The curious reason that could save the MotoGP career of Takaaki Nakagami

Could Ai Ogura miss out on LCR Honda 2023 MotoGP seat over fears an uncompetitive bike could mirror Gardner-Fernandez flops on difficult KTM?

Takaaki Nakagami, Ai Ogura

MotoGP may be back in action following its summer hiatus, but as we look ahead to the races that will ultimately decide this year’s title race, things beyond that in 2023 remain very much up in the air.

Indeed, while MotoGP has traditionally arranged its affairs with regards to rider signings well before the mid-season break, as of now there remain as many question marks on the 2023 MotoGP entry list as there are ticked boxes.

In reality, this is a touch misleading since several of seats are missing just a formal public confirmation, such as Joan Mir at Repsol Honda, Johann Zarco at Pramac Ducati, Pol Espargaro at Tech 3 KTM and Jorge Martin/Enea Bastianini at Factory or Pramac Ducati.

Then again, without that sacred press release, then there is every chance things can still change…

Take LCR Honda for example, which has filled one of its seats for 2023 with Suzuki exile Alex Rins. However, while many have been tipping Honda-backed Moto2 title contender Ai Ogura to land the other for several months now, there is growing speculation the Japanese firm will actually retain Takaaki Nakagami.

Such an announcement will likely come as a surprise for the many who have been attaching Ogura to the Idemitsu-backed LCR Honda ride since last year. Or put another way, since he began impressing during his rookie Moto2 season and Nakagami’s MotoGP form hit the skids.

It’s a trend that has continued in their respective directions this season with Ogura scoring his first Moto2 win amid a serious title challenge, while Nakagami struggles have not only continued but they have also been peppered with bruising mistakes and crashes.

With this in mind, it is hard to imagine why Honda would possibly keep Nakagami over arguably the most exciting Japanese rider to grace the GP ranks since the late Dajiro Kato.

And yet there are possible reasons… although they are not what you might expect.

Why would Honda pick Nakagami over Ogura for 2023 MotoGP?

Put simply, Honda wants to protect its homegrown superstar-in-waiting.

Indeed, there is currently no getting away from what has evolved into a desperately disappointing season for Honda. While the absence of its talisman - and lead steer - in Marc Marquez has certainly left its mark, the reality of Honda’s issues run a lot deeper..

Two disappointing seasons in 2020 and 2021 led to a radical rethink of the RC213V prototype, but despite a promising start to the season in Qatar, progress has stalled to such an extent that Honda’s four riders have managed just a single top ten finish between them… and even then that was a run to tenth place.

Trouble is, Honda is now committed to a new design philosophy it clearly hasn’t understood as yet and such is the size of the hurdle HRC is now attempting to overcome, a competitive quick fix in time for the 2023 season is questionable.

As such, placing Ogura on the LCR bike next season could see a rookie with huge potential lumbered with an uncompetitive bike in a role that would be part-racer, part-inexperienced development rider.

It’s a scenario that bears resemblance to that of Tech 3 Racing’s Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez, whose ‘newbie’ credentials have been exposed on a KTM RC16 package that has struggled for competitiveness.

Coming a year after Gardner and Fernandez trounced every rival en route to a dominant first and second in the 2021 Moto2 standings, their flaccid rookie campaigns on lacklustre machinery have reportedly been referenced by Honda bosses as a red flag it wants to avoid with Ogura.

With this in mind, retaining Nakagami begins to make more sense. Now in his fifth season of MotoGP, Nakagami has strung better results together than Repsol counterpart Pol Espargaro and LCR team-mate Alex Marquez, two riders who will venture to pastures new for next season.

That leaves a lot of responsibility on Espargaro’s anticipated successor Mir to pick up the baton of development on an unfamiliar bike, while question marks over Marquez’s fitness piles more pressure on Honda to hold off on promoting Ogura in order to give him a bike capable of his talents in 2024.

While Ogura might baulk at the prospect of another season in Moto2 - especially if he wins the title - history suggests champions who have stayed put can benefit from this with the likes of Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco successfully defending their intermediate crowns before heading onto successful MotoGP careers.

With the decision behind closed doors understood to have been made during the Suzuka 8 Hours, a public announcement will likely come in the run up to the Japanese MotoGP at Motegi.