Very soon now, the 2012 Road Racing World Championship Season will open at the Losail Circuit in Qatar, which has been the venue for the first GP since 2007. Last year, Casey Stoner (Repsol Honda Team) rode an RC212V here at Losail to win the first of the ten victories that would make him the last champion under the 800cc rules. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) came third in the 2011 opener and went on to finish fourth overall with three wins, giving Honda the triple crown – Riders, Constructors and Team titles.
Five months earlier, tests for the 2012 season began at Valencia shortly after the final 2011 GP race. Honda got off to a good start, putting us in the running for a second successive championship title. Riding the RC213V, the new 1000cc bike for the 2012 rules, Pedrosa took top time with Stoner in second place.
The new Honda machines continued to perform well as testing continued after the New Year. Reigning champion Casey Stoner made top time in the two tests at Sepang, Malaysia (Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, Feb. 28 to March 1) and in the Jerez, Spain test (March 23 to 25). Since Pedrosa continues to hang in there right behind Stoner, Honda have a good chance at taking the Riders' Championship again (for the 16th time) and at getting our 19th Constructors' title.
With the opening GP at Qatar almost here, HRC Team Principal Shuhei Nakamoto talked to us about the winter tests and his hopes for the coming season.
We've been continuously developing the new bike since last year to meet the 2012 rule changes. It's mostly gone very well, although I can't say that we have completely solved all our issues yet. A major problem was responding to the unexpected fresh change in the minimum weight rule we faced in December last year. In spring 2010, when the change to 1000cc in 2012 was settled, it was decided to raise the minimum weight from 150kg to 153kg. We had already designed our new bike to meet these specs when suddenly the order came to increase the weight by another 4kg. We'd already built our new bike, so changing our specs at that point in time was impossible. For the Malaysia and Spain tests we simply added weights to the bike. However, this made it really hard to achieve a good balance, and it especially caused us problems with Dani, since he is smaller and lighter than most riders.
From the first Malaysia test through to the test in Spain, we were getting the same comments from Dani – we have to find some way to make the increased weight bike give him the same ride as the one he rode in the November test in Valencia, where he topped the timing sheet two days in a row. It was frustrating for him not to be able to get back to that performance. The bike was fine on switchbacks, but he was having big problems with braking. He didn't like the way the front got loaded too much when he re-opened the throttle. From now on, we'll be working to resolve that problem. As for the required increase in minimum weight, we'll be replacing our temporary solution of adding weights to the bike by gradually increasing the weight of various bike components.
As always, Casey got fast times right from the start, but he's been worried by front chattering and we spent most of our time in Malaysia trying to find a way to fix this problem. In the first of the Malaysian tests his times were in the 1'59s, which is an improvement over last year's best on the 800cc. And he was in poor physical condition, using soft tires, so he couldn't really attack. This tells me that he was probably capable of 1'58, so I have absolutely no problems on the speed front. But we still haven't managed to achieve the same level of stability as last year. In the second test, engine trouble meant our Honda bikes ran on only two of the days. At Jerez, our last chance to tune the bike, we did get the fastest times but I can't say this left us with the same level of confidence as we had at the same point last year. For Casey, chattering is still the biggest problem, far more so than balance. By the time of the Jerez test, the riders had got used to compensating for these issues and we had also made big improvements to the bikes, but we are still a long way from a perfect solution.
Both Casey and Dani had problems with chattering since we introduced Bridgestone's 2012 spec tires at last year's November test. Our new bike itself seems more prone to chattering, but I certainly get the strong impression that this year's tires are a factor. But chattering is a problem we've had from the beginning and the only way we'll solve it is to find the best balance between tires and bike. When we achieve that and we're able to use the full performance of these Bridgestone tires, then I think we'll see Casey and Dani really start to get much faster.
Anyway, this is our number one priority. Our rivals are facing the same conditions with the new minimum weight rule and tires. Yamaha is fielding two teams, with four bikes, but they seem to have got everything perfectly set up. Lorenzo is as fast as ever, and there's no question that he is our biggest threat. Ducati are also making good progress developing a very strong bike, so we are going to have to work pretty hard to win this year.
In the final test at Jerez, Casey put in a long run of 11 laps with times around 1'39. We wanted him to ride for the full 27-lap race distance, but Casey decided 11 laps were enough. He's a stubborn guy, and won't move an inch once he makes up his mind. I sometimes find myself thinking he'd win more often if he only listened to us a bit more, but then again, I guess maybe this tough-minded attitude is the secret of his strength.
According to Casey, rear tire vibration during his attack in the final test was the reason he didn't make as good a time as he should. He tried twice with the same result, and we are still looking for the cause. Even so, his was the top time. That's Casey – whatever the situation, he is going to be fast. Making sure he can always reliably pull off those high speeds, that's what we have to focus our efforts on.
Early this year, Casey became a father. Before the baby was born I felt he was finding it hard to stay calm, but now the child is here he's very settled and is riding much more powerfully. It was a baby girl, so I sent some Japanese Hina dolls to his house in Switzerland, which made him very happy. When I told him about the tradition that you must always put the dolls away not later than March 3rd, he looked it up on the Internet and is now an expert on the Hina Festival.
While Casey was troubled by chattering, it was the bike's balance that was giving Dani problems. However, in the last test he did a fine long run of 27 laps, with times in the low 1'40s. That's a very good average, but to tell the truth, I believe Dani has yet to realize his full potential as a rider. From now on we'll all be pushing him and ourselves to get better times. For the past few years, crashes have meant that Dani has never been able to start a season in perfect shape. This year is different, and he's really looking forward to starting the opening race free of pain from injuries. It's my belief that he could have been a serious contender for the title last year if only he hadn't been injured late in the season. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does this year.
Last year at the same time, we were extremely confident. To tell the truth, I was pretty sure of the title no matter what might happen. And in fact we had a superb season and did exactly that.
This year looks different. It's going be a very tough fight, I think. Everything was going very smoothly up until the first test of the 1000cc bikes in November last year. That was when the new minimum weight rule was suddenly sprung on us, giving rise to a number of problems. It's going to take us some time yet to resolve them, and we're still troubled by the chattering problem. And as for stability, I'm nowhere near as confident as I was last year. Things would be different if they had stayed with the original plan for a 153kg minimum, but then again, this change affects all the other teams too.
What we are doing at present is focusing all our efforts on modifying the bike to best conform to the new weight rules. We'll keep adjusting things race by race until we can find the ideal balance. This is going to be a very tough season for us. But still, even under these conditions I want to see Casey and Dani competing for the title. We're going to provide them with the best machines we can, and we can rely on them for the rest. Of course we'll be giving it all we can right from the start – my goal is nothing less than 1st and 2nd place at Qatar in both qualifying and race.
As Alvaro Bautista (San Carlo Honda Gresini) grew more accustomed to his Honda bike with every test we saw his lap speeds increase. This is a rider with great potential, and I'm looking forward to watching how he develops. I can say the same about Stefan Bradl (LCR Honda), last year's Moto2 champion. Together with the Repsol Honda Team, we have four riders that are sure to bring a lot of excitement to this MotoGP season.
Our goal is to win the title again this year, and everyone on the team has been giving their utmost over the winter to get ready for this challenge. The thing that makes us happiest is when every race is exciting and unique, with plenty of thrills for our fans. So, I hope you'll all be there for us this year again.