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The forgotten trooper of Honda's MotoGP misery

Honda’s MotoGP difficulties in 2023 have been well documented by this point, with much of the focus on Marc Marquez and now Alex Rins following his decision to quit HRC a year early to join Yamaha. But, through it all, one rider from the brand’s stable has steadily been doing the donkey work under the radar, all while his future remains up in the air

Takaaki Nakagami, Team LCR Honda

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

After nine rounds of the 2023 MotoGP season, Honda’s haul of points in the constructors’ championship – in which only the leading rider from each brand contributes – is 89. Of that 89, 27 of those have been scored by LCR’s Takaaki Nakagami. Alex Rins has contributed the most at 47 and Marc Marquez the final 15.

Ironically, the Honda rider with the most points in 2023 and the only one with a victory to his credit has felt so spurned by the marque that he has elected to quit a two-year contract to join Yamaha – a brand not exactly enjoying any better success right now.

Rins’ core frustrations stem from the fact Honda has not used him enough for development and given him new items. Nakagami can understand his unhappiness but notes that – with Marquez and Joan Mir constantly injured in the first half of the season – Rins didn’t have enough experience with the RC213V to be relied on.

“I understand that all the manufacturers are not just looking at their factory teams, of course, but Honda looks like it’s a bit more focused on the factory team,” Nakagami tells Autosport in a chat at the British Grand Prix about Honda’s difficult campaign.

“And then, if everything goes well, the next step is to deliver to the satellite team. But, once again, Marc was not fit and Joan had too many crashes, he got injured and he missed many races in his first year at Honda. So, he [Rins] doesn’t have any experience of Honda’s bike. So, unfortunately, they changed the strategy. If all the riders were 100% and there were less crashes, it’s easy to deliver more and collect the data. But since 2022 it was not like this. So, it’s a little bit… they are missing a development [direction], they don’t know the priority of the team or riders. It’s really difficult to understand.”

As such, Honda has turned to Nakagami to help further development. At Silverstone, HRC homologated a new fairing for the LCR rider for him to start gathering data on. Having been a Honda rider since 2018, his experience will count for something in this respect. But, moreover, Nakagami has been the one Honda rider this year to understand the limit of the bike a bit better.

Nakagami was given a new Honda fairing at the British GP, showing its trust in a rider who's been in its ranks since 2018

Nakagami was given a new Honda fairing at the British GP, showing its trust in a rider who's been in its ranks since 2018

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

With Marquez, Mir and Rins all suffering broken bones due to crashes, Nakagami has seen the chequered flag in all but one grand prix and one sprint across the first nine rounds. Results haven’t been standout, Nakagami’s best coming at the Dutch GP in which he was eighth – the first race in 2023 where he actually “felt like I was racing”. But simply reaching the end of a race has been a big achievement for a Honda rider, a tragic condemnation of the position of one of MotoGP’s giants.

“The worst moment was in Sachsenring, I was the only Honda rider on the grid,” Nakagami recalls. “So, I couldn’t make any mistakes because otherwise there would be no Hondas on the track. So, at that moment I tried to take a step back and think about not only myself but to think about my team, Honda, to at least finish the race otherwise it’s a big disaster.

"I don’t want to leave like this, I want to show the real performance I have. But the bike must be competitive, because all the manufacturers are improving" Takaaki Nakagami

“Otherwise, I’m not thinking about crashing, just bringing the best performance we had. Six years in MotoGP with the Honda bike, unfortunately, the situation has gotten harder and harder. But I need to understand when to push and prioritise finishing the race to collect data. So, I’m starting to understand how to manage this situation. This helps to limit the crashes compared to the others.”

In many ways, Nakagami’s approach is the example to follow. At the British GP, Marquez re-emerged with a new mindset of shunning results to gather more data on the bike. His traditional method of wringing the bike for all it’s worth – which went a long way to helping him win six MotoGP titles – is not worth the physical and subsequent mental anguish. It’s sad to see, but it’s the only way Honda will improve.

Nakagami’s British GP was a literally pointless affair, and the new aero package isn’t going to be the definitive way out of the mess, he noted. Every little helps, but Nakagami feels Honda could start to explore bigger changes from sprint to grand prix.

Despite this huge crash in Germany, Nakagami has generally stayed upright, with only one DNF each in sprint and grand prix contests this season

Despite this huge crash in Germany, Nakagami has generally stayed upright, with only one DNF each in sprint and grand prix contests this season

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“[Being uncompetitive] for two races in a row is really difficult to get high motivation for Sunday, because on Saturday you’re already out of the top 10,” he says. “We are pushing like hell, but the result doesn’t come. The next day we have another race on Sunday, and it was really difficult on myself… what can I do? Just stay on the bike and see the chequered flag. This doesn’t make sense, this is not happy for myself or the team. But, unfortunately, the situation is like this. So, I try to be strong and just don’t look only at the position and look at how we can improve. Of course, from the sprint to Sunday sometimes we change. Normally, we couldn’t take any risk after the Saturday sprint race, but we should do it because otherwise there’s nothing gained.”

Prior to the season, Autosport named Nakagami as one rider who needed a big 2023. His side of the LCR garage is specifically set up for a Japanese rider. Until last year, a capable replacement hadn’t come forth, and Ai Ogura’s decision to remain in Moto2 for 2023 ultimately saved Nakagami’s ride.

Two things have conspired to strengthen Nakagami’s position for 2024. Injury at the start of the year forced Ogura to miss two rounds, but since then he has only scored one podium compared to the five – including a victory – he registered at the same stage in 2022. The other is the fact Honda clearly needs experience to develop its bike, and thrusting a rookie into a situation that has already alienated Rins and made Mir’s life miserable upon their forced switch from Suzuki seems counterproductive.

Nakagami refuses to be drawn into whether or not he deserves another year with Honda, or indeed if HRC owes him, given the job he has done in 2023: “I did my best, even in the hard situations, I think I had some [good] races for Honda but the result was maybe not the best of course. It’s really difficult to understand, but let’s see what they are thinking and, hopefully, if the opportunity to stay in the same team, of course, I’m more than happy. I don’t want to leave like this, I want to show the real performance I have. But the bike must be competitive because all the manufacturers are improving.”

An honourable man, Nakagami’s reaction to this line of questioning does show that perhaps he is holding back exactly what he’d really like to say.

But he should hold his head high. While certainly a perennial underachiever in MotoGP, Nakagami has done a lot for Honda in 2023 and, perhaps for the first time in a while, he has genuinely earned a new contract.

The Japanese rider looks likely for a seventh MotoGP season in LCR Honda colours for 2024

The Japanese rider looks likely for a seventh MotoGP season in LCR Honda colours for 2024

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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