Absolute Superbike rookies Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge being drafted into the full HRC Honda WorldSBK team for the 2022 season would have seen Assen as something of a gamble in any season whatsoever.
But after two tough years on the ‘new’ Fireblade RR-R, and few podiums even for an experienced rider like Alvaro Bautista, at first sight the double rookie strategy seemed like a last chance saloon long shot when you were out of other options.
Last year Honda was far from out of options, with strong potential signings everywhere for their well-resourced full factory effort. All of them had more experience of production-derived racing than two MotoGP products like Lecuona and Vierge.
Assen was hardly a potential podium fest for Vierge, who is still carrying injuries, but for Lecuona, even a huge crash early in the weekend could not prevent him from having a strong top five weekend that culminated in his first WorldSBK podium finish after only six races.
Had Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu not fallen in race two, Lecuona and all know that he would have finished inside the top five, but nothing can hide the fact that in the earliest days of their combination, Lecuona plus Honda equals 99% competitiveness.
It did not look that way on Friday, as Lecuona explained himself from his surprise appearance in the Assen Media Centre on Sunday afternoon.
“In FP1 I finished second, in FP2 I had a massive crash,” he recounted, with a slight grimace. “There was a big pain in my leg all the weekend. At that moment I feel I have little potential not to fight for the podium, but to fight for P4, P5 maybe, because I feel very, very strong. In race one, I was P5. In Superpole also I have a very good lap time and I finished again P5. So, I know it’s a good choice to try to escape with the top riders because it’s the best result on the grid, P5. I know the first laps I use a bit more tyre. I can take some gap with the other guys with the second group, and maybe try the podium and maybe try to fight for P4.”
After the Jonathan/Toprak incident, Lecuona even led for a bit. “I said, this is the time to try to push because I know the yellow flag is not for me, because it’s just in front of me. So, I can overtake because I was the crash, but I don’t watch any yellow flags. So, I overtake Alvaro and Locatelli. I tried to push. I tried to take some gap. But in the end, I know Alvaro is very fast, so I tried to follow for some laps to take some gap. I can do it, but Locatelli also went very fast in the end.
“The last four or five laps, I struggled with the rear tyre. I have zero, zero grip. Just I wanted to manage it. The next ones, the group behind me, was almost four seconds back, so I know the last three laps I need to stay calm and to finish the race. I did this and I finished in the podium. I didn’t expect it, but for sure, I’m very, very happy to finish on the podium.”
The WorldSBK paddock knew little of Lecuona when he signed but from the start he has shown he has quality - as could be expected from a rider trained through the MotoGP system and with the correct approach to life one level down.
“When asked how much the 2022 bike has been improved over the 2021 version, to get such a result this early, Lecuona said, “For sure, the bike has improved step by step. We need more time. I know if everybody stays on track, my position maybe is P5, to fight for P5. But, finally, I’m there and if one rider crashes I can take some profit. For me, the bike is a bit better, but we need to develop it more.
“But, it’s true I come from MotoGP. Two years with the KTM and it’s not an easy bike. Everybody can check now - they struggle a lot, the riders. I’m in top ten always. Maybe not always, but I fight for a podium one time or for top six. So, I’m a rider that likes to adapt to the bike and I try to take all the profit that I can do. I try to do this with the bike. Also my Dad said yesterday night that he believes in me more than anybody, more than my Mom, for example, because he knows very well. He comes with me always. He said that if I am focused and I put my 100% on the bike, I can fight for the podium and in the moment when I check the group, I say that it’s the day. It’s the time to put the focus and put everything on the bike, and I can do.”
Lecuona was another rider right behind the Rea/Razgatlioglu crash, and he said of it, “A strange crash. Sometimes happens. I think is a racing incident. Rea go inside and Toprak go in too close. When he crashed, also I overtook Locatelli and I overtook Alvaro. I hit Alvaro. Sometimes this happens. I think it’s nothing crazy. But also, I’m looking from the bike and from behind. It’s also difficult to watch all what happened on the corner.”
Asked if they hit and then fell, Lecuona said, “Yes, for what I check, it’s just Rea going inside and Toprak outside and both crashed. But, sometimes happens in the fast corners like this. But I’m behind, so I cannot say 100 per cent. It’s just my idea.”
After a good start in Motorland in round one and a strong recovery after a difficult start at Assen, another true test for Lecuona beckons. Round three, at Estoril, is the first round of the year that does not take place at a recent MotoGP circuit. Honda has not tested there in the winter, and neither 2022 HRC rider has ever raced there.