday] test also. We need to do some steps obviously if we are going to fight for the top positions. Because 5th-6th, some podiums, is not the way to fight for the championship.”

Pol Espargaro: ‘New bike was working perfectly in Qatar and pre-season’

Putting aside the special rear tyre construction at Mandalika, Espargaro, who revelled in the increased rear grip of the radically new bike in winter testing, is at a loss to explain why the performance has changed so much.

“The race was bad, the rhythm was slow and the problem is that I don’t see another Honda with a better feeling than my one,” Espargaro said in Portimao. “It’s not that we have done a bad race and there is another [Honda] fighting to win.

“Alex and Marc have been a little bit faster at the beginning, I’ve been a little bit faster at the end, but the result is exactly the same. It’s bad.”

Espargaro added: “We are missing what we had in the pre-season. It’s difficult to understand because we don’t stop the bike in the correct place with the rear brake. And then we are leaning too much, opening the throttle and spinning too much on the edge.”

While Marc Marquez joined the rest of the field in using the medium rear tyre, Espargaro and Alex Marquez picked the hard.

“We chose the hard because it feels better for us in acceleration, in traction, but Marc tried the medium and it was the same, bad [result],” Espargaro said.

“It’s like we are always choosing [either] side grip or acceleration with drive grip, and at the end of the day the [others] have both.

“It's difficult to understand because the bike we are using now is the bike that was working perfectly in Qatar and the pre-season,” Espargaro added. “This is the problem; we have not made any big change on the bike [to cause these problems].

“In the pre-season we were the fastest over one lap, but also we were the fastest in rhythm, by far. So we didn’t change the bike because the bike was amazing. We just added some things, small details, that are not producing this big change and now we are suffering.

“Okay, I was a bit faster than Marc in the pre-season, so he needed to adapt a little the style to this new bike, but he was fast as well. He was not the Marc we have seen [finishing +16s in Portimao on Sunday].

“So even Marc is having problems now. It’s not that Marc’s going in one direction or Alex in another. We are more-or-less with the same bikes, same sizes, and I think the result of [Portimao] is about that. We are more-or-less the same, everyone.

“All the riders were agreed, the feelings of everyone were good [in the pre-season] apart from some small problems in the front, but nobody was complaining about the rear. Now we have serious problems and we don’t know how to solve them.

“Now it’s time for unity, everyone working in one line together to try to get a better result in Jerez and then in the test try different things to pick us up a little.”

An ‘enigma’ machine

Quizzed on Marquez’s theory that the problem could be linked to changing grip levels since winter testing, Espargaro replied:

“It can be, sure, [but] in the pre-season we’ve been in places where we normally struggle with grip. In hot conditions where the track is over 50 degrees. Indonesia and Malaysia, you found very low grip, but you were able to generate a lot of grip. That grip is not there anymore.

“Marc started in Malaysia with the old [2021 bike] and he jumped to the new one and for him clearly the new one was much better. Much faster. So he chose this bike as well as us, as a very fast bike and good grip, apart from as I said small issues with the front because we were generating a lot of [rear] grip. The rest was fine, was very good.

“The thing is now that the grip is low we should be better than the others because when we were in the lowest grip places we were better than the others [in testing] so why don’t we keep like that?

“This is an enigma that we are trying to figure out and hopefully Jerez we get some answers.”

Alex Marquez: We take too much time to turn, geometry changes for Jerez

Seventh place at Portimao may have been Alex Marquez’s best result of the season but he echoed the concerns of Espargaro and older brother Marc.

“In the end it’s P7 but it’s 16 seconds from the front guy, so it’s a lot for this track,” Alex said. “We need to improve. I’m really happy with the overall performance this weekend, but again when everything is fit and the conditions are really dry we suffer.”

Like Marc and LCR team-mate Takaaki Nakagami, Alex's main concern is the front of the bike.

“We are still having many problems with the front. We take too much time to turn the bike,” said the #73. “We cannot pick up the bike because we are not able to turn with [quickly] and it’s there where we miss more.

“When we pick up the bike it’s too late and we suffer I think in the grip side a little bit but it’s because we are not turning enough.

“So we have a good grip performance, just we need to improve with the front.”

Alex Marquez had been planning to try some extreme geometry settings during practice at Portimao, but the poor weather means they have been pushed over to Jerez.

“We need to see if [the front issues] are coming from the weight distribution or just the chassis side is where we need to improve, with a different geometry or different things in the chassis.

“[In Portimao] we had on the plan to try many things about the geometry, to see the direction to follow, but we had bad weather. So in Jerez it will be important especially the Monday test, to try things and see which way we need to follow and in which way Honda needs to work.”

Despite missing two of the five races, and finishing no higher than fifth in the others, Marc Marquez is now the top Honda in the world championship standings, in eleventh place.

Pol Espargaro is one point behind, with Alex Marquez in 17th and Takaaki Nakagami (who crashed out in Portimao) 18th.