The start of the 2011 MotoGP season will soon be here. At the two three-day pre-season tests held on Malaysia's Sepang Circuit in February, all the Honda riders showed great form. In the first test Honda riders were in the top times every day, and this lead continued through the second test. So things are looking good, but we are still in the position of underdog and it's a long, tough road ahead. HRC Team Principal Shuhei Nakamoto talked enthusiastically about the challenges ahead, and about the strong rival teams his riders must face.
First of all, I'd like to begin by offering my prayers for those who lost their lives in the recent earthquake and tsunami, my condolences to their families, and my best wishes and encouragement to the huge numbers of survivors still suffering terrible hardships in the wake of this disaster.
This year is my third season in MotoGP since I transferred from Formula One. In the last two years Honda riders have never made it into the top rank in the winter tests, but this year we did almost unbelievably well. By the end of the second test we had taken top position on all six days, and on the final day of that test Honda took all four top places. In previous years' tests, Dani made good times, but our other riders seemed to have a hard time handling their Hondas. I definitely see an all-round improvement this time. However, these good times don't necessarily mean we'll do well in the long run and from our current performance we could do OK in the qualifying and still fail in the actual race. My honest impression is that, if we want to win, to take the championship, we will have to do a lot more. These kinds of times suggest that we now have riders capable of seriously competing in MotoGP. But to take the championship is going to require us to reach a whole new level. This is the reason why I still have serious reservations about our chances.
In light of the first test results, we introduced a number of new components to improve braking stability. The second test was better, but at this point we still haven't developed a fully satisfactory solution. When I analyze the video we took of rival teams, I can see that they still have several advantages over us. We still have a lot of issues to deal with, including minor details, and my guess at the moment is that we may not have enough time left to solve them all.
Changes in the direction of our development for the 2010 bikes produced both good and bad results, and from mid-season we went back to using our intermediate specs. Our performance began to improve from that point and we decided that continuing to refine these specs would make us most competitive in 2011. That’s why we’re using the same geometry this year as we did in the last half of 2010, and our approach to frame rigidity is also unchanged. Basically, you can say that the 2011 specs are a more evolved version of the ones we used in 2010.
Well, we talk about the jackknife limit, which is where you begin to lose the rear end during braking and the wheel starts hopping. This limit is a defined physical value, and we can raise it by making the bike’s center of gravity as low as possible, and by lengthening the wheelbase. However, with the Honda complete package, we can’t lower the center of gravity any further. And if we make the wheelbase too long, the frame can’t flex and rear traction is lost. Our Honda bikes have small cowls so at first glance they look compact, but in fact the geometry is not compact at all. In the past, we handled this problem by adjusting the riding position. As you can see if you look at Andrea or any of the riders, the seat position has been moved really far back in order to raise the jackknife limit. Even so, we find ourselves still searching for new ways to keep away from the limit value, such as improving the clutch on the back torque limiter or controlling the engine braking characteristics. We plan to add new components to further improve this for the pre-race test at Qatar, and I hope that test will show us the best direction to take. We’ve made a great deal of progress with engine control and in improving the engine characteristics and done a lot to smooth out aspects that riders found too aggressive, and I think this will make handling easier and we’ll be seeing that reflected in better lap times. In the end, a lot depends on the tenacity and endurance of our riders, and there’s always the chance of a win even the way things are now. We’re still trying out new engineering concepts with the aim of giving our riders a bit more flexibility of action on the track.
We haven’t made any changes to the clutch itself. It’s an extremely conventional unit. However, the transmission construction is a kind that’s never been used for motorcycles before. We call it a “seamless transmission.” It took us two years to develop this mechanism, which has little torque loss and feels completely smooth when shifting up. There have been rumors in Europe that we used a double clutch mechanism, which would have been in violation of the race regulations but naturally, it goes without saying that we would never use any banned technology. I can tell you that we are very proud of this transmission, which is based on a unique concept that no-one would normally hit upon. It has six gear plates, but otherwise the construction is totally different. We first tried it out with our four works riders at the Sepang tests, and feedback from all of them was extremely positive. They found downshifting to be a little hard, so we’ll have to make some small improvements there, but they were very excited with the way they could quickly shift up while cornering with hardly any vibration, and how it made it easy to upshift without throttling back.
First, we knew Casey was a very fast rider since he took the championship for Ducati, and he has produced the times we hoped for on our Hondas too. When Casey gets good times it spurs Dani to compete with him, and when those two are making fast laps Andrea really puts in an effort too. Seeing the three Repsol bikes going past inspires the works team riders: Marco and Hiroshi don't want to be outpaced. So we get this great ripple effect and everyone starts improving their times. This is exactly what we hoped for when we recruited Casey. And of course when the riders are pushing themselves to the limit, our mechanics and engineers follow suit and make even greater efforts to avoid the slightest error setting up the bikes. Basically the result is that everyone does their utmost best.
The best outcome I can imagine is a final race in Valencia that turns out to be a fight between Honda riders for the championship. But it's very clear that this is not going to happen easily. Yamaha has Lorenzo, last year's champion, and Spies, who is his equal on the track. Ducati's Rossi is going to be another figure to watch this season. Even so, our team is going at each race with the goal of winning. All our riders and staff are of the same mind: whatever it takes, we're going to take a shot at the championship.
Of course you can't tell what will happen until the race, and we knew it was never going to be simple. But that's even more reason never to give up. We want to win, we want the championship, and we're going to hang in there and give it our very best. We're all in it together as a team, and we're hoping the results will show that we have been making the right decisions. And that's something I'd really like to be able to share with all our fans.
In closing, I'd like to return to the people still suffering in the aftermath of the disasters in Japan. I hope that in some small way the efforts we are making here at the race track might help to lighten their distress a little and help them to make it through this terrible time.