One of the first things that Nakamoto recognized back in 2009 was how relatively primitive the electronics were. Earlier this year he said motorcycle electronics were three years behind Formula One. “Now MotoGP electronics are catching up,” he said in Estoril.
Late in the 2009 season Nakamoto hired two data engineers from Yamaha. “Yes, they stole the Yamaha electronics guys, didn’t they?” Burgess asked with a smile. “We knew what they would probably get after what we had at Yamaha. And the guys left Yamaha because they could offer more. But Yamaha, at that time, wasn’t prepared to go down that road. So those electronics guys become somewhat frustrated twiddling their thumbs when they knew they could do more. And Honda offered them an opportunity and they took it. And whether they get spit out after a couple of years or end up in the same boat, where Honda says, ‘yeah, we’ve got what we want now’ and the development will slow down, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Pedrosa’s mentor Alberto Puig...
Pedrosa’s mentor Alberto Puig (right) has been very influential in Pedrosa’s career at the Repsol Honda squad, but when he was offered a more managerial role at the team, he refused.
The results from 2010 were encouraging. Pedrosa won twice as many races in one season as he ever had—four to two—and was the only rider with even the slimmest hope of catching Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo for the title when his throttle stuck in Japan. Why he won so few races the previous three years was a source of concern inside the company and a source of amusement to the outsiders. Everyone agreed that the RC212V was a good bike, but the development wasn’t on par with the Yamaha. Put that to Rossi’s abilities compared to Pedrosa’s.
“I don’t know how you could work with a rider for three years and not go forward,” a Honda insider said of Pedrosa’s early years. The lack of direction, of authority, of a commanding presence like Oguma, for example, was blamed for Honda’s less than stellar results. Nakamoto has changed the culture inside the race team.
“I think the addition of having Casey (Stoner) down there has made them all put in a little bit more,” said Burgess. “And of course when you can see that one guy’s going fast, you don’t have any real excuses. You’ve got to get on with it. Honda has always said when our bike is right we’ll win and they always believe it’s the bike that does it. But I think Nakamoto, without saying it, was smart enough to say, ‘Well how good can we have the bike before we have to get a rider good enough to ride it? Let’s put some pressure on. Let’s get some riders.’” Nakamoto agreed. “We need a strong rider,” he said, and he had the right partner to go out and get that rider.
Italian Livio Suppo is the HRC Communications and Marketing Director. Suppo speaks fluent English, and came from Ducati where he worked for 11 years. From 2003 through 2009 he was the MotoGP project leader. It was Suppo who made the forward-thinking decision to have Ducati ditch long-dominant Michelin for Bridgestone in 2005.
“When you sign with a strong rider, first of all you take a strong rider away from the competitor,” he said. “This is the first effect; somebody else don’t have him. Then, the more you have, the easier it is. In the last three seasons…you know we always speak about the top four guys, Vale, Casey, Dani, (Jorge). Yamaha had two, Ducati one, Honda one. So Honda and Ducati can only win races basically with Casey or Dani, while Yamaha was possible to win with two. This is a big advantage as a manufacturer. Of course, now we have one more very strong rider and that result looks even more.”
What Stoner brings to Honda, as much as anything, is a fresh approach. Clearly what Pedrosa was doing wasn’t working. Dovizioso is getting better, but he’s not a podium threat. And Marco Simoncelli is too inconsistent to be driving development.
“When you get an engineering group who work and trust and believe in the rider—which is something the rider has to create in the first instance—then you move forward very quickly,” Burgess said. “Mick Doohan was able to do it with Honda. Freddie (Spencer), Wayne Rainey…all the good guys have been able to work very closely with the engineering group and what the rider says versus what they deliver takes you forward very quickly.” Nakamoto insists that all riders have the same input, but the words of the rider who wins are always given greater weight.
By the time winter testing began in Sepang in January, the evidence was overwhelming: Hondas were the fastest in every session in both Sepang tests, the pre-season test in Qatar, and the Qatar race weekend. When Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo crossed the line victorious in the rain-hit Spanish GP in Jerez, it was the first time a non-Honda was atop the standings in any session this season.
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.
According to Rossi, the “Honda has a clear advantage in the engine, especially compared to Yamaha, but also a little bit compared to us (the Ducati). Also the gearbox is different but it is not just the engine. The bike has a great balance with good turning and in acceleration it is very stable. So it is very close to an M1, but with horsepower.” Yamaha’s Ben Spies agreed. “The bike’s fast. They look like they fixed some of the stability issue and it accelerates hard and it’s smooth on the gear change. It’s doing everything good. Development is only a step away from making our stuff better and that’s what we look forward to.”
The knock on the Honda is that it lacks braking stability. Nakamoto agrees that braking stability was the biggest problem, but that it’s improved. “Not fixed. Better,” he said.
What’s definitely improved is the new transmission, however (see sidebar)—though Nakamoto wasn’t voluble in discussing it. Stoner and Pedrosa said the shifting is much smoother under acceleration, upsetting the bike less.
Whether it’s the transmission or not, Edwards said the only thing that seems different is that “this year they seem really good on new tires, new soft tires they seem like they can extract the maximum potential. Our times are better, but [only] by tenths. They seem to be able to put a soft tire on and, man, they can just extract every bit of traction and side grip out of it. Other than that, the bike does seem good. When you follow ‘em, it seems pretty good.” And this year, a lot of riders have been following them.