It’s been quite a ride for Honda these past few months in MotoGP. In the span of five races, they gone from struggling to get rid of tire chatter problems induced by the new spec Bridgestone tires, to suddenly gaining a share of the championship points lead, to losing that same chunk of points a couple of races later, to now showing some signs of rebounding for a title challenge. In this interview from Honda, VP of Honda Racing Corporation Shuhei Nakamoto looks back on the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and reveals many of his thoughts on how the weekend went for Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, as well as all of the Honda MotoGP riders. He reveals a healthy respect for Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo, who has shown to be the biggest threat to the team’s quest for a second consecutive MotoGP title.
This race (the Red Bull US Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) turned out to be a three-way battle between Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, and Jorge Lorenzo. It was the same in practice and qualifying, with Bautista commenting that the pace of the front three was at a completely different level. What factors helped Stoner win?
Nakamoto: I don't know about "this time." I'd say it's been the same every time. Dani, Casey and Jorge have consistently been way out in front all season. Jorge was clocking very stable averages throughout practice and qualifying. Dani debuted our 2013 prototype, a bike we'd just tested after the Italian GP, while Casey was using a combination of old chassis and new engine. We put a lot of effort into setting these bikes up in practice and qualifying, and although Jorge took pole easily, looking at the bikes lined up on the grid I felt that we had really narrowed his gap. I was expecting a tough race – the data showed Jorge to be reliably faster. The race would come down to finding a way to get past him, and that's what Casey managed. It was a great effort and I really think he rode a superb race.
After the race, Casey spoke of his choice of soft rear tire and how his strategy revolved around making his tires last.
Nakamoto: This circuit is very tough on tires, and I thought the race would be fought on hard tires. Casey agreed and we had set up the bike for hard tires. We've had problems this year with hard tire set ups, but this time it went fairly smoothly and our pace wasn't bad either. When we thought about it, however, there are no good passing points on this track and if Jorge made his usual fast getaway from pole we might never have a chance to catch him. We needed some kind of an edge to beat Jorge, and Casey suggested the soft rear option might do it. The soft tire had certainly delivered better feeling and average times during qualifying. On the other hand, we hadn't been able to do long run tests on it, and both air and track temperatures were set to rise on race afternoon. I thought it was too much of a risk, and recommended we stick with the hard tire. Casey was set on using soft, so I advised him to take the bike out on the hard, and then if he wasn't happy with the feel we would swap it on the grid for the soft. And that's the way it played out. Casey chose the soft tire and his win depended quite a bit on his skillful tire management.
As it turned out, Casey's choice of the soft tire gave him the feeling to win, but what was it like watching the race play out?
Nakamoto: We had bad weather on each of the three days of this GP. Morning fog, together with low air and track temperatures, meant we couldn't ride under the conditions forecast for the race. And the only time available to set up the new engine and chassis for the race was in the afternoon. Despite this, Casey did an excellent job of preparing the bike in the limited time we had, especially if you compare it to the Italian GP, where he rushed things too much after his fall in the previous race. He learned from that experience and this time spent at least two laps carefully checking out each change. I think that prepared him mentally to make a calm decision about the tire choice and to carry out a race strategy that required conserving his tires right till the end. This allowed him to keep a good pace and pull away just as the others were starting to struggle with their tires.
It looks like the new engine played a major role in this win. How has it improved?
Nakamoto: In the tests after the Italian GP, both Dani and Casey declared they wanted to use the new engine, and although time was short we managed to get the bikes ready for them. It was pretty tough for us, but the results they got made all our efforts worthwhile. With this new engine we've solved a number of the issues that have been troubling us, such as engine braking characteristics, and all these help to make the bike easier to ride. I'm sure this will continue to give improved times. Under the present regulations, you can't really boost lap times immediately by just modifying the engine. This is the first race where we've used the new engine and I'm extremely pleased that we won. After we analyze the data, I'm sure we can further improve performance for Indianapolis.
Dani used a combination of new engine and new chassis. He decided during the first day's practice, after comparing the old and new bikes. He seems to like the new machine very much, but the set up wasn't quite right and in the race he struggled to come in third.
Nakamoto: Dani chose the 2013 prototype engine and chassis, but the weather and track condition were poor in the mornings which kept us from preparing properly. It was especially tough on day two, riding in the fog and cold. Dani had taken a great liking to the new machine in the Italian tests and in day one practice here, but due to the limited time available we weren't able to set it up fully the way we'd like. During the race, he came very close to losing both front and rear several times. Still, it was great to get a podium finish on the debut appearance of this new machine despite not having much time to prepare. I'm very pleased. I think after one or two more races, Dani will start to really show us the performance this new bike is capable of.
Bradl finished seventh and Bautista eighth. What did you think of their performances?
Nakamoto: This was Stefan's first time here at Laguna Seca, and although he only finished seventh, in fact he was up there in the second group for much of the race. Alvaro still hasn't fully recovered his confidence after crashing in Italy, but I'm sure his spirit will return in time for the next race. They're both having their ups and downs, but I see them gradually mastering the RC213V.
The Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix result now gives you a total of 300 podiums.
Nakamoto: In the ten races so far, we've had both Repsol Honda riders on the podium six times. But my objective was one-two finishes, and we only managed that once, back in Holland. We have eight races left in the season, and we'll be trying for a one-two in all of them. It's the only way to go if we are to beat Jorge and take the title – he is such a strong, fast competitor. We still haven't fully adjusted to the mid-season introduction of the new front tire. We also still haven't extracted the full performance from these machines, and I see many hard battles ahead. We were strong this time, and I want to keep that going and get another win at Indianapolis. I hope you'll all be there supporting us.