One of the surprise stories of the 2020 MotoGP season so far has been the pace of LCR Honda rider Taka Nakagami.
At the start of the year, he had just two top-six finishes to show for his first two campaigns at the top level.
But the 28-year-old Japanese racer used impressive consistency to become a title contender in 2020 until it all went wrong at last weekend’s Teruel Grand Prix at Aragon.
Finishing between fourth and ninth in each of the first 10 races of the season, he was fifth in the championship – 29 away from leader Joan Mir in this ultra-volatile title race – when he lined up on pole last Sunday.
The first-lap fall that dropped Nakagami to seventh in the standings doesn’t stop him being one of the stars of the year so far.
And if anything caused that Aragon crash, it was his inexperience at being at the front of MotoGP battles. He’s still to lead a lap in the premier class or even finish on the podium and he admitted after the race last Sunday that the pressure played a key role in his fall.
But that’s not taking away from his turnaround in form so far this year. His progress has left many scratching their heads and asking what has changed so much for him in only a few short months.
However, speaking exclusively to The Race, Honda Racing Corporation technical manager Takeo Yokoyama says that his rider’s pace has come as no huge surprise to him given how much effort he saw Nakagami put into his pre-season preparations.
“We had a very serious meeting where we told him that he has to do more, because at the stage of his career he was at, he could have destroyed it” :: Takeo Yokoyama
“Even during the lockdown period,” the veteran engineer admitted, “he was always trying to be prepared, ready, for whenever the start of the season might be. He was trying to always be focused, both physically and mentally.
“We went one or two times together to Motegi with the streetbike – it was only a streetbike but better than nothing for his physical training. That was the first thing.”
Despite those better-than-ever preparations ahead of the delayed start of the year, the real change didn’t come until after the season had started, according to Yokoyama.
“The second thing came at Jerez, at the first race. He wasn’t riding very well, he only finished inside the top 10. We knew that he likes Jerez and he’s normally very fast there, so we were looking for a really good result.
“We told him that he was lucky to start the season at his favourite track, and we wanted to go full gas from the start. In the first race he wasn’t very fast and he was disappointed but I was even more disappointed.
“After the race, we had a very serious meeting where we told him that he has to do more, because at the stage of his career he was at, he could have destroyed it.
“He had to do more, I had to do more for him, and we had to work together to do it.”
That left Nakagami in a dangerous position as well, as he prepared to negotiate a now-completed contract extension with HRC.
The changes needed to help Nakagami succeed didn’t come down to good fortune, but bad luck for others has helped.
Suddenly inheriting the title of lead Honda rider for round two after injuries sustained by both Marc Marquez and Cal Crutchlow, Nakagami has admitted before that the added input from Yokoyama’s team was a contributing factor to his upturn – something that the chief engineer agrees with.
“We never meant to go in a different way from what Marc would suggest, but probably unconsciously we’ve done things in a different way” :: Takeo Yokoyama
“I could see that his mood changed after that, but so did his riding style,” said Yokoyama.
“We worked more together, we showed him the data from previous years, and he was able to see what Marc does.
“We worked on every single detail, and already in the second race in Jerez he was able to make improvements.”
With his future now secure and with two 2021-spec bikes set to be in his garage next year (the first time he won’t start the season on year-old machines), Nakagami has had an added bonus from his time as top Honda: the chance to steer development towards a more rider-friendly bike.
Honda has been dominated in recent seasons by Marc Marquez and his incredible talent. Yokoyama told The Race that there has been a change in the firm’s thinking that could have some big benefits for the other Honda riders next season.
“When Honda has an incredible champion, our philosophy is to adapt the bike more and more to them,” he admitted.
“That’s what we’ve been doing for the past seven years – and then suddenly that brief was gone.
“We weren’t lost, but we had to reflect on what we were doing because the riding style of the others is different.
“So it was a good moment for us to sit down with all the engineers and think about what areas we had to work on without Marc.
“We had to take the maximum from what we had: the bike, the tyre, the rider line-up. It was challenging but it was quite refreshing.
“If I imagine Marc hadn’t got injured at the start of the season, maybe I can imagine that the bike of today wouldn’t be the same.
“We follow the feedback from the existing riders – Cal, Taka and Alex [Marquez] – and we never meant to go in a different way from what Marc would suggest, but probably unconsciously we’ve done things in a different way.
“I don’t think he’ll come back tomorrow, get on Alex’s bike and say ‘this isn’t my bike’. He’ll be faster than he was in Jerez, because what we’ve been working on is what the bike, the tyres, the track layouts require.
“Will the bike be less aggressive? Probably 50% yes, 50% no.”