It's been almost four years since anyone other than Marc Marquez won a MotoGP race for Honda, while the last time three different RCV riders took a victory (a feat achieved by Ducati last season) was back in 2016.

Could that all change courtesy of Honda's 2022 machine, which makes its race debut in Qatar this weekend?

The pre-season signs are promising, with the factory's four riders - Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro at Repsol, plus Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami at LCR - setting a fast pace on the '22 bike, headlined by Espargaro's test topping performance at Mandalika.

Revelling in the return of rear grip, Espargaro and team-mate Marc Marquez looked just as competitive for average pace, while Nakagami and Alex Marquez delivered race simulations that were, on paper, marginally better than even Yamaha's world champion Fabio Quartararo.

"All the Honda riders are using the same bike spec and everyone, with a different way of riding, is seeing the good performance and potential of the new bike," Espargaro confirmed.

"Everyone is happy, no one is saying that the old bike is better.

"We all are following the same aerodynamic package, we all agree. We are a more homogenous team than last year [when different riders had different parts]. This for me is the key of evolution in MotoGP and something Ducati has done a lot in recent years and we have seen their gains."

Espargaro, who managed only one podium during a tough debut season at Honda, explained that his strong pace had come more easily than the time attack.

"After [day 2 in Mandalika] everything was super good, the rhythm was one of the best, if not the best," he said.

"Then at the end [of day 3], I tried to make a fast lap time, which is so important for this year, because many Ducatis are going to be fast in one lap.

"The most important thing also is we had no crashes in these days of testing, and this is going to help us in build more confidence for Qatar and the following races."

While the 30-year-old shied away from any predictions, he confirmed the situation is night-and-day different compared to a year ago.

"It's turned around completely. Now I can apply my riding style, my rear braking, which I missed so much last year," Espargaro explained. "I can ride as I like, as I've been riding all my career, which last year I couldn't and I was struggling quite a lot with the rear.

"This year the bike has changed a lot, the bike is faster in one lap, it's much more stable on the [race] rhythm, and the most important is where I struggled most – in places where the temperature is so high - we are still very competitive.

"The race weekend is another thing, completely different, but we have been competitive in both circuits [during testing].

"Qatar is about making a base line and improving on it each week, I want to be fighting at the front each weekend but it’s early. Let’s see what happens, who appears with what and how the slightly different race time [6pm instead of 8pm] will change the conditions."

A crucial area where Ducati still holds an advantage is maximum speed, with seven Desmosedicis (GP22s and GP21s) filling the top of the speed charts in Mandalika.

Then came the Aprilia of Maverick Vinales and top Honda of Marc Marquez, both tied on 309.4km/h, which compared with 314.8km/h by Johann Zarco (Pramac Ducati GP22).

In terms of average top speed, calculated using the best five speeds by each rider, Zarco and Enea Bastianini (Gresini Ducati GP21) were equal at the top on 311.7km/h with Alex Marquez the quickest Honda at 308.5km/h.

As well as horsepower, straight line speed is also influenced by aerodynamics and ride-height devices.

"As much as we are using some new devices to accelerate faster, we are losing a little bit of top speed. The first [seven] motorbikes were Ducatis. So it shows how important the top speed is," Espargaro said.

"Honda knows it, and Honda told us maybe there is an update in power in Qatar, so also they are working on it. Honda is working hugely on all aspects of the bike, and we are super grateful."

With riders and bikes so evenly matched, race starts (now aided by front and rear holeshot devices) have also taken on more importance.

"The start is so important. Everybody is super quick in the first laps and you need to be in the [right] place, otherwise you lose the race," Espargaro said.

"Our bike improved a lot in the starts. We are, talking in terms of time, quite faster than last year. This is surely related to the [holeshot] devices we have on the bike, but also this gain of rear grip that we have. So everything feels really good."

The 2022 Honda's starting ability will be seen for real at 6pm on Sunday, when the red lights go out in Qatar.