Takaaki Nakagami comes on leaps and bounds during the 2020 MotoGP season as he emerges as a surprise Honda team leader despite his year-old machinery

Always destined to be a make-or-break 2020 MotoGP season for Takaaki Nakagami, the Japanese rider not only assured himself of an extended stay at the expense of more experienced team-mate Cal Crutchlow, but was thrust into becoming de facto team leader in Marc Marquez’s absence.

It was quite the change of status for Nakagami in 2020 following a promising sophomore campaign on the LCR Honda, albeit one that didn’t earn him more up to date machinery as he persevered with the Honda RC213V Marquez took to the title a year earlier.

All well and good, but the Marquez-Honda is a particular beast as many - including the three other Honda riders on 2020 machinery - have found previously. And yet, Nakagami made the concerted decision to revert to Marquez’s data and mirror his riding style, a tactic that took on greater pertinence when the Spaniard was injured, leaving a huge void at the helm of the Honda rider line-up.

While Crutchlow should have assumed this status, his own problems elevated Nakagami by default, who nonetheless ran with his newfound prominence with a series of results that belied his aged Honda. 

Always much faster in the second of any back-to-back races and often stronger in race trim - especially towards the end of a race when it’s not unusual to see Nakagami ascending the order late on Suzuki-style - Nakagami’s one lap pace came on leaps and bounds in 2020 too leading to a maiden front row in Austria and a first pole in Aragon.

A season that was predominantly forged on consistency, bizarrely after ten top ten results from ten races Nakagami remained fifth in the standings - only 29 points off the lead - despite having recorded a result no better than fourth. Ironically, the following round at Teruel saw him bin it on the opening lap from pole, a mistake that would be repeated from a strong position in Valencia too.

The untimely errors meant Nakagami slid to tenth in the standings and didn’t get the podium he so badly desires - despite 15 of his rivals achieving that feat in 2020 - but in a line-up that has been all about the Marquez brothers, or Jorge Lorenzo, or Cal Crutchlow, a Japanese rider performing on a Honda was a welcome sight.

On a 2021-spec Honda RC213V next year and with Marquez’s tricks of the trade in his armoury now, he could prove a secret weapon for the Japanese manufacturer.