EXCLUSIVE Furusawa reflects on eve of Yamaha, MotoGP exit
9 February 2011
By Peter McLaren
“Would you like a coffee?” asks Masao Furusawa as we walk towards a table in the Factory Yamaha pits at Sepang. And he doesn't expect one of the hospitality staff to do it - Furusawa heads straight over to the machine and brings back an Espresso.
It's a small but telling glimpse into the character of the soon-to-be 60-year-old, who holds one of the most powerful positions within Yamaha - and MotoGP - but operates very much on a down-to-earth, get-things-done basis.
After his final race for Yamaha at Valencia last November, Valentino Rossi said: "I have to thank first of all Masao Furusawa, because we went through some difficult moments but we were able to improve the bike and make it the best machine."
In just over a month Furusawa will retire from Yamaha, having helped transform its MotoGP fortunes from a single podium in 2003 (“it was hell!”) to winning all three world titles for the past three seasons. Talk about leaving on a high.
Furusawa's official title is “Executive Officer, Engineering Operations, Motorcycle Headquarters”, but Rossi refers to him simply as “the number one at Yamaha” and he's also the man behind the YZR-M1's crossplane crank technology.
In this wide-ranging and often candid interview Furusawa looks back over his involvement in MotoGP, discussing riders such as Rossi (“like a King”) and new world champion Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha's mistakes and best moments, plus some of the cutting-edge technical challenges.
Furusawa also talks about Yamaha's long standing rivalry with Honda (“Many people in Honda want to kill me”) and even reveals the “hints” he gave Ducati, when they contacted him for advice after signing Rossi for 2011...
Mr Furusawa, it's good to see you here. Have you decided what your future plans will be?
I have another month and a half before retiring. We have had lots of discussions these past few years, one being should I stop? In the last few months the president of Yamaha Motors asked me to extend my job. And I said 'no' [smiles].
It's too long for me to stay in MotoGP. Because I really did not expect to still be here when I started back in 2003. At that time Yamaha was suffering, we had not won the championship for ten years, so I was put in charge of MotoGP to change everything.
I thought maybe five years would be the longest for me here. But I did a big mistake in 2006 and 2007 and Valentino was so upset.
Was that when you kind of stepped away from racing?
Yeah, yeah. Stepped aside. Valentino was so upset. He wanted me back at the race track. So I decided to come back and I've stayed since.
You know, I was really an amateur about racing before 2003. I had never seen a race! Before I was always changing my job in Yamaha Motors, because sometimes there was trouble in the company and they would move me around to wherever they needed me.
So you were a troubleshooter?
Yes! I have a nickname of 'Sophisticated Troubleshooter' or 'Fixer'! It's been lots of fun for me and I've enjoyed it a lot.
Life is short. My stepfather passed away when he was 75 and this month I will be 60 years old. My birthday is actually one day after Valentino Rossi's, on February 17th.
So maybe I have 15 years before I die. I have lots of hobbies, but with racing I have no time to enjoy them. So now is the time to stop my career.
On the 24th of March is the date when we agreed to stop. Some of the guys were against me stopping, but I said 'I've done enough!' Then I'll have one year as an advisor for Yamaha, but an advisor is not a busy guy.
So after seven years, racing will soon become another hobby for me. I'm attending the next MotoGP test at Sepang and also Qatar. And right after the Qatar test I will be back in Japan.
I will watch the race in Qatar on the TV or the internet, while drinking a beer!
That will be the first time I can enjoy MotoGP as a fan, with no responsibility. Also this year will be very competitive - Casey Stoner at Honda, Valentino Rossi at Ducati and Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha.
Last year was kind of boring. Yamaha was too strong. That was good for me of course, because I was strongly involved in the Yamaha MotoGP project. But this year I will just be an adviser at Yamaha.
Is that specifically as an advisor for MotoGP?
It can be anything, but it will mainly be for racing.
After that I will completely move to some of my personal 'skunkworks' projects and hobbies: Motorcycles, Cars, Snowmobiles, ATVs, Water Vehicles, Sea Fishing, Sculpturing, Drawing, Painting... I will still be busy.
How have you planned so that this time - unlike in 2006 and 2007 - you can step away and Yamaha can still be as strong in MotoGP?
Back in 2006 and 2007 was a little bit early to step aside. I have learned many things from my own mistakes! Now I'm pretty much confident I can transfer my knowledge and technology to other senior people to keep Yamaha winning.
2004 and 2005 we were winning and it was a successful experience. But after that were two years of mistake. Then three years of success with the Triple Crown. So I'm comfortable to leave here.
But we cannot be arrogant. If we look down on anything then there is a chance to lose the game, because all the competitors are so, so keen to win. This is the kind of message I will transfer to the people here.
Looking back at the M1. I remember the first version had carburettors...
Oh yes. 2002. For 2003 I recommended to change from carburettor to a fuel-injection system and chain-driven camshafts.
I had always approached problems as a kind of outsider, a consultant, looking in and recommending this, this and this. But doing it is different. It was such a big shock when I jumped in to MotoGP in 2003. 'Wow! This is all my responsibility'.
And the results that year [one podium] were terrible. 2003 was hell!
I thought many things were wrong, but I was new to racing, so it was just my own ideas from logical thinking, analysis and experience. Reality is not necessarily the same. So some people were sceptical. Looking at me and thinking 'we understand what you are saying, but reality is different.'
It can be really hard to convince everyone to go in the same direction. So I did some trick. I came up with a pretty good idea - the crossplane crankshaft [utilising 'big bang' technology] - and then right after I joined MotoGP I started a design. Half a year later the first prototype ran on the racetrack near the Yamaha headquarters.
Everybody was looking and the first thing the test rider said was 'this bike feels slow'. So everyone looked at me, thinking 'Hmmm. You are the guy who thought of this...' And then he said 'But the lap time is so fast. It just feels slow because it is very, very smooth and stable.'
That was Christmas time in 2003. Then Valentino Rossi came to Yamaha and rode for the first time here [at Sepang] in January 2004. He is really a genius. He rode the crossplane bike for just five or six laps and then came back and said 'this bike is the best one'. Even though it was slow, because the power was not so much.
I had prepared lots of combinations for him to try: Four-valve system, five-valve system, crossplane, single plane. And he pointed to the crossplane crankshaft bike with four-valve.
Before, everybody was so scared to look at a new engine, because for a long time Yamaha had been successful with the five-valve. People said 'How can you throw away the five-valve system?'
I said 'It is a very interesting system. It's lots of fun for a production bike, but the purpose of racing is not fun. Fun is ok, but the first thing we have to do is win. The problem we have had is Yamaha is losing the game for over ten years. So we have to change.'
So the four-valve system and crossplane crankshaft was the best, but it was also a brand new engine design, which is why the power was so slow. But despite that, Valentino still pointed to that engine and said 'this is it'.
Is that a lesson you want people at Yamaha to remember, that something might not necessarily produce the best numbers on a design simulation, but the most important thing to remember is the human connection with the machine?
Right. And you need to remember that Valentino was kind of like a King. We all huddled around him when he came in after riding to listen to what he had to say - would he give 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' to our ideas?
So when Valentino gave the 'thumbs up' for four-valve and crossplane crankshaft everybody knew it was the way forward and worked in the same direction. We didn't have much time. Only two months to the race in South Africa. So I really owe a big thanks to Valentino for making a clear and correct choice.
I had showed some results and evidence [to support the engine change] with the prototype running on the test track, but maybe only 50 percent of people thought 'ok I will follow you'. The other 50 percent still thought 'that is not the reality on the race track'.
But after Valentino said 'yes', everybody knew it was the right thing and we were able to get a lot of power from people all working as a team. That is one reason why we have had such good results.
Maybe if Valentino hadn't come to Yamaha, I would have been [jokes about a noose around his neck!].
On that note, Valentino is not at Yamaha any more. He has gone to Ducati. It looks like they are also making a lot of changes for his first year.
History is repeating. You know Filippo [Preziosi, Ducati Corse general director] came to me and asked lots of questions. The last question was 'will you come to Ducati?' [laughs]. No, no, no. Anyway I gave him lots of hints to win and it looks like he copied my strategy.
Wow! That was very sporting. When did he come and talk to you?
Before the Valencia test. Before Valentino first rode the Ducati.
Can I ask what you told Filippo, or some of what you told him?
Yes. The first thing he asked me, was to invite myself and my wife to visit the Ducati factory. Because I was a fan of the Ducati, it really touches the heart - I mean the production bike. Not the MotoGP! I am not a fan of what I race against!
Then Filippo did almost the same process as I did for Rossi in 2004. He prepared maybe two or three types of bike in Valencia. And Valentino selected the 'right' one. But from now on I don't want to say anything.
It looks like now Valentino is a little bit confused with the Ducati... That is good! But still I am keeping a good friendship with Valentino. Sometimes he calls me and I give him some small hint. A clue.
I think we can keep a good relationship with each other - and I need his autograph for a poster! I'm still a fan of Valentino.
How did you feel when you were watching Jorge and Valentino battling so closely at Motegi last year? From the TV images you seemed relaxed, compared with some other people in the team...
This is interesting for me. Everything has both sides. In order to be a good engineer for racing, you have to lots of fun and passion. But if you have strong passion, almost crazy, it's too much. Your vision is so narrow.
I would say I have a much more open-mind, a wider vision than 'crazy guy'! But weakness is maybe not so professional to the racing. But at the same time I am always calculating, analysing and using lots of logic, which is different from most of the empirical methods in racing.
For me it is really good, because everybody here is so crazy when they are watching the races. They are so excited. I'm pretty much relaxed. I'm excited, but much less than the typical people in the paddock.
I'm always looking precisely at the racing, with not too much tears and shouting. I don't get too high or low. Although, to be honest, the first race win with Valentino in South Africa was very exciting. One guy in the team passed out, some guys were crying and some were jumping into the pool...
Would you say that win, in Rossi's first race for Yamaha, is the moment you remember most about your time in MotoGP?
Yes. That is a good memory for me.
In place of Valentino you have Ben Spies, who is riding alongside Jorge Lorenzo. How much has Jorge developed the bike in the past and can he develop the bike in the way Valentino has in the future?
There is a big age difference between Valentino  and Jorge . Jorge is still young and a 'curious boy'. He is still growing up. So far he has almost no knowledge to develop the bike, to be honest, but I'm very much expecting to look at him for the next couple of years. He is changing a lot.
The first year he came to Yamaha  he crashed so many times and he wanted to change the bike. So I talked to him and said 'please, adapt your riding style to the bike'. I said exactly the same thing to Valentino, and Valentino changed his riding style in just 10 seconds. Jorge was new to MotoGP so he took longer.
Our advantage with the bike is in smooth riding and being very fast in the corner. Not fast in a straight-line and stop-start style. So Jorge understood and then last year he learnt many things, had almost no crashes and was on the podium almost every time. Now he is so smart. More like Valentino.
Also Ben is clever and the combination with the two guys is very good. And, thanks to Valentino again, he and I developed the bike and all we need from now on is just a little bit of set-up and modification.
What are your impressions of Yamaha's main rivals in MotoGP, Honda and Ducati?
Honda is now recovering very much and has been fast here. Ducati is doing something wrong. Maybe Valentino is too good for Ducati, so that makes another 'noise'.
Last year Nicky Hayden went better, but at this test he hasn't been so fast. But sooner or later the Ducati is coming up. I am sure Valentino will help Ducati very much, but there is a good time-delay for Yamaha.
The strongest competitor is definitely Honda. Honda is so hungry to beat Yamaha. Usually Honda is better than Yamaha, so with Yamaha winning five [rider] titles in the last seven years - many people in Honda want to kill me [laughs]! Lots of people have been fired at Honda and the staff are always changing.
What do you think has been the main problem for Honda?
Historically, Honda's advantage has usually been a technical one. Right from the founder, Soichiro Honda, there have been many good engineers at Honda. Then around 2003 they became maybe a little arrogant in racing. They believed any riders could come to Honda and win.
That was why Valentino was so disappointed with Honda. Otherwise I could never get Valentino, so thanks to Honda very much! But Honda learned something from their mistake and now Honda is eager to get a good rider, like Casey Stoner. Then they plan to combine a good bike with good riders to maybe catch and someday take over Yamaha. I hope not.
My dream was beating Honda, even before I joined Yamaha. One of the dreams came true - I beat Honda in racing - but I did not beat Honda with production bike [sales]. I transferred MotoGP M1 technology to R1, but the R1 is not as successful. Still it has good sales in the 1000cc class, but we need to do something more and I have run out of time.
So 50 percent of my dream came true. It's not so bad. I've enjoyed it a lot and now is the time to move on.
How much direct involvement have you had with the design of this year's M1?
I rather like to step back and look, but sometimes I'll come in and suggest something if I think it's needed. Then I just fade away, like old soldiers! Now the bike looks pretty good. If something happens maybe I will come back, but very limited time because I will be so busy with my own projects.
I still like engineering very much. On my business card I put 'Executive Officer and Engineer'. I always downgrade, because a couple of years ago I was a 'Chief Engineer' and now it just says 'Engineer'!
Nearly all of my hobbies involve some engineering.
I think you have a Mazda car that you've kept for a long time and use for your experiments?
The MX Miata. It is 18 years old. I've changed it a lot: Reinforcement to increase the rigidly and I put a performance damper into the car body to create a damping force. This is an idea from Yamaha Motors because all of the automotive companies just increase the rigidity of the chassis, but sometimes we need a damping force.
Now I increase the stiffness and the damping force. My Miata is fantastic. Only one problem: The torsional stiffness [twist] because it is an open-top. This is the last thing I have to fix, but I've been too busy!
My Miata has almost no mileage, less than my rental car. I also have three cars and two bikes and no time to use them.
Will the Miata be the first of your personal projects after you stop?
Yes. First job is the Miata. I have to fix 'scuttle shake' [chassis vibration typical in convertibles]. Then I'm thinking of purchasing some reasonably-priced accelerometers, putting them on the Miata, acquire data into the PC and doing nodal analysis.
I was a professional analyst of vibrations back in the 1980s. I developed nodal analysis software and it was sold to automotive companies worldwide. It was pretty good business. Then I used the tools I had already developed to analyse my own car.
The next job after that is a bike. This is my baby. A RD250LC from back in 1981. I still have some problems with it. The last Christmas card I drew showed this bike doing a stoppie! And then another bike has some heating problems. Pretty shabby design for the cooling system. Sometimes it is overcooled in winter and overheats in summer. I'd like to fix that.
Do you ever look for commercial opportunities when you come up with improvements?
No. It's just for my own enjoyment. And bragging: 'My bike is better!'
I am also a painter and cartoon artist and I want to spend more time doing 3D solid-model sculptures, with computer graphics, as well as making actual wooden sculptures. At the same time I would like to enjoy skiing and snowmobiling. I have a lot of things to do.
I have enjoyed my life and I want to continue enjoying it in the future.
In terms of MotoGP's future, what will be important, technically, in the new 1000cc class?
In 2012, with the strong regulations that are coming, we will have to focus on fuel efficiency. That will be the big thing with the one-litre bikes and be the main difference from the 2006 [990cc] bikes. So for the electronic control system we have lots of things to do. That will be the key.
Otherwise a bike is a bike - always two-wheels, one chassis, one engine.
Given your background in vibration analysis, did you ever consider the use of carbon fibre for the Yamaha chassis or swingarm?
Some of the engineers thought about using carbon fibre, but for me no. Carbon fibre is very good for keeping rigidity and it is very lightweight. But for a motorcycle I don't think it is so good.
When you lean over 45 degrees there is almost no suspension, so you need some flexibility in the frame. And with carbon fibre it is really hard to control stiffness. For carbon fibre the stiffer it is, the better, which is why it is perfect for a Formula One chassis.
So how do you find the right balance between enough chassis flex and too much flex?
We do analysis, simulation and also experimental tests to acquire real data, which we feed into the simulation software to help improve the accuracy. But it can be difficult to get right.
This is one of the keys to a good chassis: You must have smooth stiffness changes from the steering head to the rear.
In 2006 we made a mistake with the chassis. We designed a chassis that was much more flexible on the lateral side, but to do that we needed to make some parts with a thin cross-section [so that they would flex more] which can be pretty hard.
So instead of decreasing the stiffness of these parts, we reduced the thickness of the frame in the middle. Point-to-point the overall stiffness was the same, but now the distribution of the stiffness was not 'smooth' and not changing in a consistent way along the bike.
That makes for a pretty bad chatter problem. Chatter is not a linear problem. It is self-excited vibrations. Once it starts, more and more vibrations happen and finally you have a big problem.
One of the solutions is to keep continuous stiffness changes from the head to the rear. Even then you can still get some chatter, but not so much.
So, in the future, what we really need is a damping force for the chassis, but so far that is not so successful. Sometimes we tried a performance damper like on my Miata. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
This chatter phenomenon is probably the last remaining problem to be cracked by motorcycle engineers.
End of interview.