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.

Q: Hi, Taka. It’s been a while we speak in Japanese.

Takaaki Nakagami: Yeah, since July, maybe? So, it is the first time in these five months.

Q: You are still in Spain, right?

TN: Yes. I’m planning to go back to Japan at the end of this month (December).

Q: OK. Looking back at the 2020 season, I think it was the most fruitful year in your three-year MotoGP career. How do you see the season in general?

TN: When I saw the schedule before the restart of the season, I was a bit worried because, obviously, it was going to be a hectic season, with many triple-header races on consecutive weekends. But once the season started, I was surprisingly in good shape. In fact, such a short race interval helped me a lot, because especially when we had races at the same racetrack, I was able to use what I learned from the first race and rode again right away just a few days later, which was a good thing for me.

As a result, there were many races that I could not be satisfied with. However, in the free practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, I was able to set the top time many times when we were focusing on the race pace and race setup. The good thing was that I didn’t aim to set the best time only for the free practice or qualifying. Also in the race, I was very close to the podium and victory. Although I wasn't able to achieve them in the end, they were very realistic targets for me and I was able to think 'maybe I can win today', which is why I thought I made a huge step forward this year.

Q: What was the turning point for you to have that confidence? Was it the Andalusian GP where you finished fourth in the second race of the season?

TN: Yes. It was the second race in Jerez, and I improved a lot in that race. At Jerez 1 (the Spanish GP), I couldn’t do anything and finished in tenth place. I thought, 'This is my third year in MotoGP, and finishing tenth in the opening round means I will waste this year.., so I felt scared, to be honest. I also thought, ‘If we don't change something, it's going to be a very difficult season,’ so I asked HRC and my team to have a meeting before Jerez 2. In Jerez 1, although Marc crashed in the race, he was setting an unbelievable pace before the crash, so I compared my data with his and studied thoroughly to find out what was the difference between him and me.

The most and decisive difference was his unique riding style. It was completely the opposite to mine. I thought, 'It's going to be tough to adopt this, but if I don't do that, my results will never change,' and I focused on that. So, I think the second race in Jerez was a big turning point for me.

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Taka was fun to watch this season as he progressed. Everybody thought he was a grid filler, but suddenly he was an underdog fighting near the front. I'll be pulling for his first win in '21.

Interviews happening outside of the paddock with the rider's own people/culture can be more open and less "canned."

Here is Brad Binder 6 mins w S Africa television a few days after returning home from the circus. (Is there ANYONE that doesn't love Binder? Great guy). Giving me a bit of Stoner narrative, but less constricted or apprehensive socially. Maybe a bit on track too. Nice to have him around.