It was 2009 when Shuhei Nakamoto arrived in MotoGP. By then, HRC was going through the most complicated situation since its comeback to the world racing scene. In the five years prior to Nakamoto’s arrival, HRC had won just one championship and this one was achieved more due to the mistakes of its opponents than to its own merits.
Nakamoto took over Honda’s reins to MotoGP after almost nine years as the key man responsible for Honda Motor Company’s most important investment: the F1 project. Being one of the most top engineers in the company, he was sent to the bikes to straighten out their situation in the World Championship. But in reality, for Nakamoto it was a return to where he started in the company: HRC.
As a recently graduated engineer, Nakamoto arrived at Honda Motor in 1983. “The first three months I worked in a car dealer; the next three in Suzuka, in the car factory”, recalled the 59-year-old. “After this shakedown period Honda Motor had to decide in which area of the company I would work… And I was lucky enough: my first job was HRC”.
How old where you then?
I think I was 26 years old; I arrived in HRC October 1st 1983. My first job was in the engine department, but after one month I went to my manager and asked him if he could change my job from engine designer to chassis designer.
Why did you prefer chassis engineering than engine engineering?
Engine engineering is interesting, but the physical space in which you have to work is limited by the crankcases, while on the chassis the possibilities when it comes to design are much wider.
And the answer of your manager was…?
Yes, I was allowed to move to chassis area.
So I deduce that your specialty as an engineer is chassis design.
Yes, that’s right.
What was the first project you were involved in?
My first job was RS250 and RS125, I designed chassis for both bikes; later also the NSR250 as well. I continued doing it for several years, until the day I told my HRC manager that I wanted to do the NSR500. He asked me why? I told him that it was the natural evolution after having done the 125 and the 250. Instead he gave me the superbike project.
Which one, the one with the V2 engine or the one with the V4?
V4, the RC45 with Kocinski, Aaron Slight. But in 2000 I asked again to do the 500. Because the NSR500 was the F1 of the bikes, while Superbikes was like the Touring Cars category.
And what happened this time with your request?
What happened was that the director of HRC come to me and said, ‘OK, you can do F1.’ [Nakamoto opens his eyes wide as a surprise gesture]
So you left the motorcycles to go to F1 without having had any experience in auto racing. Weren’t you scared with that responsibility?
More than scared. I was surprised because, as you said, I had no experience in cars. But this was a company order and I had two choices: go to F1 or leave Honda. At that time I had two very small boys so there was no way for me leaving Honda, so I went to F1. [Laughs]
And how did this challenge work out?
I have to say that I enjoyed the F1 years a lot. From May 1st 2000 till end 2008 when Honda decided to stop F1 project…almost nine years. To watch F1 is kind of boring, but to do F1 is from the technical point of view is very, very exciting. Budget is very different from the motorcycle-racing budget and the numbers of the engineers as well…there is a big difference. There, the engineers cover a very narrow area but instead they can go deep, very deep.
You mean they are very specialized in the areas they are focused?
Yes. Motorcycle engineers cover wide areas. In the years in F1 I learned a lot of things engine-wise, chassis-wise and also aerodynamics, especially aerodynamics.
So at the beginning of 2009, how was the comeback to the bike world? What did you face when you assumed the responsibility of Honda’s number one motorcycle project?
Sepang test 2009. I have to say that I was very surprised with what I saw.
In which way?
The speed of the Hondas was very, very fast. It was quiet easy to overtake the Yamaha on the straight, but when we arrived at the corners, Yamaha easily overtook back on the braking. This was unacceptable.
So this shocked you?
Yes. The Honda machine was very fast, but on braking the Yamaha was much more stronger. My first thought was that we might have done something wrong. So we tried different setups. We managed to improve our braking efficiency, but still Yamaha was much more effective than us.
I understand that when you took control of the GP project, you did it also as an engineer, not only as manager. Is this right?
Yes. At that time I was already vice-president of HRC. I had to manage the whole company. Because the HRC president is just a figure, it is the vice-president who really runs it. I had to learn a lot of things like management, budget-wise, legal things and all this stuff, but still my interest was the technical area. And thinking in improving the technical efficiency after my arrival, I changed the structure of HRC.
Can you explain in which way?
I created a chassis area, an engine area, a chassis test group, an engine test group and at the same time I created one group who had to concentrate in future technology. It is a group which works complete separate from the existing project. It is a group who had to think about the future.
How far in the future?
Some of them may be a half year, some of them three years, some more than ten years…
But using the existing technology as a starting point or inventing something from zero?
Using the existing technology. What I did was give them a clear working line. For example, in 2009 I told them: ‘You must improve the braking stability.’ Because I knew that once we improved the braking stability, the Yamahas or the Ducatis wouldn’t re-pass us on the straight on the braking. Our cornering speed was not as fast as Yamaha, but if we were capable to be in front of the Yamahas during the corner it wouldn’t be easy for them to overtake.
Straight speed was at that time our strong point; cornering speed is our weak point. Sometimes people concentrated to improve the weak points, forgetting their strong points. At that time we had not enough knowledge or technology to make our cornering speed faster, but we knew we could to our straight speed faster. So then we had to explore these strong points to the maximum: pass on the straight, stay in front during the cornering and then use again our top speed… If we were capable to do it, I was sure that sooner than later faster cornering machine riders would finally give up.
What happened after 2009?
The developing group did a very good job. From 2010 in advance we concentrated in improving braking stability using the ideas of the developing group. We tried several different chassis. In Qatar 2010, if you remember, Pedrosa’s bike wobbled coming down on the straight. Dani was very unhappy with it, but Dovizioso instead liked it because it had better cornering speed. On that bike, the concept was to make braking stability better.
The 2010 bike was your first machine, the first one with your philosophy. Were you happy with that bike?
Of course I wasn’t happy, it only started to work the target we had settled. In fact we are keeping till today this same concept. Braking stability is much more important for us than engine power, much more important.
So in 2011 you had built a bike that you wanted, you had the fastest rider in the category (Casey Stoner) and you won the title.
Yes, in 2011 the first step of my job was done. My second job was to improve our cornering speed, which was our weak point. We tried several things and now I am very happy because our machine is faster than Yamaha in the cornering sections. You can check the data in all circuits. Especially in tight corners. Our machine is always faster. Overall lap times are very similar, but sometimes Marc (Marquez) has a few tenths advantage and this is always due to the effectiveness of our bike in the cornering areas.
And what about the 2016 bike? Has it been a step backwards due to the common software?
In the first half of the season, yes, because as I have explained several times, we didn’t know how make that software work properly. Now we understand. I would say to about 90%. The difference now is that if we could use HRC software, trackside engineering would be much easier.
Which do you think was your best bike in all these years?
Next year’s! The one to come is the best one.
You are retiring next season after 8 years in charge of Honda interests in MotoGP. If you had to chose your most satisfactory of them, which one would it be?
If I had to chose one, I would say 2010, The year we turned around the situation and finished ready to fight for the championship, as it happened in 2011.