Last week news broke that Ian Hutchinson is set to join Honda’s road racing squad for the 2018 season.
While it’s yet to be officially confirmed – Honda will be unable to announce the news until Hutchinson’s contract with BMW ends at some point this month – MCN understands that deal is now done with Hutchy joining Lee Johnston (who is still to be confirmed) in the Louth-based factory squad. But will this new line-up be enough to see Honda recover from a difficult 2017 season?
There’s no skirting around the facts, Honda’s roads campaign couldn’t have gone much worse this year.
23-time TT winner John McGuinness was thrown from his CBR1000RR Fireblade following a fault with the bike’s ECU causing the machine to accelerate as tipped in to the North West 200’s scarily-fast Primrose Hill corner.
McGuinness sustained a badly broken leg in the incident, ruling him out of the remainder of the year’s action and leaving him in doubt for 2018.
Their other rider, TT racer turned TV star Guy Martin would also suffer a horrendous season as he returned to racing after a year out.
Struggling with the all-new bike, Martin was underwhelmingly slow ahead of the TT, where he’d go on to not even complete a lap of racing aboard the Fireblade after a crash at Doran’s bend on the first lap of the Superbike race – a crash purportedly caused by a false neutral. Afterwards Martin slammed the bike, calling it a ‘Jonah’ in an interview with ITV’s Craig Doyle, claiming whatever they did ‘it would never be right’.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say Hutchinson’s decision to part company with the Tyco BMW team with whom he’s won three TT races in the last two years to move to the struggling Honda squad is a bold one to say the least.
However, while the 2017 Fireblade struggled in some areas of competition – including the Superbike World Championship – the machine was quick elsewhere. Despite a difficult start to the year, Dan Linfoot took the new blade to two victories in the British Superbike championship while his team-mate Jason O’Halloran made the series’ top six championship shootout.
Honda’s World Endurance team, which is run alongside the roads effort, finished on the podium with the new Fireblade in the gruelling Bol d’Or 24-hour race and the Eight Hours of Slovakia Ring in the Endurance World Championship.
While there’s no doubt the new bike in race-trim had experienced some issues, it also showed potential in its debut season.
Despite the tough year, Honda’s determined Louth-based squad are clearly not giving up and signing a top TT star is exactly what they need if they’re to get back on track.
With McGuinness out of the equation (even he doesn’t know if he’ll return to the roads on a full-blown superbike in the future), there are only two or three names you’d look to sign if you want to stand on the top step at the TT.
At present Hutchinson is the second fastest rider of all time around the TT course and is the third most successful solo rider in the event’s history with 16 mountain course wins (behind just Joey Dunlop and John McGuinness).
The Fireblade’s improvement on short circuits towards the end of the year, as well as further steps made by both BSB and WSB teams testing in Jerez two weeks ago, will no doubt help the roads squad. The BSB boys tested a more powerful but more manageable engine in Spain, while both squads also made steps with the aerodynamic efficiency of the bike - an area which both McGuinness and Martin had criticised - towards the end of the year with revised, aerodynamic race bodywork already on the way.
One thing Honda have always done well is testing. Their usually-extensive programme was hampered badly this year by the late arrival of the 2017 bikes, but it’ll be full steam ahead next year with tests at both Monteblanco in Spain and Castle Combe. While Hutchinson’s fitness for the first test in Spain might be in doubt, his new team-mate Lee Johnston will be able to ride.
Finally, wanting to keep some consistency for 2018 the Japanese giant has reportedly convinced former race boss Neil Tuxworth, who officially retired from his role in August this year, to return in an advisory capacity for next year’s North West 200 and Isle of Man TT.
While Tuxworth’s ruthlessness made him somewhat of a marmite character on the racing scene, his contribution towards Honda becoming the most successful manufacturer in TT history cannot be questioned.
That, combined with an extensive testing schedule ahead of the season’s start, the progress with the Fireblade seen by other Honda teams around the globe and Hutchinson’s talent, if he’s fully fit, could see the Bingley Bullet take Honda back to the sharp end in 2018.
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