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In 13 years of professional Grand Prix racing, Harald Eckl honed not only his skills as a rider, but also as a manager and racing engineer. At a time when motorcycle manufacturers provided only the technical base, and competitive speed and horsepower depended largely on the initiative and ingenuity of the teams, Eckl always shone with ultra-fast and painstakingly prepared motorcycles, as well as a flawless professionalism in the public presentation of his team.

After achieving his own sporting successes with two German 250cc titles, a victory at the famous Daytona Speedweek and regular top ten finishes as one of the best privateers in the Grand Prix paddock, Eckl moved on to lead a factory-backed 125cc team in the World Championship. He was an easy choice as a partner for Kawasaki when they came to base their World Superbike and World Supersport team in Europe.

After taking over the reins in 1997, Eckl's team not only won the World Supersport title, but also maintained its key role as one of the frontrunners of the World Superbike class, despite increasingly tough competition from rule advantaged 1000cc twin-cylinder machines. Eckl's unique combination of technical and managerial skills, together with more than two decades of racing experience, made him the ideal choice to spearhead Kawasaki's return to Grand Prix racing in 2003.

2005 marks Eckl's third full season as Team Manager of Kawasaki's MotoGP team. We caught up with him during a busy pre-season test to find out what his hopes and plans are for the season ahead.

Q: The MotoGP winter break seems to get shorter each year, but did you manage to spend some down time between the final race of the 2004 season at Valencia and the start of pre-season testing for 2005 in Malaysia?

A: Actually, I've had to take it a little bit easy for a while as a result of getting away for a few days in January. I managed to fit in a short skiing trip that turned out to be even shorter than I expected when I crashed heavily and broke my shoulder; a great start to the New Year! But, even when I'm on holiday, I find myself in front of the computer organising our plans for the 2005 season more frequently that I'd expected.

Q: And what exactly are the Kawasaki Racing Team's plans in what will be the team's third season of MotoGP competition.

A: We'd obviously like to improve on Shinya's top ten finish in last year's championship standings but, realistically, if we can achieve the same result in 2005 then I guess we'd have to be relatively happy with that. Obviously our rivals will also be pushing hard for better results, so I do not underestimate how difficult it is going to be for us this coming season.
Having said that, if all the projects and ideas currently being developed by Kawasaki come to fruition then I'm sure we'll have a successful season.

Q: It seems that the main focus of all the manufacturers currently competing in MotoGP is on engine development. Is the same true of Kawasaki and the Ninja ZX-RR for the 2005 season?

A: In my opinion engine development is central to progress, not just to Kawasaki in MotoGP but to all teams competing in any form of motorsport. But engine development alone is no guarantee of success; the motor needs to be developed in parallel with the chassis and other components as an overall package if success is to be achieved at this level.

As a former rider I am aware that the development of a successful motor is primarily a matter of deciding the priorities and understanding the balance between the mechanical design and the electronic control of the engine. It is up to our development engineers to find this compromise and then present our riders with an overall package they can race competitively.

The fact that an engine with a revised firing order - the Big Bang concept - appears to offer more feel to the rider and makes it easier for them to get the most from the bike is a popular subject for discussion in the MotoGP paddock at the moment. Obviously, Kawasaki engineers are looking at the feasibility of a Big Bang motor, but they also have a number of different concepts that they're currently evaluating.

Q: It sounds like the development programme has been ongoing over the winter, but what can we expect to see in terms of design changes when the Ninja ZX-RR appears for the first race for 2005?

A: With the 2005 bike it's been a case of evolution rather than revolution. The 2004 chassis worked extremely well, so the aim has been to continue improvements in certain areas while retaining the overall performance of the chassis.

Q: While the team remains mostly unchanged from last year, there have been some additions to your technical staff, with Ichiro Yoda and Fiorenzo Fanali both joining the team from Yamaha for this season.

A: I am delighted to welcome such professional people into our team, their track record and experience makes me very confident for the future.

Yoda-san is one of the most respected engineers in the MotoGP paddock and I'm confident that he will make a significant contribution to our development programme, working with the engineers and riders to take us to the next step.

Fiorenzo Fanali will work with Shinya Nakano this year and I think that will be a very positive experience for Shinya. Fiorenzo is very experienced and one of the old school of engineers and crew chiefs, with a good understanding of how to get the best from his rider.

In this way I would compare him to Yamaha's Jerry Burgess, because he works on the practical as well as the theoretical side, and he knows that a rider’s brain is not a computer. Riders are still mainly guided by feeling and this is where Fiorenzo will be of assistance to Shinya.

And it is important to note that Christophe Bourguignon will continue his excellent work with Alex Hofmann. They formed a strong team in 2004 and Christophe is highly respected in the sport and was integral to our success last season.

I think overall we will have a very strong support crew in the pit box on race weekends.

Q: Shinya Nakano was inspirational in 2004, finishing tenth in the championship and scoring a historic first podium for the Ninja ZX-RR at Motegi. What are your thoughts on Kawasaki's lead rider?

A: Shinya's performance and results were exceptional, both for himself and for Kawasaki. I think he showed everyone just how critical the contribution of a rider can be to the overall success of a team at this level.

I would even go as far as to say that Shinya's arrival in our team had the same positive effect that Yamaha experienced when Valentino Rossi joined them at the beginning of 2004. Shinya's professionalism and his approach to both testing and racing has definitely been a motivating factor for everyone in our team.

Q: Alex Hofmann faced a steep learning curve during his first full season in MotoGP last year, but what is your assessment of the young German's performance in his rookie season aboard the Ninja ZX-RR?

A: On a number of occasions last year, the Malaysian GP at Sepang being one, Alex showed his potential and maybe even surprised himself. Staying with Kawasaki for a second year will give Alex the consistency and stability he needs, and it is important for him this season to show everyone what he learned in 2004.

He needs to show consistency, and I’m very positive that he can do it. There will be more pressure on Alex this year, more from himself than the team because I’m sure he feels he wants to achieve more and reach his goals; he’s not a rookie anymore.

He understands this and can handle it. He really wants to succeed. I definitely think it is good for a young rider like Alex to have a team-mate like Shinya, who shows what is possible and sets an excellent example for everyone in the team.

Q: And no doubt you'll be looking for Shinya Nakano to be back on the podium at some point this season?

A: And why not? Although I don't underestimate our rivals, I think there will be races this year where we have a package with the Ninja ZX-RR and our Bridgestone tyres that will give Shinya the opportunity to demonstrate his talent. As I've mentioned previously, results are still heavily influenced by the rider and Shinya definitely has that capability, as he showed in Motegi last year.

Q: The 2005 calendar is very busy, with new races in America and China being added to the schedule. As the manager of a factory team what is the importance of this MotoGP expansion?

A: I think everyone has been waiting for a MotoGP race in America; it is a very important market, not only for the sport, but for all motorcycle manufacturers. It’s the biggest bike market in the world.

And Laguna Seca is the ideal venue. I remember from taking the Kawasaki team to the World Superbike Championship races at Laguna that this track has a special atmosphere. China has huge potential for the commercial future of the sport, and it is important that we expose both the Kawasaki brand and MotoGP to as many new markets as possible.

Source: Kawasaki Racing Team
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