The opening race of the season at Qatar was a fiercely-fought battle between Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa of Repsol Honda and Jorge Lorenzo of Yamaha that was only decided in the last few laps when Lorenzo finally took the lead back from Stoner. Lorenzo has been on top form all through the winter tests and is a formidable rival for the Honda team again this season. We asked HRC Team Principal Shuhei Nakamoto to go over the race and tell us how this result affects his plans for the team.
Yes, Lorenzo was the rider who caused us the most trouble last year. He's in even better condition now, and with him riding so well I think we are in for a very tough season. When I saw the superb averages he was getting in Malaysia and Spain, I started to wonder if we even stood a chance. And indeed he beat us fair and square in this opening race with a perfect ride, fast and consistent. On the other hand, we've been held back by all kinds of problems and weren't even able to make the same best times as last year. Casey's bike suffered from chattering, while Dani had problems with balance. Under those conditions, before the race I couldn't see us winning, and felt the championship was out of the question. Casey is always extremely confident on this circuit, but even so he only managed to come in second in qualifying. Dani had some problems that put him seventh on the grid. So yes, I expected Lorenzo to beat us this time.
At the end of qualifying, when we compared the times with last year Dani was 1.6" and Casey was 0.7" slower. So our Hondas weren't managing the same speeds as last season, and at the same time the Yamaha bikes kept doing better and better. We had a huge advantage last year, but that's all gone now. You could see the way it was going all through the winter tests, but it was even more obvious here in Qatar. Lorenzo's bike was behaving well, with very consistent times. Looking at him I didn't think we could win this race, and that's still my feeling. One bright spot was that the actual race went far better for us than I expected. If things stay the way they are at present, I really couldn't forecast a win for us with any confidence. But if we keep making our best efforts, I now think it's possible to turn things around and give us a real chance again.
Casey's bike has been plagued by chattering. We managed to improve this by changes to the set-up, but unfortunately that made cornering worse. That compromise was the best we could manage – we just couldn't find a perfect solution. Under those conditions, even using soft compound tires didn't give us much better times. It was tough, and Casey reckoned we couldn't win like that. Then, for the warm-up before the race, we tried tweaking the suspension spring rate. This improved things tremendously and Casey was able to up his pace and take the lead for much of the race, but unfortunately, arm pump struck and he had to drop back to finish third. Arm pump has various causes, but this time it was probably due to the way Casey had been controlling the chattering by strenuous use of his brakes. He'd been riding like that for four days, and it finally took its toll on his muscles in the last laps of the race. It seems to me that we haven't really solved the root of this problem, Casey has just been suppressing it.
We made big changes to the setting of Dani's bike for the race. Altering the wheelbase produced a huge improvement. He got off to a good start and was a contender right to the end. Both riders stood a chance of winning this one, which was great progress when you think how far behind they still were in qualifying. Of course I'm disappointed we didn't get a first place, but considering I went into the race thinking we were completely doomed this result makes me very happy – I now feel that if we keep trying, we can win.
It wasn't just the engine displacement that changed, the minimum weight of the bikes is now 7kg more than last year. And the Bridgestone rear tires are new too, so you can't make a simple comparison. Everything that we learned up till last year no longer applies – we had worked out how to respond to most situations, but all that know-how isn't useful any more. There were no fresh changes for the Qatar GP, but trying the bikes out for the first time in an actual race revealed a lot. Casey and Dani are probably disappointed we didn't win this opening race, but I think they now have a better idea of what to do next. And that goes for the rest of the team too – we'll all be working to give them the bikes they need to beat Lorenzo.
Yes, Bradl rode very well. To hold on to sixth place for much of the race is an amazing performance for a rookie. Too bad he made that mistake with the brake adjuster. If only he had corrected that immediately, he could well have finished in sixth place. This is definitely a rider to watch. Bautista had struggled with front feel ever since arriving in Qatar, which meant he lacked the confidence to bank after braking. But in the race itself, he had overcome this problem and set a good pace. Both these riders have a lot of potential and I'm looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
Both Casey and Dani really gave it a lot this time. But we are still not in any condition to take the championship, and I certainly don't have the confidence yet to predict victory in the next race. We'll just have to press on and clear up all the problems still affecting Casey and Dani, and make sure they have bikes they can win on as soon as possible. The season has just started, so we have a long way to go yet. We'll be trying our utmost to make it happen, and I hope you'll all be there supporting us.