From France, then Italy, and to Spain, the mid-season European circuits have provided more of a challenge to IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia than expected. The team started the 2014 season aiming for podium finishes, if not the championship, but from the onset were plagued with misfortune, and in the European rounds were lucky to finish within the points.
The team, to find a way out of this crisis, conducted post-race tests at the Mugello circuit after the completion of Round 6 (Italy), and after Round 7 (Catalunya) stayed at the circuit for more post-race tests before traveling to inland Spain to conduct two more days of rigorous tests at Motorland Aragon.
Taka Nakagami commented on the continued sub-potential lackluster performance: “It’s hard to say, but I think the string of poor finishes has made the team unknowingly anxious.
“We get good results on the first day of race week, and find the right direction on the second day, but then when we’re on the track something isn’t right, so we become anxious, and can’t perform consistently. We also feel that we have to change something, anything, to improve our results, and end up changing too much. Our anxiety has created a bad cycle, and we’ve lost our cool.”
Nakagami came to this realization in the finals of the Catalunya GP: “We couldn’t hope for a decent finish, so I focused on the bike’s condition and changed my riding style a bit. My times didn’t improve even if I pushed as hard as I could, so I calmed down and pulled back a bit. I realized the good and the bad after changing my riding style, without even losing lap-times! Since I could see many aspects under many conditions, I was able to make suggestions and plans for the Tuesday tests, at the post-race meeting.”
Team manager Tadayuki Okada views the team’s skills as one of the reasons Nakagami was anxious: “We learned a lot from rigorous Aragon tests after the Catalunya GP. For example, we learned that Nakagami didn’t want a standard range for the front forks, but more movement and feel in the upper and lower ranges. The team should have been able to immediately understand and implement what he wanted.
“This season, we have been preparing a machine that isn’t slow, but Nakagami’s satisfaction with the setup is 60, maybe 70 percent. He couldn’t improve his times, leading to poor results, which in turn made him want to change the machine setup, and increased his anxiety.
“In other words, he and the team were trying to relive the optimal conditions he had when he was way out in front, and by focussing too much on that, were distancing themselves from the reality at hand. I think we can’t fix this situation overnight and aim for the top, but have to take a more gradual approach.”
In line with Okada’s thoughts, the team changed the way they approached race week.
Since the team was formed last year, Okada had, for the lack of data, been course-side during race week to observe the riding and machine characteristics, providing feedback to the team. Now, Okada views his role as removing the anxiety from the team, by spending as much of his time as possible in the pit box, making sure the pit crew can work in a more relaxed manner.
“We have to solve one problem at a time. Weather at the Dutch TT affects how we spend race week, so we’ll tackle each session from the mental perspective. I want to control the team’s atmosphere and expectations; they need to realize that just because the Aragon tests went well, we can’t expect immediate results. We need to qualify well, but I think we shouldn’t be obsessed with qualifying in pole position or even on the front row, but make solid improvements throughout the sessions and start within the first 3 rows, which will most likely provide us with good final results. We need to calm down, and aim for realistic targets. You could call me the team’s radiator!”
Aiming to Improve the RCV1000R Even More
Hiroshi Aoyama, racing in the premier MotoGP class, has also had a few tough races.
At the Mugello circuit in Italy and the Catalunya circuit in Barcelona, both tracks demanding on engine performance, Aoyama’s Open category RCV1000R was at a disadvantage, finishing just within the points both times. The upcoming race is more suited to the RCV1000R compared to Italy and Spain, and to take advantage, the machine was set up as it was in the first four rounds.
New front forks were tested, in hope of solving Aoyama’s problems with cornering characteristics.
On Day 1 of race week Aoyama commented, “It feels a lot better than Catalunya.”
The following day Aoyama wanted to fine tune the front end setup, but was interrupted by the notorious “Dutch weather” on Friday’s third free-practice session.
The new front forks were indeed an improvement, with Aoyama clocking the laps at an impressive pace, barely missing QP2 for a chance to battle for the top grid. Although qualifying 14th, Aoyama seemed satisfied with the session.
Aoyama wanted to race in the dry, although local weather reports forecasted a high probability of rain for the finals. “It’s been dry all week, and we haven’t had a chance to test the new setup in the wet. We don’t know how the Open category ECUs compare to the factory machines’ electronic control, so if it rains, we’re in unchartered territory. But, it’s the Netherlands, so it will probably rain.”
As expected, the finals on Saturday were raced in the rain. Although the finals started in the wet, riders swapped to slick-tire machines mid-race according to the flag-to-flag rule, leaving Aoyama at a disadvantage, finishing 16th. Aoyama was not happy with his results, but viewed the race week as constructive, providing a good foundation for the German GP.
“We should not have run with the same setup as yesterday, as the conditions (for slick tire machines) was vastly different. I tried to make it work, as we couldn’t change the setup during the race, but I couldn’t find the speed,” Aoyama recalled.
Aoyama looks forward to Germany: “The changes we made to the front end have definitely improved the feel. It wasn’t evident in the finals this round, but I think the changes will really work at the Sachsenring circuit for the German GP.”
Positive Improvements, and to the Next Step
IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia, armed with a new valor, continued to make advancements one step at a time. On the first day in the morning and afternoon free practice sessions, although Nakagami ranked 18th, he was only 1.012 seconds behind the top rider.
“I raced the morning and afternoon sessions trying not to be concerned with the small issues. The track temperature doesn’t rise much here, so instead of pitting often and commenting on the setup, I tried to stay out as long as I could to get a better feel and provide consistent feedback. I managed to achieve that objective, so I’m looking forward to great results tomorrow,” Nakagami commented.
Teammate Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman, aiming to change his riding style this season, believes he is getting positive results:
“By concentrating on my braking point and race lines, my riding style improvements were working well in today’s FP1 and FP2,” Azlan looked back at the sessions with a smiling shyly.
“It’s taken some time to fix the problems, but I understand the bike better now, so I think we’ll be getting better results in the future. I used to brake too deep into the corners, but now, by braking earlier, I can power out of the corners better, and I can use the engine revs more effectively. I think my style has changed from aggressive, to smooth, and I’ll be improving even more, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s qualifying.”
In Friday’s qualifying, Nakagami and the team kept their cool, and were rewarded with a second-row 5th position grid.
“The team worked hard in these difficult conditions to improve the bike. We’ve had some tough races, but the second-row start really boosted my confidence. The final results are all that matters, so I don’t know what the weather will be like tomorrow, but I’ll race with confidence,” commented Nakagami.
The race, as expected of the Dutch TT, was at the mercy of the rain. Rider after rider fell victim to what was a survival game. Alzan too, unfortunately, fell after only a few laps, retiring without points.
Alzan commented: “We made many improvements during race week, and were hoping to finish in the points, but I unfortunately crashed. We couldn’t race with the optimal setup as the weather changed, but everyone was racing under the same conditions, so that’s no excuse. We’re aiming for netter results for the next race.”
Nakagami, starting 5th on the second-row, lost ground at the first corner after being caught behind other riders losing control.
“I knew no-one was racing with the best settings, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” Nakagami could not hide his disappointment. “I’m not happy with only being able to finish the race, but I concentrated on not falling, and getting a feel for the bike to provide feedback for the next race.”
Despite issues with wet conditions, Team manager Okada believes they made progress for the next race. “Brake input and throttle work in the wet need to be adjusted, compared to our dry setup, but we managed to identify the issues in the wet, so we can make improvements for the next race. By changing the way we approached the sessions, the Orleans and KALEX engineers were pleased that we could provide more concise comments as well.
“We’re on the right track, and I believe Nakagami will regain his pace, and Azlan will improve his riding. He might even have to challenge new riding styles to improve even more. Sachsenring is a small circuit, so I think our current endeavors will bear fruit.”
By the team and riders working hard together, IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia has finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Tough races remain in the highly competitive Moto2 class, but both riders, hand in hand with Okada and his staff, are making solid steps forward.