MotoGP: All-Japan Championship comes together to help domestic riders get to the World Championships

Unusual arrangement between teams and the Japan racing federation looks to put Japanese riders back into the World Championship ranks

motogp, yukio kagayama, naomichi uramoto, all japan championship, gp2, moto2, cev
2016 All-Japan GP2 champion Naomichi Uramoto (white t-shirt seated on bike) was given a unique opportunity to race outside his country by his team manager Yukio Kagayama (2nd to the right of Uramoto). Kagayama engineered an unusual arrangement with the All-Japan GP2 class teams and the MFJ Japanese motorcycle racing federation to enable Uramoto to race outside of Japan.Photo courtesy of PecinoGP

Have you ever heard of a situation—not in motorcycling but in any other sport—where the losers finance the victor so that he or she can take part in a higher level championship? This is basically what occurred with Naomichi Uramoto, winner of the 2016 All-Japan GP2 Championship.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Japanese riders made up a sizable portion of the World Championship grids in the 125cc and 250cc Grand Prix classes. Riders such as Kazuto Sakata, Noboru Ueda, Tetsuya Harada, Shinya Nakano, Daijiro Kato, et al, were perennial winners during that time. Year after year, new young talent would arrive from the All-Japan Championship (the name of the Japanese national championship series) and immediately make their mark on the world scene.

But the collapse of the Japanese two-wheeled market since that time due to the loss of young peoples’ interest in motorcycles in favor of new forms of entertainment—essentially videogaming—led to a gradual drying up of the country's supply of riders.

In a domino effect, this dwindling interest led to the factories halting their investments in domestic racing, and this meant that the level of competitiveness of teams and riders fell to new lows. Japanese riders stopped reaching the minimum level required for venturing off to the World Championship.

motogp, yukio kagayama, naomichi uramoto, all japan championship, gp2, moto2, cev
The fairing of Uramoto's Moto2 machine at the Japanese GP was decorated with logos from rival teams in the All-Japan GP2 championship who helped fund the effort. Many of teams represent competing brands; the Kagayama and S-Pulse MFD Racing teams are with Suzuki, while the Kohara RT team is a Honda-supported squad, and the 51 Garage effort is with Yamaha.Photo courtesy of PecinoGP

"We have to change this situation!" exclaimed Yukio Kagayama, Suzuki's World Championship veteran, who at the age of 42 not only remains active but also owns his own team at All Japan. At the beginning of 2016, Kagayama’s team gave a team seat to Naomichi Uramoto, a not-so-young rider at 22 years old, and one who was also not necessarily known for his good work.

"But I saw potential, I saw that he was much better than the bike he was running." Kagayama was right: Uramoto somewhat unexpectedly took the All-Japan GP2 championship, a category similar to Moto2 although open to all brands. This title gave him the right to participate as a wildcard rider in this year’s Japanese Grand Prix. But it was how he was able to participate that is the interesting aspect.

In a surprising initiative, Kagayama convinced the participating teams in the All-Japan GP2 championship to approve a rule by which the winner of the championship—or if the series was still undecided, the leader at the moment of the GP2 class—would do a wildcard race in the world championship…and the effort would be financed by the entire All-Japan GP2 grid. This initiative resulted in Uramoto racing in the Japanese Grand Prix with a motorcycle decorated with the names of his "sponsors." In an extremely rare occasion in the history of motorcycle racing, on the same fairing of a motorcycle in the World Championship were the logos of rival All-Japan teams with back-door sponsorships from Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki, as well as competing brands of helmets such as Shoei and Arai—and these are just a few examples.

motogp, yukio kagayama, naomichi uramoto, all japan championship, gp2, moto2, cev
When all the rider slots for the Spanish CEV Moto2 series were taken up, Kagayama got Uramoto a ride with the French JEG team in the CEV Superbike class for the final round at Valencia. Uramoto proved his worth by nearly putting the Suzuki GSX-R on the podium.Photo courtesy of PecinoGP

The Kagayama initiative was both fascinating and simple. "I explained to the team owners that in order to raise the level of the championship, we had to show our riders how to race in top championships. Make them aware of the higher levels of racing, because once they have won here they are complacent, they believe they have already reached their limit. The idea is to awaken their motivation, to arouse in them the desire to want to be there, in the top division. I talked to all the teams and everyone saw it clearly, everyone said ‘go ahead.’"

The experience worked exactly as planned. Uramoto ran at Motegi and was next to dead last, but experiencing in first person a GP weekend awoke the competitiveness in Uramoto. A single race changed his mentality and his sporting goals. And Kagayama stepped it up; the next move was to make his pupil race outside of Japan, away from a familiar environment. And in November, that could only happen in one place: Spain.

Kagayama and Uramoto looked for a motorcycle in the CEV, the European Championship that runs in Spain. The approach was to enter the last race of this championship in Valencia in the Moto2 class, but the interest for this championship did not find a space on the grid. The solution was to join the SBK category on a French Suzuki team.

After spectating at the Valencia GP weekend in the paddock—"I did to see the ‘splendor’ of the World Championship in Europe, where the teams have their hospitalities and the riders have their motorhomes,” said the young Japanese rider—Uramoto then raced in the CEV SBK class with an unfamiliar motorcycle that he came within 0.033 seconds of getting onto the podium. A surprising result that, far from closing his curious adventure, was the beginning of it.

motogp, yukio kagayama, naomichi uramoto, all japan championship, gp2, moto2, cev
Kagayama is hoping that Uramoto will be the first of many young Japanese riders to make it into the World Championships through the unique program that Kagayama started. Japan has suffered a drought of riders in the World Championships after flooding the grids back in the '90s and early 2000s.Photo courtesy of PecinoGP

This brainchild project of Kagayama's is a very Japanese initiative, in that something like this could only work in Japan. The World Superbike and British Superbike veteran explained about how the contributions of each of the 11 All-Japan GP2 teams taking part in his Uramoto Moto2 experiment were made. "Each [team] contributes what [it] can. In principle obviously it is thought to be an economic contribution, but there are some very modest teams that cannot afford anything. There are teams that contributed a chassis, others contributed support at the circuit. Each one does the maximum that he can; we cannot force anyone, everything is voluntary."

After closing the agreement with the teams, Kagayama then went to the MFJ Japanese motorcycle racing federation where he got the commitment of a contribution similar to that of the teams. Between the two parties, he managed to raise the funds necessary to pay the cost of running as wild card at Motegi. And it was successful enough that the initiative will be repeated next season.

The Kagayama project demonstrates a unique cooperation among racing rivals. Do you think this could happen anywhere outside of Japan?