Taka Nakagami, who valiantly battled for the lead in the opening round of the season at the Losail circuit in Qatar, found the subsequent rounds, the Americas Grand Prix and the Argentina Grand Prix, to be less than satisfactory. At the Americas Grand Prix Nakagami started 9th, but immediately felt instability during deceleration, which developed into rear tire vibration, hindering his pace and resulting in an 11th place finish.
Qualifying at the inaugural Argentina Grand Prix started on a better note by Nakagami posting the 4th best time on Friday, but due to unsatisfying results on Saturday, the machine’s setup was changed for Sunday’s warming up session, during which an engine failure forced him to race with a new engine. The result was an unfortunate 15th place finish.
In contrast teammate Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman, working to improve his riding style since pre-season testing, qualified 33rd at the Americas Grand Prix to finish 18th, and 31st to finish 21st in Argentina, which, despite being out of the points, showed a consistent improvement by finishing higher than his qualifying times.
The battle now moves to Europe. The Jerez circuit, stage for Round 4, the Spanish Grand Prix, is one of the most exciting venues for the entire season. Pre-season tests for IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia were conducted here in February and March, with Nakagami recording the top times, so hopefully, the team can build a good rhythm and begin to achieve their potential.
A New Game Plan for the Sessions
Leading up to the Spanish race week, team manager Tadayuki Okada laid out a new game plan for each of the sessions.
“From now on, we’re aiming to pit only once, no matter what the condition of the bike, so the rider will have to adapt to the conditions,” explained Okada. “As long as there are no serious problems with the bike, we’ll stay out even on worn tires. Nakagami doesn’t like riders close behind him during sessions, so until now we’ve pitted him. But I’ve told him not to worry about riders that like to keep up close to him, but to concentrate on his own riding. Both our riders are highly motivated, so we’re looking forward to great results.”
The Andalusian weather from late April to early May is generally sunny and mild, and was no exception all through the three days during the Spanish Grand Prix. Temperatures generally rise from a cool 13 to 14 degrees celsius in the morning, to a sunny and very warm 30 degrees in the afternoon, affecting the track’s surface. The tack temperature rises from 30 degrees during the morning, to above 50 degrees, affecting speed, bike setup, tire wear and grip.
In Friday’s free practice (FP1), Nakagami was 10th, 0.451 seconds from the lead, but managed to improve his position to 3rd in FP2, despite deteriorating track conditions. His solid performance under unstable conditions was encouraging.
“It was a positive session, as I could improve my position under hotter-than-expected conditions in the afternoon, in which everyone was battling for grip,” Nakagami commented, adding that he was comfortable with Okada’s new game plan. “I relied on myself to adapt to the conditions, even difficult conditions, rather than relying on the bike. In the afternoon session the tires would lose performance after 10 laps, but I managed to keep lost time to a minimum, and found a good rhythm for the final race. We still have some issues to sort out, but we’re off to a great start.”
Aoyama Earns Points in All Races
In the premier MotoGP class, Hiroshi Aoyama makes progress on his RCV1000R. Since finishing 11th in Qatar, he has finished within the top 15 to score points, and was the top open category rider , finishing 10th in Argentina.
Aoyama has won at Jerez, and is well acquainted with the circuit, where the factory machines do not have much of an advantage over the open category bikes.
On Friday, Aoyama finished FP1 and FP2 in 16th, a reasonable start to the week, but on Saturday’s FP4 improved his position to 10th. Aoyama then recorded fast lap times in the 15 minute qualifying session (QP1), and was hopeful to finish within the top 2 to proceed to QP2. Unfortunately he finished 3rd by a fraction, and missed out on QP2, but managed to qualify 13th for the race, his best result of the season.
“I was fastest in every sector in the final attack, but lost a bit of time in Sector 3. I’m fast in Sectors 1, 2 and 4, so I’ll concentrate on improving my times in Sector 3 for tomorrow,” Aoyama analyzed his gains despite a disappointing session. “This is a difficult circuit to pull away on, so I’ll try to get the start right, and persevere the late stages when the tires fade. This year has been great so far, so I’ll look forward to keep the rhythm going tomorrow.”
117,000 fans packed the stadium on Sunday, and cheered as Aoyama finished 12th. The track reached 55 degrees celcius, the hottest conditions of the week.
“The race was demanding physically, and on the tires. We took a bet with soft compounds for the front and rear tires, and were pleased the grip lasted to the end. I took more time than expected to catch up to the front group and used up the best part of the tires, so I couldn’t push harder, which was disappointing. I think we could have otherwise finished in a better position. We have proved our competitiveness on this small circuit where lap times are close to the factory machines, so we’ll continue to improve, and I’m looking forward to Le Mans.”
As Aoyama noted for the French Grand Prix, Le Mans is a stop-and-go medium- to low-speed circuit, promising good results if he can accelerate as fast as the factory machines.
Grand Prix of Spain
The Moto2 class final started at 12:20 pm on Sunday. Riders who managed to pull away on Lap 1 maintained their lead until the end, proving to be an unlucky race for Nakagami.
Nakagami had difficulties finding pace in the initial stages of the 26 lap race, but managed to move through the field in the second half, and by the last one-third of the race was in 11th position. Racing mainly solo at this stage, gradually overtaking riders in front of him, he had already lost feel in the front end.
“I was closing in on Luthi in front of me, posting my fastest laps, but lost the front and fell on the first corner in the final lap. I rejoined the race, but I think the tire was punctured and fell again on corner 6,” lamented Nakagami.
Okada felt the team was responsible for not being able to prepare the bike well enough. “I think the team is responsible for Nakagami not being able to race at his full potential. We’re not losing as much time towards the end of the race as last year, but we couldn’t set the machine up to keep up with what he’s capable of. Rider skill plays a big role in Moto2, so we have to have a strong team to bring out Nakagami’s full potential.”
Nakagami’s teammate, Azlan, started the race from 31st on the grid, but finished 24th. Despite being well outside the points, he is consistently improving his riding style and his approach to the entire race distance.
“The surface temperature was high, so I knew tire life would be short and pushed from the start to keep up with the leaders,” Azlan commented. The results were not good, but the experiences gained this race were invaluable.
“I’m still working on my riding style, so there’s a lot I have to improve on, including tire use at the beginning of the race. I want to keep on learning, and improve my results for the next race.”
After the completion of the Spanish Grand Prix, the team traveled to Motorland Aragon in inland Spain for two days of private tests.
Okada voiced his enthusiasm, commenting, “We’ll be making some major changes that we can’t during race week. Both riders will be testing the bikes a lot so we can identify the good aspects of the bike, and improve the setup, and prepare bikes that will win the next race.”
After only two days, May 8 and 9, the team then returned to the workshop in Ares, France. Both Nakagami and Azlan continued their training with Okada on dirt tracks, preparing for the French Grand Prix.
Now, in mid-May, the team is poised for months of racing at numerous European circuits. IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia’s counterattack starts at the French Grand Prix, the team’s home ground.