It’s hard not to notice how badly Japanese manufacturers are doing in MotoGP of late. Suzuki, of course, has already abandoned ship, Honda has a motorcycle no one but Marc Marquez — and he, only barely — can ride and Fabio Quartararo looks so hand-dog depressed that moms around the world want to give him a hug and a Xanax. Both brands, long so dominant in motorcycling’s top echelon of racing, now look as pathetic as the CRT (Claiming Rule Teams) machines that clogged tracks in the early ’10s.
The question is, where do they go from here? At least one pundit — Jeremy McWilliams, former GP winner — says that we “could lose one or two manufacturers over the next couple of years.” And yes, he’s talking about Honda and Yamaha.
I agree with him. As tiny as the odds of Honda or Yamaha quitting might seem, they’re not nearly as long as betting on the status quo. Neither company, frankly, can stand to be at the bottom of the MotoGP barrel for very much longer.
Technologically, Yamaha would seem to have the longest road to rehabilitation. For reasons too lengthy for this column, their engine is simply no longer competitive. It appears — and certainly the M1’s performance over the last few years would appear to bear this out — that an inline four cannot be made competitive with the V4s all the other marques now employ. No change in crankshaft orientation, primary header length or combustion chamber shape — all of which, we can be sure, have been futzed with over the last few years — has altered the fact that the M1 is not only the slowest machine in a straight line, it is also now the hardest machine, save perhaps the Honda, to ride. Things are so bad that pundits at Crash.net are calling for concessions, like those once offered for rookie manufacturers, for anyone running inline four engines.
More importantly, because of priorities — more on that subject in a moment — and history, there is almost no chance the company will change its commitment to four pistons all in a row. The company has precious little experience with Vee engines, little incentive to build them for production bikes and, if the last few years are any indication, the factory seems completely unmotivated. Indeed, if the decision for the company’s top mandarins comes down to building a V4 or quitting, I’m betting they quit.
Honda’s impediment is more psychological. Ephemeral as that may seem, especially in a sport dominated by hard parts and horsepower, I think it more debilitating to Honda’s survival in MotoGP than Yamaha’s mere engine troubles.
Honda has an ego problem. Honda, simply put, is used to winning. And even that, by its lofty standards, is not enough. Not only must it dominate the competition, but it must be clear that the winning it takes for granted must be because of the company’s technological prowess and not rider talent. The reason Honda so casually let Valentino Rossi go to Yamaha is that they got tired of winning the championship with the best rider in the world. They wanted to prove their machine so superior that the championship, in fact, would still be theirs, ridden by his lesser.
Imagine their humiliation now. In the space of short five years, they have gone from the mere shame of requiring the best rider in the world — that would be the aforementioned Marc Marquez — to earn a title to the hard-biting ignominy of having even number 93 unable to get a sniff of the title these last four years.
As if that isn’t enough, former world champion Joan Mir recently went public — after the Le Mans round — with the hope that the RC213V doesn’t ruin his career as it did those of Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro. And, as if things couldn’t possibly get worse, it turns out that Honda, the winningest marque GP motorcycle racing has ever seen, has now had to turn to some itty-bitty German parvenue — Kalex — to build them a frame just to get once-mighty Repsol Honda out of the basement in MotoGP’s team championship.
Nor should it come as much of a surprise that Honda and Yamaha are suffering while KTM, Ducati and Aprilia are thriving. At its core, the problem is that they lack motivation. Look back over the headlines of the last few years and the one important difference between the winners in MotoGP — again, KTM, Ducati and Aprilia — and the losers (the Japanese marques, including the already departed Suzuki) is this: The Europeans have, to varying degrees, stated that internal combustion, at least for large, high-performance motorcycles, will last through the near- and even medium-term future. The Japanese, in contrast, have embraced an all-electric future far more emphatically.
More to the point, while the three Europeans thrive on selling big, powerful motorcycles to traditional first world motorcyclists, it appears that the Japanese manufacturers are drifting toward selling (easily electrified) scooters in alternative markets. Certainly, their respective showrooms over the last decade point to the Japanese having lost interest in big-cube motorcycles while European big bikes thrive.
In other words, the reason Honda and Yamaha are losing is because they see no future in selling production versions of the motorcycles they are racing. That’s also why they might pull out of MotoGP.