During the years I've reported on Grand Prix motorcycle roadracing, I've met many of the sport's greatest engineers, including Shoichiro Irimajiri (possibly the most brilliant engineer in Honda's history), Suguru Kanazawa (at the time president of HRC and the most intimidating person intellectually I've ever encountered), Yoichi Oguma (the explosive figure who became HRC's first race-team manager and took it to the top), Gigi Dall'Igna (now recognized by everyone for his work at Ducati but until his brilliance was "discovered" he was exiled in a tiny racing shop in Spain); and Masao Furusawa (the genius who pulled Yamaha from its darkest hour and guided the MotoGP team to a string of world titles).

Many of these encounters have come away from the circuits—in private offices, at dinners, or even riding motorcycles. But all of those legendary individuals belong to a different generation than Takeo Yokoyama, the 44-year-old head of HRC’s MotoGP project.

With Honda since 1996, Yokoyama arrived at HRC in 2004 after two years at the University of Maryland, an experience that not only helped him become fluent in English but also very familiar with Western ways. That knowledge, which I believe is unique within HRC, makes Yokoyama particularly attractive for a journalist.

After several failed attempts, I finally met Takeo-san. He arrived guarded by a “political commissar.” But the guard didn’t have to interfere because I wasn’t looking for explosive headlines or controversial rider statements. No, I wanted to learn how the brain of an HRC engineer works.

Japanese engineers are well-versed in caution, especially when speaking publicly—“The less I say, the fewer mistakes I will make.” As such, this interview followed a slower pace than usual, with attention paid to what was left unsaid, which is sometimes where the most interesting answers lie.

Marc Márquez
HRC Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama has strong opinions about spec electronics and tires. “Personally speaking,” he said, “I think ‘open’ is better. We are all engineers, and we want to continue to improve the technology. I always prefer open because of engineering.”Courtesy of Honda

What was your position when you joined HRC in 2004?

Until 2003, I was in the production department. The following year I started on the 250cc project. If you remember, 2004 was the first year for Dani Pedrosa in 250cc. In ’03, he won the 125cc title and in ’04 he moved up to 250cc with Alberto Puig as his manager. It was an impressive year.

You worked with Pedrosa for 14 years?

Yes, that’s right.

Which area did you work in at that time?

Chassis. My background is chassis designer.

What other riders have you worked with since joining HRC?

Dani was the one I worked with the longest in 250cc and MotoGP. I also worked with Hiroshi Aoyama, Andrea Dovizioso, Héctor Barberá, Takumi Takahashi… I was more often in the factory. I was designing, making parts, and sending them to the track people. Dani was our reference rider for development, so I had some connection with him and Alberto.

Dani Pedrosa
Too much fuel? “We were allowed only 20 liters in the past, now we are allowed to use 22,” Yokoyama said. “In my personal opinion, we should never increase the allowed amount of fuel. It’s against development. MotoGP should be first in technological advancement.”Courtesy of Honda

When did you join the GP team?

I started working at the track in 2007. This was the second year for Dani in MotoGP. At that time, I was going back and forth. Some races at the track, some races in the factory. But since the beginning of 2010, I have been at every race full-time.

Exclusively for Pedrosa, right?

That’s right.

And when did you become the boss?

In 2013.

That was the year Márquez arrived in the Repsol Honda garage…

Exactly, at the same time.

Did you work with Casey Stoner as well?

Not really. I worked with him a little, but I was still a rider engineer. I was dedicated only to one side of the garage, which was Dani’s. Casey was on the other side.

Was Stoner’s data as impressive as everybody says?

Oh, yes, it was. You have to remember that Casey was the first guy that I had to beat. Me and Alberto and Dani were trying our best to beat Casey because he was our main rival. Then, of course, we had to beat Yamaha, Ducati, and all of the other manufacturers.

What do you like more, racing or engineering? (Yokoyama didn’t expect this question. He smiled, sending the message that he didn’t know what to say. He was clearly buying time.)

I don’t understand the meaning of your question.

What gives you more satisfaction, designing a racing bike with superior engineering or obtaining results from it?

I am in racing, but I am still doing engineering. I love to create things, but I also like to be number one, to beat everybody else in the world.

Honda uses HRC as a kind of master’s degree for young, promising engineers. They work at HRC for a certain period to show their skills. Once finished with this stage, they are usually transferred to other departments. Others stay for a long time. What is your ambition?

You never know. At the end, it’s a company decision. Whatever the company decides, I have to follow.

What would you like to happen?

I like racing. This is clear. It’s true that HRC is part of the learning process for our engineers. That’s why a lot of rotation happens in HRC. But like you said, it’s not for everybody. Actually, I’m the second-longest-staying engineer at HRC. If the company puts me back into the production department, I don’t think that I can do a good job because I forgot almost everything about how to design streetbikes. I’m too dedicated to the racing industry for many years.

Andrea Dovizios and Marc Marquez
“I don’t agree that aerodynamics makes MotoGP bikes safer or more stable,” Yokoyama said. “In the end, you can put more weight where you want with aerodynamics, suspension settings, or weight distribution. You can get the same effect through different ways.”Courtesy of Honda

These are basically the four engineering areas in a MotoGP bike: aerodynamics, engine, chassis, and electronics. Which of them do you like to work with more now that you are responsible for the project?

It’s not that I like more a specific area. It’s more that I know more about chassis. But since 2010, when I started working at the track, or even more after 2013 when I started in this position, I have learned more and more about the other areas—the engine, the electronics. I understand more or less everything now; my knowledge about each area is quite equal. Now what I enjoy most is to find the best balance between all areas.

Don’t you think electronics are actually the most demanding engineering area?

Well, I don’t completely agree. The electronics are controlled by the unified software, so we cannot do whatever we want. There are millions of ideas that we want to try—this way, that way—but many things are blocked.

Are you surprised that a small factory like Ducati is capable of challenging a giant like Honda in MotoGP? Ducati sells around 50,000 motorcycles per year, Honda around 15 million, if not more. How is this possible?

The figures you mentioned are production-bikes sales. But regarding the racing department, I don’t believe that we are bigger than Ducati.

But HRC has the support of Honda’s giant research and development department…

True, inside Honda, the racing department, which is HRC, is not completely separated from the production department. Of course, I cannot tell you details, but I don’t believe it’s bigger regarding the workforce, budget, and resources. I also don’t know the figures of the other companies.

Old-school Honda engineers always maintained that the engine was the most important component of a racebike. “If you are the fastest on the straight, you arrive first to the next corner.” Is this still HRC’s philosophy?

No, personally I don’t share it. Of course, the engine is a big part of the bike. If you have a powerful engine, your life is easier, especially fighting in the race. But we don’t want to sacrifice chassis by only trying to make the power from the engine.

For example, your engine can make 100 more horsepower than the others, but if the engine is three times bigger, you are out, chassis-wise. We will not make it like that. The whole bike—the package—is the most important.

There is no more “Here is the engine, build a chassis around it” development? I’ve had intense conversations with Honda engineers like Irimajiri, Kanazawa, and Oguma. Have you studied what they did?

They are the legends. They created many things, but I don’t really know the details.

(Of all the answers Yokoyama gave me during our interview, this one was the most surprising and shows that the brightest times in Honda’s history are not taught in-house.)

Do you believe the current technical rules impede engineers from showing their true capabilities? Now, for example, you don’t have the opportunity to build the V-5 that Honda created to start MotoGP.

That’s true. The regulations are more restrictive and don’t allow you to show yourself much, whatever type of idea you have. Our job now is to come up with the best idea inside the given rules. Before, there were almost no restrictions.

You mean it’s more difficult because the margin you have to work with is narrower?

Yes.

Is it true that for HRC engineers the constructors’ title is more important than the rider title? From a marketing point of view, a rider winning a world title is good advertising, but for an engineer to see his bike beating all the others is the big prize.

I think for us it is equally important.

If one of your riders won the title but Yamaha took home the constructors’ title, would that be considered a good job or would it upset HRC?

Of course, it would hurt! But did it ever happen? I remember 2012, Jorge Lorenzo was the champion, but Honda was the constructors’ champion. That was nice. (Yokoyama made this last statement with a smile on his face. At least some traditions are still alive in HRC; beating Yamaha is still the biggest satisfaction of all.) Winning the manufacturer’s trophy is important because there are journalists who say, “It’s the rider who is winning the races, not the bike.”

Yamaha’s top manager suggested last season that he wanted one engine update per year introduced into the rules. What is your position on this subject?

If somebody wants to put this kind of discussion on the table, we are open to discuss it. But we have to seriously discuss inside MSMA, between the manufacturers. If we make this kind of regulation, it would affect the racing a lot. The race strategy, the engineering schedule, the development schedule, also the budget, resources… Many things would have to be changed. I don’t think it’s an easy argument that somebody can suddenly come up with.

I imagine you have been asked this next question 100 times. Do you know why your riders crash so often?

Yes and no. The Honda is a little special. I think everybody knows. It is a bike that you have to push to the limit to be fast. If you ride in a “comfortable” way, you cannot make the lap times. It’s a complicated bike. But once you know how much you can push, then you can get the maximum from the bike.