After three seasons of moving up the championship table on year-old Honda machinery, Takaaki Nakagami gets his big chance for 2021 in the form of promotion to the latest-spec RCV.
That also means Nakagami will skip the 2020-spec bike and jump from racing the 2019 model to the 2021 edition, although the engine will be 2020-spec due to the technical freeze.
“It’s really exciting to use latest bike, because the last three seasons we always used previous bike. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes not,” said Nakagami, who was the top Honda rider with tenth in the world championship last season.
“Most of the time it’s really difficult to show our real potential, because the main thing is that the engine performance is completely different, and always the latest engine spec has more power and speed.
“In MotoGP if you lose one tenth in the back straight or the long straight, it’s difficult.”
With no official testing until Qatar in March, Nakagami’s only glimpse at the 2021 race bike has been in the hands of development rider Stefan Bradl during recent private tests at Jerez.
“Everybody knows that HRC and Stefan Bradl had a few days of testing in Jerez, but actually I didn’t get any information from HRC. I didn’t talk or know yet,” Nakagami said.
“I saw some pictures, and the media had the [main] points of the bike, the new chassis, new swingarm. It looks good. I’m really excited to try it, but still I haven’t talked to HRC about the new bike.
“Of course before the Qatar test we need to understand which bike HRC will bring for all four riders, but at this moment, I don’t know anything about which bike we will have.
“But it’s good to see Bradl testing, and hopefully HRC can pick up the best parts for a a good base in Qatar.
“But I’m not worried about the new bike, because it’s definitely much better than what I used last year. The engine performance will be much easier, more horsepower, from a 2019 bike to a 2020 engine.
“So I’m really excited and hopefully I can help develop the bike and to make it even more competitive. I know it’s already competitive, but compared to other manufacturers in some points it doesn’t handle the best, so I hope I can help in that area.”
‘Last season I couldn’t control the pressure’
While the new bike is undoubtedly a big boost for Nakagami he already had the speed to finish on the podium and perhaps win races last season – only to throw his best chances away, most notable at Aragon, when he qualified on pole but fell from the lead on the opening lap.
True to his word, the 29-year-old has been working to ensure such mistakes won’t happen again. But while Fabio Quartararo has enlisted the help of a psychologist to help him focus over the winter, Nakagami has sought to acclimatise himself to high-stress situations.
“Of course, last season was a good season for me, but on the other side, unfortunately I couldn’t control myself for the pressure,” he said. “I was too excited from the pole position in Aragon, and made a stupid mistake.
“For the experience it was very good, at least I tried the maximum I have and I made a mistake. Of course that moment was really disappointing, because everybody knows I can fight for the victory, but after 20 seconds I was in the gravel.
“So in myself, last year, there were a few mistakes in really important moments.
“I know Fabio Quartararo works with a mental trainer. But I’m not like him. I’ve done a little bit different strategy in training. It looks good, but the training situation and the grand prix situation is completely different.”
Pressed on what he has tried, Nakagami replied:
“We tried more bicycle training, outside and indoor. It was a really hard workout to bring the maximum heart rate, 180-185, then stay at the maximum heart rate and don’t lose the concentration.
“Normally at 180-185 people start to think about breathing to [bring the heart rate] down, but we tried to keep this high maximum performance, to keep constant, don’t lose concentration and confidence.
“For the training it looks good but as I said still I don’t know if it will help on the [MotoGP] bike.
“Let’s try in the Qatar test because in Qatar it will be very tough, only 5 days, but we need to do a lot of laps. So it’s going to be tough for the physical condition, which is good to understand if the winter training has been good or not.
“But this season, we cannot afford to make any mistakes, because our target is to fight for the championship,” he added. “Last season it was OK to make mistakes, but this season we cannot.”
Aggressive-smooth ‘hybrid’ style
While Nakagami made big progress after HRC helped him analyse Marc Marquez’s aggressive riding style, the #30 knows there is still work to do.
“I can say that on the braking I still need a little bit more, but especially in the change of direction from corner to corner, I’m not the best rider. I understood that I am not the fastest man, but also on the data it looks like I’m not on a good level.
“This is good to know, because also I understood that in this area I am not the best rider. So I’ll try to understand, look at the data and focus more on that area with the team.
“We have to use that important test [Qatar] to develop the bike but also to understand how to improve my riding style.”
While Marc Marquez is known for his aggressive, on the limit riding style, no two riders are the same and Nakagami believes there are occasions when a smooth technique pays off for him.
“Marc’s style looks really good. Every year, many people say the Honda is very difficult to handle but Marc is always able to use the bike. Of course, he has to adapt, but he is able to do it.
“One thing with this aggressive style, we must continue like this, but on the other hand, not everyone is like Marc’s style.
“Myself, at some points I tried last year a little bit more aggressive, which in some points was positive, but not everywhere. Some areas I was much more smoothcompared to the other riders like Alex or Cal. But I was much faster.
“So to say that everywhere you have a really aggressive style, I say no.
“I think for this season, I don’t know about the new bike, but I think the best way is to adapt at different moments; some points really aggressive, some points try smooth riding.
“Because last season, we saw the smooth riding was really really good for the end of the race. We were able to use the soft tyre and I was able to feel a lot of grip still at the end of the race, which is really important.
“So we need to try like a ‘hybrid’ style.”
‘My target is to fight for the championship’
Nakagami may only have a best MotoGP race result of fourth so far but last year’s raw speed and painful lessons, combined with this year’s factory-spec bike, means he approaches the new season believing a title challenge is feasible.
“In myself, I believe we can be more consistent to fight for being on top. We have to fight for the podium at least of course, because my target this year is to fight for the championship. So every race I have to stay in the top group,” Nakagami said.
“All the riders have a competitive bike and all the riders have potential, so it’s difficult to pick one rider, but last season, Joan Mir was an extra consistent rider and that’s why he was world champion.
“Suzuki looks good, and also Yamaha I think can improve a lot from last season. More consistent will be difficult to beat them, also Quartararo moved to the factory team, so really difficult.
“Many riders really strong, and strong bikes.”
The official Qatar test, for all MotoGP riders, starts on March 6.