HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto famously said in 2013, "Our bikes are easy to ride but it is very difficult to make those all important one tenth, two tenths". The statement by HRC boss was for their 2014 RCV213-V. Honda has traditionally targeted towards a point and shoot type of machine. Where you break hard into the corner, slide the rear, and accelerate like a maniac out of it in order to save time and list fast laps.
On the last day of testing at Valencia, Marquez and Pedrosa finished first and second, but the satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding were a little way off the pace. Crutchlow was eight tenths slower than Marquez, while Redding was struggling 1.6 seconds behind Marquez. In the last race of the 2014 season, Stefan Bradl's fastest lap was just under a second off the fastest race lap, and Alvaro Bautista a fraction slower. The Honda is obviously fast, but it is not easy to go fast on. Too aggressive, too hard to master, a bike with a lot of potential, but extracting that potential takes insight, experience, and the willingness to push an aggressive bike to its limits. It really demands the kind of dirt track background of Casey Stoner or, well, Marc Marquez.
For 2015 bike, the Honda RCV seems to have become a meaner and a more aggressive beast. Pedrosa didn't like the bike on corner exit, Marquez did not like the way that the engine braking system locked the rear on corner entry. It definitely had strong points, but it needed both a lot of work on set up – both Marquez and Pedrosa had ridden the bike on a base set up, to get a feel for the machine – and a great deal of refinement.
Finding that refinement was not easy. Cal Crutchlow had spent his day playing around with lots of set up changes. Down at the other Honda garage, Scott Redding called his gap to the front runners 'unacceptable'. The first challenge which the team faced was finding the right position on the bike for Redding, requiring changing the tank around to be wider and longer, and adapting the seat bumper to put Redding in the correct position. Fortunately for Redding, they found a direction at the end of the test, lifting the rear of the bike to allow the Marc VDS rider to gain more traction and get out of the corner faster.
The future of the Honda lay in trying to make the bike easier to ride, Nakamoto told the press conference. They needed to copy Yamaha, build a bike which riders can jump on and be up to speed quickly. That is not easy, as ideally, HRC would create such a machine without losing any of the advantages the current RC213V has. Bike design is a compromise, Honda have moved in one direction for a number of years, but the appear to need a new heading.
For Yamaha, the 2015 bike looks almost identical to the 2014 bike. A tweaked frame, swingarm, and engine were a small step forward, and a new exhaust increased the noise levels, but also improved behaviour, as well as cutting weight. Both Rossi and Lorenzo were positive, though neither were particularly gushing with praise. "A step forward," was about as positive as either Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi was willing to be.
The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage was happier though, Bradley Smith said the updates they had received from the factory made the bike much easier to ride, Pol Espargaro, too, was positive, and ended the day with the fourth fastest time, just three tenths of Marquez, and just over a tenth off Jorge Lorenzo.
There were plenty of surprises on the timesheets. Aleix Espargaro ended the day a second off the time of Marquez, a second closer to the leaders on the Suzuki than test rider Randy de Puniet had been during the race. That is not that surprising: Aleix Espargaro used the softer tire to set his fastest lap, and Suzuki have been playing with the power on the GSX-RR, after the bike blew two engines during practice for the race.
Espargaro's Suzuki teammate Maverick Viñales was equally impressive. On his first time out on a Moto GP bike, Viñales was close to matching the times of De Puniet. What's more, photographers standing trackside reported the Spaniard as being very impressive to watch through Turn 13, getting the bike sideways up and over the hill, then pushing the bike hard to turn it through the last corner at Turn 14. Viñales is clearly an exceptional talent, but the bike itself is much better than expected. The Suzuki will do will in 2015, as long as the Hamamatsu factory can find some extra horsepower. That is clearly its biggest weakness at the current moment.
Jack Miller was similarly impressive. The Moto3 rookie ended the test 2.7 seconds behind Marc Marquez, despite it being his first test in Moto GP, and his first ride on the Honda RCV1000R. During the race, Nicky Hayden set the fastest race lap just 1.5 seconds slower than Marquez. Miller remains brimming with enthusiasm, finding it hard to believe his luck. Miller was another rider which photographers commented on as getting the bike wildly sideways through Turn 13, and making the tight left at the bottom of the hill.
At Forward Yamaha, both Stefan Bradl and Loris Baz tested Kayaba suspension. Neither man was particularly impressed, either by the product or by the engineers working on the project. The Aspar team produced a couple of surprises. Nicky Hayden is only a couple of tenths quicker on the RC213V-RS than he was on the RCV1000R, despite having found a little bit of top speed from the bike. The RC213V-RS is a little different to the previous Honda Open bike, needing more time and set up to get it right. Once again, the Aspar team will head to Sepang not entirely convinced by the data from the production Honda.
The one big surprise left is from Eugene Laverty. The Irishman was over two seconds off the pace at the test pm Sunday. But Laverty is already getting to grip with the Drive M7 Honda, and most especially the front Bridgestone tires.
For now, the last day in the paddock has dawned. For everyone except for Jack Miller, who tests at Sepang at the end of November, they will not see a Moto GP machine until early February 2015. The winter is now officially started, with only a few points of light to ease the pain of the fans.