It was 2009 when Shuhei Nakamoto arrived to MotoGP. At this time, Honda was going through the most difficult period since their comeback to the world racing scene in the mid-80s. During the five years prior Nakamoto’s arrival, HRC had won just one championship and this was due more to the mistakes of their opponents than by their own merits.
When Shuhei Nakamoto joined the Repsol Honda Team, he did so after nearly nine years as the highest ranking officer of Honda Motor’s most important investment: the F1 project. Being one of the most highly esteemed engineers of the company, he was sent to the bike division to straighten out their predicament in the World Championship. But in reality, for Nakamoto it was a return to where he began with the company: HRC.
As a new engineer, Shuhei Nakamoto arrived to Honda Motor in 1983. “The first three months I worked in a car dealership; the next three in Suzuka, in the car factory,” the Japanese engineer explained. “After this shake down period Honda Motors had to decide in which area of the company I would work… And I was lucky: my first job was in HRC.”
How old where you then?
I think I was 26 years old; I arrived to HRC October 1st 1983.
“Engine engineering is interesting, but the physical space in which you have to work is limited by the crankcases; therefore I asked my first manager in HRC if I could change to the chassis area”, Shuhei Nakamoto
“My first job was in the engine department, but after one month I went to my manager and asked him if he could change my job from engine designer to chassis designer.”
Why did you prefer chassis engineering over engines?
“Engine engineering is interesting, but the physical space in which you have to work is limited by the crankcases, while with the chassis the possibilities when it comes to design are much broader.”
And the answer of your manager was…?
“Yes, I was allowed to move to chassis area.”
So I deduce that your specialty as an engineer is in chassis design.
“Yes, that’s right.”
So you started working in HRC. What was the first project you were involved with?
“My first job was RS 250 and RS 125, I designed chassis for both bikes; later the NSR 250 as well. I continued doing that for several years, until the day I told my HRC manager that I wanted to do the NSR500… He asked me why. I told him that it was a natural evolution after having done the 125 and the 250…He gave me the superbike project!
“In 2000 I asked again to do the 500, because the NSR 500 was the F1 of bikes… The director of HRC came to me and said, OK, you can do F1!”
Which one, the one with the V2 engine or the one with the V4?
“The V4, the RC45 with Kocinski, Aaron Slight…But in 2000 I asked again to do the 500! Because the NSR 500 was the F1 of bikes, while Superbikes was like the Touring Cars category.”
The F1 Exile
And what happened this time with your request?
“What happened was the director of HRC came to me and said, OK, you can do F1.” [Nakamoto opens his eyes wide with surprise]
So you left the motorcycles to go to F1 without having had any experience in car racing. Weren’t you nervous with that responsibility?
“More than scared I was surprised because, as you said, I had no experience with cars. But this was a company order and I had two choices: go to F1 or leave Honda. At that time I had two very small boys so there was no way for me to leave Honda, so I went to F1.” [Laughs]
And how did this challenge work out?
“I have to say that I enjoyed the F1 years a lot. From May 1st 2000 until the end of 2008 when Honda decided to stop the F1 project…Almost nine years. To watch F1 is kind of boring, but to do F1 is from a technical point of view is very, very exciting. The budget is very different from the motorcycle racing budget and the number of engineers as well…there is a big difference. There, the engineers cover a very narrow area but instead they can go deep, very deep.”
You mean they are very specialized in the areas they are focused?
“Yes. Motorcycle engineers cover broad areas…In the years in F1 I learned a lot of things engine wise, chassis wise and also aerodynamics, especially aerodynamics.”
Back Home, Back to the Bikes
OK, so we are at the beginning of 2009 when you join the HRC team. How was the return into the bike world? What did you face when you assumed the responsibility of Honda’s nº 1 motorcycle project?
“OK, at the Sepang test in 2009, I have to say that I was very surprised with what I saw.”
In which way?
“The speed of the Hondas was very, very fast. It was quite easy to overtake the Yamaha on the straight, but in the corners, the Yamaha easily overtook back under braking. This was unacceptable.”
So this shocked you?
“Yes. The Honda machine was very fast, but on braking the Yamaha was much stronger! My first thought was that we might have done something wrong. So we tried different set-ups. We managed to improve our braking efficiency, but still Yamaha was much more effective than us.”
“Luck?… I don’t believe in luck in racing; usually luck depends on the rider.”
Listening to you, I understand that when you took control of the GP project, you did it also as an engineer, not only as manager. Is that right?
“Yes. At that time I was already vice-president of HRC. I had to manage the whole company. Because the HRC president is just a figure, it is the vice-president who runs the company. I had to learn a lot of things like management, budgeting, legal things and all this stuff, but still my interest was in the technical area. And thinking about improving the technical efficiency, after my arrival I changed the structure of HRC.”
Interesting… Con you explain in which way?
“I created a chassis area, an engine area, a chassis test group, an engine test group and at the same time I created one group that has to concentrate on future technology. It’s a group that works completely separate from the existing project. It is a group that has to think about the future.”
How far into the future?
“Some of them may be half a year, some of them three years, some more than ten years…”
But using the existing technology as base or inventing something starting from 0?
“Using the existing technology. What I do is give them a clear working line. For example, in 2009 I told them: ‘you must improve the braking stability’, because I knew that once we improved the braking stability, the Yamahas or the Ducatis wouldn’t return our passing on the straight under braking. Our cornering speed was not as fast as Yamaha, but if we were capable of being in front of the Yamahas in the corners it wouldn’t be easy for them to overtake.”
It sounds logical and simple.
“Look…Straight speed was at that time our strong point; cornering speed is our weak point. Sometimes people concentrate to improve weak points, forgetting the strong points. At that time, we did not have enough knowledge or technology to make our cornering speed faster, but we knew we could get our straight speed faster. So then we had to explore these strong points to the maximum: pass on the straight, stay in front during the cornering and then use our top speed again. If we were capable of doing that, I was sure that sooner than later faster cornering machine riders would finally give up.”
Ok, what happened after 2009?
“The development group did a very good job. From 2010 on we concentrated on improving braking stability using the ideas from the development group. We tried several different chassis. In Qatar 2010, if you remember, Pedrosa’s bike wobbled coming down the straight. Dani was very unhappy with it, but Dovizioso liked it because it had better cornering speed. On that bike, the concept was to make braking stability better.”
2010: Mission Accomplished
The 2010 bike was kind of your first machine, the first one using your philosophy. Were you happy with that bike?
“Of course I wasn’t happy; it was a start to work toward the target we had decided.”
So once you had the bike that you wanted, I imagine it was time to look for the appropriate rider and he had a name: Casey Stoner. Am I right?
“Yes. But also Dani was happy with this concept. In fact, we still use this same concept today. Braking stability is much more important for us than engine power, much more important.”
This sounds strange coming from a Honda engineer; it makes it clear that you are a chassis engineer. 2011: Was it a year in which you said to yourself something like: mission accomplished? You built a bike that worked the way you wanted, you had the fastest rider in the category and you won the title.
“Yes, in 2011 the first step of my job was done.”
If that was the first, it means that there was a second…What was it?
“My second job was to improve our cornering speed, which was our weak point. We tried several things and now I am very happy because our machine is faster than Yamaha in cornering. You can check the data at all the circuits. Especially in tight corners – Our machine is always faster. Overall lap times are very similar, but sometimes Marc has a few tenths advantage and this is always due to the effectiveness of our bike in the cornering areas.”
Nice! So you first solved the braking stability problems, then you made your bike extremely competitive in corner speed…where are you losing now?
“We are not losing!” [Laughs]
Let’s say it in another way: In which area is the Yamaha stronger now?
“Balance…In overall balance they are very good. Overall balance means cornering, acceleration…”
The Big Question: Stoner or Marquez
After Stoner the big name in Honda was Marc Marquez. We are talking now about 2013. When he arrived in the HRC box, did you foresee what he would achieve and the talent he has shown?
“When, at the end of 2012 in Valencia when Marc tested our bike for the first time, I was surprised. Conditions weren’t easy. I think we had only 30 minutes of normal track conditions, but his top speed and performance on braking was…ooohh! I was very, very surprised. At that time my feeling was: OK, my choice was correct.”
Have the following years been easy with Marc?
“No, not easy. Normally riders have to understand how to use MotoGP machines. All talented riders can make a fast flying lap, but consistent lap times at the end of the race, experience is needed for this. Marc was clearly told that to make fast lap times to the end was difficult. In the first part of the 2013 season Marc was lucky, like in Austin where he was the only rider in use a hard rear tire, which allowed him to win the race. In the first races he was almost on all on the podiums. In that first part of the season he managed to open big gap in the provisional classification and then in the second half he was able to administrate that advantage. It was in Silverstone where he told me: now I understand how to manage the tires.”
So Marc learned very quickly.
“Yes. Usually normal riders spend one year, one season, to learn. But Marc needed only half a season. But he was also very lucky, because Jorge was very strong and Dani was very strong, but both got injured. They missed a few races and he opened a gap.”
2014…the year of the records
“It was the combination of him having understood how to manage a MotoGP bike, that year’s machine and his riding style.”
I would like you to compare the two most brilliant Honda riders during your period as head of HRC: Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez.
“I can’t, because the personalities are completely different. Both riders have something special on the track.”
In which way?
“Marc is special on the brakes; Casey was very fast with cornering speed. Casey was very good with acceleration. Maybe he found the correct angle or the correct power delivery control or something…In the data you could see that he had the limit of the tire grip perfectly under control, the point where the tire grip ends and the traction control starts to work cutting power. His throttle control on acceleration was amazing…Always on the edge.”
What about Marc?
“Marc is similar, but definitely he uses more traction control help. Casey, I don’t know how, was ooohhh!!!”
Did you understand why he quit?
“No! Casey is so difficult to understand! But I respect his decision.”
Going back to technology. Is there a big difference between the 2009 bike and the bike today? Is MotoGP a conservative category in this point or is it in continuous evolution?
“Our system is different from other manufacturers. For Honda it is normal to change chassis, swingarms…this is normal. If we find that something works better, we simply change it. So I cannot say this bike is this year’s model or that bike is that year’s model. A good example is that actually there are riders using old chassis on their bikes now.”
And engine wise?
“The engine is keeping the same concept. Of course top power is important but the engine drivability is more important. This concept remains. Chassis side, braking stability is the most important, second is to keep high corner speed.”
The same concept since 2009? Isn’t that boring for a racing engineer like you are?
“Well, sometimes we find something different and then we try it.”
And what about the 2016 bike? Has it been a step backwards due to the common software?
“In the first half of the season, yes, because as I have explained several times, we didn’t know how make that software work properly. Now we understand it. I would say it’s at 90%. The difference now is that if we could use HRC software, trackside engineering would be much easier.”
From 2009 to 2016 was a long, challenging period. What do you think was your best bike out of all these years?
“Next year’s! The one to come is the best one.”
You are retiring next season after 8 years in charge of Honda interests in MotoGP. If you had to choose your most satisfying of them, which one would it be?
“If I had to choose one, I would say 2010, the year we turned our situation around and finished ready to fight for the championship…As it happened in 2011.”
The Dakar, the last challenge
When you read this interview with Shuhei Nakamoto, he will no longer be in charge of Honda’s interests in MotoGP. With his retire date set for April, it was agreed that it wouldn’t make much sense to begin the 2017 preseason. But before closing the book, Nakamoto has a pending account to be settled: the Dakar. After finally winning WMX in 2016, he doesn’t hide the fact that the Dakar is what stands between him and a perfect goodbye.
So what’s next? Are you going to win the Dakar?
“We will concentrate in the area of machine reliability. Our bike is competitive enough as of two years ago, but on the reliability side KTM is better.”
Do you think you have the right riders? We all know that you have the fastest rider, but his consistency has been a problem – a severe problem. Do you think Joan Barreda is ready to win this time?
“I hope so…Don’t ask me, ask Barreda…[Laughs] He is Spanish so you can easily ask this question of him.”
So, if you don’t make it, it will be the only open “mission” you will leave undone.
“To win the Dakar you need a combination: a very strong rider, a very good machine and also a very good organization…”
What about luck? Is luck a factor in racing?
“Luck?… Usually luck depends on the rider.”
So you mean that good luck and/or bad luck are generated by the riders?
“Yes… this is what I think.”
…A surprise ending to an interview in which, among other things, Shuhei Nakamoto clearly demonstrated that manner of seeing and analyzing things so common to engineers:
- Problems: they must be focused on, reduced to the simplest explanation possible and the source must be found to solve them.
- Luck does not exist in races. If something fails, it’s because someone has not done their job well.
In a long conversation we had one evening in the vacant MotoGP paddock, Shuhei Nakamoto told me things that he had never shared before and that he did not explain to anyone again. In a more relaxed reading of this interview, he discovered how his years at the helm of the F1 project, the 2010 season, and working with Casey Stoner were the most satisfactory moments in his career as a racing engineer.
Unlike most Japanese executives, Nakamoto does not like golf, so won’t devote his golden retirement to touring golf greens around the world. He is amused by “hiding out” in his mountain hut and chopping wood as if he were a lumberjack from Canada.
In this racing world there is no room for sentimentality, but Shuhei Nakamoto undoubtedly will leave a mark on MotoGP … although I’m quite sure he will return sooner rather than later, if not earlier.