MotoGP Preview of the Japanese GP

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MotoGP’s Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are “The Flyaways”, formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock.

The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.

Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings.

Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.

Conditions, tracks, and cultures, all are different. Buriram lies in the heart of Thailand, a long way from the tourist-filled beaches. Motegi is up in the hills in central Japan, a place where the 21st Century meets a very traditional culture.

Phillip Island can be boiling hot or arctic cold, those two extremes often within 20 minutes of each other on what is essentially a vacation island. Sepang sits next to Kuala Lumpur, the epitome of a fast-growing Asian city, and a hodgepodge of cultures. The contrasts could hardly be greater.

Home Race

The Asian triple header starts in Japan, however, home to the motorcycling manufacturers that have sustained the sport since the mid 1970s. After the loss of Suzuka – considered by track designer Jarno Zaffelli to be the greatest racetrack layout in the world – MotoGP switched to Motegi.

While safer than Suzuka, Motegi faces challenges of its own. At the end of the back straight, where the riders brake from over 300 km/h to around 80 km/h, the walls on the outside are extremely close, and a mistake could have disastrous consequences.

It is worse than Mugello, but like Mugello, Motegi is untouchable: there has to be a Japanese Grand Prix, and Motegi is the best place to hold it.

It is a strange track, not unlike Le Mans in many ways. It starts with three straights joined by four corners, and those four corners are really just two turns split into separate sections. The first part of the track is all about hard acceleration from low gear, hard braking, and holding a tight line to get a strong exit.

It is, if you like, Ducati territory from corner exit, then Honda territory in the braking and cornering zones. From the first gear Turn 5, the track gets a bit more interesting. The riders head under the mighty oval that sits above the road circuit, then pass through the fast Turn 6, the 130R – like all the corners at the track, named after the angle the turn passes through.

Battle Is Opened

The exit of the 130R is crucial, as it sets up the first of a series of passing opportunities. You can attempt to pass into Turn 7 on the brakes, but risk being passed back again as you flick right again for Turn 8. Miss out there, and there is a short run to the tight Turn 9, called V Corner for a reason.

Care is needed on the exit – the walls are close here, and a lack of runoff means there is little room for mistakes. Another quick run takes you to Turn 10, and a hard braking zone to attack going into the hairpin. That can slow you on the exit, though, and losing drive onto the back straight can be very costly indeed.

All is not lost if you are not leading coming out of the hairpin. Get good drive out of the final corner, and you can try to either fire past along the straight, should you have horsepower to spare, or dive inside on the brakes into Turn 11, the 90° Corner. Even if you get outwitted there, you have a final chance, as Marc Márquez demonstrated last year.

Two more lefts before the final turn, a slow right-hander, appropriately named Victory Corner, leading onto the front straight. Victory was not to be for Márquez in 2017, the Repsol Honda rider losing out in his last-ditch attempt to get back past Andrea Dovizioso. But in trying, he had shown clearly why they had given the final corner that name.

Dovizioso vs. Márquez

Motegi was just one in what has become a series of last-lap, last-corner battles between Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez. After Márquez’s victory in Thailand, the score is 3-1 to the Italian, Márquez having lost out previously in Austria, Motegi, and Qatar.

Can Márquez take it to 3-2 at Motegi? That would certainly please his bosses: Motegi is owned by Honda, and the company’s senior management will all be present at the Japanese Grand Prix.

All Márquez has to do to win the title is finish ahead of Dovizioso. Technically, he could win if he only gives up 2 points or less to Dovizioso, but that would involve them both finishing somewhere between fourth and fifteenth, Márquez one or two places behind Dovizioso.

But, given Márquez has not finished outside the top three, with the exception of Argentina and Le Mans, where he did not score points, that is an unlikely scenario, and given the form of the two men, the chances of them arriving at the last corner together vying for victory are high.

Márquez does have an ace up his sleeve this year. This year’s Honda RC213V has more power than the 2017 version, and that has made him more competitive with the Ducati all year.

Dovizioso will not simply be able to wait until the back straight, and then unleash the stampede of Ducati horsepower. If he can control the wheelie out of the hairpin, Márquez can match the Desmosedici GP18 for speed, then use the Honda’s superior brakes to enter Turn 11 ahead.

Just getting to that point will not be easy, however. The battle between the Honda and the Ducati will be played out all the way around the Motegi circuit. In the first half of the track, Dovizioso will try to exploit the astonishing drive of the GP18, while Márquez will look to use the RC213V’s brakes to his advantage. It will be a battle of wits, and a battle of tactics, as they wait for the final laps to make their moves.

Sharpening Their Tools

We should get a taste of what is to come through practice. With dry weather expected for all three days of the Japanese Grand Prix, Friday will be crucial. Expect to see both Márquez and Dovizioso doing longer runs on the available tires, testing to see which will give the most performance at the end of the race.

Just because they don’t end each practice at the top of the timesheets, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t fast. If they do finish at the top of the timesheets, then everyone else should be worried.

Who holds the advantage? Marc Márquez definitely has more to lose coming into Motegi. A 77-point lead is nigh on unassailable with four races left to go, but it does require him to finish. Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, knows that the title is pretty much an impossible objective, and so his only aim is to win.

If he falls at the last corner, in a last-ditch attempt at victory, it will make little difference to his season. The Italian has everything to gain, and little to lose. Dovizioso holds the upper hand, and he knows it.

Spoiler Alert

Under normal circumstances, there would be two riders capable of ruining any plans Márquez and Dovizioso may have. Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa both have very strong records in Japan, and would enter the weekend as favorites for the podium, if not the win. But perhaps not this year.

For Jorge Lorenzo, the issue is injury. The factory Ducati has had nothing but bad luck at the past couple of rounds. At Aragon, he crashed in the first corner, breaking a bone in his foot and and dislocating his big toe. Then in Thailand, the rear wheel of his Ducati locked up, spitting him off and fracturing his wrist.

That injury is worse than he hoped, he said. “Now, with a different view, it looks like a complete fracture,” Lorenzo said. “My feeling now, off the bike, is not very good. But we’ll see what happens on the bike.” Even if he can race, it will not be at full fitness (Editor’s note: Lorenzo has since withdrawn from the Japanese GP because of his wrist injury).

Dani Pedrosa, on the other hand, has a strong record at Motegi, at least, when he doesn’t end up seriously injured. “It’s been a bit of a 50/50 place for me, because sometimes I did very good here, sometimes I had very bad luck,” he told the press conference. He has won at Motegi three times, in 2011, 2012, and 2015, but he has also managed to break his collarbone here twice as well.

What will Motegi bring for Pedrosa? The Spaniard is on an upward trend in recent races. His problem through the year has been getting heat into the rear Michelin, but he and his team have been making progress on that in the second half of the season.

He was on a charge at Thailand which could have seen him battling with the leaders, but a small mistake saw him crash out. With warm and dry weather expected, he should have enough time to find the setup he needs.

Moment of Truth?

Motegi will also be an important test for Yamaha. After what has been a maddeningly mediocre season for the Movistar Yamaha team, there were signs of life in Thailand. Yamahas finished third, fourth, and fifth, and the two factory Yamahas were within spitting distance of victory.

Where did there sudden improvement come from? It’s hard to say. The stiffer carcass Michelin brought to Buriram may have helped, yet the Yamahas had struggled badly on that same carcass at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. There had been technical updates too: new chassis parts, and new electronics, Yamaha team boss Maio Meregalli told Italian broadcaster Sky.

Maverick Viñales was optimistic, for a change. He and his team had tried a new setup in Thailand, which changed the balance of the bike, and that had allowed him to be more competitive, he believed.

“I think for me, the biggest change was the balance of the bike, more than the tires,” Viñales told the press conference. “So I’m really confident that we can be strong, we can be in the front, as we improved a lot.”

Valentino Rossi is a little more cautions. He arrives in Japan “with hope and doubt in equal measure,” he told Italian media. They still had to try to understand whether the improvement at Buriram was down to the tires, the track or the technical upgrades brought.

Motegi was “a more normal track, where we are using the usual tires,” he said. It is also a track where the Yamaha M1 has historically performed well. Rossi and Lorenzo have racked up a string of wins and podiums on the bike, so the bike suits the track.

The Track Can Help

There is reason for optimism beyond the technical updates being brought. A lot of the acceleration happens in a straight line, rather than on the edge of the tire, making it that little bit easier for the Yamahas to save the tire.

And Yamaha will be bringing the new aerodynamic update which Rossi tested in Thailand. Maverick Viñales will be trying it at Motegi. “We have a new fairing to try here, trying to keep the front wheel a little bit more down and use more power, which I think is what we needed in Thailand to be able to win the race,” he said.

Motegi is a big deal for Suzuki as well. The Japanese factory brings three riders to the circuit, test rider Sylvain Guintoli making a wildcard appearance on the GSX-RR. That is common at Motegi – Yamaha also have Katsuyuki Nakasuga as a wildcard entry here.

Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone finished fourth and fifth here last year, when the bike was still having to cope with a too heavy crankshaft. They have been on a very strong run in recent races, including a podium at Aragon, as well as a couple of fourth places. If they can continue their progress, both men can play a role in the podium battle at Motegi.

Who else to watch for in Japan? Cal Crutchlow is dark horse at every race he starts, his ambitions now focused solely on strong finishes, rather than his place in the championship. Choosing to save his tires the wrong way saw the LCR Honda rider fall down the order in Thailand, but at Motegi, where more normal tire wear is expected, this should be less of an issue.

Then there’s the Pramac Ducati riders. Danilo Petrucci is focusing on 2019, preparing himself to enter the factory Ducati team, and altering his riding style to suit. Petrucci finished on the podium in Motegi last year, and felt he could have done better. At a track which suits the Ducati, the Italian should be able to post a strong result.

Pramac teammate Jack Miller could also surprise, given recent strong form. But he has not had much luck at the Japanese circuit, having crashed out of the race in his first two seasons in MotoGP, then missing the race last year with a leg injury sustained while training.

For Miller, the race next weekend, his home round at Phillip Island, is more important than Motegi, but his race should serve as a good warm up for the event.

All In, Or Fold?

Will the title be settled this weekend? It is only a matter of time before Marc Márquez lifts the 2018 MotoGP crown, becoming the youngest rider ever to win five premier class titles, though Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi, and Mick Doohan are the only riders to have reached that lofty goal.

The question is whether Márquez is put everything on the line to clinch the title in Japan, or be content to take the points and wrap up the championship next weekend in Australia. Winning at Honda’s home race, at their home circuit, in front of senior management is an incentive to take a risk or two.

But if the last couple of seasons have taught us anything, it is that Marc Márquez has learned the value of patience. Winning races is great, but winning championships is better. Why take the risk?

Photo: HRC