The 2013 season begins. IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia's challenge finally begins at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. The season-opener is customarily raced at night, and Losail is a circuit notorious for its slipperiness especially on the first day, due to its location in the middle of a desert.
This circuit, for IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia (only months into its activities since pre-season testing began in mid-February), was a completely new experience. The week was spent racing while finding the right machine-setup. Sessions began a day early, on Thursday, due to the opening round being held at night. On the second of two free practice sessions a new swing arm was introduced. The frame, although specification-wise the same as that of pre-season final testing, was machined for different rigidities. Each practice session saw bold changes to the frame to overcome steering, traction, and balance issues, leading to a 3 second gap with the leaders being reduced to 1.918 seconds in the qualifying round. Still, the team would start the race on a challenging 8th row, grid 23.
The 20-lap race which started at 8:20PM on Sunday ended with Takahashi in 23rd place, 1 minute 4 seconds 294 behind the winner.
"Our first race was a battle from the rear, as I was nearly involved in the pile-up on lap 1," commented Takahashi. "Our main priority was to find solutions to the issues we had, so we made several changes leading up to the race. Good or bad, these changes did affect the machine, giving us valuable indicators for further machine development," he continued, seeing the positive side to the poor results.
Team Manager Tadayuki Okada viewed the machine's problems as "steering performance, and instability entering corners. "The rider has problems leaning into corners as the whole machine rubs while tilting after braking. We'll do our best to fix it, as Takahashi is having a hard time. We'll take solid steps forward, although we'll have to race the next round with current specifications, considering the time we have left."
Takaaki Nakagami (Italtrans Racing Team), a Japanese racer, was on the podium this round, finishing third.
"It was a race I wanted to win and third place is a disappointment, but it was my first time on the podium and a positive start to the season. If we can improve on what was lacking, victory is that much closer, so I'd like to be on the podium more often."
Round 2, the U.S. Grand Prix, was an inaugural grand prix event for the Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas. After Qatar the team returned to Japan, and utilizing a little time they had, conducted tests at the Okayama International Circuit.
Although there were no major changes to the machine, the pivot section connecting the frame and suspension was strengthened leading to stability improvements.
"The fundamental problem, lack of grip in the front causing poor maneuverability hasn't be solved, but we have made major improvements in stability," Takahashi remarked.
All teams were on equal ground in Round 2, as the circuit was new, and unchartered, to all teams and riders. IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia worked as a team to improve the setup with each practice session, and finished the race on Sunday in 19th place.
Looking back on a demeaning race, Takahashi commented "It was, as always, a tough race, but the mechanics did a great job, and we had the best setup for the weekend. Our times aren't fast yet, but we managed to race up to our current potential."
"Forward! That's where we are going!" Okada inspires the team after the race, revealing plans to conduct tests in Okayama.
"We'll be making major changes in round 3. Our data shows that the new cowl increases machine potential, and with other major modifications we'll be racing a fundamentally new machine. Fine-tuning is limited to race week, but I know we'll perform better this round."
Round 3, in Spain, had unexpected problems for the team. The new frame planned to be used from this race was held up in customs, and despite frantic arrangements by the team, could not be delivered to Madrid in time, forcing the team to run Friday's session with the old frame.
The new frame arrived in time for the third practice session on Saturday, leaving just one session before the qualifying round, and the final race on Sunday. Making matters worse, the typically bright and sunny Andalusian weather caused the track temperature to rise throughout the week, resulting in volatile track conditions.
The team finished 23rd, 1 minute 3 seconds 376 behind the winner.
"We had several team meetings, and set up the machine for the race with a different approach, to cope with the rising track temperatures, as the track conditions differed between the morning and afternoon. We couldn't find the grip we needed, and fought another tough race," Takahashi lamented, but had a more promising view of the new frame.
"The lack of steering performance from the front-end that has plagued us has definitely been improved with the new frame. But now, the improvements in front-end maneuverability present rear-end maneuverability issues. The whole team will be working on increasing rear grip for the next race."
Okada also expressed his determination:
"Performance has improved in low-temperature conditions, but as the weather improves and temperatures rise, the machine changes its character. Machine development is all about rapidity. As we haven't gained the results, we still have a lot of work to do, quickly."
"After Round 3, we will move to Armenia and conduct private testing with other teams on Tuesday and Wednesday. We're hoping to be able to make improvements on the major issues we have, to find the optimal machine balance and provide Takahashi with a ride that brings out his maximum potential."
In its first year as a team, IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia faces stiff competition from veteran Moto2 teams, and has countless problems to solve. But, the team is definitely making steps forward, and although the steps are small, the culmination will undoubtedly lead to large leaps in performance. Takahashi and IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia continue their challenge to the top teams steadily, yet with haste.