MotoGP: Nakamoto reveals the hidden downside of winglets

In explaining why Dani Pedrosa doesn't use the now-popular winglets, HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto reveals a little-discussed aspect of their aerodynamics that has been overlooked

motogp, shuhei nakamoto, honda, dani pedrosa, winglets, winglet ban, ducati, andrea dovizioso, andrea iannone
While Marc Marquez has been using the winglets on the front of his Repsol Honda RC213V all of this season, his teammate Dani Pedrosa (26) has had them removed for numerous races, including the Misano MotoGP this past weekend. Was it the reason for Pedrosa's sudden speed and victory?Photo courtesy of Repsol Honda

Following Dani Pedrosa's commanding victory in Misano, quite a few "paddock experts" pointed out the absence of winglets on his bike as the secret of his surprising performance. I'm sorry to say that if there was a key, it certainly wasn't the absence of winglets. It should be noted that at the Sachsenring, Silverstone and Brno races, Pedrosa also raced sans wings. It was only at the fast and "simple" Red Bull Ring circuit that small winglets were attached to Pedrosa's fairing.

When I was at Silverstone on Sunday morning of the UK GP, just a few minutes ahead of the start of the race, I was walking the paddock immersed in my thoughts over some interesting matter I’d just heard. I unexpectedly crossed paths with Shuhei Nakamoto, who as you know is HRC’s vice president, and the man who has run Honda’s MotoGP efforts for the last several years. He was just the person I needed to help me understand what I wasn’t grasping.

"We tested it at Suzuka and it lapped over a second faster per lap than the bike we were racing with…more than one second." - Shuhei Nakamoto, HRC vice president

The topic was essentially the form that aerodynamics would take following the ban on winglets. For me, it was clear that having realized that wings on MotoGP bikes had a positive effect on their performance, the factory engineers would not be giving up the aerodynamic benefits so easily any time soon. Having spent so much time alongside them over the last 20 years, I know how racing engineers think.

I shared this consideration with Nakamoto, who, at a certain point and probably due my insistence, questioned me. "Why do you think Dani doesn't use winglets on his bike?" Nakamoto asked.
"I don't know," I answered. "Why?"
"Look, let me tell you something you don't know," Nakamoto prefaced, before revealing an intriguing and relevant event. "More than 20 years ago at Honda, we built the aerodynamically perfect bike. We tested it at Suzuka and it lapped over a second faster per lap than the bike we were racing with…more than one second."
"One second faster per lap? This is amazing!" I said, probably with my eyes wide open. "And did you race with that bike? I've never seen nor heard about it."
"Nobody but the Honda engineers have seen it," Nakamoto answered. "And no, this bike never raced because it was not possible to race with it."

motogp, misano, shuhei nakamoto, honda, dani pedrosa, winglets, winglet ban, ducati, andrea dovizioso, andrea iannone
For those who think that the lack of winglets on Pedrosa's bike at Misano was the key to his victory, it should be noted that he's run without them at numerous tracks, including Silverstone and here at Brno.Photo courtesy of Repsol Honda

What? Why, because of technical reasons?
"No, because after one lap the rider was finished," Nakamoto said, referring to the test rider's physical condition.
"The bike was hyper-physical to ride. Yes, the bike was fast, very fast, more than one second faster than what we had, but no rider could ride it more than two laps. And by the way, the bike was the ugliest I have ever seen in my life! (laughs)"

With this surprising and revealing analogy, Nakamoto inferred two things:
1. If it comes down to an aerodynamic war, Honda is more than ready for it. The knowledge is there…and the money is too.
2. Aerodynamics on bikes have a direct effect on the physical demands required to ride them quickly. Thus, Nakamoto had provided the answer to the question of why Pedrosa wasn't using winglets on his bike: it's purely a matter of strength. Pedrosa's physique—he is 1.60m (5'2") and 50kg (110 pounds)—allows him numerous advantages, but also the disadvantage of decreased leverage in steering the bike at speed.

To my surprise, Nakamoto’s confession was confirmed just a few minutes later when Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso were literally devoured by their Desmosedicis on the track. After the Silverstone race, both confessed that riding their bikes had completely over-stressed their arms to the point that—at a certain stage—they no longer had complete control of the bike. Iannone ended up crashing, and Dovizioso fought his desire to enter the pits. He confessed that his last three laps were a nightmare.

motogp, shuhei nakamoto, honda, dani pedrosa, winglets, winglet ban, ducati, andrea dovizioso, andrea iannone, misano
The physical effort required to ride the multiple-winglet-equipped Ducati Desmosedici GP for even just a handful of laps in practice is evident in the expression on Andrea Dovizioso's face...Photo courtesy of Ducati Corse

“I began to have a problem with my right forearm, and from that moment onwards my race turned into an ordeal,” Dovizioso revealed. “I feel bad for the team, today we could surely have got a better result, but I was just unable to push hard enough. I almost crashed a number of times just trying to stay in sixth place, because I was struggling to keep the bike under control.”

“The way I [have to] ride now is too tiring at the moment,” Iannone concurred. “In MotoGP you cannot be using all your strength during all 25 laps of a race. I think we need an easier bike that allows us to go fast without getting exhausted. This is the main problem. We have been trying to find a solution, the bike is too difficult when it comes to change directions, too heavy.”

Until the event at Silverstone, this reality was a pitbox secret, but we’ve known of the existence of this problem since last year. “Why do you think Dovizioso and Iannone were able to make pole positions but not win a race?” someone from the Ducati garage in Misano commented.

motogp, shuhei nakamoto, honda, dani pedrosa, winglets, winglet ban, ducati, andrea dovizioso, andrea iannone, misano
While the Ducati Desmosedici GP has found some definite advantages to the increasingly extensive use of aerodynamic winglets on the front fairing, there's a noticeable downside as well. "In MotoGP you cannot be using all your strength during all 25 laps of a race," Andrea Iannone (shown) stated. "I think we need an easier bike that allows us to go fast without getting exhausted."Photo courtesy of Ducati Corse

If this is true though, then how could the two Ducati riders dominate the Austrian MotoGP race, never mind the practice sessions and qualifying? The success in Austria was down to its layout and the “simplicity” of the Red Bull Ring. The eight corners connected basically by straights provided the ideal scenario for the Ducatis, and allowed Honda to add the winglets on Pedrosa’s bike. The comparatively complicated Silverstone circuit, with double the number of corners and a much more flowing layout with demanding direction changes, were torture for Iannone and Dovizioso.

So, coming back to the question that provoked this article, the lack of winglets on Dani Pedrosa’s RC213V in Misano had nothing to do with his amazing race. It was more due to his unique tire choice, which gave the small Spanish rider the confidence to ride how he did. Because the technical part certainly is important, but in bike racing, what still makes the difference is the rider’s brain.