The old adage about not judging a book by its cover seems particularly apt after the first day at Qatar. Fans and followers were hoping the changes made over the winter might shake things up a little, but they weren’t expecting a revolution.
At the top of the timesheets in MotoGP sits Aleix Espargaro on the Open class Forward Yamaha, nearly half a second ahead of the rest. In second place was Alvaro Bautista, not on an Open bike, but on a satellite Honda. Bautista, in turn, was ahead of three other satellite machines, Tech 3’s Bradley Smith leading Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone, with the other Tech 3 bike of Pol Espargaro behind.
The first factory rider (that’s factory rider, not Factory Option) was Dani Pedrosa in 6th, over a second behind the Open class bike of Aleix. Valentino Rossi in 7th, on the factory Movistar Yamaha, could only just hold off former teammate Colin Edwards on the other Forward Yamaha. Even Nicky Hayden was just a tenth off the pace of Rossi, despite the Drive M7 Aspar rider being on the production RCV1000R Honda, a bike which was giving away over 12 km/h to the M1 of Rossi.
Has the revolution finally arrived? Has the Open class turned MotoGP on its head? Not really, though that didn’t stop the bookmakers from shortening the odds of an Aleix Espargaro win from 51/1 down to 11/1. The first page of MotoGP’s 2014 chapter is deceptive, as the Open and satellite bikes all have a head start.
At the notoriously dusty and low-grip track, it takes time to get the bikes dialed in, and the factory riders, fresh from testing at the ultra-high-grip Phillip Island circuit are suffering a Qatari culture shock. The satellite and Open bikes have already spent three days testing here, and have both the setup and the feeling of the track under control.
MotoGP fans have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of this weekend’s final round of the championship. The race has everything: a mental Moto3 race to be decided outright by the rider who wins, with just five points separating Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales, and Alex Rins.
There is the triumphant homecoming for a newly crowned Moto2 champion, Pol Espargaro wearing a positively regal helmet to celebrate, while his title rival Scott Redding wears special leathers and helmet thanking the Marc VDS Racing team who have stood behind him for the past four seasons
And then there is the shootout for the MotoGP championship, between Jorge Lorenzo, a man with nothing to lose, and Marc Marquez, who has to balance between riding hard enough to keep the bike working properly and not taking any unnecessary risks, while ensuring he comes home in fourth, something which sounds easier than it is.
There were even a couple of sideshows: the presentation of the Honda RCV1000R production racer, and Yamaha’s annual technical presentation, in which they brief the media on how they have developed the bike to be so competitive.
All that is forgotten. Valentino Rossi’s shock announcement on Thursday that he had told long-term crew chief Jeremy Burgess that he wanted to replace him with someone else has dominated the headlines, as well as the hearts and minds of almost everyone in the paddock. In the search for the elusive last couple of tenths of a second which separate Rossi from the three Spanish superstars who have dominated the 2013 season, the Italian is leaving no stone unturned.
Even the most secularist and rationalist motorcycle racing fan must by now be thinking that there is some kind of supernatural force at work trying to prevent MotoGP from happening at Motegi.
It started in 2010, when the race scheduled for April had to be moved back to October because of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland sent a massive cloud of ash into the skies over Europe which suspended all air flights just as the MotoGP teams were ready to fly to Japan.
In 2011, on the weekend of the Qatar MotoGP season opener, the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, sending a devastating tsunami towards Japan destroying the coastal regions, then throwing in a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for good measure.
So it came as no surprise that the first day of practice at Motegi ended up being scrapped due to the weather conditions. You could even say that to only have the first day of practice canceled was a lucky break, as earlier in the week it had looked like a typhoon could have blown through the area and forced the entire event to be called off. Instead, the typhoon track moved further east than expected, sparing Japan the worst of the wind and rain.
After losing the first day of practice at Motegi to the weather, Race Direction has announced contingency plans for a schedule to allow practice, qualifying and the races to be run at the Japanese circuit however the weather turns out.
With rain set to continue on Saturday morning, but clear up on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, schedules have been drawn up to take account of all the possible combinations of weather.
The problem is not the rain, it is the fog and low-hanging clouds, Race Director Mike Webb explained in a press conference at Motegi. Because of the location of the Twin Ring circuit, set in a bowl up in the hills in the Tochigi district in Japan, the combination of heavy clould and relatively weak winds saw the surrounding hills cloaked in cloud.
That cloud, and the reduced visibility it caused, meant that the medical helicopter, which is required to transport injured riders to the nearest hospital, was not allowed to fly, Japanese aviation law preventing helicopters flying in such circumstances. The helicopter had not yet arrived at the circuit, being stationed a few minutes flight time away.
Without the medical helicopter, practice could not be run safely, as the hospital designated by the chief doctor at the circuit is an hour away by road. Should a rider sustain a severe or life-threatening injury, they could not be transported to the hospital quickly enough to ensure proper care, Webb explained.
The lack of visibility was why Friday practice had been postponed all day, rather than canceled right away. Practice could not go ahead without the helicopter on site, but it was waiting on standby for permission from the Japanese aviation authority, ready to fly to the circuit as soon as they were given clearance. The cloud never lifted enough for the helicopter to be allowed to fly, however, and in the end, practice had to be called off.
All Friday practice sessions for the Japanese Grand Prix in Motegi have been cancelled due to safety concerns caused by adverse weather conditions. Heavy fog along with constant rain and low cloud cover have hovered over the circuit since the early morning and have failed to clear throughout the afternoon.
After the eventful Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, the MotoGP paddock heads to Japan, hoping for a slightly quieter weekend. It looks like they may well get their wish, thanks to the weather predicted for the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi.
Typhoon Francisco, an intense tropical depression, is set to hit the Islands of Japan this weekend, blowing through on Friday night and departing by Saturday afternoon. With Francisco forecast to dump large quantities of rain in the region around Motegi, free practice could well be a washout, with the rain only letting up on Saturday afternoon.
If anyone was in doubt that Jorge Lorenzo was a man on a mission at Phillip Island, his first few laps of the newly resurfaced circuit should have served to remove any doubt. Lorenzo bolted out of pit lane as soon as the lights turned green, and was soon setting a scorching pace.
By the time he had finished his first run of laps, he had already broken the existing race lap record, and had got into the 1’29s. He finished the morning creeping up on the 1’28s, before going on to start lapping in the 1’28s and dominate the afternoon session as well.
Lorenzo came to Australia to win, let there be no doubt about that. He knows it is his only chance, and even then, he knows that even that will not be enough, and he will need help from Marc Marquez. “The objective is to win the race, and if I win, that will delay Marc’s chance to take the title, but it will depend on his result,” Lorenzo told the Spanish media.