Round 5 at Catalunya was the most disappointing race this season for the Repsol Honda Team. In a free practice held under clear skies Dani Pedrosa made best time, followed by Casey Stoner. Stoner did better in qualifying, gaining his second pole position of the season. A mistake in his final attack put Pedrosa in fifth place on the grid, but despite this, it was looking very likely that he would give Honda their third win of 2012. However, everything changed on race day, which started cloudy and turned to rain during warm up. The weather brightened for the race itself, but this didn't bring back the same dry conditions they'd enjoyed in practice and qualifying. In the previous GP in France, Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) showed himself master of changeable conditions like these with his convincing victory over favorite Stoner (third) and Pedrosa (fourth). Something similar happened this time – after qualifying, the two Repsol Honda riders looked to be favorites, but in what must be a bitter result for them Pedrosa only managed second, and Stoner fourth. Repsol Honda had been hoping for their second win. We asked HRC Team Principal Shuhei Nakamoto to tell us about the race.
To put it bluntly, I have no excuse to offer. Conditions changed, and we didn't manage to get the setup right for them. That's basically why we lost. Both riders chose hard tires based on the data from practice and qualifying, but Casey especially was in two minds about that even as he took his place on the grid. It certainly wasn't a mistake selecting hard tires after the experience of Friday and Saturday, but we couldn't have imagined we'd get such poor grip from the track on Sunday.
For the race, air temperature was 27° and the track was 40°. The closest we'd had to those conditions was in free practice on Saturday morning, when air was 24° and track was 36°. Both riders used hard tires for that session, and Dani had top time, with Casey second. So I certainly don't think anyone was mistaken in picking hard for the race. What we couldn't predict was the effect of the weather – rain during morning warm up reduced the grip of the track surface. After the race, Casey said the track surface had gone back to what it was in FP1 on Friday, and soft tires would have been the better choice. On the other hand, Dani had no doubts about the hard tires, but needed a different suspension setting to counter the poor grip. Both suffered from the same lack of grip, but they have slightly different ideas about what caused it.
As I mentioned, the session with conditions most similar to what we got in the race was Saturday morning practice. If the surface had been exactly the same as then, the race would have gone as we expected. But the effect of the rain was to reduce grip on the line. Casey and Dani have very different riding styles, so we would have needed different responses. For Casey, it would have been better to leave his suspension as it was, and switch to soft tires. The hard tires were good for Dani, but we should have set his suspension softer. What happened was that we didn't succeed in setting the bikes up to match the changed conditions.
This was Dani's first home GP in two years, and he hasn't had a first place yet this season so we really wanted to help him win. And in fact, everything looked good – I think we would have won if only it hadn't rained in the morning, or if we had responded better. Because Casey was riding on hard tires, he knew he'd be struggling a bit in the early laps so he wasn't surprised by his pace or position then – the problem was that the grip never improved. And not only did he suffer from lack of grip, he was getting chatter too. This must have been a bitterly disappointing race for Casey – from start to finish, he never had the chance to ride the way he can.
It's true that in both France and Catalunya, we made the mistake of committing to a too-restrictive setup that didn't allow us to respond to changed conditions. Looking at this race, Casey also had trouble with chatter. We've been struggling with this chatter problem for a few years now, and the more we do the more difficult it seems to be to solve. But this race really made us sit up and think again. It now seems possible that the chatter in the RC213V might have a different cause than the previous bikes. Whichever way you look at it though, Jorge beat us soundly in these two races. He's fast in the wet and in the dry, and I think he has an excellent bike. We do have some good points going for us, but in general we have more weaknesses at present. We knew in the winter tests that this was going to be a very tough season, and the last two races have made us feel that very keenly.
From the next race in England, we'll be switching to using only the new spec Bridgestone front tires. In the races so far, we've been using a mix of old and new specs, but we haven't had the chance to do a proper test of the new spec tires. So this test will be very important. We'll be doing a tire test for the new specs, as well as testing a lot of new parts. As I said, we knew it was going to be a hard year, but France and Catalunya have been a real spur. We're going to have to try a lot harder if we're going to catch Jorge now. It's a shame this race put an end to Casey's run of 19 podium places. I really feel bad about not being able to help him do better, and also for Dani not winning his home GP. For the coming races, we'll be trying even harder to put our guys back up there in first and second. And we'll be doing some serious work in Monday's test with that in mind.