until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Just how far off is Honda heading into MotoGP 2023?

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The mood surrounding Honda’s 2023 MotoGP preparations has not exactly been ebullient so far.

Riders – both established and new – have done their best not to come across as sounding the alarm, but equally did not shy away from the fact that the Honda RC213V still showed plenty of room for improvement. A deficit to ‘the top guys’ was repeatedly acknowledged.

But while a second is a deficit, so is three tenths of a second. And for Honda, having a bike three tenths off the pace at somewhere like Austin or the Sachsenring will still likely mean a guaranteed race win given Marc Marquez’s habitually dominant pace at those tracks. Whereas a second, of course, is a mortifying calamity and a total write-off of the season.

In the three-day Sepang test, only one of the Honda riders breached the overall top 10, that rider being Marc Marquez. His best lap trailed the test benchmark by 0.777s. New team-mate Joan Mir was 0.895s off, LCR recruit Alex Rins lacked 1.043s, and his squadmate Takaaki Nakagami was 1.646s off, still nursing an injured right hand.

But when giving his run-through of the competitive order, test pacesetter Luca Marini singled out not Honda but KTM as the manufacturer with perhaps the most catching up to do (even though he then caveated that by saying Pol Espargaro had looked good). So there’s clearly no expectation that those single-lap times are representative – at the very least of race pace.



Marquez tried several prototypes during the test, eventually zeroing in on a version that he said was a lot like what he’d tried in the post-season test at Valencia last November – “same concept, same problems”.

“It’s not the bike that I need for winning the championship,” he admitted. “I need another step from that bike.”

Marquez acknowledged Sepang was one of his worst tracks, but was clear that this didn’t account for the entirety of the deficit. He also said he never got into a real “rhythm” during the test due to having many “experimental things to try”.

However, he said: “When I was riding well, the laptime was more or less not bad – but still far from the top five guys.”

Nakagami cautioned during the test that, naturally, the leaderboards didn’t reflect “the true potential”.

“The Ducatis and Aprilias are really competitive – just we need to improve. This is the very simple thing.”

Asked whether it was the same situation as late last year, he responded with a “yeah-yeah-yeah, yes”, but it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to just the fact of there being a deficit or the actual numerical value of said deficit.

But, as understandably loathe as riders are to throw around projected numbers during testing, one number did come up twice.

“I think this track is probably not the best one for this bike, but we are far [away],” said Mir, who then added when speaking about the impact of new recruit Ken Kawauchi: “It’s not that arrives Ken and the bike will work like this [in the snap of a finger]. It’s part of the process.

“It’s not easy to find half a second per lap nowadays in MotoGP. But, you know, we are working.”

And then 0.5s was mentioned, more concretely, by Rins on the final day.

“We did a sprint race simulation. We were comparing with Marini, he was at the same time doing the sprint simulation. We were 0.5s slower compared to him in race pace,” Rins said.

“But, not that much, I’m quite happy.

“It’s the first time that we are on track with the Honda.

“We still don’t have our base set-up clear, after the sprint simulation and after the fastest laptime we tried a little bit different electronic [set-up] and I felt more confidence. That means that still there is a lot of work to do.”



Both test pacesetter Marini and Rins did indeed log consecutive 10 laps each – the Sepang half-distance – at constant speed, Marini outpacing Rins by 4.831s or 0.483s per lap.

It’s a pretty daunting figure in modern MotoGP – but maybe less daunting at the two-minute Sepang.

For a very rough illustration, let’s take that gap and normalise it by fastest race lap at every track, to account for variance in distance and layout. Taking the results as the track-by-track gaps to the race winner and applying it to a hypothetical rider for the whole 2022 season gives you, honestly, a pretty good campaign!

Portimao yields a podium, there are a handful of other top-fives scattered around. It would overall translate to seventh place in the standings – exactly where Rins actually finished in 2022.

Of course, that’s a no-DNF season so that’s a significant boon. And, more relevantly, taking it as the gap to the winner is obviously very optimistic.

Marini was good at Sepang and, being kept on the 2022 spec this year, is thriving with some bike continuity and a lack of development workload – it’s no coincidence he’s now topped both the official off-season tests. But he hasn’t proven race-winning MotoGP potential yet.

Now, taking his 2022 results as baseline would be too meaningless – start-of-2023 Marini is stronger than start-of-2022 Marini. But taking some sort of approximate measure like, let’s say, the median Ducati finisher across the 2022 calendar should be slightly more representative.

Hypothetical 2022 season

If Sepang gap is to race winner
Best finish: 3rd
Worst finish: 13th
Average finish: 7.1
Points: 182
Standings: 7th

If Sepang gap is to median Ducati
Best finish: 8th
Worst finish: 18th
Average finish: 13.5
Points: 53
Standings: 17th

You get the feeling Rins and Mir would sign now for the above version if given the chance. For Marquez, of course, it’d be a total failure.

But the lower, ‘doom’ scenario obviously wouldn’t cut it for anyone in the Honda camp.



Ultimately, you’d have to imagine that for the two recruits the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ducati is way strong at Sepang, and Honda just isn’t. And Rins and Mir will obviously have room to improve as they grow more and more familiar with the RC213V, a bike that is obviously a marked departure from the Suzuki GSX-RR they’ve been used to.

Both were relatively upbeat throughout the Sepang test, Mir in particular sounding like he’d made tangible, serious progress. You’d expect that both of them will be there or thereabout in terms of race pace in no time.

But qualifying is a different beast, and the Suzuki was particularly weak in one-lap trim during the Mir/Rins tenures. The former is just not a good qualifier by reputation, while Rins does have a decent one-lap track record – but if they’re finding themselves regularly out in Q1, which seems eminently possible, it would be a fundamentally weak foundation to build a campaign on.

Marquez should obviously be ahead of both, and when it comes to one-lap pace in particular he was doing absolute magic tricks with the RC213V last year. But the stakes are obviously different for him – at this point, every year not spent fighting for the title is a wasted year.

What his current gap to the front is, we can’t even really guess – Marquez always seems to keep something reserve in testing, and he was 11th in the corresponding Sepang test back in 2019, before heading into his masterpiece season.

But his words are clear. The title potential is not there yet, not even top-five potential at Sepang. And that just won’t do.

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