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Shuhei Nakamoto

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The 2014 MotoGP season marks a key point in the evolution of Grand Prix racing. Next season, all entries in the MotoGP class must use the Magneti Marelli standard ECU and datalogger as part of their hardware package. For the first time in history, electronics have been limited in motorcycle racing’s premier class.

It is a small victory for Dorna and the teams; however, only the hardware has been regulated. All entries must use the standard ECU, but the choice of which software that ECU runs is up to the teams themselves.

If a team decides to run Dorna’s standard software, they get extra fuel to play with, and more engines to last a season. If a factory decides they would rather write their own software, they are also free to do so, but must make do with only 20 liters to last a race, and just five engines to last a season.

The difference between the two – entries under the Open class, using Dorna software, and as Factory option entries using custom software – is bigger than it seems. Open class entries are stuck with the engine management strategies (including launch control, traction control, wheelie control, and much more) as devised and implemented by the Magneti Marelli engineers, under instruction by Dorna.

Factory option entries will have vastly more sophisticated strategies at their disposal, and manufacturers will be free to develop more as and when they see fit.

The freedom to develop electronics strategies has been a deal-breaker for the factories throughout the four-stroke era. The change in capacity from 990cc to 800cc in 2007 vastly increased the importance of electronics in the overall package, with more and more money going into both the development and the management of electronics strategies.

The combination of a vast array of sensor inputs, fuel injection, and electronic ignition has meant that vehicle control has moved from merely managing fueling to dynamic and even predictive engine management. Engine torque is now monitored and managed based on lean angle, bike pitch, tire wear, fuel load, and a host of other variables.

So it comes as no surprise that Honda is already making threatening noises over the regulations due to come into force from 2017 onwards. Dorna intends to remove the freedom for factories to use their own software from 2017 onwards, with all bikes using the same, spec, Dorna-supplied software, as currently being developed for the Open category.

The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island – likely to be known henceforth as ‘The Debacle Down Under’ – taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.

There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez’s disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez’s crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew.

Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn’t come in to swap bikes, but Marquez’s inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner’s crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez’s team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it’s over.

After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. “We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],” Marquez said, but the plan had backfired.

“The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,” Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.

Marc Marquez has made a name for himself this season, not only by being a prodigy on two wheels, but also for being the light-hearted breath of fresh air that the MotoGP Championship needed so dearly.

Marquez himself is perhaps a stark contrast to his employer, the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC), which is known for being a bit more uptight and mechanical with its persona.

After watching the video after the jump, we think we can safely say that Nakamoto-san and his crew have redefined HRC…and they might just be having the most fun in the MotoGP paddock in the process.

Completing two days of testing for HRC, Casey Stoner was back in the saddle of a MotoGP machine this week (at Motegi, of all places). The former World Champion only did a handful of laps on Tuesday (six in total) before the rain came in to the Twin Ring Motegi Circuit; but on Wednesday, Mother Nature cooperated a bit. Getting to do 47 laps in total on the 2013 Honda RC213V race bike yesterday, Stoner tested some “small items” for his former employer.

Positive about the test and being back on a bike, Stoner reaffirmed his decision to stay out of MotoGP, and dashed the hopes of any fans that were hoping to see the Australian make a wild card run at Phillip Island. Much to the disappointment of the media, Stoner did not get a chance to swing a leg over Honda’s planned MotoGP Production Racer, though HRC Executive Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto confirmed that a future test of the machine by Stoner is in the works.

A private test, and thus free of Dorna’s video restrictions, the fine folk at HRC have put together a short video of Casey on-board the RC213V in Japan. A far cry from the great material we got from Honda’s private test at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin (at some points  in the video, we wonder if the videographer had some angry scarab beetles in their trousers), GP fans will surely still have an auralgasm as the RC213V goes by in anger.

After Shuhei Nakamoto was just talking last week about some of the technical details of Honda’s MotoGP production racer, HRC has released a photo of the RC213V-derived race bike testing at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit.

Small in resolution, and taken with little zoom, the photo gives us few new details about the coming HRC production racer (that’s the point though, right?), but we do know that the still unnamed machine will cost roughly €1 million, be devoid of HRC’s “seamless” gearbox and pneumatic valves, and will come with Nissin and Showa components.

A return of the production racer to the Grand Prix Championship, Honda’s RC213V-derived race bike for private teams is seen by many as a welcomed alternative to the current CRT formula. Based off the V4-powered bike that HRC’s factory and satellite teams race in MotoGP, Honda’s new RC-whatever-it’s-called is a slightly watered-down version of its true prototype progenitor, and comes with the distinction of being a purchased machine, rather than a lease from HRC.

Talking to MotoGP.com, HRC Executive Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto explains that the project is behind on its development schedule by about a month (paddock chatter says Big Red had to scramble a bit to formulate the production racer in order to appease Dorna’s Carmelo Ezpeleta) though the machine should still be ready in time for the 2014 season, as HRC hopes to catch back up in its development.

The internets are a buzz today with photos from the MotoGP test a Sepang, which seem to suggest that the 2013 Honda RC213V prototype race bike has a 90° V4 engine configuration. The news should certainly come as a surprise for many Ducatisti MotoGP fans, as Ducati Corse’s front-end woes have often been attributed by couch racers to the Italian company’s 90° V4 engine configuration. Seeing how dominant Honda has been at the pre-season testing in Malaysia though, one cannot help but admit that the cylinder configuration is not necessarily to blame for Ducati’s troubles.

Talking to Spanish magazine SoloMoto, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto explains that the 90° V4 engine has benefits over the company’s previous 75° engine configuration, namely that the 90° engine doesn’t require a balancing countershaft. Nakamoto-san further explains that because of the balancing shaft’s absence, Honda’s 90° V4 runs with more power, and less vibration that its 75° predecessor, making the engine a formidable enhancement to the RC213V platform.

The production racer version of Honda’s RC213V is another step closer to reality. At Sepang, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto spoke to reporters and the MotoGP.com website about the new bike, and the progress being made on the machine, which will take the place of the CRT machines from 2014 onwards. The bike is delayed, Nakamoto said, but it will be ready in time for the tests at Valencia, after the final race of the season in November.

Nakamoto gave a brief rundown of the specifications of the production RC213V – a bike which, given the amount of publicity it is going to be generating over the next few months, badly needs a new name – though the list contained few surprises.

The bike will have conventional valve springs, as opposed to pneumatic valves on the factory machine. It will not have the seamless gearbox used by the prototypes – again, not a surprise, as maintenance on the gearbox is still an HRC-only affair. This was not a matter of cost, Nakamoto said, claiming the seamless gearbox now costs almost the same as a standard unit.

With the kickoff to the 2013 season growing ever closer, those involved in motorcycle racing are starting to look back at 2012 and look ahead to 2013. After yesterday’s review from Bridgestone, Honda are the next organization to issue a press release interview with a senior management figure. The press release interview with HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto makes for fascinating reading, providing an insight into the 2012 season and expectations of 2013.

The interview covers the preparations for the switch to 1,000cc, and the confidence with which HRC went into the new era. However, Honda soon ran into trouble, with the increase in the minimum weight added in December 2011, and the revised construction of Bridgestone tires supplied for the 2012 season, both the softer rear tire and the revised front tire (for additional detail into why the weight increase was announced so late, see my note below the interview).

Nakamoto provides some interesting details on how HRC dealt with the extra weight and the revised tires, revealing that it cost them half a season to solve the problems they had created. The HRC boss also explains why he believes that having multiple tire manufacturers is a better solution for all involved, creating more competition and allowing multiple solutions for different bikes. Nakamoto states that he believes this is one of the reasons why MotoGP racing has become so predictable.

Nakamoto also has very high praise for both Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez, the man brought in to replace him. His compliments on Marquez approach and talent are telling, Nakamoto revealing that at the HRC test in Sepang, Marquez was already lapping at the same pace that Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were running. Nakamoto also provides insight into why he will miss Casey Stoner, and exactly how important the Australian was to Honda’s racing program. Nakamoto rates Stoner above any other rider in the MotoGP paddock.

The interview is an absolutely fascinating read, with one of the most intriguing and interesting characters in the MotoGP paddock. Highly recommended:

HRC has announced that it has signed Stefan Bradl as a “factory-supported” rider through the 2014 season. The move is surely a reward for Bradl, who easily claimed MotoGP’s “Rookie of the Year” distinction, and perhaps more importantly, showed extreme talent aboard the Honda RC213V.

Said to already have been using a factory-spec frame (Dani Pedrosa’s rejects) for the latter part of the season, it is not clear how much this announcement will change Bradl’s true support from HRC, but it certainly can’t hurt the young German’s chances. Bradl will stay within the LCR Honda team in 2013 & 2014.

The battle which has been raging rather politely between Honda and Dorna over the introduction of spec electronics continues to simmer on. The issue was once again discussed at Motegi, with still no resolution in sight. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto reiterated Honda’s opposition to the introduction of a spec ECU in an interview with the Japanese journalist Yoko Togashi, which was published on GPOne.com.

The reasons for introducing a spec ECU – or more accurately, a spec electronics package, including ECU, sensors, wiring harness and data logger – are twofold: the first issue is to cut the costs of electronics in the sport, an area where spending is rampant and where gains can always be found by throwing more money and more engineers at a problem. The second issue is to improve the spectacle; racing in the modern era has become dull, with the electronics and the Bridgestone tires contributing to produce races where it is unusual for there to be more than one pass for the win.

While Nakamoto did not comment on improving the show via electronics – it could be argued that radically changing the tires would have a greater impact on the spectacle than merely introducing a restricted spec electronics system – he did repeat the claim he has made in the past that merely adopting a spec ECU would not help to cut costs, claiming that if anything, it would actually increase costs.