Rider: Martino Bianchi - Hitting the "Big Red" Line with Honda Racing
Although Team HRC didn’t take the podium in the finals, this year’s Dakar returned many stage wins and was full of promise for hopefuls like Ricky Brabec from the U.S., who ultimately finished 4th overall in his first-ever run. Following his efforts to place three rookies as top Dakar finishers for 2016, ADVMoto got a chance to talk with Martino Bianchi, Team HRC’s Rally General Manager, and report his thoughts on the team and what’s to come.
AM: What’s your racing background and how did you come to work with Honda Racing Corporation (HRC)? Any people/riders who inspired you along the way?
MB: I started motorcross racing when I was 15 years old, became a journalist in 1982 working as a writer and tester for Motocross Magazine. I worked with them in Italy from ’82 to ’88. In 1988 I attended my first Dakar as a journalist. I then turned to the manufacturer side and worked as team manager for the sole importer of Yamaha in Italy from ’88 until ’92. From 1992 to 2012 I worked for Husqvarna as their PR and Racing Activities Manager, winning 69 titles in various off-road disciplines including MX, Enduro, and Supermotard. HRC asked me to become the General Manager of their rally team in 2013 with a direct agreement from Japan. In my first year with HRC we won the Morocco Rally as well as the cross country title with Paulo Goncalves. Some of my fondest memories as a manager were with Micky Dymond (Yamaha MXGP 91), Chicco Chiodi (MX WC 1998, 1999) and Alex Puzar (MX GP 2002).
AM: When did Honda’s Rally Racing heritage start? Who were the key figures, and were there any critical turning points in the program’s history?
MB: The Honda rally heritage started at the very beginning of Dakar history in 1979 with Cyril Neveu, and then in ’86, ’87 and ’88 with the incredible NXR750 with Edi Orioli and Gilles Lalay. Then, after four victories in a row, Honda decided to stop the factory program around 1990. Honda re-started the rally project for the 2013 Dakar. In 2014 they decided to make a completely new machine which finished fifth in 2014 and second in 2015.
AM: ADVMoto is excited to see Ricky Brabec flying red colors in the 2016 Dakar. How did that happen?
MB: The scouting manager for Ricky Brabec was Team HRC’s Wolfgang Fischer, who discovered Ricky in California with the help of Johnny Campbell. Ricky is a very talented rider who has a great career ahead of him in the rally field.
AM: Can you tell us something specific about the CRF450 Rally that sets it apart from the competition?
MB: The CRF450 Rally was specifically created for rally racing. It’s really light and easy to ride, making our factory riders feel they’re on an MX bike. They don’t feel the weight because it’s so evenly distributed. The bike is extremely well proportioned. The CRF450 Rally is also loaded with technology. With a wireless throttle and sophisticated traction control the electronics help our riders take advantage of its extremely powerful engine at speeds up to 190 Km/h (118 mph) off road.
AM: Is this year’s entry a sign that Honda will continue to place American riders in the Dakar down the road?
MB: Ricky Brabec has an agreement directly with Honda HRC in Japan. And we’re speaking with Honda America in order to explore collaborations for the 2016 season with Ricky and the desert races.
AM: What’s HRC’s process of selecting racers and the attributes you look for? What attributes are critical in a rider at any level?
MB: HRC race schedules usually follow the FIM Cross Country World Championship, including some selected races in South America and the Dakar. HRC’s racing season selection is centered on the best rallies in terms of organization, safety and navigation. We want to make progress towards Dakar, and our objective is to win it. That’s why we need to practice in South America and other rallies where navigation and orientation is crucial. Our rider selection is focused mainly on their top speed prowess, navigation skills, and endurance capabilities.
AM: Unlike the rest of the world, enduro and rally style races are not popular in North America. Why do you think this great form of racing hasn’t developed in North America? Does Honda have plans to participate in the North American development of the sport?
MB: Let’s just say that enduro as it is in Europe is too complicated for what most perceive as the American motorcycle tradition. Cross country is much more U.S. oriented because the off-road areas in U.S. are more fitting for this style of racing. The U.S. doesn’t have a big tradition in rally style racing and needs more riders. Ricky could be a great ambassador for upcoming new riders who want to experience the adventure-style racing of Dakar. I really don’t know the plans of American Honda regarding rally racing, but it doesn’t seem they’re interested at the moment.
AM: Any closing thoughts or suggestions to offer aspiring or amateur racers reaching for the top?
MB: New or amateur riders aspiring to became professional rally racers must practice by getting involved with races that use road books and navigation systems. They should practice in Dakar series races in South America first, like Ruta 40 in Argentina, Atacama Rally in Chile or Sertoes Rally in Brazil, and then try their hands at the Morocco Rally. HondaRacingCorporation.com