Honda’s MotoGP Golden Age Comes To A Surprising Conclusion

Shuhei Nakamoto is now an advisor in a third-division promotional cup, and Livio Suppo was dismissed at the end of the season

Repsol Honda Team
The sign says it all: “Triple World Champions—Rider, Constructor, Team.” Former team principal Livio Suppo stands on the left, just behind Marc Márquez.Repsol Honda

Before Shuhei Nakamoto arrived in the MotoGP world championship in 2009, Honda was in a very dark period. Since the departure of Valentino Rossi from its ranks five years earlier, Honda had only won a single premier-class title, and that one was arguably due more to the mistakes of its rivals than its own merit. Max Biaggi, Alex Barros, Nicky Hayden, Dani Pedrosa, and Andrea Dovizioso danced into and out of the official team during that period but failed to restore HRC’s previous domination. That appeared to convey a lack of direction, both organizational and technical. That’s when Honda decided to send Nakamoto, one of its most brilliant engineers, to MotoGP. After spending nearly nine years in Formula 1, Nakamoto landed in MotoGP in early ’09. For two seasons, he focused on reorganizing HRC and making a competitive bike. One of his first moves was to sign Livio Suppo, who was until then the Ducati team manager, placing him as the “necessary Westerner.” Nakamoto then signed Casey Stoner, who was also with Ducati. In 2011, the Australian won the championship for Honda in his first attempt. With the arrival of Marc Márquez in 2013, the Nakamoto/Suppo pairing added three more championships in four years, and Honda and its technology were once again the reference. But the way in which the Nakamoto/Suppo duo managed the team and made critical decisions seemed to longtime observers as counter to Honda’s “normal” system of working. And in this case, “system” should be stamped in capital letters, meaning the way the company works, its philosophy.

Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa
The factory Repsol Honda duo of Márquez (93) and Dani Pedrosa (26) have won 44 MotoGP races during the past five seasons.Repsol Honda

When Nakamoto arrived in the paddock, no one knew the name of the person who made decisions at HRC. They may have known titles, that is to say who was president and vice president, but no one recognized what Nakamoto acquired in his days as the executive head of HRC. It's generally perceived that Honda neither recognizes nor accepts popularity among its ranks.

Nakamoto became kind of an emperor, acting like a Sun King who decided when, why, and how. A way of proceeding that I believe ruffled feathers in Japan and the upper echelons of the company understood went against the system. And the system said no.

It’s true that it took some time. In Japan, carrying out each decision involves timelines that have nothing to do with those in the West. But because Nakamoto was reaping success after success, no one could deny that he had fulfilled the task given him. But when the time came for his replacement, the system decided to dismantle his legacy.

The fact that three different executives were appointed to cover Nakamoto's role was evidence, in my opinion, that Honda believed he had accumulated too much power. Shinichi Kokubu was appointed technical manager, Tetsuhiro Kuwata would manage the team and riders, and Naoki Hattori was charged with marketing and institutional affairs. All three positions had previously been in the hands of Nakamoto and Suppo.

Shuhei Nakamoto
Former Honda Racing Corporation Executive VP Shuhei Nakamoto (right) led Honda’s MotoGP charge for eight seasons, delivering four premier-class titles.Repsol Honda

Following the 2016 season-ending Grand Prix of Valencia, everything proceeded as usual but, as always with the Japanese, there was a pause between decision and action. It seemed Honda didn't want to give the appearance that it was making impulsive decisions—no drama needed.

The fact that Nakamoto ended up as an advisor for Dorna’s Asian Talent Cup (managed by former 500cc Grand Prix winner Alberto Puig) was explained at the time as a phase for the brilliant Japanese engineer before his final retirement, but allow me to be skeptical because, after all, I am a journalist.

Suppo had one more year on his contract with HRC—signed when Nakamoto was ready to leave—but HRC did not allow Suppo to fulfill it. You might have read it was a consensus decision, but I don't believe that to be true. The system ended a situation that at any given moment could have destabilized it.

Marc Marquez and Tetsuhiro Kuwata
Márquez celebrates his sixth world title in the shadow of Tetsuhiro Kuwata, one of the three HRC employees who have replaced Nakamoto and Suppo.Repsol Honda

The system’s recuperation of control put it in a situation that we might think of as a test. Continued winning became HRC’s its maximum priority—more so even than the rider title. Because it had to prove that Honda could still be Honda operating as Honda.

This imperative was the sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of the HRC team responsible for managing the final outcome of the 2017 MotoGP season. Márquez’s victory and the team and manufacturer titles were for all involved a tremendous relief—a “mission accomplished.”