Honda came into the MotoGP season seeking their seventh riders' title with reigning champion Marc Marquez.

Instead, after injuries for both the Spanish star and fellow race winner Cal Crutchlow, the factory hasn't even featured on the podium in the opening eight rounds.

The absence of Marquez, until at least the closing stages of this season, has also put the RC213V under the spotlight.

While in the past, criticism of the bike could be countered by Marquez's dominant performances, HRC's hopes now depend on making the machine more usable for its other riders.

Even before Marquez's latest injury, it hadn't been a straightforward pre-season for Honda.

Corner entry difficulties in testing were thought to be down to the latest aerodynamics, prompting a last-minute return to the 2019 fairing.

But while Marquez undoubtedly had the speed to win at Jerez, it soon became clear that further issues remained.

With the new wings removed, the main change for the 2020 Honda is the engine, which Crutchlow felt was causing corner entry issues.

"The engine is different this year, we have again more inertia into the corner, and we are struggling to stop the bike," Crutchlow explained in Austria. "We're struggling to match the rear tyre to the power and the feeling of the bike as well."

The bad news for Honda is that the special Covid technical freeze means non-Concession manufacturers cannot make engine modifications until the end of 2021.

The good news for Honda is that the factory increasingly believes that, rather than being a pure engine problem, their difficulties also stem from the new Michelin rear tyre construction, something factory Ducati riders have also struggled with this season.

While engine changes would be welcome as part of the tyre solution, it can be tackled from other angles, especially chassis/weight balance but also electronics and riding style.

"Of course, if we can develop the engine this is one more extra freedom to play with, not only the horsepower but also the handling or the rideability," said HRC Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama.

"So when engine development is frozen it's more difficult to fix the problem, if you have some problem on the bike, which we do have.

"The reality is that we cannot change the engine, but we still have many things around to improve the performance."

The Japanese added: "We are working a lot on the chassis side and trying to understand how to use the Michelin tyres, especially the rear where they changed the construction from last year to this year.

"Honestly speaking, I don't think we are using the maximum potential from the new rear tyre construction. We have to try a lot of things, actually a lot more than we expected when they decided to change the tyre.

"The way to use [the rear tyre], including the riding line, maybe needs to be changed."

With Marquez still sidelined and Crutchlow's season twice interrupted by arm surgery, LCR's Takaaki Nakagami has emerged as the factory's leading contender, on the 2019-spec bike.

"Of course, when you have a group of injured riders it's so difficult for every aspect," Yokoyama said.

"But we still have some good riders, Alex is a rookie but he's growing up and is giving us very good feedback. Cal, even with injuries, is trying a lot and also giving us good feedback. Taka, as everyone can see, is growing up a lot. He's fighting for good positions in the championship.

"So even without Marc – it's more difficult, it's true – but we are receiving much feedback, we are trying our maximum and we are on the way."

Clear progress looked to be made during the official test between the Misano rounds, with Nakagami and especially Repsol rookie Alex Marquez much more competitive at the second event.

"The test was really successful for us. I think you could see that if you compare the Misano 1 result and Misano 2 we made some steps forward and this was due to the test in-between," Yokoyama confirmed.

Nakagami then carried that momentum into the recent Catalunya race, where he finished in seventh place but just 3.6s from victory after a late charge. That was the closest Nakagami (best race result of fourth) has finished to the winner in MotoGP, barring the 12-lap sprint in Austria.

The Japanese is now seventh and the top Honda rider in the world championship, 36-points from Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha), with six rounds remaining. Alex Marquez is 16th, Crutchlow 19th and test rider Stefan Bradl 23rd.

Even if a Honda rider is unable to finish on the podium this season the factory will not have access to technical concessions next year, as would normally happen. The shortened 14-round world championship means it was decided that concessions could only be lost during 2020 (as for KTM), not gained.

Meanwhile, Honda has not gone a complete season with a 500cc/MotoGP victory since 1981...

 

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