Marc Marquez left the opening 2016 MotoGP test at Sepang in fifth position, 1.3s from Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo and 'far from where he wanted to be' with the new RCV.

Yet the Repsol Honda star has gone on to build a massive 48-point championship lead by the midway stage of the season, putting the Spaniard firmly on course for a third premier-class crown.

At the German MotoGP Crash.net spoke to Repsol Honda team manager Livio Suppo about the transformation since Sepang, how Marquez has changed as a rider, his biggest threat for this year's crown, the forthcoming retirement of HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto and more...

"The Sepang test was really, really difficult. Mainly because of the new electronics," Suppo began. "For Marquez the improvements we have made to the electronics since have been a big step. Still he is not 100% happy with the bike, but the performance is quite constant.

"On the other side with Dani we are struggling a lot more, especially in practice. Usually in the race he is much faster. The characteristic of the bike does not suit too well his style.

"But honestly speaking the package is better than people think. So we are reasonably happy. Of course we know we need to improve the bike, but it's also true that this season there have been many changes: Tyres, electronics and we also introduced a new engine, totally different from last year."

Marc Marquez celebrates second place at Dutch TT (Pic: Gold & Goose).
Marquez learned from 2015 mistakes

Alongside the technical changes has been a major shift in strategy by Marquez, who has cast off last year's costly all-or-nothing approach to become the only rider in the top six to score in all nine races.

The end result is 56-points more than this time last season, despite only winning one more race (three instead of two).

"Not surprised, I'm really pleased," Suppo replied, when asked if he was impressed by the new tactics from Marquez. "It proves Marc is very intelligent. He has learned a lot.

"Because he had already won two titles everyone forgot how young he is [23]. Last year was only his third season in MotoGP and came after he had dominated the 2014 season. At that age it is normal to think you are unbeatable. And this can make you push a little too much in some races.

"I think he learned the lesson very well, by himself I believe.

"All riders have a super ego and if they don't really understand something for themselves, if they don't really feel 'sick in their stomach' about something, they will not change. So sometimes last year after he fell, Marc was saying 'I will not change'".

So when did the change in Marquez finally occur?

"At the end of last season when you look back and see that with six zeros [non-scores] - six zeros! - you are still third in the championship. It means that with less mistakes, I'm not saying Marc would have been world champion, but for sure he would have fought for the championship to the very end."

Marc Marquez at 2016 Grand Prix of the Americas (Pic: Gold & Goose).
Did Marquez emerge mentally stronger after 2015 controversy?

Following last year's toxic title controversy, Marquez found himself labelled as the villain by Valentino Rossi and his huge following of fans, leading to the most difficult winter of the Spaniard's career.

Indeed, like reigning champion Lorenzo, Marquez was still being booed in the early races of this season and offered bodyguards at Mugello. But did the experience ultimately make him stronger?

"In terms of his approach to the races, I don't think it is connected," Suppo said. "It is more about the fact that he was always pushing to win every race. Then he realised it is impossible to win every race."

Did it show his mental strength though? Having to handle such intense pressure from the fans and media.

"That is another story. Because it is not easy to be against Valentino in this [MotoGP] world. I know very well myself. Valentino has of course done a lot for MotoGP and he deserves all the credit he gets for that. But if you are on the wrong side it is a very, very difficult thing to manage. Probably Marc is more mature now, but as I say this is not related to changing his approach in the races."

Rossi and Marquez finally shook hands again after last month's Catalunya race: "Marc always said he was ready to shake hands because he didn't feel he did anything wrong."

Casey Stoner falls while leading at Brno 2008 (Pic: Gold & Goose).
Mick Doohan sent an email...

Despite a slip-off at Le Mans, Marquez has so far eliminated last year's multiple DNFs. Having addressed his only real weakness, pushing too hard in some races, is he now a 'complete' rider?

"This is all part of the growing process for any rider. In 2008 when Casey crashed in Brno and Misano, I remember Mick Doohan sent an email to me for Casey," said Suppo, who spent eleven years at Ducati before joining Honda in 2010.

"Obviously I can't tell you exactly what was said, but I think every big champion goes through a moment where after a big success they feel untouchable. Then they hit the ground again and the strongest ones come back even stronger.

"Mick in '95 had a difficult start to the season - against Beattie on the Suzuki - and for Casey in '08 it was the same because after Laguna he wanted to show he was stronger than Valentino and he crashed leading two races, in Brno and Misano. That was a similar case to last year with Marc.

"Basically what Mick said is you don't need to win by one minute, it's okay to win by one tenth. So probably all the big champions go through a moment in which they have too much self-confidence, and this is human."

Marc Marquez chases Valentino Rossi in 2016 Catalunya race (Pic: Gold & Goose).
'Valentino is super strong this season'

On paper, Lorenzo is Marquez's closest rival for this year's world championship. But Suppo picked out third in the standings Rossi as a greater threat.

"Valentino is super strong this season," Suppo explained. "He is more competitive than last year. Last year, with all respect, he was leading the championship but there were a lot of mistakes from Marc and Jorge as well.

"This season he seems even stronger than last year. So I don't think he is out. For some reason there are more zeros from the top guys than ever and I don't think Valentino has ever had three zeros in the first half of the championship."

Nevertheless, Suppo feels there are several reasons why the second half of the season could be better than the first for Marquez.

"At Honda they never stop, so in theory the bike will get better and better," he said. "Secondly there are circuits that traditionally suit the characteristics of the Honda and our riders very well. So I think we can hopefully improve the overall performance, not only Marc."

Marc Marquez with large Honda winglets (Pic: Gold & Goose).
Wings don't make a big difference

Turning to technical matters, the Grand Prix Commission recently voted to ban aerodynamic winglets at the end of this season, after the manufacturers failed to agree on a proposal for their safe use - much to Ducati's frustration.

"We were not able to find an agreement in the MSMA. This is quite normal. In the end the Grand Prix Commission said they are potentially dangerous. This is not just what the Japanese manufacturers think, as Gigi [Dall'Igna, Ducati] likes to say, many riders think the same.

"We are also trying to reduce costs with things like the common ECU software, so why open the door to something else?

"On top of this, do we really think wings make a huge difference? I can understand if you have an idea that gives you a huge advantage, you dominate, and then people take it away. Then you are disappointed.

"But in all respect I don't see a big difference in the Ducati from last year to this year."

Marc Marquez celebrates 2014 MotoGP title glory with Shuhei Nakamoto (Pic: Gold & Goose).
'We will miss Nakamoto'

Suppo joined Ducati in 1999 and played a pivotal role in its MotoGP team from 2003 to 2009, including Casey Stoner's historic 2007 title triumph.

HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto then tempted Suppo to Honda, initially as Communications and Marketing director, before being promoted to team principal in 2013.

Nakamoto meanwhile has been at Honda since 1983, working on a range of two and four-wheel racing projects, including F1, before returning to MotoGP in 2009.

Together, Nakamoto and Suppo have overseen title victories for Stoner in 2011 - Honda's first since Nicky Hayden in 2006 - and then Marquez in 2013 and 2014. However, the Japanese will retire after turning 60 on April 29th.

"Nakamoto will retire, this is in the rules of Honda," Suppo confirmed. "For sure we will miss him because he is a good manager and a great guy. We are discussing the new team structure, but I think internally there are people with enough experience, character and open mind to keep the project going successfully."

Asked if he had a particular memory of Nakamoto, Suppo replied:

"Probably the first time I went to Tokyo to speak with him and [Tetsuo] Suzuki-san, who was the HRC president. Until then I'd only spoken to Nakamoto and he had proposed a three-year contract.

"Then at the dinner with Suzuki, Nakamoto said, 'Livio-san, about the three years...' and I was thinking 'now he offers me a one-year deal and it's difficult'. But he said 'three years is not enough for me - five or ten!'

"That is Nakamoto. He'd only met me a few times and offering such a long deal straight away was very important in my decision. I had been working in Ducati for eleven years, but they'd never offered me such a long contract. Nakamoto didn't know me well, but he already trusted me and I felt appreciated.

"I've been lucky in my life because for many years I worked with Filippo Preziosi at Ducati, with whom I had a very good relationship. And still do. Now with Nakamoto as well, I'm very happy to have had 18 years working with a good boss, because it's one of the keys things for your quality of life.

"We will miss him for sure."

By Peter McLaren

 

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