MotoGP Preview of the Japanese GP

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The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid.

If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8-Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.

Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda’s 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year’s race is even more important.

Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider’s title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.

The circuit itself is a somewhat simple affair, its layout imposed upon it by the necessity to fit much of the track inside the Oval which comprises the other half of Motegi’s Twin Ring moniker.

It bears a close resemblance to Le Mans, in being a very stop-and-start track with a lot of acceleration from low gear and heavy braking for relatively slow corners. That imposes severe stress on both gearboxes and brakes. A MotoGP rider will change gear 40-odd times in a lap around the circuit, or getting on for a thousand gearshifts in the entire race.

Burning Carbon

The brakes have it even worse, with three braking zones where the bikes have slow from between 270 and 300 km/h down to around 80 or 90 km/h. Such is the stress on the brakes that the rules make mandatory the use of the larger 340mm carbon discs at the track.

Most teams will even favor the thicker and heavier high mass discs, choosing their ability absorb heat without overheating and losing braking power despite losing agility thanks to the higher rotating mass.

That braking is badly needed in the first section of the track. From the final corner, the bikes gather speed as they fire down the front straight, before hammering on the brakes for Turn 1, slowing up the bike at 1.5G, according to brake supplier Brembo.

Turn 1 runs into Turn 2, two tight corners following one another, and treated as a double apex, before the bikes hare off toward Turn 3, and another 1.5G braking zone.

Turn 3 is another spot you can try to outbrake your rivals if you didn’t manage it at Turn 1. Turn 3 is tighter than Turn 1, and flows through Turn 4 a little more, making it a more dangerous place to get past. Get ahead of someone at Turn 3, and you risk running wide and letting someone get past at Turn 4, or get a run on you toward Turn 5.

Turn 5 is another tight right hander, taken just before heading into the blackness of the tunnel and on to the flowing section of the track which takes the riders round toward the back straight.

There’s the fast right of the 130R, then the S Curve of Turns 7 and 8, before braking again for the tight left of Turn 9.

Unleash the Horses

This turn, the V Corner, is the first of a series of places where you can attempt a pass. After Turn 9, a short sprint to the hairpin of Turn 10 follows, a corner which though tight, is wide enough to allow a couple of lines through it.

How you take that corner determines the drive you get onto Motegi’s massive back straight, a place where acceleration and horsepower determines the outcome. Keeping the front wheel down is crucial, especially as the track drops away at the end of the straight as you start to brake.

Turn 11 is the toughest braking zone on the track, slowing from well over 300 km/h to around 85 km/h, and consequently, a favored passing zone. It is also the last chance at a reasonably easy pass: once back under the bridge and through the left handers of Turns 12 and 13, there is only the aptly named Victory Corner left to tackle.

It is just about possible to pass through the lefts of 12 and 13, as it is at Turn 14, but it is only an option for do-or-die last lap heroics. There are plenty of easier places to pass if you have another lap. But if you don’t? Well, what do you have to lose.

Honda’s Home

Fresh from winning the title at Buriram, all eyes will be on Marc Márquez. The last two times Márquez wrapped the title up early, in 2016 and 2018, Márquez failed to finish the next race. His objective at Motegi this year is to finish, preferably on the podium, and if at all possible on top.

As stated, his secondary objective is to finish ahead of the Ducatis, to take the manufacturers title for Honda at their home race. Given that Márquez is believed to be talking to Honda bosses about a further two-year deal for 2021 and 2022 at Motegi, the manufacturers crown would be a very good way of making his already formidable case.

The truth is that Honda have no one else they can rely on. The 2019 RC213V has proved very difficult for anyone other than Márquez to ride, as Márquez himself acknowledged. The 2018 bike was easier to ride, but three tenths of a second slower per lap. “Personally it doesn’t matter if the bike is difficult to ride,” he told reporters. “The important thing is that it is fast.”

That puts Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo, and to a lesser extent, Takaaki Nakagami in a difficult situation. Crutchlow has been the best of the rest on the 2019 Honda, Lorenzo struggling with injury and fitness since he broke his wrist just before the season was supposed to start.

So miserable has Lorenzo’s season been that there are credible rumors that Johann Zarco could take his seat for 2020. A decent result – a top 10 finish, and a handful of points – would ease the pressure on Lorenzo, give him breathing space for the rest of the year.

Suffering in Silence

Motegi will be tough on Takaaki Nakagami as well. In an ideal world, the Japanese rider would skip Motegi and already be recovering from the shoulder surgery he needs. But this is his home race, and his sponsors are Japanese, and Dorna and Motegi really want their Japanese star to be on the bike at their home race.

The news that Nakagami would miss the last three races of the season came as a major surprise. The Japanese rider had said nothing about the injury, picked up in the crash with Valentino Rossi at Assen.

He had mentioned the problems with his ankle, but that was an injury he couldn’t hide, as he hobbled around the paddock at the Sachsenring. But, he had kept his shoulder injury to himself.

He explained his reasons for doing so in the press conference in Motegi. “I didn’t want to talk about this because until the last moment I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” Nakagami said. Eventually, though, he had to come clean. “Before Aragon I thought it was time to explain to the team, especially with Lucio [Cecchinello], the team manager, and of course HRC.”

It was all rather reminiscent of Marc Márquez and his shoulder injury, and the way Márquez had kept any pain and discomfort to himself. In Thailand, Andrea Dovizioso had talked about that, and his words apply just as well to Nakagami.

“There are two types of riders,” Dovizioso had said. “Some riders stay behind a painful or bad situation. So they speak always, ‘I have this [injury], I have this, I have this.’ Some do the opposite – they don’t say anything about it, so they don’t show the limit. And they push 100 percent. Marc is one of them. There are some other riders doing that.”

Whether he complains or not, Motegi will be tough. With a painful and weakened right shoulder, the heavy braking zones around the Japanese circuit will be torture. It may be Nakagami’s home round, but a worse track for him to face is hard to imagine.

The Bologna Bullet?

Can any of the Ducati riders stop Marc Márquez from winning the manufacturers title for Honda at Motegi? The track should certainly help. “Normally when I have to do strong braking and stop and go I am quite good,” Andrea Dovizioso said. “Our bike works well in that way. That’s why I think we can be competitive here.”

It certainly has been in the past couple of years. In 2017, Dovizioso won the race at Motegi in a thrilling battle with Márquez decided in the last corner. In 2018, he was engaged in a tight battle with Márquez until he crashed with two laps to go. This year, he is under a good deal less pressure, now that the title has gone. He can focus on the race, and trying to disrupt Márquez’ run for victory.

Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller could also be in play here. Petrucci has been on the podium at Motegi in 2017, though he has lost his form in the second half of the season. But Petrucci thrives in cold conditions, when there is grip on the track. Temperatures are expected to be cold, and that should play into his hands.

Jack Miller is an even more interesting prospect. Motegi has been something of a bogey track for the Australian, crashing out at each of the three MotoGP races he has contested here.

But Miller has shown a good deal more maturity in 2019, and with a better Ducati GP19 underneath him, the Pramac Ducati rider could be something of a dark horse for the podium.

Tough Times for Yamaha

What of Yamaha? Motegi has not been good to the Japanese manufacturer in recent years. The last time a Yamaha won at Motegi was Jorge Lorenzo in 2014, the last time a Yamaha was on the podium was 2015. Yamaha has not been a factor in the races since then.

Could 2019 be different? The bike is clearly better than in previous years, tire management less of an issue thanks to electronics upgrades and a less aggressive engine. But it is also clearly down in horsepower, especially out of low-gear corners.

If Le Mans is anything to go by – and the French track is the closest analogue to Motegi on the calendar – then the Yamahas are in for a tough time. In France, Valentino Rossi was the first Yamaha across the line, finishing fifth behind Jack Miller.

But a lot has changed since Rossi’s fifth place at Le Mans. Ten races later, Fabio Quartararo has emerged as the top Yamaha, running Marc Márquez close at Misano and Buriram, and regularly outscoring both Rossi and Maverick Viñales in the second half of the season.

Since Thailand, Quartararo has essentially the same bike as the factory riders, the engine now allowed to rev out to the same level as the factory machines.

Quartararo is certainly not daunted by the fact that Motegi is not supposed to be a Yamaha track. “I think this year a lot of times that I heard that the Yamaha was not going to go really well at some tracks, like Austria, but we managed to get on to the podium,” the Petronas Yamaha rider pointed out.

“Honestly, now I don’t think about Yamaha or Honda tracks. I need to be focused on this weekend as it is a track that I really love and we will make our best and work like we did during all races.”

Rossi comes to Motegi with some ideas to change his fortunes, which have lagged behind both Quartararo and his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Viñales since the summer break.

Early in the season, Rossi looked capable of taking third in the championship. Right now, Rossi is in danger of drifting behind Quartararo in the standings, and finishing the year as the third-best Yamaha.

The Hammer of Hamamatsu

Perhaps the Suzuki can take the fight to Marc Márquez and the Ducatis. The GSX-RR is fast, and it has the agility to pass other bikes at the most outrageous places. Its weakness, however, remains qualifying, both Alex Rins and Joan Mir struggling to get onto the front two rows, and attack the race from there.

Rins has been strong in recent years at Motegi, scoring a podium after starting eighth. If he can have a good qualifying, he should be capable of repeating that.

Teammate Mir is pretty close to full fitness now, coming back from the bruised lung at the Brno test which meant he lost a lot of fitness during his recovery period. If Mir’s upward trend continues, he could be much closer to the front than other expect.

Orange Surprise

If it’s dark horses you are after, they don’t come much more enigmatic than KTM. Last year, the KTMs had a mediocre race, Pol Espargaro finishing in thirteenth behind then teammate Bradley Smith. But at Le Mans this year, Espargaro finished sixth, less than six seconds behind the winner.

The KTM RC16 has made solid progress all through this season, and Motegi is a track that suits a bike that will brake the way the KTM does. It is also a track where you can bully a bike around, something which suits Pol Espargaro down to the ground.

So keep an eye on Espargaro, and on Tech3 KTM rider Miguel Oliveira. They could throw up quite a surprise in Japan.

The weather is also something to watch, especially as it looks like Saturday will be almost completely lost to rain. That makes Friday much more important than normal, FP2 being the closest conditions to race day that we will see.

Riders and teams will need to juggle chasing a fast time with understanding which tires offer the best performance for the entire duration of the race.

That plays into the hands of Marc Márquez. Márquez and his Repsol Honda team have excelled at this strategy so far this year, using Márquez’ ability to find a lap good enough for Q2 with relative ease to buy themselves more time to work on tires and setup.

If Marc Márquez goes out on a soft tire in FP1, then it would be very foolish indeed to bet against him. But then again, there are no guarantees in racing. And that’s what makes it so appealing.

Photo: MotoGP