Exclusive: HRC MotoGP boss Nakamoto reflects on eight years at the top

Picture: Bonnie Lane

HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto watched his last race in charge of the factory’s MotoGP racing effort at Valencia as he is set to retire after eight years at the very top of the sport.

To replace him there will be three directors, each specialized in one area: Naoki Hattori, General Manager in marketing and sales, Tetsuhiro Kuwata, Racing Manager and responsible for the riders’ contracts and the Technical Director Shinichi Kokubu. This gives the idea of what Shuhei Nakamoto has represented in MotoGP since he joined the Repsol Honda team in 2009 after seven years as Technical Director in Formula One.

Sunday was his last race in MotoGP. He will continue in his position until April 2017, but he will be committed in other project like motocross, Dakar Rally and trials. Then - with 60 years under his belt - he will retire, complying with the Honda rules.

We met a man, who declared himself really satisfied for the results achieved in these years, but - as an atypical Japanese – he showed that he was sorry to leave the MotoGP paddock. Since his arrival, Nakamoto has been the reference for the riders, the engineers and the media. Under Nakamoto, Honda has won with the championship with Casey Stoner in 2011 and then three titles with Marc Marquez. The 2016 season has seen the display of the Honda power with the victory of the rider and manufacturer’s titles after a difficult start of the season. Moreover, Honda has been the only manufacturer to have won with four different riders this season.

Which were your expectations when you left the F1 and you joined MotoGP?
“Honda has always had a long record of wins in the premiere class, but when I joined it was a period in which Honda was not so strong. Nicky Hayden had won the championship in 2006, then it was the turn of Ducati (2007) and Yamaha. My mission was to bring back the Honda HRC Team to the competitiveness. To win a race you need three important factors: the rider, which is the most important element, the machine and the team, both trackside and in Japan. We needed to improve all three areas in order to return strong. I started to work on the machine and the organization of team. Regarding the rider, at that time, we had Dani Pedrosa, who is a fast rider, while the machine had a powerful engine, but cornering and braking was not so good as Yamaha.”

Can we say mission accomplished?
“Yes, in these eight years we won four championships and also this year we crowned the season with both rider and manufacturer titles.”

What has the MotoGP paddock given to you?
“The MotoGP is a small village compared to the F1, which I define as a big city. For me it’s too big. I have really enjoyed these years in MotoGP. It’s a very comfortable environment”.”

Is there a rider or a F1 driver that has a special place in your heart?
“I have been lucky because I have worked with very strong riders. I love them all, they are like my sons.”

Have you ever dreamed of seeing Casey Stoner racing vs Marc Marquez, maybe even one time?
“This is what each MotoGP fan dreams of and I’m one of them.”

Looking at 2017, what kind of requests have Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa made?
“Marc and Dani have two different riding styles, but still they made similar requests. They both complained about acceleration, which means edge grip. This area is crucial to use more engine power and it is also related to the ease to pick up the machine and accelerate. In this area, Ducati is faster than us.”

Have you considered the possibility of big-bang engine?
“Big-bang engine gives a different feeling but we don’t know if this is the solution or a problem. Of course we tried several different solutions, but still we don’t know which one is better. Big-bang engine is one idea, but here in Valencia we will test a different specification engine.

Honda was the only manufacturer to win with four different riders. Can we say that the RC213V is the best bike on the grid?
“This year four different manufacturers won, this means that the level is very high and we are all very close. There are some tracks where Honda was the strongest bike, like Sachsenring for example. But in Austria Ducati was faster. This year the single ECU and the introduction of the Michelin tyres were two factors to work on and make the difference. To win next season, we need to improve all areas: cornering performance acceleration. Everything.”

What about the electronics?
“We struggled a lot at the beginning but during the season we improved a lot. Now we are using the 80 per cent of the potential of the software, so there is room for improvement.”

With all these limitations and rules, do you think that manufacturer can loose interest because they cannot develop the technology?
“If there is no rule, it’s true that you can work more freely on the electronics, but the research is not unlimited. The budget gives you a limit anyway. Even Honda cannot do everything. Yes, now we have some limitations, but still there is room to test new technology.”

Crutchlow did a great season with two wins, will he get extra support next year?
“At the beginning of the season Cal has the same machine of Dani (Pedrosa). Then in Barcelona Dani tested a different chassis that had some positive and some negative points. He finally decided to go back to the old one, while Cal requested different points and he is using a chassis which is one of our factory chassis. So we are supporting Cal and our satellite riders. They get the material one or two races later.”

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