Coming into 2012, Honda had high hopes for the MotoGP season. After a dominant 2011 that resulted in Casey Stoner’s second World MotoGP championship, the factory Repsol Honda squad once again was a force, with 12 wins out of 18 races (Stoner winning five and teammate Dani Pedrosa victorious in seven races) and the two riders appearing together on the podium eight times, earning both the Constructors and Teams title for Honda. But the Riders championship was just out of reach, with an on-form Jorge Lorenzo managing to score one of the most consistent seasons ever—the Yamaha rider never finished lower than second except for two races (Assen, where he was taken out in the first turn by an over-exuberant Alvaro Bautista, and the season-ending Valencia race where he crashed on a damp patch of pavement attempting to lap a backmarker) to take the title.
In this interview from Honda, HRC lead man Shuhei Nakamoto gives a frank look back at the 2012 season, covering everything from the tire and last minute minimum weight change that gave the team fits in the first half of the season, to the performances of all the Honda MotoGP riders, to Stoner’s retirement (including the revelation that Stoner may have been doubting his decision to retire after the two talked at Valencia).
Let’s start with your overall impression of 2012.
Nakamoto: The big thing about 2012 was the switch from 800cc to 1000cc engines. We started getting ready for that from the beginning of the 2011 season. The first time we ran the 2012 prototype was after Round Two in Spain. In the third lap of that test Casey effortlessly outdid his previous personal best on the 800cc in the 2011 Spanish GP. Since we were still keeping the revs down at that point because we hadn’t fixed some durability issues with the engine, this made us very happy indeed – we knew we had put together a bike we could use. After that, Bridgestone changed their rear tire casing to soft, and we modified the new bike to match that. We still hadn’t completed that process when we had to run the RC213V in the test after Valencia, the final GP of 2011. Despite this, Dani made top test time with a speed that beat his race time in the GP. Both Dani and Casey agreed that the new bike was even better than the 800cc RC212V. But just as we thought all was safe, the minimum weight rule was changed by 4kg. That was in addition to the increase from 150kg to 153kg when the engine capacity went up from 800cc to 1000cc. We had built our bike to match the old regulations, and then we were hit with this sudden rule change. According to the rules, they have the right to do this, but I really don’t think it is fair to introduce such big changes so suddenly after we had finished testing.
The sudden rule change meant that you had to bring it up to the new 157kg minimum. Adding 4kg is a lot of weight for a MotoGP bike.
Nakamoto: Yes, and especially so for Dani because he is relatively small and light, so he had a very tough time controlling the balance of the bike by shifting his weight. We kept trying adding weights in different places to see what worked, and we had only found a rough solution during the first part of the season. You might think that 4kg isn’t much, but to add 4kg to a racing bike means we have to make very extensive changes, rethinking the whole machine. And then on top of that, Bridgestone brought out a new front tire with a different construction. We complained that the new tire was unusable since it didn’t have sufficient rigidity, but Dorna’s Loris Capirossi insisted that it was a better choice and so we had to fit it. So now both front and rear tires had changed and this bike we had just spent a whole year perfecting had to be rebuilt. With just three months before the season’s first race we decided to remake the bike, and began work on a new frame and swingarm.
Changing the front tire spec mid-season also presented some problems for you?
Nakamoto: Traditionally, Hondas have not been famous for their cornering—it’s been the horsepower we get from our engines that makes us competitive. But when Bridgestone became sole supplier, the focus shifted greatly to getting all the performance you could out of the tires. In other words, we now need to build the bike to match the tires. How will the bike flex? How will tire performance degrade as the tires wear? So naturally a change in the tires mid-season now requires us to make major modifications. We could continue using the old hard construction front tires in the first part of the season, until Round Five in Catalunya, but from the England GP onward everyone had to switch to the new soft construction front tires. By Round Seven in Holland we had managed to put together a new frame prototype adapted to the new tire, and Dani liked the new bike as soon as he started using it. We tried out the new engine in this new frame at the test after Round Nine in Italy, in effect a practical test of the 2013 prototype. Dani was most impressed and switched to this new machine from Laguna Seca (Round 10). Casey also liked the new engine, but didn’t feel that the new frame changed things much, so he kept using the old frame with the new engine fitted. We introduced the 2013 design mid way through the season in order to improve stability during deceleration through changes to the engine, and to improve cornering with the new chassis. As you can see, in today’s MotoGP, building the bike to match the tires is a key factor.
This is why I prefer multiple tire suppliers. It simply makes the races more exciting, and I think it is better for the whole Grand Prix world. "
Building the bike to match the tires. Speaking as a bike manufacturer, tell us what that involves.
Nakamoto: I have no real problem with the present system of a single tire manufacturer for MotoGP. When everyone races on the same tires, the tires become purely an engineering matter. On top of that, each rider has his likes and dislikes when it comes to tires. Building bikes to meet different riders’ preferences is a new kind of challenge, and of course we welcome new challenges. From that point of view in fact, I have to say we have learned a lot since Bridgestone became sole supplier. Factory teams have the accumulated experience that lets them take on this kind of challenge, but the CRT teams don’t have that ability. When we had the multiple tire supplier system, it was possible to construct tires to exactly match each bike with each rider, and the tire could compensate for other factors. This meant that we had times when satellite team riders beat the factory riders, but that no longer applies under the sole supplier system—when things are good, they’re good for everyone; when they’re bad, everyone suffers the same. Under such equal conditions, you rarely get surprise results. With a single supplier, the factory teams are always very strong since they can apply their past experience, and this leaves little chance of winning for the non-factory riders and teams. For example, this season the podium was absolutely dominated by just three riders: Dani, Casey and Yamaha’s Jorge (Lorenzo). There was no real chance of any other rider winning a race. This is why, from a personal standpoint, I prefer multiple tire suppliers. It simply makes the races more exciting, and I think it is better for the whole Grand Prix world.
What about Casey Stoner’s retirement, and what you thought of his racing in his final year?
Nakamoto: Casey told us (in 2011) that he wanted to retire. It was after he won the Australian GP to secure the championship. He still had one more year to run on his contract with us, so he said he would ride for Honda in 2012, but it was quite a shock to hear he wanted to retire. Ever since the season began, he kept saying he wanted to make his decision public. Naturally, we really wanted him to continue with us and repeatedly tried to persuade him to reconsider, but Casey’s mind was made up. It was at Round Four in France that he finally got his way and held a press conference to announce his plans. I was OK with that, since I thought it would motivate him to win his final championship and retire in a blaze of glory. When Casey has confidence in himself and takes each race steadily, there is no other rider who can beat his speed. But then we had that crash in the final lap of Round Eight in Germany, and all our plans went out the window. In that race, he didn’t even need to win—finishing behind Dani would have been good enough. It was impatience that led to his crash and a no-point race result. And this led to his behavior at the following GP in Italy—he couldn’t calm down and get his set-up done properly, and rode a poor race to finish eighth which knocked him right back in the championship points table. If only he had finished properly in Germany, he would likely have ridden as steadily as usual in the following races and possibly would have escaped injury in Round 11 at Indianapolis. When it came to choosing his bike too, while Dani was full of praise for the new chassis, Casey reckoned it wasn’t much different and stuck with the older one. It wasn’t just Dani—Stefan liked the new chassis and used it for the final GP at Valencia, and when Alvaro tried it in the post-season test he also declared it excellent. Now that I think on it, pushing Casey to test the new bike after the Italy GP was maybe a mistake. I guess I should have waited a bit longer until he had regained his composure. If I’d waited, he might have been able to see things clearer and appreciate the quality of new bike.
When I asked why they wanted to know, they said that Casey, who had never wavered until then in his decision to retire, had said 'maybe after all I should keep on racing… "
We’re sure you must have been disappointed that you couldn’t persuade Stoner to change his mind and stay in MotoGP.
Nakamoto: Casey is a rider I really love. I couldn’t imagine anything better than racing with him. Sure, I wouldn’t say his personality is completely mature yet, but that’s not what we were wanting from him—we didn’t sign him because we wanted to be friends. What Casey is, is fast. Really fast. We were constantly shocked that the bikes we had made could go so fast when Casey was in the saddle. I said it before, but when Casey is confident and relaxed about his riding, there is nobody in MotoGP who can come close. After winning the Australian GP this year for the sixth consecutive time, his comment was just that he would have been even faster if he hadn’t still been suffering from an injured ankle. However fast he rides, he’s still always aiming to go faster. We held a farewell party for him on the Monday night after the Valencia GP. After the party was over, the two of us stayed on, chatting, and I found I couldn’t control my tears. I really felt so sad about him leaving MotoGP. The following day I was asked by a number of Casey’s friends what I said to him that night. When I asked why they wanted to know, they said that Casey, who had never wavered until then in his decision to retire, had said “maybe after all I should keep on racing…” Right from the first day Casey came to ride for Repsol Honda, pretty much every day he came up with something new that astonished us. I don’t know of any other rider that is such fun to work with. I hope he quickly recovers from his injury, and if he ever decides to come back he will find a warm welcome waiting. I told him that’s always on offer.
We heard that Stoner himself suggested Marquez as his replacement.
Nakamoto: Well, I don’t know if he actually said that or not, but Marc has the same kind of energy as Casey and we have great hopes for him. He has now ridden in four days of tests, one after Valencia and three after Sepang. The weather was poor on all those days and there wasn’t much time at all for him to show us how he can ride, but nevertheless, at Sepang he was putting in 2:01 laps very consistently. That time is pretty much the same as Casey and Dani, but even so Marc was constantly issuing a stream of comments such as “I need to hold the advantage at that corner so as to avoid falling”—comments he would carefully write down afterwards so as to remember them. I wasn’t there at the Malaysia test, but I heard about that from our staff and was very surprised. I’ve never met a rider who acts like that before. Mid way through the 2011 season, I said to Marc “If you move up to MotoGP next year, I’ll have a factory bike ready for you.” He wanted to take the Moto2 championship first, and I told him to go for it. The decision to offer Marc a bike had nothing to do with any sponsor—I myself decided we needed Marc on a Honda, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do. When we first gave him an RC213V at Valencia, he got straight on and told us he already understood how to use the carbon brakes. In Malaysia, with the bike laid over he was opening the throttle exactly right. A very intelligent rider, always thinking about how to make his bike go faster, and there’s definitely something about him that is sure to attract a big fan following. Next year I see him seriously competing with Dani and Jorge, although it won’t be easy to grab a victory away from those two. Nonetheless, I reckon we could see a win by Marc by midseason.
I think if (Pedrosa) doesn’t take the title (this) year, he probably never will, but if he does then it’s quite possible he’ll go on to be champion several times. "
Do you think 2013 is the year where Pedrosa finally wins the MotoGP riders’ title?
Nakamoto: I think if he doesn’t take the title (this) year, he probably never will, but if he does then it’s quite possible he’ll go on to be champion several times. Dani used to be known for always winning two races each season, but last year, he took four, and then this season he’s managed seven wins. In the first half of this season, he was having a hard time with the bike as we struggled to fix the balance after the new weight rules, and then the tire change. But once we introduced the new bike, he just kept getting better and better. At the Czech GP he fought a tremendous battle with Jorge (Lorenzo), overtaking then being overtaken, until finally Dani crossed the line ahead. I don’t think he has had a race like that since his days in 125cc, so I think that marked a new stage for him. He turned in a superb performance at the final GP in Valencia too, under conditions so bad that the only dry part of the track was on the line itself. He astonished everyone with the speeds he was getting there—it really sometimes looked as if the other riders were just standing still. Our new machine has much improved braking and cornering, and getting his hands on such a good bike seems to have filled Dani with fresh confidence. To me, Dani appears to have an extra sense other riders don’t—he can spot the smallest things, things that others never feel. He will quickly become aware of subtle changes, for example when the track surface starts to lose grip. The minus side to this is that it can make his riding over-cautious, but this year he overcame that tendency and got it just right. He’s beaten his big rival (Lorenzo) one-on-one, ridden through the rain to win at Malaysia, managed to keep his speed high even in wet conditions, which were previously his weak point. There’s no question about it—Dani has progressed to another level and is now a very strong competitor. I’m so confident that he will take the title next year, I can’t really imagine not seeing him on that podium.
2013 will be Stefan Bradl’s second season in MotoGP and Alvaro Bautista’s second since he switched to Honda. What are your impressions of these two riders?
Nakamoto: Stefan missed so many chances, including in the final race, for a podium place that I sometimes wondered what he was doing, but overall he has improved just as I was expecting him to. He is an intelligent, educated rider, who uses his brain. Stefan is the only German rider we have in MotoGP. I’d say he is an important rider, not just for Honda, but for MotoGP in general and I hope he keeps on aiming for the top. Next year, Marquez, his old rival in Moto2, will be joining us in MotoGP and I think this will also help Stefan to develop his skills. Alvaro’s results on the other hand, were a bit of a disappointment, to tell the truth. If we include his time with Suzuki, he has much more experience in MotoGP than Stefan, so I thought we would be seeing better results. He was on the podium twice this year, but I want to see him up there much more often next year. He has to get rid of his habit of riding like he’s still in 250cc. Of all our Honda riders, Alvaro is the one I feel needs to try hardest next year.