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Cecchinello: "Crutchlow is the best prepared rider"

LCR Honda Team Manager talks CC35, rookie Nakagami and expectations for 2018 ahead of the Sepang test

LCR Honda’s Team Manager Lucio Cecchinello is one of the paddock’s big hitters. With HRC support and recently having taken two GP wins – in 2016 – the team is one of the most successful Independent outfits in Grand Prix racing. And this season they move from one rider to two, with MotoGP™ rookie Takaaki Nakagami joining the fold. Cal Crutchlow will be riding under LCR Honda Castrol, and Nakagami LCR Honda Idemitsu. So ahead of the Sepang test, Cecchinello sat down with to talk about 2017, the future, and his two riders.

“2017 was a very positive year for us,” says Cecchinello. “We had a satisfying year in different ways. We started well with a podium in Argentina, and Cal reiterated the competitiveness we showed towards the end of 2016. There were a few less positive moments too with things like crashes, but that’s part of the game. Overall, we’re satisfied with the top five results we achieved, and often we were also the best private team.”

Pushed on more detail about the season just gone, Cecchinello points out qualifying as one of the first key positives. “During qualifying we were always excellent,” affirms the Team Manager. “We were always in the top ten. In those races in which we had no technical trouble, we fought in the top five or six. What wasn’t so satisfying was that we struggled to adapt our Honda to Cal’s needs in terms of riding with the Michelins. This season we start with a new base and engine, so we’re aiming to fill those gaps on the technical side and be more consistent.”

The new bike, says Cecchinello, is on the way for Sepang: "The new bike was put together by our technicians in Japan last week. We’re very confident. It’s clear that Cal’s new prototype will be an evolution of the 2017 model. It has a similar but more refined base in several areas. We also have a lot of parts to select and we’ll go on track intending to break-in the new engines and try new parts, such as the Öhlins suspension.” He also adds that Crutchlow will be on the same bike used by the Repsol Honda Team, and Nakagami will ride the spec with which Marc Marquez won the 2017 title.

Crutchlow: "I can help build a bike that everybody can ride"

In terms of the LCR riders, then, what does Cecchinello expect? First, for now-veteran Crutchlow: “I’m confident. Honda has worked a lot on the chassis-engine package. I think that our relationship with HRC, paired with our experience, also gives Cal a good feeling. I think it may be a better season than the past, but to say that it will be better than 2016 would maybe be a bit too daring. But Cal, the bike and the team have all the credentials to finish consistently in the top five and get some podium results. The team’s goal is to be the best satellite team, with our rider in the first four or five in the overall classification.

“I want to be objective and look at the numbers. Cal is a talented rider and as soon as he goes out on track he is immediately quick; he doesn’t need many laps to get on record pace. He’s skilled and when he decides to do a lap, it’s fast. His second strong point is his great attention to physical preparation. When he has race pace he manages to keep it exceptionally well because physically I think he is among the best, if not the best. In terms of improving, look at the numbers. The start of the race. Last year, at lights out, we often lost some positions instead of moving forward. This is because Cal, due to his riding style and how the bike was set up, was often forced to use harder tyres. That can take away the chance to attack at the start. It was a negative point, but one where there’s a clear technical reason why.”

Nakagami: the challenge of moving up to MotoGP™

Next on the agenda is Nakagami. Joining the team from the intermediate category, Cecchinello says it’s a dream come true to have two riders again – having previously done so in 2015. “Together with Honda, we’ve done a great job organising the team and taking the last available place on the grid,” smiles the Italian, whose two-bike team changes the rider count from 23 to 24. “In a joint program, the interest was in offering the opportunity to an Asian rider who had the skills and CV to deserve a place in MotoGP™. Looking at the list of eligible candidates, he was our choice. Nakagami didn’t fight for the Championship in Moto2 but he was one of the top five, won, and got a lot of podiums.”

"Moto2 is, in my opinion, a very difficult category, and Nakagami has always been fast. I don’t have technical information about the difficulties that he had in the class but after his debut in MotoGP ™ we saw that 'the boy' is strong. He rode only a second or so off the best time set by the most experienced riders on the grid on more prepared bikes - in Valencia and Jerez. That gives us a clear idea of ​​his competitiveness. With him we will have to work hard on consistency in races because it’s one thing to be fast with new tyres over a few laps and another to be fast at the end of the race. We’ll see that more clearly in the specific work we’ll do in the next tests. He also has a nice riding position, a great riding style and, analysing the telemetry, we loved how he handles the gas and the brakes. On a personal level, I was also amazed at his way of interacting with the technical staff. I have to say that Okada did a great job preparing him for MotoGP.”

Two riders, two styles, and a new challenge. So how will it work in the new-look LCR team next season?

“The team is made up of two groups working independently, but who share all the information and data,” explains Cecchinello. “That will be useful for Nakagami and, who knows, maybe also for Cal’s engineers. There won’t be any barriers between the two boxes although we do have two different sponsors, and there will be full cooperation within the setup and on the setup of the bikes.”

In terms of targets for his new structure, Cecchinello reiterates his earlier ideas for what he’s looking to achieve with Crutchlow – and says that Nakagami, coming in as a rookie, requires a more objective view.

"With Cal the goal is to get in the top four or five, those are possible. With Nakagami, on the other hand, we must be objective. We’ll see him more often in the positions just in or out of the points, from 15th to 17th in the first part of the season. In the second half of the year, however, I hope he’ll be able to get closer to the top ten. As for a position in the final standings, it would be a nice surprise if he could end the year in the top fifteen in the Championship. I prefer to be realistic: there are five official teams, and that’s already ten riders - then there are Independent Team racers like Zarco and Petrucci who I think are very strong. It’s almost pointless thinking about the top ten. As team manager, I have to be realistic so no one gets frustrated when we need to give the maximum; each of us gives our best.”

Make sure to follow everything from the #SepangTest when it gets underway on Sunday, and keep up to date with Crutchlow and Nakagami’s preseason progress ahead of the first race in Qatar.