until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

MotoGP

Honda’s odd-man-out might have an unexpected 2024 lifeline

by Simon Patterson
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Twelve months ago it looked like LCR Honda rider Taka Nakagami’s MotoGP future was on borrowed time thanks to the Moto2 success of his designated successor, fellow Japanese racer Ai Ogura.

But as Honda’s woes in the premier class continue has Nakagami – the only 2023 Honda rider who hasn’t missed a race due to injury – actually managed to find a second stay of execution that will see him remaining in MotoGP for 2024 as well?

Fighting against the eventual champion and 2023 MotoGP graduate Augusto Fernandez until the final rounds of Moto2 last year and securing three wins along the way, it looked like Honda’s next protege Ogura was ready for a shot at the big leagues.

And to call Ogura a Honda product is fair, too given the road that took him to Moto2 success. He finished runner-up in the Honda and Idemitsu-backed Asia Talent Cup in 2016 (finishing behind only current team-mate Somkiat Chantra) and he’s raced for that partnership’s team since making his Grand Prix debut as a wildcard in 2018.

Fighting first for the Moto3 championship in 2020 (where he finished third behind Albert Arenas and Tony Arbolino) and then moving up to Moto2 with the team, it’s been obvious for some time that the final destination for him is clearly in Lucio Cecchinello’s satellite MotoGP team, as part of the side of the garage that’s backed by the Japanese oil and fuel company and funded in large part by Honda to ensure local talent in the premier class.

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Yet his expected promotion for 2023 didn’t happen, in large part because (it seems) Ogura was more than insistent to Honda that he wasn’t ready for the step up – something backed up by his rather clumsy end to the 2022 title fight, where a series of rather rookie errors essentially handed the title to Fernandez in the end.

His start to 2023 hasn’t been much better, either, thanks to the serious wrist injury that he picked up during pre-season testing. It sidelined him from the opening two rounds of the year and very much hamstrung his efforts at a title challenge.

It’s only been in the past few rounds where he’s started to return to previous form, with a runner-up spot at the last race before the summer break at Assen his best performance of the year to date.

Now a distant 14th in the standings and a huge 117 points behind championship leader (and old Moto3 rival) Arbolino, it means that any hopes of a second title quest in 2023 are now all but gone at the halfway point.

But whether or not that means he still believes that he’s got unfinished business in the middleweight class remains to be seen – and isn’t something that we’re likely to find out any time soon, given Ogura’s famously taciturn nature when speaking to the media.

But, if it does – and if he has any doubts about jumping onto a Honda RC213V that looks harder, not easier, than the bike he turned down 12 months ago – it could well be the saving grace that his compatriot Nakagami needs to extend his own MotoGP career by another season.

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That’s not to say, of course, that Nakagami would be in any way a consolation prize for Honda should it retain his services rather than a key asset given his dependability so far in 2023.

The only Honda rider who’s been able to consistently finish races this year amid a year that’s been marked more by serious injury than success, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t play a key role in its development work, even if his feedback often seems to be overlooked in favour of feedback from star rider Marc Marquez.

There’s another element that might also help defend Nakagami’s position: Honda’s desire to maintain a bit of consistency in the garage should his current team-mate Alex Rins defect, as it seems increasingly likely, to the factory Yamaha team to replace Franco Morbidelli.

It’s not yet clear who necessarily would replace Rins should that deal come to fruition, but with the collection of alternating title sponsors that Cecchinello rotates through on the other side of the garage all European-focused, it seems perhaps more likely that his replacement will come from that side of the world, with names like Ogura’s Moto2 rival Jake Dixon likely to be up for consideration, especially given LCR’s previous happy times with British superbike racer turned GP star Cal Crutchlow.

For his part, Nakagami seems so far confident that his time with Honda still has something of a future, with the 31-year-old (who manages himself) regularly speaking with the factory’s senior figures at the past few rounds of the championship.

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However with Honda proving in the past that it’s more than happy to make a late decision on who occupies its satellite seat and with Nakagami’s own future being confirmed as late as the final round in previous seasons, it seems that time is very much on the manufacturer’s side – and that any decision is only likely to come once both Ogura has fully recovered and the fallout from any switch on the other side of the LCR garage is settled.

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