Repsol Honda are in uncharted territories ahead of the 2021 MotoGP world championship coming off the back of their worst-ever performance in the premier class last season.
The bigger worry ahead of the 2021 campaign? Injured superstar Marc Marquez -- whose absence was the main factor behind their woes last term -- is still on the road to recovery having been out of action for the past eight months, with confirmation on Monday that he will miss the opening two races in Qatar.
Having never finished finished below fourth in 25 seasons prior to 2020, the Honda factory team had to settle for a lowly 9th place in the team standings in 2021, only bettering Aprilia among the six constructors. It was an unacceptable season, albeit filled with strokes of misfortune, for the most-decorated team in MotoGP history.
Since then, Pol Espargaro replaced Alex Marquez, who left the factory team to join Honda's satellite LCR Team. Espargaro, the 2013 Moto2 world champion and the younger brother of Aleix of Gresini Racing, will mount Honda's challenge in 2021 starting with the season-opener in Qatar on March 28.
The same cannot be said of his teammate.
Six-time premier-class world champion Marquez has had three surgeries to a right arm that suffered a fracture in a crash during the 2020 season opener last July and was further aggravated by a rushed comeback just five days later. A return date for the Spaniard in 2021 is unknown, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Honda and its fans.
Despite Stefan Bradl standing in for preseason testing, 28-year-old Marquez made his first public appearance since the injury last month and has taken the first step in his long road towards a racing return when he took a RC213V-S street bike for a stroll at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain this month. It will be an impatient wait for Marquez's fans to find out if the ace rider can come out of the woods and become the rider they have come to know during the last decade.
In the meantime, the onus will be on Espargaro, who secured five podiums in 2020 with Red Bull KTM, and Bradl, who finished strong last season, to keep Honda in the hunt.
What they said
Marc Marquez: "2020 was a difficult year for everyone and especially for me with the injury and watching the races from home. But I have continued to work with the doctors, with my team and with myself to recover and return to MotoGP.
"Of course, I would have liked to return sooner, but it is very important to listen to the doctors and my body until I am fully fit.
"I can imagine the best comeback that is to start riding again the bike and be the same, but it will be difficult to be like this. But we will see if it takes one race, two races, half the season to be the same Marc."
Pol Espargaro: "The lead up to this season has been one of the most exciting of my career. It's been like waiting for my first season or my MotoGP debut.
"To ride for Repsol Honda is every rider's dream and something to be truly proud of. Every few weeks I have taken another step, seeing the bike at my home, now wearing the leathers. The final step is to ride the RC213V for the first time. This excitement is motivating me to train more and be the best I can be for the 2021 world championship.
"I am here in the Repsol Honda Team in order to achieve success and fight at the top, this is the goal for 2021."
As the lights go out...
"It goes without saying that so much of Honda's potential success this year depends upon just how fit Marc Marquez is," says Edward Russell, FOX Sports Asia's MotoGP presenter.
"His absence though might ironically help new man Pol Espargaro, who will be able to get to grips with the RC213V without one of its most successful ever riders watching over him.
"Given their feuds over the years, I'm intrigued to see the dynamic between Marquez and Esparagaro as teammates, but either way I think this will very much be a transition year for the Repsols."
2021 will be a success if: Seeing Marquez back on the track riding his RC213V will be a treat for all motorsports fans and his return should also inspire people around him as Honda hope to put a difficult 2020 behind them.
At the top of their 2021 priority list will be proving last season's performance was just a one-off, but returning to the summit of the championship will not be easy with all the competition around.
If Marquez recovers to his former self and Espargaro also gets in on the act, Honda should at least be back challenging for honours this season. Otherwise, it could spell another disappointing campaign for them.