The signing of Casey Stoner...
The signing of Casey Stoner has contributed greatly to the reinvigoration of the Repsol Honda squad, with the Australian already winning two races and dominating practice/qualifying sessions at the first four events.
The much-maligned 800cc era of MotoGP racing comes to a close this November in Valencia, Spain and, for many, not a minute too soon. The racing has lacked the drama and excitement of the 990cc era and, especially, the 500cc two-strokes before them. With their emphasis on corner speeds and electronics, the 800s were never embraced by the teams, fans—or riders, very few of whom were able to win a race in the 800cc era. The two most prolific riders of the past four years are Casey Stoner, when he was with Ducati, and Valentino Rossi at Yamaha; Stoner has won 23 races, Rossi 21.
Notably absent as a consistent presence on the top step of the podium is Honda, which is ironic since it was Honda who drove the change from 990cc to 800cc. Dani Pedrosa won twice in 2007, ’08, and ’09. Andrea Dovizioso took Honda’s other win, in difficult conditions at the 2009 British GP.
Although Dani Pedrosa (26)...
Although Dani Pedrosa (26) has been a fixture on the Repsol Honda squad for six years, his development skills are in question with the lack of title results. San Carlo Honda Gresini’s Marco Simoncelli (58) is now on a factory RC212V in the satellite team, and the tall Italian is already making waves.
The start of the 800cc era marked the ascendance of Pedrosa as the leader of the Honda team, both on the track and off. In fact, it had begun in 2006 when Nicky Hayden was asked to use a Pedrosa-influenced chassis on his RC211V at Donington Park. The experiment was a failure, but Hayden is a team player and went along. Certainly he was hopeful of improvements.
Hayden’s championship was the last of the 990cc era and marked the end of a fertile time for Honda. From 1983, when Honda won its first 500cc World Championship, through to 2006, Honda won 14 premier class titles. The list of champions begins with Freddie Spencer and continues with Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Alex Criville, and, for the first three years of the new millennium, Valentino Rossi. In that same period Yamaha won eight championships, Suzuki two, and Ducati one.
When Rossi moved to Yamaha in 2004 he took more than his talent. He took both his crew and his ability to develop a motorcycle. At the time, senior Honda officials barely lamented the loss of the world champion, believing their motorcycle was so strong that they could just plug in another rider. Such hubris would be their downfall.
Former HRC director Takeo...
Former HRC director Takeo Fukui was a major influence on Honda’s glory years during the ending of the 500cc era and the initial seasons in MotoGP. He has since moved on to become CEO of Honda Motor Corp. in Japan.
The roster of presidents of Honda Racing Corporation has some fabled names, include Takeo Fukui, who would later become the CEO of Honda, and Youichi Oguma, a Spencer ally who accepted nothing but the best from his people. Suguru Kanazawa was there for most of the Rossi years and the Hayden title.
HRC seemed to lose its way early in the tenure of Satoru Horiike, who many on the team believe was more interested in Superbikes. It would take Masumi Hamane and Tet Suzuki to get Honda back on course. The problem was that Hamane was unbelievably busy at R&D with many new projects and he also knew he was to retire two years after he got the HRC job. He simply couldn’t devote enough of his considerable energy to sorting it all out. But he set them on the right road and Tet Suzuki seems to have learned what it takes to make men tick. Late in 2008, Shuhei Nakamoto, who had extensive experience in both the motorcycle and Formula One championships, was put in charge. When the HRC vice president joined Honda in 1983 he met a young mechanic named Jeremy Burgess.
HRC men Tet Suzuki and Masumi...
HRC men Tet Suzuki and Masumi Hamane (right) were instrumental to helping HRC get back on course with RC212V development, after years of inconsistent results and wavering team morale.
The knock on former HRC director...
The knock on former HRC director Satoru Horiike was that he was more interested in production bikes and Superbike racing than MotoGP, and the results showed.
“They haven’t won in the 800 era and this would be something that may not mean much to the average bloke in the street, but it probably, corporately, is a period of great unsuccessfulness,” Burgess said. “So I would say they would be quite keen to win at least one in the 800 era.”
When Valentino Rossi famously...
When Valentino Rossi famously left the factory Honda team for Yamaha in 2004, HRC felt that the bike was good enough that another rider could be plugged in and more championships won. Such hubris has been Honda’s downfall since then.
The rumors about Rossi going to Ducati were long settled before anyone knew whether Burgess would be going with him. Certainly, he’d be of interest to Nakamoto, who understands the value of every member on the team and has lifted the team’s overall morale. The Australian with the unmatched record of world champions and world championships waited until last year’s Australian Grand Prix before revealing his intentions to stay with Rossi. There was some belief he’d return to Honda, but the talks were never serious.
“We never really talked,” he said. “Nakamoto and I go back a long way and of course they were putting together an operation with Casey (Stoner), I guess, and I’ve got a lot of friends at Honda. He asked would I be interested in coming back to Honda or would it be possible. But he didn’t indicate for this year. It was just a very loose sort of thing…but it’s always nice to be asked.”
More than any single individual, Nakamoto is responsible for Honda’s resurgence, though he doesn’t see it that way. Nakamoto speaks very good English when he wants to, which is most of the time. His round, friendly face invites conversation and he’s quick to engage, even joking in English. But during an extended interview unit at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, Nakamoto was uncharacteristically reticent. And on the subject of Honda’s resurgence, he thought—though he’s ultimately responsible for the machine—that the RC212V wasn’t much better.
Nakamoto’s good grasp of English...
Nakamoto’s good grasp of English allows him to converse easily with riders, making the team even more of a tight-knit group. Here he chats with Casey Stoner (left) and Andrea Dovisioso (right) during the preseason tests at Sepang.
With extensive experience...
With extensive experience in both motorcycle and automotive Formula One championships, Shuhei Nakamoto was brought in as director of HRC’s MotoGP program to turn it around.
Nakamoto’s authoritative management...
Nakamoto’s authoritative management has allowed HRC to not only have four top riders on the factory RC212V in 2011, but also lifted team morale. When he speaks, people listen.
“I want to say yes, but only rider can make a good lap time,” he said, adding, with a smile, “That machine, I couldn’t make such a good lap time. That means rider. And also rider learn a lot how to use the Honda machine. Both mixture…rider approach, rider improve, machine improve. Not only the machine.”