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Opinion
MotoGP Sepang February Testing

Why MotoGP's first pre-season test of 2023 will decide Marquez and Honda's future

OPINION: The first MotoGP pre-season test of 2023 kicks off this Friday in Malaysia and will mark a turning point for Honda. Regardless of whether things go well and the bike delivers what is expected, or if it goes badly as has been the case in recent years, it is set to have a profound impact on the future of its biggest asset.

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

As the rider considered by many to be the most influential in the history of the brand, along with Valentino Rossi and Mick Doohan, it's logical that most of the elements in the Honda revival equation revolve around Marc Marquez.

The Spaniard, who will be back on the RC213V after spending the winter preparing physically to be at his best for the start of the season, got serious last year and openly asked the Japanese manufacturer for a reaction as it endured its second winless campaign in three.

The change in the mindset of Honda's senior management can be sensed in Tetsuhiro Kuwata's latest statements, in which he openly admitted his frustration at its position of being the pursuer rather than the pursued.

"Unfortunately, Ducati is ahead of us," Kuwata commented a few weeks ago. "It's frustrating to see that we're behind in that respect, that we're chasing. That makes it so we don't have the luxury of trying new things at the moment. We want to change that trend as quickly as possible."

There are several indications that Honda, the most powerful manufacturer in the MotoGP paddock, has indeed changed its pace. Firstly, it's the incorporation of personnel from other factories, with special mention of Ken Kawauchi, who was signed from Suzuki and will take over as technical director from Takeo Yokoyama.

Going to the competition for a position as important as the one previously occupied by Yokoyama, a permanent fixture in the structure, suggests that the foundations of HRC are moving more than usual. Parallel to Kawauchi's arrival, the technical part of the factory workshop and LCR's has also been reorganised.

However, the success of Honda's reshuffle is unlikely to bear fruit before the first half of the calendar is completed. And by then, it may be too late.

Stefan Bradl, HRC's test rider, has already put the 2023 RC213V through its paces at the Sepang shakedown this week

Stefan Bradl, HRC's test rider, has already put the 2023 RC213V through its paces at the Sepang shakedown this week

Photo by: Dorna

The potential of the bike that Marquez and Joan Mir test this weekend will likely set a turning point in Honda's trajectory. Either in an upward line, or the other way around. In the latter case, anyone would think that it is difficult for the Tokyo factory to do worse.

It was last in the constructors' championship in 2022, a year in which it did not achieve a single victory. Its works team, Repsol Honda, finished ninth and languished 60 points behind the debutant VR46 Ducati outfit. However, it may be the case that the fall does not stop, but becomes even more accentuated.

Motorsport.com understands that within the HRC structure itself there is a growing conviction that, if the 2023 bike does not represent a significant step forward in Marquez's eyes, the multi-champion will most likely look for an exit. This could even be accelerated and occur in 2024, the year in which he will still have a contract in force. And for the moment, the signs concerning that RC213V are hardly inviting the throwing of confetti in its honour.

Before crashing out at Jerez three years ago, Marquez's worst season was in 2015, when he finished third with 242 points and five wins and nine podiums. That performance would have led him to fight for the title last year

"I have a lot of respect for Honda, especially for the way they treated me during the two years I was injured; how they took care of me, which was special," Marquez said in an interview with Motorsport.com at the end last season.

"I know it wasn't normal, and that's why I will always have all the respect for Honda. My mind is only focused on getting back to the top with them. Then, of course, if I can't, because I feel I don't have the tools, I will try to find the best for me. My dream is to stay here, but my biggest dream is to win championships."

The eight-time world champion will turn 30 on Thursday next week and is no longer the same individual he was until that fateful Sunday in July 2020 at Jerez, when he broke his arm while performing one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of the competition.

The ordeal he suffered as a result of that injury has recalibrated the margin Marquez gives himself to achieve his goals. Few now see him competing beyond the age of 35 or 36. Until that time, when he decides to stop racing, there is only one goal on his mind: to win the title again. But the recipe to win the crown again is not the same that led him to do it the six previous times, in which it could be said that he practically swept the board.

Marc Marquez wants his future to be with Honda, but is open to looking elsewhere to win championships if he doesn't get the bike he needs from HRC

Marc Marquez wants his future to be with Honda, but is open to looking elsewhere to win championships if he doesn't get the bike he needs from HRC

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Before crashing out at Jerez three years ago, his worst season was 2015, when he finished third with 242 points and five wins and nine podiums. That performance would have led him to fight for the title last year.

Such dominance that allowed him to string together improbable streaks such as that of 2014 (10 consecutive wins), when he took 13 wins out of a possible 18; or that of 2019 (12 wins out of 19, with 18 podiums), seems a thing of the past. No longer so much because of his physical condition, but because of the undoubted step forward taken by the competition, both on a technical and riding level.

At this point, one concludes that Honda needs Marquez more than ever. The doubt lies in knowing if the company is able to respond to his compass, to the cornerstone of its project, to the one who has supported the whole HRC scaffolding practically alone. If the answer to that question is yes, it is likely that Marquez will renew his current agreement, which expires at the end of 2024, and it would not be unreasonable to think that he will end his career in MotoGP having ridden only for one brand.

But if not, there is a growing feeling within Honda itself that the rider will look for a way out that offers him more guarantees. Despite the business muscle of the Japanese giant, in this eventuality it will be difficult to convince Marquez with the cheque book. He already knows that he will not re-sign the contract for which he was to earn 100 million euros, between 2021 and 2024 - even if he agreed to a considerable reduction in 2020, as a result of his absence.

The socio-economic context of the championship underwent a tremendous metamorphosis as a result of the impact of the pandemic, and this led to contracts of a different nature. In general, the new agreements reduce the fixed-salary base to focus on performance-based variables. This financial ecosystem, combined with the current situation surrounding Marquez, opens the door for any of the major manufacturers to consider a signing that, until recently, seemed impossible.

Thus, Honda not only has to come to this weekend's test at Sepang armed with a bike that it can challenge for the championship with: it must also act as the guarantee to keep its prized asset within its ranks in the future.

This week's Sepang test is one of the most crucial phases of 2023 for Honda

This week's Sepang test is one of the most crucial phases of 2023 for Honda

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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