The former Honda and Suzuki team boss analyses the new HRC Technical Manager’s arrival at the famous factory
HRC’s signing of Ken Kawauchi as their new Technical Manager is one of the most talked-about personnel changes within the MotoGP™ paddock for quite some time. Kawauchi is highly thought of up and down the grid following the key role he played in Suzuki’s 2020 World Championship success. He now steps into a struggling Honda project desperate to reclaim some of their former glory.
As we wait for the season to start, nobody can offer a better insight of what Kawauchi can bring to Honda in 2023 then Livio Suppo. After seven years and five MotoGP™ titles at Honda, and two MotoGP™ victories at Suzuki during his one-year stint as Team Manager, the Italian has a close working relationship with both Kawauchi and the famous Japanese brand.
In an interview with MotoGP.com’s Jack Appleyard, Suppo said he found it “almost impossible to understand” what happened at Honda throughout 2022, as they slipped to the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship after registering just two podium finishes. But the incredibly experienced team boss is confident that Kawauchi has the skillset to make a positive impact.
“Ken was Suzuki’s Technical Director,” started the Italian. “Which means all the team’s technicians had to send their reports to him after every practice and every race. He would lead all the technical meetings, so Ken is very good at collecting information and moving it back to the factory.
“Especially for the Japanese manufacturers, it’s not easy getting the information from the track to the factory and from the factory to the track. This is a really important part of the job in my opinion. It’s crucial that they have the same vision and that the people at the track trust the people back at the factory and vice versa. If they don’t share the same ideas, then it’s a disaster for the development of the bike.
“Knowing that, Ken has two big pluses. First, he’s proved to be very good at his job. Second, he has a very good character. I think that empathy in this kind of job is super important because it’s impossible that the engineers at the track and those at the factory share the same vision all the time. Those at the track can miss something that those in the factory understand and vice versa. So, empathy and the ability to work with both groups is very important and I believe Ken has that.
“I don’t think Ken’s role will be to build a new bike,” continued Suppo when asked what sort of an impact Kawauchi could have at Honda. “I imagine it will be the same as he had in Suzuki and I think he will do a very good job. He will help everybody at HRC to go in the same direction, which is very important. I say the same direction and not the right direction because there’s a big difference.
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"If everyone is working in the same direction, you will understand if it is the correct way or not. If people are working in opposite directions, then nobody will know what’s right and what’s wrong. The bike can be a piece of crap and nobody knows whose fault it is. It’s important not to have an internal war between people who believe their ideas are better than someone else’s ideas.
"What can he bring in the short term? This is a difficult question. In the short term, it will be very important to see how the beginning of the season goes. I believe if the results immediately improve then the atmosphere, the motivation, the feeling of the riders will all improve and then it’s much easier. If it’s not easy at the beginning, I’m not saying it will be impossible, but, of course, it will be more difficult.
"All of the riders in the paddock believe that the Honda isn’t that good, right? One year ago, at the pre-season tests and at the first race in Qatar, if you check the articles from that time they all said Honda is back. Even Pol Espargaro was saying to the media that with this bike we can fight, we’re going in the right direction and so on. But what happened after?
"How does a bike go from finishing on the podium in Qatar, and Pol had the potential to win that race but he was pushing too much at the beginning so didn’t have any tyres at the end, and then, by mid-season, struggle to finish inside the top ten? It’s very strange. Honestly speaking, it’s almost impossible to understand what happened last year.
"Kokubu-san [Shinichi Kokubu, HRC’s Technical Director, pictured above to the right of Kawauchi] has proven he can build a good bike. He was in that same position when I was there and, in 2012 for example when we moved to 1000cc, they built a strong bike so Casey [Stoner], Dani [Pedrosa], Cal [Crutchlow] were all fast. During that time, Nakamoto-san [Shuhei Nakamoto, HRC’s former Vice President] was there and he was vital in keeping everyone in the same direction. I hope, as a friend of both Ken and Kokubu, they can rescue this boat that is right now in a storm, in a very difficult moment."