Team: Repsol Honda Team
Riders: Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo
Test Rider: Stefan Bradl
Bike: Honda RC213V
Best placed rider, 2019: Marc Marquez, 1st
Best result, 2018: 1st x10, Marc Marquez (9), Cal Crutchlow (1)
Best placed machine at tests: 3rd (Valencia), 1st (Jerez), 1st (Sepang), 5th (Qatar)

On the face of it, Honda really should be some way off its current position. A winter originally earmarked for hyping the first exchanges between a new all-star rider line-up that is guaranteed to see sparks fly has had to make way for injury, surgery and rehabilitation.

For this has been no ordinary offseason for the manufacturer that won last year’s Triple Crown. Jorge Lorenzo’s arrival to the Repsol fold alongside Marc Marquez cements its position as having the grid’s most decorated rider line-up. Never has Honda’s factory team had riders that claimed each of the past seven MotoGP titles within its ranks.

But rather than focussing on matching the astronomical feats of Mick Doohan, Tadayuki Okada and Alex Criville, who, combined, won every premier class race going in 1997, Honda’s current line-up has faced another battle in the lead up to March, 10th: mainly the kind to ensure they’re actually present on the grid.

It has surely been a unique situation for HRC to have completed just one test with Marquez, Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow, the men charged with competing on the 2019 RC213V, all present. And then, in Qatar, each was furiously playing catch up, encountering new, unique and strange issues by the day.

A “complicated” and “aggressive” four-hour operation corrected the reigning world champion’s troublesome left shoulder in early December. Crutchlow admitted to fearing for his participation at the beginning of this season in December, as his right ankle – his tailus bone was fractured in 17 places in a free practice fall at last year’s Australian Grand Prix – reacted badly to first attempts at walking.

And Lorenzo’s own adaption was slowed then punctuated by the leftovers of a bruising fall in Thailand last September and then a careless training crash in Italy in mid-January. A fractured left scaphoid deprived him of crucial testing time at Sepang, and means he is still a month away from full fitness.

All of which means test rider Stefan Bradl has taken on added significance. The ’19 RC213V is still far from perfect. Engineers have attempted to alter its character, making it less critical on the front – not an easy feat when none of the full-time riders can push it to the necessary limits for much of the offseason.

Lorenzo continues to alter riding position, Crutchlow has complained of a lack of comfort when braking into corners, and Marquez has been unable to piece a run of more than eight laps all winter.

And yet the #93 is still widely expected to be among the challengers at round one. By the final night of testing at Qatar he was buoyed, smiling and declaring himself ready for the punishing 19-race schedule that lies ahead. Regarding the shoulder he told assembled media only last week it’s “case closed”.

The respective recoveries of Marquez and Crutchlow have been nothing short of awe-inspiring, a bloody-minded refusal to accept their physical predicament. Lorenzo, meanwhile, has stated potential with his new team and packaged is “huge.” Only a fool would bet against all three once fully fit. As HRC’s veritable collection of engineers have proved in recent years, they are capable of bringing forward development throughout a season. Don’t expect progress to stop here.

It could well be this winter is looked upon as nothing more than an early pothole on the road to success. But then again, with a line-up boasting eight premier class titles, 141 grand prix wins and 283 podiums, how would it be any different?

The Long Road to Recovery

“The most boring winter of my life,” said Marquez of the two-month stretch between the operation in early December and the Sepang test - with good reason. The 26-year old had to forgo any serious on-bike training, instead maintaining a strict regimen the consisted of five hours of physio on the joint per day.

It required it. The surgeons found a shoulder warped by continued heavy impacts. “I've had injuries before and they hurt but you always improve,” said Marquez of this injury. “But here for a couple of weeks it really, really hurt. You know for me to say 'no, no, I'd rather be here at the hospital for a few more days' - I couldn't see myself at home.”

Marquez only had four days off in December and January – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day – and the results showed. At Sepang he gradually eased himself in. 29 laps on day one. On day two, after posting 37 laps, the seven-time world champion admitted he was unsure he could continue. But by Qatar in late February he was already pushing the limits of the front as only he knows.

The final evening in Qatar provided another kind of test. A fast front-end fall at turn six saw him impact the shoulder. “I tested the shoulder well, and it's OK,” he said, showing no signs of physical defects. “It's ready to fight!”

Crutchlow chose to recover in California. By December he was cycling, but an early set-back when returning to walk left him down, and seriously doubting whether riding in the Spring would be possible. An injury that could deprive him of 10-15 percent of movement in the right ankle wasn’t easy to overcome. And he still feels its effects upon waking each morning.

“Still my ankle is sore,” he said on the eve of round one. “Honestly I wake up in the morning and when I first get out of bed I look like I've just done it. Then five minutes later I can sort of walk, without any pain or real drama. But I will have the metalwork out, that's for sure, because I think that's what's causing the pain and the problem with the tightness.”

This has some obvious drawbacks when on the bike. “The problem is my feeling with the rear brake pedal is bad but I don’t want to use the thumb brake,” he said. “So my feeling is not superb at the moment. It's still quite slow to move from the peg to the rear brake lever. And I'm wearing a boot that's too big. I'm getting it caught and things like that. I use the rear brake a lot. The problem is I don't even feel that my foot is on the rear brake. It used to be on the rear brake probably 70% of the lap, now it's on 95% of the lap and I don't even know because [I’m]… not feeling too well.”

Early struggles

In Qatar at least, it appeared Marquez was papering over a few cracks. You may note Lorenzo’s sixth fastest time in the final classification. But his personal best of 1m 54.653s was his only sub-1m 55 effort. Before he had managed just four laps in the 55s (Viñales did 37 across the three days) – not exactly pace that will see him compete among the podium men on Sunday. “Maybe the first races will be difficult,” he conceded on Sunday. “But little by little we have to be patient and we will get there.”

There has been an internal acknowledgement Honda is attempting to build a more rounded machine for the year ahead, one less critical on the front end. Crutchlow hasn’t felt comfortable since the moment he swung a healing right ankle over it at Sepang. That continued here, as he was mired in testing new parts, settings and still “not even close” to race set-up.

“We changed a little bit the chassis, but still it's difficult to understand,” said Marquez of the changes for ’19. “And we saw when the temperature dropped all four Hondas crashed. We still need to work there, to understand why we cannot use soft tyres, and we need to use the hard ones.”

All agree its new engine has fantastic potential. Consider Marquez’s bike clocked 216mph on the first night, a figure higher even than those posted by Jack Miller (215mph) and Danilo Petrucci’s (214mph) GP19s. As Lorenzo noted “they’ve done an excellent job on the engine. We’re now on the same level as Ducati.”

Marquez again: “On top speed we improved, we saw. This is something important. But still we are missing a few things that we were struggling with last year. And still we are there working, on the exit of the corner, to try to find more pushing and better traction. That's where we are working for.”

Lorenzo’s adaption

Considering Lorenzo required half a season to get consistently comfortable in his first season at Ducati, it was a surprise to see him so fast so early into testing at Jerez. Even when riding some way from his peak physical condition, the five-time world champion was just 0.01s slower than Marquez at the Jerez test.

“Firstly, when I got on to the bike it felt smaller compared to my last bike,” he said of his early impressions aboard the RC213V. “You feel safer to the ground and going into the corners you feel that you are much closer to your body or your knee so this is a good thing as it gives me more confidence, especially in conditions with no grip or in the rain for example.

“Another good thing is the stronger quality the bike has at this moment is the agility in the corners is really good. I will select these two particular strong points.”

In Qatar he was a long way off, however. Days one and two were largely spent working on his riding position and bike ergonomics. “The first day was very complicated because my pace on the bike and also the bike was very far from a good setting, a good fit,” he said on the final night. “But now we are much closer. We have a big potential and I'm sure if we keep working like that, with all the Honda potential, and I will understand more the bike and obviously get fitter, our potential is huge.”

Hopes?

Marquez has set the bar high. And he quietly applied some pressure to the rider across him in the garage on the final night of testing. “Lorenzo today, I saw he did a very good lap, in one fast lap he was strong, but on the race pace, he's very far at the moment. But then we will see during the race weekend.

“But normally, this is a circuit where he rides very fast. It suits his riding style well, but we will see. I think he did a good job, and of course he needs time, but you know, you are in Honda HRC, and you have to be in the front.”

Lorenzo has acknowledged the opening rounds will not be straightforward. “Maybe the first races will be difficult but little by little we have to be patient and we will get there.” Times at the final test proved, “we have potential and if we keep working we can go very high. Our potential is huge.”

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