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.
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.
Earlier this morning, Marc Marquez tweeted the following in Spanish to his Twitter followers: “Special helmet and shirt for a special GP in Japan, at home!!! ;) Do you like?” and attached the above photo to the message.
The intent is clear, Marquez hopes to clinch the 2013 MotoGP Championship while at the home grand prix for HRC, at track Honda owns no less. While Honda brass would surely love such a coup, we hope someone takes young Marc aside and explains something about his T-shirt.
After the farcical yet compelling Australian Grand Prix, the Grand Prix paddock heads north to Japan for the last of the three overseas races. The contrast could not be greater: from unusually warm weather at the magnificent, sweeping Phillip Island circuit, it is cold and very wet conditions which greet the riders at Motegi, a circuit dominated by stop-and-go corners with little rhythm to it.
While almost every rider on the grid adores Phillip Island, you would be hard pressed to find a rider not holding a Japanese passport with any affection for Motegi. The challenges the riders face are mainly of physical endurance, with very few spots testing their mettle and skill.
Adding the test of endurance will be the weather this weekend. Though Typhoon Francisco has now weakened to a tropical storm and is forecast to pass much further south than was feared, large amounts of rain are still expected at Motegi, especially on Friday evening and Saturday morning.
While all of practice looks set to be wet, at least the riders will get some practice, as early forecasts had suggested that several, if not all, sessions could be a complete washout. For now, it just looks like the riders will be cold and rather wet. That could add to some real excitement at the Japanese circuit. The championship is still far from decided in all three classes, after the surprises at Phillip Island stirred up the title fight.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island – likely to be known henceforth as ‘The Debacle Down Under’ – taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez’s disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez’s crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew.
Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn’t come in to swap bikes, but Marquez’s inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner’s crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez’s team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it’s over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. “We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],” Marquez said, but the plan had backfired.
“The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,” Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.