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14 Mar 2006
Q&A: SHINYA NAKANO

2006 marks Shinya Nakano's third season aboard the Ninja ZX-RR, and the 28-year-old Kawasaki rider has already impressed during pre-season testing. Consistently in the top three fastest riders during tests in Malaysia, Australia and Spain, Nakano heads for Jerez, and the first race of the season, determined to put Kawasaki back on the podium where they belong.

Q: This will be your third season with Kawasaki in MotoGP, but how have things changed since you first joined the team, and does the continuity give you an advantage over riders that have changed teams over the winter?

A: The team around me have been virtually the same since I joined in 2004, but the difference now is that I know them a lot better, and I also have a good understanding of how everyone works.

This means communication is a lot better within the team. The same is also true of the Kawasaki engineers in Japan, with whom I've built up a strong relationship over the past two seasons. This relationship has led to trust on both sides, with the engineers trusting me to give them the information they need to continue their development programme, and I trust them completely to interpret my feedback in a way that leads to improvements to my Ninja ZX-RR.

Because I understand better Kawasaki's way of working, and they understand what I need in terms of the bike, I do think it gives us a small advantage over those riders who, this season, will have to go through the learning process with a new team.

Q: How has you preparation for the 2006 season differed to that of previous years?

A: Physically I'm better prepared this season. Last year I started working with a professional physical trainer, and we've continued working on my physical fitness over the winter and between tests.

As a result, I head into the new season better prepared physically than before, and the difference is noticeable when I'm on the bike, especially during testing when we can be riding for seven or eight hours a day.

It's a confidence thing really. When the going gets tough I just think back to some of the hard training sessions I've done over the winter and that gives me the confidence to continue; I've done it before, so I can do it again.

Physical fitness alone doesn't make you faster, but it does allow you to go faster for longer, which means you can push yourself as hard at the end of a race as you can at the start, and that's an important advantage.

Q: And how do you prepare yourself mentally for racing? Are you a rider who spends hours in his hotel room the night before thinking through every aspect of the race ahead?

A: You only have to look at someone like Valentino Rossi to see what a strong mental approach to each race can achieve. Improving my mental approach is something that I'm constantly working on, because it is so important.

As for thinking my way through the race, yes, I do think about race strategy the night before, but not in too much detail. The situation during a race changes rapidly, and you need to be able to adapt to take advantage of these changes.

If you spend too much time mentally mapping your race beforehand, then I think you can lose the ability to react to what's going on around you. You can find yourself keeping to your carefully thought out game plan instead of taking advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

Q: For this year Kawasaki has produced a completely new bike, which you've tested extensively over the winter. How has the bike been improved, and how competitive is it now compared to the rest of the field?

A: When Kawasaki told me they would make a new bike for 2006, I asked them not to make too many big changes, as last year's bike had many positive points. So, while the 2006 Ninja ZX-RR is completely new in every respect, it still shares a lot in common with last year's bike. It's more of an evolution than a revolution.

As a result we've ended up with a bike that retains the positive points of previous versions, but also offers significant improvements in a number of key areas.

When I first tried the new bike in Malaysia at the end of last year I was extremely impressed by the handling, and it was very easy to match my race lap times on the new bike straight away.

The new engine is also a big improvement over the old in terms of power, but it is also easier to ride. For example, we now have more over rev, which means that gearbox selection is less critical and you have more gear options when you're on track.

Instead of maybe having to change up the gearbox for a particular part of a circuit, it's now possible to stay in a lower gear and use the additional revs. We use a very efficient quick shifter on the Kawasaki, but even the fastest gear change loses you time, so the fewer gear changes you have to make the better.

Overall, the Ninja ZX-RR is a much more competitive package this year and, as we've seen from the overseas and IRTA tests, we've closed the gap on the other manufacturers quite significantly.

Q: Your lap times, and those of your teammate Randy de Puniet, have certainly been impressive during testing, but how do these times relate to race performance?

A: The important lap times to look at are not the ones done on qualifying tyres at the end of each day, but the times that are being achieved consistently on race tyres.

In the past we've come away from winter testing knowing that we are over a second off the pace going into the first race, but this year has been very different.

This year we've been running consistently in the top three on race tyres during testing, and this is what counts when it comes to predicting race performance. Based on the winter test times, I'm confident that we are now capable of running right at the front of the races. I'm also fairly confident that a podium finish is now a realistic possibility at more than one track this year.

Q: How much of this improvement is a result of Bridgestone's development programme over the winter months?

A: Tyre performance is absolutely critical in MotoGP, and Bridgestone have made some big steps forward over the winter. Last year we struggled at a couple of circuits, but Bridgestone has addressed the problems we had very quickly and the results during winter testing have been very positive.

I guess this is partly a result of the fact that this is Kawasaki's third season on Bridgestone tyres. Now they know what we need in terms of tyres, compared to the other Bridgestone teams, and we are able to communicate our requirements to them a lot more easily now we understand how they work.

Q: Your winter test schedule has been intensive, starting almost as soon as the last season ended. How hard physically is testing extensively during the winter, and how difficult is it to stay motivated?

A: Sure, it's not easy to maintain concentration and motivation when you're testing for three or four days at a time, starting early in the morning and only finishing when the track closes in the evening.

Testing in Malaysia is particularly difficult, mainly because of the conditions. It's hot, it's humid and the circuit itself is extremely demanding physically. Also, it's normally the first test of the year, so you haven't had the opportunity to prepare under less demanding conditions beforehand.

But, after seven years in Grand Prix, I've figured out how to manage the testing, so that it is possible to maintain concentration throughout the long days. Also, I've learned how important it is to rest between tests, so that you have a chance to recover fully before taking to the track again.

Of course, maintaining concentration and motivation has been a little easier this year, because we've seen improvements in the bike at every test. When you can see your lap time improving during every session, it provides a very strong incentive to keep pushing. It's certainly a lot easier than when expected improvements don't materialise, but you just have to keep on racking up the laps.

Q: How do you view Randy de Puniet's arrival in the team, and how important is it that you beat your teammate?

A: Randy has surprised me a little with how quickly he's adapted to the Ninja ZX-RR, and how fast he's been from the start of testing. The same is also true of some of the other riders who've moved up from the 250cc class, like Dani Pedrosa.

Both Randy and I came up from the 250cc class, so our riding styles are quite similar, as are our settings on the bike. To have two riders so similar is good for the team and for Bridgestone, as we are both pushing for the same thing. In the past my style and that of my teammate has been very different, which means we've been asking different things from both the bike and the tyres. Now we're heading in the same direction with both, and that is easier for everyone I think.

I'm happy that I have a strong teammate like Randy, but I don't tend to concentrate so much on what my teammate is doing - unless he's in front of me. Sure, I am aware of his lap times during testing, and it's good to have someone pushing you on the same bike, but my aim is to beat everyone, not just my teammate.

Q: What are your aims for the coming season in terms of results?

A: I've finished tenth in the championship standings for the last two years, so my first aim is to finish higher in 2006, ideally in the top five.

I'm also looking forward to battling for position at the front of the race, when in the past I've been left to fight it out in the second or third group of riders because the leaders have made a break at the front.

I think the podiums will come this year, which is a good thing because I'm missing the champagne. I've not tasted podium champagne since Motegi in 2004, and I'm starting to get withdrawal symptoms now!

Q: At which tracks do you think your chances of a podium finish are best this year?

A: Jerez is a good track for me and for the Ninja ZX-RR. I had a good result in the race last year, and we also had a good IRTA test at the circuit as well. So, I'd have to say that Jerez could be one of the places where we have the best chance of a podium finish.

Sachsenring is another possibility, as the characteristics of the circuit suit the Ninja ZX-RR. Also, our team is based in Germany, so it would be good to finish on the podium at the team's home race.

And then there is Malaysia, a circuit we know intimately through testing, and one that we've gone well at in the past. It may be viewed as a power track, and the two long straights certainly reward outright top speed, but tyres are of critical importance because of the heat and humidity, and I think our Bridgestone tyres offer something of an advantage at Sepang.

Also, I'd like to think I can go well at Motegi in my home race. Motegi isn't a track that suits the Ninja ZX-RR particularly, but I'm hoping the strong home support I get when I race there will be worth a couple of tenths of a second per lap!

Source: Kawasaki Racing Team website
 
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