The Phillip Island MotoGP race was both good and bad for the Repsol Honda team. The good was Casey Stoner surprising even himself in completely dominating the weekend, leading all practices and qualifying on his way to a runaway victory in the race on Sunday. The bad was teammate Dani Pedrosa grabbing the lead on the first lap, only to crash out of the race on the next lap and hand the MotoGP World Championship over to rival Jorge Lorenzo with one race still to run. HRC’s vice president Shuhei Nakamoto talks at length in this Honda interview about his admiration for Stoner’s awe-inspiring performance (despite a still-healing right ankle), as well as the circumstances surrounding Pedrosa’s crash, and what the team looks for next season with Pedrosa and newly crowned Moto2 champion Marc Marquez taking the place of the retiring Stoner.
OK, so first the good – Casey Stoner, in just his second race back from injury, wins his home GP. He completely outperformed everyone in practice and qualifying, and then rode a brilliant race to win his sixth consecutive Australian GP.
Nakamoto: Yes, he rode magnificently. You could be forgiven for being astonished that this man is on the point of retiring. There wasn't a single rider here who didn't feel that Casey was simply riding in a higher class this weekend – it seemed so effortless the way he simply left everyone behind in the dust. The first day of free practice was cold, with strong winds and intermittent drizzle, and yet Casey was making the sort of times he recorded in qualifying last year. The second day's weather was also very changeable, but Casey remained just as fast. He had just started the qualifying session when the bike flipped him off on the first hairpin – a combination of hard tires and a bumpy surface. But he was fine, and soon started racking up lap times in the mid 1:29s. Rain prevented a final attack to rack up an even faster time, but even so Casey took pole with an unmatchable lead. The weather prevented us going full out in the qualifying session, but getting times in the mid 1:29s under those conditions is quite remarkable. He just had to keep that up to win. But on race day, the sun came out, conditions were perfect, and the race was basically Casey's for the taking.
This was the third race in three weeks that Stoner has ridden on a still not fully healed right ankle.
Nakamoto: Yes, his injury isn't fully healed yet, and he wasn't able to complete rehabilitation before returning to the track either. With three races in a row, you'd be expecting him to be hurting most on the third race, but Phillip Island is probably the best of the three for riding with a right ankle injury, far easier than Motegi or Sepang. The course here goes counter-clockwise, it's mostly left bends and there are few sections that require sharp changes in direction. Because this track features a series of high-speed corners, the improved engine performance due to the move from 800 to 1000cc is giving faster lap times. After practice on day one, Casey commented that he was getting better lap times than he anticipated. He thought this was due to the larger 1000cc engine, but acceleration was also better and he felt it was easier to control his slides. I guess you could say that our goals all year are summed up in those comments. This is his fifth win of the season. Dani and Jorge each have six wins, so I'd really like to see Casey equal them, win the final race and retire on a high point.
Pedrosa's crash in lap two ruled him out of the championship. This race didn’t see his recent pattern of hanging back until mid race to assess the situation, then moving ahead to win. He surely had no chance this time against Stoner, but you were surely hoping for a strong showing to keep him fighting Lorenzo for the title. Was the pressure just too much?
Nakamoto: We were hoping the title fight wouldn't be settled until the final round, so yes, we are all disappointed. The problem this time was that we hadn't been able to get the bike set up the way he wanted, so he didn't go into this race with the confidence needed to win. I don't think he could have beaten Stoner, but he was going all out this weekend to stay ahead of Jorge. Practice on day one went smoother than expected, and Dani easily produced times equal to his qualifying time last year. Because of an issue with rear tire traction, on day two we tried out two bikes with different specs. One gave us slightly weaker traction but with good balance, while the other had good traction but poor balance. This wasn't giving us any idea which way to go. In the end, although we didn't get any good single times, we managed to get it running with a decent average. Even in the race day warm up, Jorge was pulling off really fast times, but he has a lot of issues with tire shredding forcing him to reduce speed later. Jorge pulled away so fast at the start that Dani would have had a really tough fight on his hands anyway. His strategy was to get in front of Jorge as soon as possible.
So overtaking early wasn't due to impatience, then? That was his plan?
Nakamoto: That's right. On the first lap he got past Jorge to take the lead. Casey would probably have got past him later on, but I think he would have been able to prevent Jorge overtaking again. But then of course he lost it at the hairpin in lap two. A slight miscalculation with the braking put him off line, he hit a bump and the bike slid away from him. It's too bad – what's done is done, but things would have been so different if he'd finished. Talking with Dani after the race, we decided his goal should still be to win Valencia – a seventh victory would make him the rider with most wins this season. Until this summer, we've gone into each race thinking "Dani has a chance this time," but from mid season that mostly changed to "This one's Dani's for sure." I'm expecting him to be riding just as well next year, and I've been telling him that if he just keeps it up the 2013 title is his. Personally, even if he hadn't fallen at San Marino for a no point race, I think he would have faced a very serious hurdle here at Phillip Island, a circuit where he always has problems. In the end, it was bad luck here that finished his chances, but staying in the running for the championship all this way shows the high level he's now riding at, and is extremely promising for next season. Of course, if you're aiming to be champion, you can't afford to be weak in certain conditions or circuits.
You have a very good chance at getting the constructors title now.
Nakamoto: Yes, we have a 21-point lead going into the final race, so the constructors title is pretty certain. We'll still be going all out to win, though, since my goal now is to finish the season with 12 wins. Casey and Dani, Dani and Casey – I'm happy either way as long as Repsol Honda closes this season with a one-two finish. We're already making preparations for next year, and it's not an easy matter making a bike that will outstrip the one we have now. We'll just keep on shaving fractions of a second off the lap time. Looking at our other riders, Stefan has really improved the level of his riding this year. Alvaro had issues with his setup, but he has it very much together now. Marc Marquez will be joining our lineup next year, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he'll take to MotoGP.