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Honda's new signing is first bright spot of its 2024 MotoGP season

by Simon Patterson, Valentin Khorounzhiy
4 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The successful pursuit of Aleix Espargaro as its new MotoGP test rider - in a deal announced on Tuesday morning - represents the biggest bright spot of Honda's otherwise miserable 2024 season.

The redesigned RC213V showed signs of life in the pre-season but proved a massive disappointment almost immediately as actual racing got underway, with its four full-time riders mostly resigned to fighting one another in what was initially derisively called 'the Japanese cup' - including also fellow struggler Yamaha - but has now become 'the Honda cup' as it's grown increasingly obvious that even Yamaha is in substantially better shape.

Joan Mir Johann Zarco Honda MotoGP 2024

In announcing his retirement from full-time competition, Espargaro - with developmental acumen on his CV both from the Suzuki project that eventually won the title and the Aprilia project that has transformed itself from no-hoper into a force to be reckoned with - immediately became an insanely attractive free agent test rider.

And now, Honda has swiftly won the race for his services.

It’s something that’s been rumoured since Espargaro first announced at the end of May that he would be stepping down from full-time racing at the end of 2024, yet refused to confirm that his previous plans to remain in an Aprilia role still applied.

“It is a new job, a new role that didn’t exist five years ago,” Espargaro said earlier this year of the chance to take on the new challenge as a test rider. “Now we understand how important it is.

"Ducati and [Michele] Pirro changed the game six years ago, and now we see with Dani [Pedrosa] and [brother] Pol [Espargaro] in KTM that Yamaha and Honda need to step up their game with their test teams, because they are not on the same level as the Italians or the KTM test team.

“It’s a good opportunity for me and this is why I’m thinking a lot about it.

"It’s something that I really love. I’ve had a lot of fun the past six or seven years with Aprilia, and I think we’ve done a really good job. I’ve learned a lot of things, and that’s also a possibility for the future."

A boost for Mir

Joan Mir

The prospect of Espargaro arriving might well have an important secondary effect in helping Honda retain its current factory rider line-up as well.

With Honda believed to be keen to keep 2020 world champion Joan Mir despite his rather disparaging remarks of late, his sudden change in tone about his future at last weekend’s Dutch TT seems to have come amid a new campaign to convince him to stay.

That reassuring approach is what Yamaha successfully executed to retain the services of its own past champion Fabio Quartararo and it seems that Honda is now beginning to lay out a detailed roadmap back to victory in order to convince Mir that staying put is the correct career step.

Honda already has another credible veteran tester in Stefan Bradl on its books - and certainly, 11-12 years ago you would've seen a Bradl signature as a much bigger coup than Espargaro’s.

But Marc Marquez, who particularly championed Bradl's efforts as test rider, is gone from Honda and not coming back any time soon. And hiring Espargaro needn't mean Bradl gets discarded - KTM is making a double test rider set-up work for itself right now, and Honda can surely match its expenditure. It’s confirmed Bradl stays on too.

Stefan Bradl Honda Barcelona MotoGP 2024

While Honda remains a 'Rank D' concession team - and there is no reason to believe that will change at the end of the season, given its hideous points-scoring - it can make maximum use of Espargaro, both with an increased testing tyre allocation and six wildcards being permitted.

So, there are only benefits for Honda here - but what about Espargaro himself?

A fresh start

Aleix Espargaro

Espargaro's swift acknowledgment after his retirement announcement that his future probably lay outside of Aprilia led to many a raised eyebrow, considering how synonymous he has become with the project.

But he had hinted at testing the test rider market before, specifically because of the Honda/Yamaha struggles and the value they could see in him.

Even Espargaro’s late-night chats with great friend Jorge Martin about Aprilia’s potential ahead of Martin’s decision to sign for Aprilia didn’t seem like they were going to sway Espargaro into staying around as part of that project. He’s delighted that his best friend in the paddock will be chasing the title on ‘his’ bike, but he’s happy to watch it from a different garage.

Honda should be the project with the most resources to spare, and the biggest need for Espargaro. The investment it can put into his contract and the test team can come out of the rider contract allocation, after all, because no rider who would demand a massive salary is queuing up to ride for Honda.

In that, though, lies another reason for why Honda would’ve been attractive to Espargaro. Honda needs him. Honda needs all the help it can get. And Honda has the resources and the history to dig itself out of this hole.

The 2027 rules offer a massive reset opportunity, meaning Espargaro can go in believing it really is possible that Honda will win again while he's under contract there - which would be an incredible bow to his legacy.

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