The MotoGP grid is set to expand to 24 riders for the 2018 season. As had been widely expected, the LCR Honda team is to add a second bike for next season, with Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami moving up to MotoGP. Nakagami will operate alongside Cal Crutchlow in the LCR Honda team.
Like Crutchlow, Nakagami's contract is directly with HRC, rather than with Lucio Cecchinello's LCR squad. Unlike Crutchlow's deal, however, Nakagami's contract is only for 2018 at the moment. Nakagami's wages will come directly out of Honda's pockets, but the bike will largely be funded by money from Idemitsu, the Japanese oil company already backing Nakagami in Moto2.
Nakagami has been a very up and down rider in Moto2. The Japanese rider has one win and 12 podiums to his name, and has at times shown outstanding speed. At other times, however, he has been faceless, circulating in mid-pack at best. He currently sits seventh in the Moto2 championship, 128 points behind leader Franco Morbidelli.
With Nakagami signed, seats are filling up fast. There are officially four empty slots left on the grid now: the second seat at Marc VDS, the second seat at Aspar Ducati, and the two Avintia Ducatis. The Aspar seat will almost certainly go to Karel Abraham again, a team source indicating to us in Austria that they were close to a deal.
Marc VDS is likely to come down to a choice between Sam Lowes, ousted from Aprilia, Stefan Bradl, who is desperate to escape the clutches of the Red Bull Honda WorldSBK team, and Tom Luthi, the only man keeping Morbidelli honest in Moto2. A choice could be announced as early as this coming weekend.
The two Avintia Ducati seats also have favored candidates. Tito Rabat looks set to take one of the two bikes in that garage, after parting ways with Marc VDS. Belgian Moto2 rider Xavier Simeon is widely tipped to take the second seat in the Avintia team, with rumors of big-money backing helping to open doors for him. Like Nakagami, Simeon also has a single victory in Moto2, but his record is a good deal more modest otherwise.
Below is the press release announcing the signing of Nakagami:
LCR Honda DOUBLES UP AS NAKAGAMI MAKES MotoGP MOVE
We are delighted to announce that Takaaki Nakagami will join the LCR Honda MotoGP Team for the 2018 season. The 25-year-old Japanese rider (a race winner and 12 times a podium-finisher in Moto2) will race alongside British star Cal Crutchlow in the premier class of MotoGP on board a Honda RC213V.
Lucio Cecchinello (LCR Honda Team Principal): “We are very happy to confirm Takaaki Nakagami as the newest member of our Team; a Team which will be expanded with crew members who boast vast experience. This project, alongside our current programme with Cal Crutchlow, marks the fulfilment of our sporting ambitions. I am truly delighted, and in the name of the whole LCR Honda Team, I think it is fair to say that we are all extremely motivated to work with a rookie like Taka, because ever since he made his debut as a youngster he has shown huge potential. From myself, the team, and from HRC Takaaki will have the best support possible to take on the next challenge in his career."
Yoshishige Nomura (President, Honda Racing Corporation): “Nakagami continues his journey into 2018 as an HRC contract rider, and using his passion and riding skills to their fullest, will undoubtedly become a rider that the younger generation from Japan, and the Asia region, will aspire to be like. I believe his dreams will drive him to become a top-class rider who will impress many fans.”
Takaaki Nakagami: “Since riding a pocket bike when I was four years old, I have always aimed to compete with the world’s best. This opportunity has become real thanks to all of my associates and fans. There are still seven Moto2 races left this season, including the Japanese Grand Prix. I’ll be concentrating on these races, while gaining the abilities I need for next year. I hope everyone will continue to support me the way they have up to now.”
Takaaki Nakagami biography:
Born in Chiba, Japan on February 9th, 1992, Takaaki Nakagami was part of Dorna’s MotoGP Academy initiative. As a 14-year-old he became the youngest-ever winner of the Japanese 125cc Championship in 2006, and in 2007 he entered the Spanish Championship (CEV) under the Academy banner.
Graduating to the World Championship in 2008, he achieved his best result of the year with a top-ten finish at Donington Park, and he continued in the Championship in 2009. Stepping away from the World Championship for two years, he then won the All-Japan Road Race Championship J-GP2 class (600cc) title in 2011 and was drafted back into the World Championship by the Italtrans team at the Japan GP as a substitute rider.
The team offered him a full-time seat for 2012, and in 2013 he just missed out on a maiden race victory on numerous occasions - not least when he scored four consecutive second-place finishes in the middle of the season. He switched to the Idemitsu Honda Team Asia for 2014 but had a tough first year, before a return to the podium with third in Misano in 2015. He has remained with that team since, and finally in 2016 he took his first win at the Dutch TT in Assen. In 2017 he has already scored a further three podiums, before announcing his graduation to the premier class with the LCR Honda MotoGP Team.