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Is 2021 Yamaha's Year? Lessons From 2020

The 2020 MotoGP season was something of a schizophrenic affair for Yamaha. On the one hand, a Yamaha won 7 of the 14 MotoGP races last year, with Franco Morbidelli finishing second in the riders' championship, Yamaha finishing second in the constructors' championship, and the Petronas Yamaha SRT team ending second in the teams' standings.

On the other hand, Yamaha's most successful rider was in a satellite team on a 2019-spec bike. Of the 7 Yamaha victories last year, the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team had just a single one. Morbidelli took 5 podiums on the 2019 M1, while Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Fabio Quartararo scored just 7 podiums combined. The first factory Yamaha in the championship – Maverick Viñales – finished in 6th, behind the Suzukis, a Ducati, a KTM, and Morbidelli on the 2019 M1.

There was the valve saga which saw Yamaha have points deducted in the constructors' championship for using non-homologated parts – switching valves between suppliers, and thereby breaking the homologation rules. And there were the brake issues at the Red Bull Ring, where the Yamaha riders insisted on using the older, smaller Brembo calipers which suffered overheating and even brake failure in the case of Viñales.

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Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: WorldSSP - Revolution For The Squeezed Middle

The second biggest category within the second biggest global bike racing series has always been something of a halfway house in terms of its public profile. The FIM Supersport World Championship’s overall reputation, relative status and true importance is therefore always a good topic for bar room discussion. If only we were allowed to go to the bar, of course.

Featuring riders on the way up, riders on the way back down, and some riders simply finding their personal ceiling or a natural specialisation in 600cc racing, WorldSSP has often been the best class to watch.

WorldSSP has always waxed and waned in how far it ever emerges from behind the more puffed-up and attention-grabbing WorldSBK class. Since MotoGP has propelled itself into a nearly global motorsport must-see, at the expense of the WorldSBK paddock in general, WorldSSP has arguably been even more hidden from view than at any time in its turbulent life.

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What We Learned From The Ducati 2021 MotoGP Launch

 

After two months of quiet on the MotoGP front, the racing season is starting to burst into action. With the first test at Qatar approaching – and looking ever more likely to actually take place – there is a burst of activity, as the factories all hold their team launches. So frenetic, indeed, that we barely have a moment to ponder one launch before we are onto the next.

That is in part a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In previous years, launches have been live events with an online element. (Manufacturers, both in racing and production, have learned that they can reach fans and buyers directly with online launches, without journalists sitting in the middle and muddying the message. Series organizers are on this path now as well.) While the pandemic still holds the world in its grip, those launches have moved completely online, with different factories taking different approaches.

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Interview: HRC's Tetsuhiro Kuwata And Takehiro Koyasu On A Mediocre 2020 With Marc Marquez, Fixing The RC213V, And 2021 And Beyond

In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to two of the key players in Honda's MotoGP project: Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata, and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu. As a native Japanese speaker, Nishimura-san got more out of the HRC bosses than an English-speaking journalist would. The conversation covered Honda's MotoGP riders, an analysis of their thoroughly mediocre 2020 season, and their expectations for 2021.

In 2020, Honda had to endure a tough season, in contrast to previous years. Needless to say, one of the biggest reasons for that was the absence of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). His right humerus fracture at the opening round in Jerez sidelined the eight-time world champion for all the races of the 2020 season, a costly loss for HRC.

Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IEMITSU) made a significant improvement in both riding skills and race results. Also, MotoGP rookie Alex Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) did a fantastic job with two second-place finishes despite it being his debut year in the premier class. On the other hand, the Brit Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) decided to draw his racing career to a close at the end of the year. With these abundant topics for the review of the 2020 season and the preview for the forthcoming 2021 season, we interviewed Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu.

First of all, we asked them for a comprehensive review and the preview, then moved on to the detailed Q&A with them.

Kuwata: "It is quite simple. We lost entirely throughout the 2020 season. However, we also learned a lot from these defeats, and we believe these hardships will make us even stronger.

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Interview: Suzuki's Ken Kawauchi And Shinichi Sahara On Winning In 2020, Plans For The GSX-RR In 2021, And Satellite Teams

In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to the two Japanese leaders of Suzuki Ecstar's championship winning team. In the interview, Team Director Shinichi Sahara and Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi gave their view of what Suzuki did to win the 2020 MotoGP title with Joan Mir, and the MotoGP team title for the Suzuki Ecstar team.

Interviewing Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san in their native language means they are more open and able to express themselves a little more freely than they would when speaking English, a second language for both of them. Thanks to Akira-san's excellent English, he is able to convey much more of what they have to say.

Though the interview was recorded before the shock announcement that Davide Brivio would be leaving Suzuki, Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san lay out how they saw the 2020 season, where the Suzuki GSX-RR was strongest and its rather glaring weakness, and what they will be working on for the 2021 season. And they set out their objectives for the coming season, and how they hope to achieve them.

Q: In the 2020 season, many things were different from the ‘normal’ seasons, including the race calendar, hygiene protocols, and so on. What was the toughest thing for you?

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2020 – The Year Of The Satellite

Miguel Oliveira on the Tech3 KTM at Portimao 2020

The final podium of the Covid-19 compressed 2020 MotoGP season neatly encapsulated so many parts of this strange and fascinating year. On the top step stood Miguel Oliveira, his second victory in a breakthrough year for both him and KTM. Beside him stood Jack Miller, the Ducati rider taking his second podium in a row. And on the third step stood Franco Morbidelli, arguably the strongest rider of 2020, outperforming the 2020 Yamahas on a 2019 M1.

The podium was emblematic in another way, too. All three riders were racing for satellite teams: Oliveira for the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team, Miller for Pramac Ducati, and Morbidelli for the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad. Furthermore, Morbidelli's third place finish wrapped up second spot in the MotoGP team championship for Petronas Yamaha, behind the factory Suzuki Ecstar squad and ahead of the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team.

It was the first time since Qatar in 2004 that the podium had consisted solely of riders in satellite teams. The 2004 race was won by Sete Gibernau, who finished ahead of his Gresini Honda teammate Colin Edwards. Ruben Xaus was third across the line, nearly 24 seconds back, riding a D'Antin Ducati. Xaus finished ahead of the two factory Repsol Hondas, Alex Barros crossing the line 6 seconds before Nicky Hayden.

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Takaaki Nakagami Interview: On Learning From Marc Marquez, Competing For Podiums, And Honda's Holeshot Device

Takaaki Nakagami with crew chief Giacomo Guidotti at Aragon 2 - 2020

2020 was a transformative year for Takaaki Nakagami. His results in his first two seasons in MotoGP had been rather modest, to put it mildly. The LCR Honda rider had looked very much like the token Japanese representative in MotoGP he was suspected of being, a sop to appease Honda, who have long wanted to field a Japanese rider in the premier class.

That all changed in 2020. Nakagami went from being an also-ran to being a constant podium contender, scoring his first pole and front row starts, and matching or beating his best result on four occasions. He was very fast in practice, both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. His zenith came at Aragon 2, where he grabbed pole and led the race for the first few corners, before crashing out.

What brought about this change? After a mediocre first race in Jerez, Nakagami spent a lot of time studying the data of Marc Márquez, and tried to adapt the six-time MotoGP champion's riding style to his own. That proved to be a huge step forward for the LCR Honda rider, and Nakagami ended the season as a serious threat in every race.

After speaking to journalists throughout the year in English, his second language, Nakagami finally gave an interview in his native Japanese to esteemed Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura. In the interview, Nakagami opens up on how he changed his riding style to be more competitive, on how he learned to handle the Honda RC213V, and what HRC did to improve the performance of the bike, including introducing the holeshot device and a shapeshifter.

So here, with Nishimura-san's excellent translation into English, is Takaaki Nakagami in his own words.

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