Having taken a 2018-spec Honda to a career-best fifth so far this season, Takaaki Nakagami jumped at the chance to try the factory's 2019 machine during the Catalunya MotoGP test. It didn't disappoint.
While complaints have been raised over the front-end feel and physical nature of a bike that only Marc Marquez can currently master, Nakagami found it was more than compensated for by advances to the engine and aerodynamics. The Japanese rider set his best time during '3-4 runs' on a factory machine of team-mate Cal Crutchlow, putting him seventh overall on the timesheets (+0.588s), as the next best Honda behind world champion Marc Marquez.
Since the engine-freeze rules prevent Nakagami switching to the latest Honda during the season, there were several theories as to why HRC invited the LCR rider to try the new bike, rather than focus on improving his own race machine. Nakagami later confirmed (see below) that HRC wanted some fresh feedback on the 2019. That's despite reams of data already gathered by factory riders Marquez, Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo and test rider Stefan Bradl.
The conundrum faced by HRC is that while the 2019 bike is spectacularly successful in the hands of Marquez (four wins, two seconds and a 37-point title lead after seven rounds), Crutchlow and Lorenzo are only tenth and 15th in the world championship. Nakagami is eighth.
While mulling over a new chassis on Monday, Marquez - who has scored 25 points more than this time last year - underlined his satisfaction with the bike: "When you feel good and are winning races, before you make a big change you need to be patient and understand everything well."
With 27 points less than last year, Crutchlow's view is nowhere near as conservative. Absent from the podium since round one in Qatar, the Englishman remains certain he'd be faster on the 2018. Crutchlow has an average finishing position of 7.0 so far this year compared to 4.6 last year, disregarding non-scores and the ride-through race in Argentina.
"My feeling with the old bike was better," Crutchlow said in Catalunya. "We don't know about Marc because he hasn't ridden it this year. But I would definitely be quicker on that bike. That's not to say Honda haven't done a good job, it's just about my feeling with the bike… All the riders, I believe, feel the new bike is maybe not as good in certain areas. Taka did a fantastic race in Mugello [on the 2018] but the reality was that in sector three, all fast corners, he was taking several tenths out of Marc Marquez."
During the Monday test, the Englishman added: "I believe the first thing that can be improved is the turning and that will also help with the physicality."
The only Honda rider on the grid without any race experience on a 2018 Honda is new-signing Lorenzo. The triple MotoGP champion put in a spectacular lap-and-a-half during Sunday's Barcelona race, but many doubt he could have sustained that pace on soft tires. "[Lorenzo] was trying to get to the front as soon as possible so he had some room to slide later on," Crutchlow said.
Either way, the ensuing accident means Lorenzo still hasn't finished in the top ten for Honda.
The physical challenge of riding the RCV has now resulted in Lorenzo's bike sprouting fuel-tank wings, to brace his legs against, but he remains committed to the 2019 bike. "The new bike has much more potential [than the 2018], if we can improve some areas," Lorenzo said in Catalunya. "When we do that, I think we will be much more in front."
Aside from obvious pressure to make the Lorenzo partnership work, with Mission Winnow Ducati now 42 points ahead of Repsol Honda, HRC needs Lorenzo to start scoring serious points to help clinch the triple crown of riders', constructors' and teams' titles. Should Honda fail to win the triple crown, which Marquez describes as the true test of a 'dream team', it would be their first such defeat since 2016.
Against that backdrop, it is perhaps significant that Nakagami's riding style shares clear similarities to that of Lorenzo. "Nakagami has a very strong point, which is in the fast corners, where he is unbelievably fast. The fastest of the Honda riders," Marquez said.
Lorenzo was renowned for his smooth corner-speed at Yamaha and, while eventually able to morph his style to suit the hard braking and acceleration needed for success at Ducati, remains far less aggressive than Marquez and Crutchlow.
Just before leaving the Barcelona paddock, Nakagami spoke to Motomatters.com about his debut on the 2019 Honda…
Q: An exciting day for you, how did it go?
Takaaki Nakagami: Yes, finally we had the opportunity to test the factory bike. I had a good feeling on this bike and it was positive. I felt that the engine performance was quite a big step, which means it's easier to make the lap time. But physically it's not so easy with this bike, the handling is a little bit heavier. But we understand this and I think it has good performance.
Q: You did your best lap time with the new bike?
TN: Yes, I did the best lap with Cal's bike.
Q: How did you find the front end of the new bike?
TN: A little bit different. There are some negative things, some positive things, but if you improve your lap time it means it's mainly in the positive way. Just a little struggle physically for the handling, but on the other side the positives are the top speed and corner exit. I'm pretty happy.
Q: You are known for being very quick through the fast corners on the 2018 bike, were you losing there on the 2019 but making up for it on the straights?
TN: The circuit layout is quite difficult here because of the mix of corners. Some parts, like T1, is high speed, more kind of like Mugello. But T2 and T3 are stop-and-go in some points. So it's difficult to make the best balance and we just tried the bike. I mean, we didn't make any changes to the setup or the electronics, but the lap time is good.
Q: Why do you think HRC asked you to test this bike? Was it a reward for your performances this season or did they want your feedback?
TN: Just feedback. They asked me to test for more information to help build-up the bike and why not? I tested it and just gave them my feelings. Now I don’t know for the future. I think this is the last chance to jump on the factory bike this season because we cannot change [our engine design], but it was a good test for me.
Q: Could the latest aerodynamics be put on your 2018 bike this season?
TN: I don't know, but what I can say is that this factory bike with the different wings was really impressive because there was almost no wheelie. Which means a lot of downforce. I increased the power a lot, but almost no wheelie. They did a really great job to make these wings.
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