Superbike SWOT: Honda
A SWOT analysis has long been recognised as one of the best ways to analyse your business interests. What are the reasons for the likelihood of succeeding – or failing – to meet your targets? What’s the good and bad points of your business model? In racing what are the factors that go into winning and losing on track?
For WorldSBK in 2020, the coming season looks set to be one of the most competitive in memory. Kawasaki has won five titles in a row, but having been put in their place by Ducati’s early season dominance in 2019 they’ll know how quickly things can change. New bikes from Honda and Yamaha show that you can’t stand still in racing because everyone is trying to get back to the front.
BMW made their return to WorldSBK twelve months ago, and by hiring Eugene Laverty to pair with Tom Sykes, it’s clear just how seriously they will be taking the 2020 season.
WorldSBK is set for a thrilling campaign but what are the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats facing each manufacturer over the course of a 13 round campaign?
Strength: Full factory effort from HRC
Every rider in the world wants to be a factory Honda rider at some point in their career. Having the might of HRC behind them is something they all crave. Honda is an engineering company that demands success. For almost two decades, they elected not to field a factory Superbike on the world level. What’s changed to make them return? Their need to win. Honda are out to prove that they know best, that they can win again.
This is the greatest strength of their new Superbike project. The belief that HRC can turn things around will add a mystique to this project in the early rounds. If they can get some positive early season results, they’ll be able to go back to the Tokyo boardrooms and show the value of the WorldSBK project. With Marc Marquez having dominated MotoGP in recent years, Honda have been able to shift their attention to Superbike racing. Winning the world title and winning the Suzuka 8 Hours are their targets. Hiring Bautista and a host of Grand Prix personnel shows the importance of this project.
Weakness: Everything is so new
A clean sheet of paper is something often said in racing. At the launch of a new bike you hear it a lot. A new project in racing is definitely one where you’ll hear it said a few times. It shows the potential of a project. It shows how seriously a manufacturer is taking things. They want to win and results will come soon. Of course that’s the theory, but racing is done on the track and once the lights go out everything is revealed. In recent years Honda have been exposed for their lack of support for the WorldSBK project.
This knowledge and experience vacuum of Superbike history could also affect their lead rider. Alvaro Bautista has spent his entire career using V4 engines but now has to adapt to an inline four cylinder machine. Why is this an issue? The Spaniard has spent ten years tailoring his riding style around the strengths of the V4 engine configuration-carrying corner speed and opening the throttle early and aggressively to setup his bike for the next straight. The Honda, like other inline fours, needs to be ridden differently. Spending as little time on the edge of the tyre has been the key for this configuration in WorldSBK. Can Bautista change his style quickly?
In 2020 they will be a genuine brand new entry to WorldSBK. Lots of engineers are having their first exposure to production racing having cut their teeth in the Grand Prix paddock. New tyres, new machinery and new demands. That’s a lot for any engineer to deal with but a team filled with inexperienced Superbike personnel will make for a very interesting campaign. A fresh set of eyes can make all the difference, as shown by Bautista in the early rounds of 2019, but if HRC are struggling will they have the internal knowledge to turn things around? That remains to be seen. It will however be one of the most interesting stories of 2020.
Opportunity: A whole new bike and a lot of untapped potential
The fresh eyes of engineers can be a strength for Honda. With a brand new bike there is the potential that the Honda Fireblade, designed from the ground up to be more competitive on the race track, may be the bike that Honda have been waiting for over a decade to arrive on the world stage. The old machine had potential, as shown by their BSB wins, but it lacked power and while it was mechanically sound it drove some riders manic such was their infuriation. This shouldn’t be the case in 2020, with the bike showing great top speed at Portimao and Haslam saying that the electronics are very strong already. Having that solid base can give Honda something to work off and improve upon.
This bike is brand new. Last year Ducati had already spent over 12 months testing their Panigale V4R around European race tracks. Honda hasn’t had the time to do this. They instead used last year as a data gathering campaign to understand the Pirelli tyres, Ohlins suspension and the mechanical needs of how to make a Superbike work. If they’ve put those lessons to good use they’ll be well placed in numerous races this year to challenge for wins.
Threat: The rider line-up
As crazy as it may seem for a team formed with riders who have both finished up as runner-up in WorldSBK, there are big question marks about the rider line-up that Honda has chosen. Alvaro Bautista’s stunning 11 wins in a row to begin his Superbike career seem like an age ago. The Spaniard has to prove that he can deal with the pressure when it starts to ramp up. Scott Redding wasn’t the only rival to comment on Bautista’s form in 2019, but the Englishman put it better than anybody when he said “Im not sure how it happened. He had both hands on the title but I suppose he had butter on his hands.”
Leon Haslam has been faster than Bautista in testing, but has the Spaniard been keeping his powder dry? Or did Haslam suddenly feel a surge in confidence with the Fireblade? The answer is likely somewhere between the two. This bike should suit the 2018 British Superbike champion’s style more than last year’s Kawasaki but it’s been startling to see the difference between both riders. Bautista has been struggling badly in the braking zone, and while last year he had such a significant advantage that it masked any issues he had, it’s unlikely he’ll have that to back him in 2020.