If you ask someone about Honda’s involvement in World Superbikes, the chances are they will mention either Ten Kate and James Toseland or the Castrol Honda of Colin Edwards if they’re a little older. There are, of course, other Honda teams in the championship, but since the Japanese company’s well publicised departure from the series there have been no official factory entries. The trouble is, a company like Honda is unlikely to leave things alone completely. And with a production bike as good as the current Fireblade, there would always be teams wanting to base their race effort on Honda’s offering. With that in mind, Honda released a race kit for the Fireblade that offered increased power and reliability while staying inside the rules and, most importantly, saving face after their split with the organisers over the single make tyre rule back in 2002.
Ten Kate are the team that people think of because James Toseland is one of the most popular riders, he’s British and he keeps winning things. But there are other Honda teams in the paddock, and the most professional – and successful – of these is Alto Evolution. With two talented and enthusiastic riders, the young Yoann Tiberio and Toseland’s former team-mate Karl Muggeridge, Alto Evolution is one of the best turned out, hard working and committed teams you’ll find in the paddock. But it isn’t easy.
Alto Evolution was a new team at the beginning of the 2007 season, formed after owner Walter Tomassi bought the established but struggling and uncompetitive Bertocchi Kawasaki team. The switch to the Fireblade was a natural move as one of the charismatic Tomassi’s companies deals in tuning and performance parts for Honda, but despite that there was a lot to be learned and a steep learning curve to be climbed.
When we first caught up with the team, at Donington, the front runners had engines producing around 215bhp. Alto Evolution had about 180. Their traction control was pretty rudimentary and they didn’t have enough testing time to really get things working properly. As the season went on, though, things improved. By Valencia they had around 200bhp and by Monza they were approaching a level where they could be genuinely competitive. By the end of the season the bike was essentially able to hold its own in a straight drag race and had excellent reliability as well, though there will always be niggling problems with race bikes as a function of the very hard life they lead.
Of course, there’s a lot more to making a viable race bike than just producing lots of power. Time and time again we have seen slower bikes take the spoils because they have been easy to ride, have preserved their tyres better and have had the edge in handling. And, truth be told, chassis setup is the area where, as an outsider, it seems the Alto Evolution team have struggled the most. It’s something of a dark art, setting up a modern racebike properly, and the more sophisticated the bike the bigger difference can result.
Team organisation counts for a huge amount, and during the last part of the season the new technical director, Marco Nicotari has made sweeping changes that have seen the hangovers from the old Bertocchi team replaced with a new attitude, new professionalism and, in places, new team members. And certainly the feeling in the pit is way better, with fewer people standing around looking lost and the activity generally seeming rather more focussed.
Marco has an impressive track record, having worked with such luminaries as Sebastian Porto, Daijiro Katoh, Lucas Oliver and Tomomi Manako as well as running his own race teams in Europe and South America. He’s an accomplished rider in his own right, so has a better idea of what the rider needs than some in his position. He’s also passionate about the team and what it needs to really succeed. And he’s not shy about saying what’s wrong, either.
“Before we came here” he said when we were talking at Monza “we had an ECU which revved to 15500rpm, and it worked really well. We had speed and the bike was set up to handle it properly. It was good, and we were really competitive. But Honda took the ECU back and now we only have 14000rpm. We’ve lost a lot of power but more importantly it wrecks tyres as it’s made the bike nervous when it hits the rev limiter and upsets the balance just when the rider is expecting it to rev out. It’s very frustrating because it feels as though the race is being decided by someone outside instead of on the track.”
But the measure of a man isn’t the way that he apportions the blame elsewhere. No, it’s the way that he accepts responsibility for his own failings. And on this, Marco is refreshingly honest. He points at the progress that has been made in so many areas, but at the same time is very frank about the frustrations they have experienced and isn’t afraid to take the blame. At Brands Hatch, for example, the team were having problems getting the bike to handle properly. One particular area was losing Muggeridge maybe half a second a lap as he fought either to control the wheelie or manage the wheelspin out of Surtees. Some changes between sessions on the Saturday weren’t as successful as they might have been. “Before” said Marco “we were losing time at the one place. We could see it on the dataloggers and we thought we had the answer. But we were mistaken and it has hurt us.” Muggeridge was equally frank. “Earlier on we were struggling out of Surtees. Now it’s more consistent but it’s just bloody horrible everywhere!”
Setup and organisational issues aside, the team is professional and hard working, though the setbacks they experienced through the first part of the season were nothing compared to the disaster that overtook them after Silverstone. Losing both bikes in the first race was bad enough, with Karl Muggeridge highsiding out on the first lap in appalling conditions and Josh Brookes climbing well up the table before crashing out himself. Race two, of course, was abandoned, which left the team heading for home with no points. Then it got worse, as the team truck, with all four bikes, spares and setup data were hijacked in France. Though eventually everything was recovered, the guys missed Misano and the confusion and distress were sufficient to cause Josh Brookes, who had already started to express reservations about his future, to quit the team.
Reformed for Brno, with a new paint job and some extra sponsors, the team gave Karl Muggeridge the benefit of their total support, and despite an engine that was still down on power they put together a beautifully balanced and fine handling bike which was then utterly destroyed when Laconi T-boned Muggas in the first race.
Brands Hatch saw them with a brilliant engine but unable to match the fine handling they had before on the new bike, as mentioned earlier. Muggas rode as hard as he always does for what felt like precious little reward as a miscalculation in the pits saw him run out of fuel while going brilliantly in race one. A fourteenth place finish in race two doesn’t even nearly reflect the commitment and effort the team made.
Lausitzring saw the team back up to full strength in every respect. Yoann Tiberio joined from Supersport, replacing the departed Josh Brookes. The young Frenchman couldn’t be any more different. He takes life a little more seriously, perhaps, but is totally dedicated to the job in hand and is completely happy with the opportunity that this ride presents him. The pit crew were fully up to strength as well, and able to start working together properly as a team. Poor weather hampered the team’s efforts to get a good setup, but results showed the work they had put in, with both riders scoring points in a round that everyone found tough.
Vallelunga, a new round, saw further improvement with, again, both riders scoring points, while the final round at Magny Cours had Tiberio in his first ever Superpole and both riders taking solid points finishes in both races.
2008 sees many changes within the team, as well as far more involvement from Honda themselves. With electronics and suspension help from the Japanese factory, the 2008 Alto Evolution Honda is going to be a serious force to be reckoned with. The last word, then, to Marco Nicotari: “We finally have confirmed the 2 new riders for next year. They are Shuhei Aoyama and Luca Morelli, who fit perfectly with our philosophy of investing in new talent. These riders come with the blessing of Honda (the first one from Honda Japan and the second from Honda Italy), they are very motivated and we are very happy about our choice. Next year we will finally reach the level we have worked for, without any outside influences, which for sure have limited our performance during the 2007 season.
We have done many improvements for the next season, but unfortunately delivery delays with the new bikes mean we will make the first two races with two of last year's machines and two new ones. After we come back to Europe, I expect and to be running with only the 2008 model CBR 1000 at a competitive level.
2007 is past and we look forward to do a proper 2008 season, in the level this Team deserves."
Editor's Note: Shuhei Aoyama has been a factory Honda 250 GP rider for the last couple of years. He's just 22. Luca Morelli rode the latter half of last season with DFX Honda, regularly demonstrating a talent better than his results suggested. He's also 22.