The battle of 2013 has passed the midway mark. IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia continues its bold challenge against battle-hardened Moto2 teams, gaining valuable experience with every round.
From Day One at the Sachsenring Circuit, where the German Grand Prix would end the first half of the season and begin the summer break, the team energetically set up their new machine to increase its competitiveness. Yuki Takahashi made steady progress with the team, starting 26th on Friday, 24th on Saturday morning, and gained 20th place in qualifying, a 7th row start for Sunday.
Takahashi, aiming for his best results of the season, makes a bad start to the afternoon race, presenting him with an uphill battle. The Sachsenring circuit, the shortest of all 17 rounds at only 3.671km, is notorious for its lack of passing points. Takahashi managed to steadily gain places overtaking rider by rider, but ended the race 19th.
The Moto2 and Moto3 classes enter the summer break which usually involves rest, training and self-motivation, but Takahashi raced in the biggest summer event in Japan, the Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance Road Race.
Riding the Number 22 CBR1000RR with Makoto Tamada and Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman, Takahashi exhibits good teamwork with Azlan on Friday's qualifier (as the de-facto team leader Tamada is out due to injuries). Takahashi leads the team in Sunday's scorching final with excellent lap times, resulting in a sixth-place finish at 211 laps.
And two weeks later, the MotoGP summer break ended.
The first three rounds of the second half, Indianapolis (USA), Brno (Czech Republic) and Silverstone (UK) are as mentally demanding as physical to the rider.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of American motor sports, is comparatively flat with varying road conditions, making it difficult to find the perfect setup. IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia finished the race in 22nd from a 24th place start, then returned to Europe for Round 10, Brno.
"For the Czech GP race week we tried a new cowl and reduced the wheelbase to increase rear weight balance, improving cornering and grip. In Friday's morning and afternoon free practices we were 23rd, 1.576 seconds behind the leader. The results weren't great, but it was a good session," commented Takahashi.
"By moving the rear tire forwards we could accelerate out of corners with confidence. We couldn't improve on the morning's overall times in the afternoon, but looking at the section times, we made big strides even on used tires."
Looking back at the progress made since the German Grand Prix Takahashi commented, "We ran in Germany without major changes to understand the bike. In Indianapolis the course was difficult to find the right setup for, but here in Brno even small changes are making big improvements. That considered, I think we've made a lot of progress, because we can gain one-digit placings, or at least 15th, early in the sessions. Now we have to keep our cool, and bring everything together."
The following Saturday, the team changed the front forks to the same specifications that other teams used, finishing the afternoon qualifiers in 20th, 1.3 seconds behind the leader. The grid position was not impressive, but the time difference with the top group was narrowing.
The final 20-lap race started one hour early. Takahashi, making a reasonable start, persevered a five-way battle in which rider by rider fell behind, to finish in 18th.
"We had to battle for places with insufficient traction out of the corners, under hard to overtake, easy to be overtaken conditions. The team made sure the bike was better than in Indianapolis, and I did everything I could. We're now within points during the race, and our overall times are closing in on the leaders," Takahashi looks back, with some satisfaction.
Team manager Tadayuki Okada shared Takahashi's sentiments, but stressed the need for more improvements.
"We improved traction, cornering and rider feel by reducing the wheelbase. But with the current machine's potential, there's still a lot left to improve to close the lap times with the leaders. The rider's efforts need to be matched with a faster machine to get better results. We have changed the upper cowl and increased top speed with consistency. But the total package also needs to be superior to win, so we're making some fundamental improvements to handling, in time for Silverstone."
The third race out of three weekends in a row, Round 11, the British Grand Prix, was blessed with sunny weather throughout the week, a rare occurrence for a GP traditionally cursed with unstable conditions. Silverstone is well-known as a bumpy circuit, being one of the fastest circuits throughout the season and venue for the Formula 1 British Grand Prix.
The team took advantage of the new front forks, and improved performance over the bumpy track surface by softening the suspension settings. After two days and four sessions, the team won to start the final race in 25th, on the 9th row.
"As the tires wear the cornering gets better, but our challenge now is to effectively use edge grip while the tires are fresh," Takahashi looks back.
"This morning's changes to the geometry resulted in good lap times, even on 18-lap old tires. We made further changes for the afternoon session, but couldn't bring out full grip from new tires. We'll fall back to the morning's settings for the finals. We're aiming for the points this race."
Sunday's Moto2 class final, as was in the previous Grand Prix, was held before the other two classes, stating the 18-lap race at 11:20. Takahashi, starting 25th, steadily improved his pace, and on lap 17 bettered his qualifying times. He finished the race 23rd.
"It was the same as yesterday. Performance isn't there while the tires are fresh, but improves as the tires wear. We couldn't keep up with the leaders, but battled in our own group and were faster than our qualifying times by the end of the race."
An hour after the final ended, the team announced a new rider. Takahashi, who participated from pre-season testing and fought with the team for eleven grand prixes was to leave the team on completion of the British Grand Prix.
"I was not really surprised and had been prepared, as I had been hearing rumors, whether founded or otherwise, and in this world, results are everything," Takahashi took the announcement calmly.
"I sincerely thank everyone for giving me the opportunity to race in this team. I'm unhappy and disappointed, though, that I could not get the results to meet everyone's expectations. But, I did everything I could, so I have no regrets," Takahashi added with his usual smile.
Takahashi, who has no plans for the immediate future, continued, "I know there are many difficulties in times like these, but if there's an opportunity I would definitely race, and will spare no effort to get there."
Team manager Tadayuki Okada comments on the decision, "I didn't want to make this decision during the season. It's very saddening."
"As the results show, I, and the team, are responsible for giving Yuki stressful races. But he has very high capabilities as a rider, as seen by his great results at Suzuka. I'm saddened that we couldn't bring out the potential of his riding style in this class. Moto2 is a severe class, in which it's common for the winner of one race to finish poorly in the next. Now, more than ever, I realize this."
Malaysian rider Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman joins the team from San Marino.
"Azlan now leads the ARRC SS600 class rankings. All of the circuits will be new to him, but through my experience we'll determine course strategies, and I'll do my best to realize the dreams of Asian riders. It won't be easy, but I hope Azlan will be able to make the most of this opportunity."Only six rounds remain in the 2013 season. After the San Marino Grand Prix at the Misano circuit and the Spanish Grand Prix at MotorLand Aragon, the final rounds of the season move to the Asia Pacific region. The time for IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia's home ground battles are nearing day by day.