Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo’s ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over.
There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian’s results and say “but Casey won on the Ducati.”
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi’s time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. “Valentino,” yet another journalist would ask each race, “Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can’t you?”
Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: “Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can’t ride that way.”
More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed.
Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been “a bit frightening,” Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi.
The events of the previous MotoGP race at Aragon look set to have a major impact on tracks around the world in the near future. The crashes by Valentino Rossi and Andrea Iannone, both of whom lost control of their bikes when they hit the still wet astroturf which lines the outside of the outer kerbs, caused the subject to be raised in the MotoGP Safety Commission at Motegi.
There, the Safety Commission decided to ask the circuits hosting MotoGP races to remove all of the astroturf from the run off areas around the track. Dorna Managing Director Javier Alonso told the MotoGP.com website that they would start talks with circuits to get them to remove the astroturf as soon as possible, starting with the most dangerous parts of the tracks.
The decision is a complete reversal of the earlier policy devised by the Safety Commission, the closed and private forum in which MotoGP riders can discuss safety issues and other concerns with the FIM and Dorna.
As a result of a previous request, tracks had started putting in astroturf on the run off areas. That was in response to changes made primarily for car racing, where gravel traps on the outside of corners have been replaced with hard standing, such as asphalted areas. The astroturf was put in place to prevent riders using the run off as extra race track, allowing them to take corners faster.
Part of the Japanese round of MotoGP always seems to involve learning a new name for a natural phenomenon. In 2010, we heard of Eyjafjallajökull for the first time, the volcano which awoke from under its ice cap and halted air travel in large parts of Europe and Asia.
We laughed as newsreaders and MotoGP commentators tried to pronounce the name of the Icelandic volcano and ice cap, and the race was moved from the start of the season to October.
A year later, in April 2011, it was Tōhoku that was the name on everyone’s lips. The massive earthquake which shook Japan and triggered an enormous tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power station.
Again the Motegi race was moved to October, by which time the incredible resilience and industriousness had the track ready to host the MotoGP circus. 2012 turned out to be a relatively quiet year, but 2013 saw the tail end of typhoon Francisco ravage the region, causing the first day and a half of practice to be lost to fog and rain.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 round of MotoGP at Motegi teaches us yet another new name. This time it is Vongfong, a category 5 super typhoon which threatens the race in Japan.
Given Marc Marquez’s dominance of the 2014 MotoGP championship, the question is not if, but when he will wrap up his second title in a row.
His original aim had been to win the title in front of his home crowd at Aragon, but crashes at Misano, and then Aragon, put an end to that idea.
With a massive lead in the championship, Marquez heads to the flyaway races with his primary aim shifted from winning at all costs, to making sure he returns to Spain and the final round of the series with the title already safely under his belt.
Motegi is the first opportunity for Marquez to take the title, and wrapping it up there would please his HRC bosses, as the circuit is owned by Honda and operated by a subsidiary.
But it is not a simple question of turning up and finishing, the reigning champion will have to ensure his rivals do not gain too much back on him if he is to lift the crown there.
The first major change to the 2014 MotoGP schedule has been announced. Though the dates remain the same, the order of the Asian flyaway triple header has been reshuffled, with Sepang moving from first of the three to last.
The Grand Prix classes will now head to Japan first, for the Japanese GP at Motegi on 12th October, before heading south to Australia for the Phillip Island round a week later, on 19th October. The weekend after that the MotoGP paddock visits Malaysia, for the last of the three overseas races at Sepang on 26th October.
There have been occasions over the past few years when I have asked Nicky Hayden how he manages to find the motivation to keep racing every Sunday. His answer is always the same, whether I have asked him after a surprise podium, or after coming in tenth: “You never know what can happen in the race. That’s why we line up.”
Hayden is living testament to his own deeply driven mixture of ambition, hope, and determination. His 2006 championship was won against the odds, and against the greatest rider of the period at the height of his powers.
Sunday’s races at Motegi – indeed, the races at all three of the flyaways – have been a shining example of the vicissitudes of racing. In all three classes, the presupposed script was torn up and thrown away.
In Moto3, young men facing pressure made major mistakes. In Moto2, one astounding comeback met with disaster, another astounding comeback met with triumph, and a championship. And in MotoGP, the champion-elect as of a couple of races ago is finding himself having to fight for his title. The season is only over once everyone crosses the line for the last time at Valencia.