Takahiro Sumi is since January 2019 the reference engineer in Yamaha’s MotoGP racing project. He assumed this position somehow as a fire fighter, as he was “rescued” from the production area to extinguish the fire that was burning in the Yamaha’s MotoGP project. That is to say, he was sent into a harsh mission.
Contrary to top engineers of other brands like Ducati’s Gigi Dall’Igna, Honda’s Takeo Yokoyama or Aprilia’s Romano Albesiano, Sumi is an unknown figure for the racing followers and even for us, journalists. Therefore, I was quite curious to see who I was going to meet in the appointment Yamaha had scheduled.
To put you in the situation and trying to make you understand the atmosphere of our interview, I have to say that, first; Yamaha’s communication staff not only facilitated the interview, but also somehow even encouraged it. Something that should be normal, but I can tell you that isn’t like this at all at other brands, where “isolation” is a mantra.
The top tech responsible of Yamaha looks like an engineer just out of university. He’s short and looks very young, but as soon as you start to speak with him you realize that you aren’t in front of a newcomer.
Secondly, I was surprised when Sumi san appeared at our meeting point a few minutes before the marked time and arrived alone. Normally the Japanese engineers arrive to these meetings escorted by the team’s top communication officer. Yamaha’s was supposed to join us but meanwhile Sumi had no problem to sit down and have an informal chat… I liked that. It meant that I was in front of a person with confidence. He had no fear of the “evil” press.
It’s funny, because physically the top tech responsible of Yamaha looks like an engineer just out of university. He’s short and looks very young, but as soon as you start to speak with him you realize that you aren’t in front of a newcomer. His English is almost perfect, he listens with attention to what you say and he answers without hesitating, not showing the typical “I have to pay attention to my words to avoid getting ‘caught’” attitude that most of the Japanese engineer show in front of journalists… Sumi is not one of them.
Sumi doesn’t show the typical “I have to pay attention to my words to avoid getting ‘caught’” attitude that most of the Japanese engineer show in front of journalists… He is not one of them.
Some minutes passed before Yamaha’s communication chief arrived, during which Sumi and I spent having an informal chat. Again an impossible situation to imagine with other engineers. When everybody who had to be there was sitting at the table, we started our interview…
In your first public appearance as head of the MotoGP project -if I don’t remember wrong it was during the Technical Directors press conference held in Red Bull Ring during the last Austrian GP- you said that Yamaha had understood the reason for the crisis you were in. And the reason is…? Maybe the understanding of the ECU software?
“The reason of our crisis is very simple: we couldn’t win! We went through the longest not winning period in our history… It’s as simple as that. There is not only one reason to blame about it. We are losing some performance due to electronics but we suffer more with how to use the tires. Racing activity is composed of an amount of functions and individual persons. If we pretend to win everything we have to be fit and everybody has to play his role correctly”.
In the past, when engineers designed an engine the only thing he had to look at, regarding limitations was the rulebook. But since the arrival of the compulsory ECU its managing capacity has turned into, let’s say, the starting point. Am I right?
“Yes, in some areas yes. I think we are learning and improving how to use the software. In the past, engine improvement ran parallel to software improvements. Now the limit is in the software; now we understand it. Unfortunately it has taken a long time for us to understand the new software. We may have suffered more than the others to understand it. Now we understand some points of limitations. The requirements for the engines has changed; I mean how to maximize the total performance. You can have a fantastic engine, a superb one, but actually the limitations of the ECU software decide its performance”.
In Suzuki, in 2017 they completely failed in the combination ‘new engine/compulsory software capacity’ so they dragged this problem throughout the entire season. In case of Yamaha, the sense is that you have faced this same problem, maybe in a different level, since 2016.
“I don’t know what happened in Suzuki, but yes, we have had difficulties with the engines and the software. We struggled a lot in some areas. We could not perform as we had done before and logically the riders complained. We couldn’t understand how to improve with the new software; we had that problem, yes. But I have to say that at that time, the most confusing situation for us was created by the change of the tire supplier. It difficult to separate the two issues, the software problems and the ECU problems… May be it was not the best decision change, both the same year”.
I understand, that is, in the same season the two main parameters when designing a motorcycle, electronics in the case of the engine and tires, in the case of the chassis, changed. And there somehow you lost your way.
“It has taken some time for us to understand the new situation, yes”.
Going back to the electronic management. Where, in which management area had the lack of understanding the compulsory ECU problems affected you more? Traction control? Tire wear?…
“More in the drivability than in the characteristic of the engine. Of course riders always complain about spinning and sliding, that is to say, in what makes the bike move. As long as the engine management is not perfect it affects this area. So depending on the levels of control you have over the software the level of problems are less or more… It has to do with the control of the power delivery”.
Talking about Yamaha and electronics it is a must to talk about Michele Gada. How important has he been in the process of exiting the situation you have just described, the difficulties to understand the common software?
“We have a strong group in electronics in YMC and we have a very solid base of the software knowledge and modifying it. But he [Michele Gada] has a good knowledge of another developing way of the software, of some tools of this software and programming. The combinations of his skills with our knowledge creates another group. And also, being based in Italy within a group of engineers generates a good collaboration with YMC. This collaboration contributes to stand up new ideas to improve”.
As far as I know, the presence of Italian electronic engineers in the garages of all Japanese brands is because of their experience in “reading” the actual software. Because obviously you all have high-level electronic specialists in Japan, capable to design and create software, but another different thing is to interpret their information. And here is where the Italians are good. Am I right?
“In some areas yes. Their experience with current software, designed by Marelli, allows them to read very quickly its data”.
Allow me to continue with some names: Marco Frigerio. He is an engineer who was highly regarded in Ducati and this year has joined Yamaha … An electronic engineer, of course. Where in the organization chart will you fit him?
“I haven’t had the chance to meet him and therefore I don’t know him yet [This interview was done before the 2019]. As everybody can see, the working style in our garage has changed. Before all the electronic engineers were in YMC side, now you can see Michele Gada in some races and you can see new young Japanese electronic engineers on Valentino’s side. We have started mixing up engineers, trying to create a different “chemical reaction”.
Frigerio will he be above the two teams or a member of one of the teams you have in the garage?
“Frigerio will be working with the engineers in YMR and it is not even sure if you will see him at the races”.
So he will enter in the top-level group?
“… No… At the moment I don’t understand him, I don’t know him. Once it is available, once we start talking we will see. We will start from 0. I can’t say anything before talking to him. After talking with him, understanding him and seeing his characteristics we will be thinking in which position he fits better”.
Sorry, but how can you hire somebody of this level without having spoken with him?
“Other guys have! The company that hires Frigerio is Yamaha Motor Racing, so the persons who met him are the engineers that work at YMR. We, YMC, asked YMR to hire one engineer with a certain type of skills. So they found the person we asked for… I hope. YMR people know him, interviewed him, they knew him before the interview and he was hired by Yamaha Motor Racing to work in the same group of Michele Gada that, as I told you before, collaborates with YMC”.
Maverick Viñales has repeatedly said that Gada works exclusively with Rossi and that he works basically with Japanese engineers. Not saying that he complains about it, he just means that’s the situation. Why does this happen?
“That’s not correct… Electronic jobs are not only in trackside. We have two teams supporting trackside, which is necessary to understand what is happening on the bike. This is important. And it is also important developing electronics…”
How can you develop a closed software?
“You may think that the program is fixed and that there is nothing we can do, but this isn’t correct. We have a bunch of parameters that can be combined in many different ways. Having the same software allows us to see the level of the different bikes and we realize that we have to understand completely the software and maximize its performance; we have still a big job to do. Developing in this case means trying to get 100% of what we have.
The actual feeling about the riders, the rider’s situation and everything can be different depending on our bikes performance. We have to see how Valentino behaves on the new bike and if he can achieve winning races again.
Sorry, I interrupted you during your answer about Gada’s situation…
“Gada is not coming to the races. He will stay in YMR working with the engineering group not only for Valentino and Maverick, but for all Yamaha riders”.
Sumi san, in the position you are now, are you taking part in the engineering or are you managing? I can imagine that organizing Yamaha’s comeback doesn’t let you have much time for doing the engineering.
“Half and half. My task is not only managing. I am responsible as well of reporting correctly to Japan our developing situation from the technical side”.
Returning to the Technical Directors press conference held, as we mentioned before, there you also said that Yamaha would resort to all the necessary means to create a competitive bike. When will we see this ‘competitive bike’?
Will it be in Sepang next February? Or to fully catch up will take more time?…What do you expect?
“… At latest on Qatar… Friday of the GP”.
May be just Sunday night!
[Laughs]… “Yeah… Now we are developing every aspect: electronics, chassis, engine. During the preseason testing we will put it all together. To make it work all together is a big challenge”.
What were your feelings when last year you saw your bikes getting “humiliated” in the straights like in Motorland and Buriram, for example? How did you feel as an engineer?
“I felt sorry for the riders… Disappointed… For sure we will improve”.
As the top responsible of Yamaha’s MotoGP project, how did you “read” Quartararo’s incredible 2019 season?
“Maybe at the beginning of the season no one expected what happened. His stunning performance was very positive for all of Yamaha. Having two fast riders like Fabio and Maverick we were able to understand better our bike’s best performance. Seeing Maverick fast, seeing Fabio fast made the confidence in our bike grow. Having access to the data of all Yamaha riders, both riders can better understand the bike. Maverick can see, for example, where Quartararo is strong and can analyze what Fabio does to be that fast and so he can try himself. And the other way round in the same way. And regarding our side, the developing process, it allowed us not to loose the way. If you have two riders who are capable to be fast it is not necessary to think basic things. You can concentrate in solving the problems you have”.
I have been working alongside engineers for many years and for you, something that cannot be expressed or explained in numbers does not exist. What do the numbers, in this case meaning data, of Fabio Quartararo say? What does he do that is special? Because I’m sure you have analyzed it?
“Hmm… Difficult question… You are right, our job is always trying to explain things by numbers, but with motorcycles it is not so easy”.
It’s the first time I hear an engineer saying this!
“In the figures we can see one thing, then another thing and another one, but it is endless… Regarding Fabio’s numbers, I would say you can see it more clearly on the TV!”
What do you see on the TV that I don’t see!
“His braking and turning is smooth. Sometimes he can be aggressive, but generally he is very smooth and fast in mid-corner”.
This sounds like the pure Yamaha bikes DNA?
“Someone said that he rides like the old Yamaha style, yes, but it is not completely the same. He rides his own way”.
Now comes the difficult question. Till now it just has been an aperitif… Lin Jarvis has said different times that Valentino will be a Yamaha rider “as long as he wants”. This generates a problem in Yamaha, because as you just said, you have two fast riders, young and fast: Viñales and Quartararo. What will happen if Valentino decides to continue racing after 2020?
“I don’t have any idea… We fix it when it comes to the situation. Now I’m fully concentrated in doing what is necessary to return to win races and then the championship. The actual feeling about the riders, the rider’s situation and everything can be different depending on our bikes performance. We have to see how Valentino behaves on the new bike and if he can achieve winning races again. So, again, I have no idea about what is going to happen with our riders in the future”.
But is Quartararo a priority?
“His talent is certainly very special and I want to hold onto him”
“He is also very fast and still has big room to improve. And he is now understanding our bike, he is very fast and consistent”.
Ok, very political answer. If you get tired or bored of being an engineer, you can perfectly switch to politics…
[Laughs]… “No, no, I don’t like politics”.