HRC’s Shinichi Kokubu Talked about Expectations for the European Rounds
LCR Honda CASTROL rider Alex Rins won the Americas GP after he moved to Honda for the 2023 season, and the Japanese manufacturer climbed on the top of the podium for the first time in eighteen months. They missed on clinching the three titles for riders, teams, and manufacturers last year, which forced them to start the season as one of the chasing challengers. For the season opening two rounds in Portugal and Argentina, Honda experienced very tough races. However, Rins had a fantastic start to the third weekend of the season at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) located in Austin, Texas, from the first practice session on Friday morning, and demonstrated a very competitive performance. He finished Saturday afternoon’s Sprint race in second place, then finally climbed to the top of the podium on Sunday’s race. The Spaniard achieved the third victory out of six recent MotoGP races. This was Honda's first victory in 25 races after they won the Emilia-Romagna GP in October 2021.
Shinichi Kokubu, Honda Racing Corporation’s General Manager of the technology development division, talked about the determination to bring back the title and expectations for the European rounds that start on the final weekend of April.
It was an exciting victory from Alex in a spectacular manner. Did you expect it from the engineer’s point of view?
To be honest, no. When we look back on HRC's history, it is the first time for us to come through such tough periods. It is also the first experience for us to crawl up from the pits by fighting through this difficult situation. For sure, it is not easy to manage the development to make our bike to be competitive again, and we understand we did not achieve it yet.
Meanwhile, we are sorting out and clearing our issues one by one from pre-season testing. With these consistent steps and improvements, now we can see that we will be able to fight against our competitors in a good position.
Do you mean you found a direction to go?
Yes. For this season we have done many things that we haven’t done before in HRC’s history, such as bringing in our new technical manager Ken Kawauchi from our rival manufacturer. It is one example of our change in some approaches. By doing them, we made it clear what we were missing. Although it is impossible to make a huge step and drastic change right away, I got a good feeling that we are finding the storyline.
According to that storyline, do you mean you expected that it would take a bit more time until you would win a race this season?
You can win the race only when everything comes together at the right place and right time. This weekend, Alex set very competitive lap times in all sessions, and it derived from the previous two races in Portugal and Argentina, too. In those two races, we didn’t just put the things together to get good results. When Marc (Marquez： Repsol Honda Team) took Pole Position in Portugal, people said, “It’s because of Marc,” “Nobody can ride this bike but him,” and so on. But, if our bike is bad no one can set a good lap time however hard they try! Thanks to Marc’s good lap time, we could collect a lot of valuable data, analyze them meticulously, accumulate them one by one, and prepare for the Americas GP.
But Marc crashed on Sunday’s race, and Honda riders looked to struggle in the next weekend in Argentina. Do you mean you found something positive from these adversities?
When you are in a very tough situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is against you. You can find something positive even if it is very small. There is no “what-if” in the race for riders, mechanics, and engineers, too. So you should not be just optimistic if you want to achieve victory. But, by analyzing many things, we found things and could see that “OK, we made improvement in this area,” “we still have problems here,” “we can continue this,” and so on. We put them together and now we have the confidence to move up gradually from sixth place to fifth, to fourth. So, now we are analyzing and sharing the view where we are now, then we will make another steady step forward. Thanks to our new riders and engineers who joined us, now we have more valuable viewpoints to analyze, which makes us possible to accelerate the accumulation.
At COTA, Alex was the third quickest rider on Friday and took the second position on the grid on Saturday morning’s Q2 session. And he finished second place in the Sprint race on Saturday afternoon. From the outside, it seemed everything went smoothly. What was the engineers’ impression?
COTA is one of his favorite tracks, and he was very fast from the first session on Friday morning. I think it played a big part in these results. In this favorite track, he wasn’t distracted by anything, and the things to improve became very clear as the sessions proceeded. Then, everyone in the garage put their effort together to improve with great composure; the team modified the setup and we discussed with them to make it even better.
Alex told journalists that he had tried Marc’s chassis in Argentina, and did back-to-back comparisons between Marc’s and his own original one again on Friday morning session at COTA, and narrowed it down to his chassis in the afternoon to concentrate on the setup. Was it the way you followed on that weekend?
In fact, we have various specs for our bikes. From these varieties, their specs could be varied to make them suitable for each rider. And for sure, when we try new parts, the spec of the bike would be temporarily different from others.
For example, you can find the difference seeing from the outside between Marc’s and Joan’s. On the other hand, there is no huge difference between Marc’s and Alex’s. During the process of evolution, sometimes you will find some difference in their specs. Anyway, we have just finished three races, so we cannot disclose the details!
Alex Rins was famous for his gentle and meticulous riding when he was riding for the previous manufacturer. For this weekend, reportedly, his team crew modified the electronics setup to leave it more in the rider’s control. How did it work out?
That’s the way, I think. In the race, sometimes you have to change your line, and sometimes you have to go deeper into the corner. So, you need to make your bike freer to ride whenever you can push it. Although electronics are very helpful in responding in the same way, it is prone to work too identically if you rely on them too much, and you cannot ride differently. So, when you want to push harder to make a difference, it is better to leave control more to riders. Alex and Joan came from another manufacturer, and it is natural that they have different preferences from ours. In that sense, this is our new approach to trying something different from the past.
Did Alex and Joan, and Kawauchi-san, bring something new to Honda that you didn’t have before?
I don’t think they brought what we never had in our history. Maybe we also had it in the past, but by doing many trials and errors during these tough times without getting any good results, we almost might have lost our direction. When we listen to many people, we couldn’t help thinking that “Wait…, aren’t they the things we used to do?” Some of them are the things we did in the past, and some of them are very fresh to us. So, it is very positive for us that Joan, Alex, and Kawauchi came from another manufacturer.
When you stay in the same place for a long time, your way of thinking could be biased without realizing it. Maybe it was the case for us. Now we listen to them, adopt their opinions, and change the way of things.
All Honda riders, Marc, Joan and Taka have a traditional Honda riding style, to go deep into the corner and turn quickly, then pick up the bike at the exit as soon as possible. From the pre-season testing until now, when we spoke with them at the riders’ debrief, they often pointed out that they had the rear tire spin a lot at the exit and it was very difficult to get the drive. On the other hand, on Saturday evening at the COTA weekend, Taka said to journalists that Alex carried more corner speed and didn’t pick up the bike immediately, which was something similar to Moto2 style. How did you see his riding style?
In fact, we saw he was very quick in that area. We validated it from our data, too. Obviously, it was due to the rider’s skills, and he was riding very well. Marc was always in a different world in COTA, and I think Alex was on quite a similar level with him.
He maintained 2’03s all through the race.
It was faster than our expectations. We thought he couldn’t save the rear tire consumption without slowing down the pace, but he managed it very well. From the beginning, Alex was consistent by staying behind Pecco Bagnaia, and after he crashed on Lap8, Alex led the race and pulled away the rest. Alex was very consistent and stayed just behind Bagnaia, so we were confident that he would definitely be on the podium. But it could have been Alex who had crashed in the leading group because he also might have had a risk of crashing as other riders had had. Therefore, when the race finished, we were very excited about his victory, and at the same time, we were really relieved.
Years ago, I worked with Alex when he was in Moto3 class. This time, I realized that he had made huge progress as a rider since then. After achieving impressive results in his previous manufacturer, he came to Honda, changed the bike and team, and made a third victory in the recent six races. He came to us as a masterful top rider. I think he could see our positives and negatives, and exploited our positives with his excellent skills.
This is just a “what-if” question, but what would the race result be if Pecco Bagnaia hadn’t crashed?
We understand that our bike is not strong enough to beat our rivals, so I think Alex would have finished second place. If he managed to overtake Bagnaia at Sector 1, Bagnaia must have retaliated at the back straight.
We should not say we are fine with second place. But, as I said before, we were sixth place in the manufacturers' championship last year, so getting back to be top immediately is not a realistic storyline for us. Therefore, our first approach is to arrive at a competitive level to fight for the podium consistently.
Our ultimate target is always victory. and I think it will be accomplished when everything comes to the right place in the end. Otherwise, even if you become very fast abruptly, you cannot maintain that level unless you understand the reason why you are so fast. It is the case for riders, and for us engineers, too. If you don’t understand the reason, you cannot find the next approach.
As an engineer, you have a lot of things to develop and improve. But for this season, you have a drastic format change for the weekend, and now you have a very hectic schedule. Friday's results determine the qualifying group and the result of the qualifying decides the grid positions for Saturday afternoon’s Sprint and Sunday’s race. Does this busy timetable affect your race management and development program?
Yes, indeed. The current format is very tough for us. A champion bike and manufacturer will be fine with this format, but we have many things to do to improve and the time for it is very limited.
. When the things to do is limited, the step we can do is also limited. And when the step is limited, it will take a longer time for improvement. With these conditions, you are required to get a good result. So, you have to make a steady improvement even though the stride is very small. If you cannot make a steady step, your race could be a gamble. Maybe you can win just once, but for this season, we have twenty-one weekends and forty-two races in total, and it is impossible to keep on winning the lottery. We are in a dilemma, to be honest.
From next weekend, the European rounds will start. Although you won the race at COTA for the first time in these twenty-five races, you said you have to make a small but steady step forward to improve. How much do you think you have done to achieve your target?
There is still a long way to go. We haven’t arrived halfway through it. We have done three races so far. Rd02 and Rd03 were fly-aways in the Americas, the season opener at Portimao had a little bit of special characteristics for their layout. Therefore, we will be able to find our real potential and performance at the moment at the Jerez circuit. We will confirm our positions and make it clear what we have to do from there. We won a race, but it was just for once and we have to keep our heads down and our feet on the ground.
How will things be going at Jerez?
Realistically, we have to do many things. Jerez will be the opportunity to make sure of what we have achieved. We will evaluate how to develop the bike, how to manage the coming races, and how much harder we need to work. Although we won the race last week, we are not optimistic at all.
Last but not least, what are your visions and expectations for the coming races?
Although the race result at COTA was better than what we expected, we have just started managing races and improving our bikes. We need to improve our potential as a total package with our whole team as soon as possible.
Also, to have Joan and Alex who arrived from another manufacturer more competitive with their Hondas to fight for victory, Kawauchi’s joining HRC as a new technical director was very helpful. If he hadn’t joined us, we would have struggled more.
Although we talked a lot about Alex this time, HRC has been fighting for the championship with Marc for a long time, and he is a very important rider for us, too. So is Joan; he is the 2020 champion rider. Also, Taka is very important rider for us. They all are valuable to us. Without any of them, the Honda family is not complete. Some of them didn’t get enough championship points yet, but as I said, anything can happen with this season’s new race format. We will keep a steady momentum for improvements and give our everything to get the best results. Cheer from people always encourages us. It makes us stronger than anything. Thank you very much for your continuous and generous support. We will do our best in the European rounds starting from Jerez.