Cruising Newport on a yacht with Team Honda HRC, you can’t help but sense the energy in the air.
Sure, the holiday season usually brings an added measure of warm and fuzzy feelings, but this particular excursion, a very cool, laid back and informal way to introduce the 2017 Honda factory team, brings a measure of excitement and anticipation for a revamped squad that now features perhaps two of the hottest properties in the sport of motocross and supercross, Ken Roczen and the all-new 2017 Honda CRF450R. Honda has clearly upped the ante in its quest to return to the pinnacle of the AMA scene, and while not exactly jumping out of its collective skin, the team can’t contain its level of confidence on this particular boat ride. Hell, even the name of the boat, Mojo, is appropriate. With the acquisition of Roczen, the return to health of Cole Seely and the addition of test rider Andrew Short, Honda may indeed have its mojo back.
“Things are going very well for us, and I’m really excited about the future,” Team Honda Manager Dan Betley said. “We have a new rider and a new test rider. I see wins and championships going forward.”
It’s hard to argue against Team Honda HRC’s position before the gate drops, as the signing of reigning Lucas Oil 450cc Pro Motocross Champions Roczen was confirmed late this year. The German rider immediately showed his potential aboard the new factory Honda CRF450R at the Monster Energy Cup, where he won two of the three supercross finals and, but for a scary crash in the second race while he was also leading, might have become the second rider ever to collect the Monster Million. But that’s water under the bridge now, and Roczen is supremely confident that he can continue the level of performances with Honda that saw him rack up wins in the last five rounds of the 2016 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series. In fact, he makes no bones about it.
“I really do feel like I am the guy to beat,” Roczen said. “Obviously we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s good to be able to go racing with a calm mind. That’s the biggest thing.”
Roczen said part of that confidence comes from the fact that he has found an instantaneous high level of comfort on the new CRF450R even though it is, he says, quite different from the Suzuki RM-Z450 he rode last season.
“The motor, the chassis and the whole feel of the bike are completely different,” Roczen said. “I can’t tell you about the 2016 Honda because I never rode one, but the proportions of the  bike and the balance of it are really good. The suspension action…everything…it’s an improvement from A to Z. The motor is really good, the chassis is really good and the suspension is really good. I literally have no complaints. I told the guys when I jumped on it for the first time, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I just have fun on it, and it feels really good. As soon as there is something I feel like changing, I will let you know, but otherwise, right now, it’s great.’”
Being in the zone doesn’t mean that Roczen expects to just bowl over the competition, though. As he puts it, you can never tell who is going to step up and challenge for the title. Of course, there are perennial contenders, such as reigning Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series Champion Ryan Dungey and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Eli Tomac, to think about. Sizing them up, however, is not something that Roczen chooses to do.
“It will be interesting,” Roczen said. “You can never count Dungey out. I don’t know how he will bounce back from his injury, but the guy is consistent, and he can go fast. I am sure Eli Tomac will be there, and there are a lot of guys, too, so it is really hard to pinpoint just one. And I think it would be the wrong thing to focus on other people anyway, to think about who is going to give me the most trouble. We have seen in the previous years, too, that some people go good in the beginning and drop off in the end. Up until now, the only guy that has had a consistent run is Ryan.”
But Roczen said he can really feel that he will be a prime contender for the crown.
“Normally people from the outside might say something like that, but I can feel it because I know that I am the fastest and the fittest that I have ever been, and also the most comfortable on the bike that I have ever been,” Roczen said. “[Fitness-wise] I feel like I what I did back in the day, and struggled with, I can now do that with just my right leg.”
Roczen doesn’t expect that he will win every race, but he does feel like he can put together the kind of season that will make Honda proud. With Roczen, an all-new bike and a new outlook, Honda has high hopes for both the supercross and outdoor titles. That works, because that’s exactly what Roczen wants.
“I’m going in with a very strong mindset that I am the best rider, but I intend to treat the whole thing with 100-percent respect. We’re going to keep a calm head. I don’t have a premier class supercross title yet, so that would be huge. That is the ultimate goal. Every time I go out there, I’m going to put my heart into it to win races.”
With all the hype surrounding Roczen’s move to Team Honda HRC, it might be easy to forget that the team has another bona fide contender in Seely, who finished third in the 2015 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series points standings. His high hopes for another strong season in 2016 were derailed by injury, but Seely said he is healthy and ready to go for it when the gate drops at Angel Stadium on January 7, 2017.
“Right now I am in a really good place,” Seely said. “I’m actually very excited. This has been, by far, the most productive off-season. I have been working with a new training group, and that was really what turned around my whole outdoor season. Working with them and going to the track with Wardy [AMA motocross and supercross legend Jeff Ward] produced some really long and productive days, and I think I’ve built a really good base from that.”
Seely has plenty of experience with the 2015 and 2016 Honda factory 450s, so he can’t resist smiling when talking about just how much better the 2017 version is.
“Just in the last six weeks we’ve made some huge changes that have significantly improved the power and the handling, but right from the first time we got on it we knew we had something special,” Seely said. “At first we really didn’t know what direction to go. We’ve done a lot of testing and exploring with various parts, and luckily we’ve had Shorty [Andrew Short] along for the ride, to help me figure out the good stuff. It’s just a process, but it’s really cool. The bike is just awesome. With the new chassis and motor, it’s an awesome machine that is going to be good. It really suits me.”
Having Short back on the team to serve as a test rider and brand ambassador seems to suit Honda as well. It definitely suits the man himself, who retired aboard a KTM in 2016. For Short, returning to Honda is like returning to his roots.
“It’s been great for me,” Short said. “My time at Honda brings back a lot of fond memories, and they’re mostly good with Dan. [laughs] It has been a lot of fun to work with Cole. I haven’t spent much time with him. We were joking about how a year or two ago he was a little bummed on me because I took him out at a supercross. [laughs]. But it has been cool to see the familiar faces at Honda. Obviously I have a good relationship with Kenny. I think he is going to have a successful year. There are a lot of people that make this team go round and compete at the highest level. There are a lot of people back at the shop that make this team so special, and I think that now that I have been to other factories and seen what other teams have, this team has something special going on right now, a lot of great personnel. Without them, I don’t think these guys would be at the level that we have to be at this year.”
Seely said that he is also pleased that he is gelling with his new teammate, Roczen, although he admits that the two have not spent a lot of time together yet.
“Other than at the Monster Cup and some test dates here and there, we haven’t hung out much. I’ve always been a California guy, and he usually goes to Florida, but in the past we’ve gotten along well, and now that we are teammates I’m sure it will be even better. It’s good to have him around. He is obviously super-fast, and he brings a lot of energy to the team. He definitely blends well with the crew.”
Seely is such a mild-mannered and quiet person that gauging his level of confidence and enthusiasm has been difficult in the past. That demeanor hasn’t changed, but he says that his confidence and his own expectations of his performance level have. The team’s “Clark Kent” is now feeling like more like “Superman.”
“The confidence is easy to explain,” Seely said. “I have a lot of it. I’m in a great position mentally and physically. I haven’t really made any changes in my program—I have the same people and the same team around me. Confidence can’t be learned. You just have to feel it, and I definitely have been these past couple weeks. I really feel like I am going to be there, right in the thick of things. I just want go get out there and race hard. These last two weeks have been going so slowly. I just want to be racing already!”
Seely said that he can see himself finishing on top of the box at Anaheim 1 just like he did in 2016. But whether or not that happens, his plan is simple: Take it race by race.
“I think that the more you start to take it as an actual season, the easier it is to lose your intensity,” Seely said. “I’m going to come out swinging at A1, and then I’m going to do the same at San Diego, and so on. I want holeshots, and I want wins. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be up there. You’ve got to respect the tremendous talent that’s out there, but you’ve also go to want it.”
Roczen wants it. Seely wants it. And Honda really wants it. Will 2017 be the year that the Red Riders return to the dominant position they once occupied? Anything can happen, but it’s a safe bet.