We are entering the four most important weekends of the season. Important for a lot of reasons: there are five races to go and just 17 points separate the championship leaders.
But above all, important because we are heading to three tracks where MotoGP hasn’t been since 2019, and Sepang, where MotoGP has only tested in 2020 and 2022. We are heading into the unknown, just as the championship is coming to a head.
So much has changed since MotoGP was on its last Pacific tour. Valentino Rossi was still in the Monster Energy Yamaha team. A young rookie called Fabio Quartararo was making a massive impression on fans.
Andrea Dovizioso was doing his best to win a championship for Ducati, against an unstoppable Marc Marquez. Marquez was having perhaps the best season in grand prix racing since Giacomo Agostini crushed the opposition in the late 1960s on the MV Agusta.
2019 saw the ride-height devices first start to make an appearance, Jack Miller using the system in Thailand. It was the last year of the old Michelin rear casing, the new tire introduced in 2020 effectively killing off Andrea Dovizioso’s career.
The MotoGP field has changed radically since then. Of the 23 MotoGP regulars (Joan Mir is still out with injury, and is being replaced by Takuya Tsuda, who was due to wildcard in Japan anyway), 10 have never raced at Motegi (or any of the Pacific flyway tracks) on a MotoGP bike.
It’s not just this year’s crop of rookies – Marco Bezzecchi, Darryn Binder, Raul Fernandez, Remy Gardner, and Fabio Di Giannantonio – but also the riders who entered in 2020 and 2021.
Enea Bastianini, the Gresini Ducati rider who has won four races this year, has never ridden a MotoGP bike at Motegi. Neither have fellow Ducati riders Luca Marini or Jorge Martin.
Brad Binder, who has come to lead KTM’s MotoGP effort after outclassing his stablemates, has not been to Motegi on a MotoGP machine. Nor has LCR Honda’s Alex Marquez.
New Track for Old Rookies
The latter group are a little less concerned about riding at Motegi and the other flyway races for the first time. “It actually doesn’t bother me any more,” Brad Binder said at Aragon. “When you’re a complete rookie, you get to these new tracks and everything’s new.”
“You’re not sure how the bike really behaves, you’re not sure how the tires work. But now I understand everything very well except for the track. So I find that even when you go to a new track, you can be competitive a lot quicker. Or at least I noticed that this year in Argentina. That was the only one so far, so hopefully I have the same feeling in the next away races.”
Pramac Ducati’s Jorge Martin felt similar. “Normally this a track where I’m quite competitive. Being the first time in MotoGP is not a problem. We have information from other years about the maps. We’ll work hard to try and improve them in FP1 and get a good confidence from the beginning to try to be fast.”
Should they be worried? Not if the experience from Argentina is anything to go by. That track was also new for both the real rookies and the track rookies, the last race there having taken place in 2019.
Jorge Martin finished on the podium, in second behind Aleix Espargaro. Brad Binder took sixth behind Pecco Bagnaia. 2022 rookie Marco Bezzecchi finished ninth. These riders learn fast.
Cutting It Tight
They will have to, of course. The schedule for Motegi is different to normal, with no track action on Friday morning, a consequence of putting Motegi the weekend after Aragon.
Though there was enough time to ship the bikes, equipment, and everything needed to organize a MotoGP race from Spain to Japan in that time, it was tight enough that a relatively small delay would have caused chaos. In the end, that proved unnecessary.
But things can still go horribly wrong. On Thursday night, water got into the Marc VDS garage and caused an electrical fire. Fortunately, it was found and put out quickly, before it spread further.
But it could have been a disastrous start to the flyaways if it had. It was a reminder of how vulnerable the championship is if disaster were to strike. Back up plans are limited.
The revised schedule sees Moto3 and Moto2 lose a session on Friday, and MotoGP have one extended session of 75 minutes.
The schedule is then pretty much back to normal on Saturday, the one change being that MotoGP always follows Moto2, rather than preceding it as it does at the European rounds.
Travel Makes Things Complicated
The 75 minutes of practice – effectively the same as two sessions of free practice, though with no time to make bigger setup changes as teams might between morning and afternoon – should be enough for everyone to get a base setup and to understand the track. Not having been at Motegi for three years should not be an issue, said Miguel Oliveira.
“It’s quite weird. We ride for 15 to 20 minutes at one track and even if we’re not feeling great the track will come to our mind quite easy and we’ll remember a lot of things quickly,” the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider said. “I don’t think that will be a factor that will affect so much the work.”
The flyaways have a positive side too, which riders have missed, especially those whose homes in Europe are merely temporary. “They’re not really flyaways for me because I’m never at home,” Brad Binder said.
“Whether I’m usually floating around Europe or here, it doesn’t really change anything for me. I really enjoy the flyway races. The tracks are great, you spend a lot of time with your crew, get to do different things you don’t normally get to do in Europe.”
Fellow Southern Hemisphere refugee Jack Miller agreed. “I enjoy it all, the travel, the business of it all, time goes by a lot faster. I enjoy the overseas races,” the Australian said. The compact nature of the schedule left you little time to dwell on a bad result.
“Every time you’re on Sunday packing up and heading basically to the next track. So if you have a s**t result, it’s good too let’s say reset exactly because you immediately focus on the next one. You don’t sit there and dwell on it for three weeks or whatever.”
That worked if you had a strong result as well. “If you have a good one, you’re super excited for the next weekend because you’re like, OK, let’s keep the momentum rolling,” Miller said. “So I love the overseas and going to all the different countries and seeing all the different fans, it’s really nice.”
Tires and Track
Two unknowns for the riders are how the Michelins will perform, and the state of the track. Michelin is bringing the same compounds to Motegi which they used back in 2019, though the construction of the rear tire has changed since then, as have the bikes.
More aero and the ride-height devices will load the bikes very different, which could complicate tire choice and tire management. Add in the fact that this is the hardest track for braking – the 340mm Brembo discs are compulsory, though many will opt for the even larger 355mm items – and a lot of work will be needed to prepare for Sunday.
The surface of the track is an open question as well. Cal Crutchlow, who tested at the track for Yamaha recently, is the only rider with recent experience of the surface. “It’s definitely got a little bit bumpier and the grip was not great,” Crutchlow explained, before pointing out that grip conditions at private tests are always very different to race weekends.
“Obviously it’s different because at the test it was me and Tsuda from Suzuki and Nagashima from Honda. So when there are only three bikes on track it’s so difficult with the rubber not being on the ground.”
“But it was definitely a little bit more slick than when I was last here, you couldn’t touch the kerbs. Here you brake on the kerbs quite a lot and you could not brake near them, let alone on them.”
So what can we expect at Motegi? So far, Ducati have dominated the championship, or at least, they have after they sorted their bike out once MotoGP returned to Europe.
But a big part of that domination has been down to an outrageous excess of horsepower, and while that might be available during qualifying and practice, Motegi is so demanding in terms of fuel consumption that Ducati will be forced to back off the horsepower a very long way if they are to make it to the finish line.
Lessons from History
Looking back at past results is tricky when three years have passed since the last visit, and so much has changed.
This was a track where Marc Marquez could always run at the front, but at a track which is so hard on the right side of the body thanks to its many hard braking zones leading into right-hand corners, he may struggle with fitness.
Takaaki Nakagami is coming off a finger injury sustained in Aragon, and both Alex Marquez and Pol Espargaro are in the middle of a deep slump in form. Honda will not have it easy at the track they own.
Suzukis have traditionally gone relatively well here. Alex Rins finished on the podium in 2018, and would have had a strong race in 2019 had he not qualified poorly. The Suzuki can use its horsepower and agility to compete in a place like Motegi.
Aprilia is an open question, the bike being completely different to 2019. Really all we can say is that the bike is a lot stronger this year than it has been in previous seasons, as shown by Aleix Espargaro’s third place in the championship.
If there is a concern, it is that the Aprilia’s biggest weakness is braking in a straight line, and that is very much the nature of Motegi. Then again, Espargaro finished on the podium in Le Mans, which has a lot of similarities to the layout at Motegi.
Yamaha is the most intriguing of the bikes. On paper, the layout shouldn’t suit the Yamaha M1, but the bike does a few things which are needed at Motegi very well. The bike brakes well, and in the hands of Fabio Quartararo, enters corners well.
Where the M1 loses out is in top speed and in acceleration. Yet in Austria, where Quartararo was also expected to struggle, the Frenchman finished second. He finished second to Marc Marquez here in 2019 as well. This is a track which could well suit Quartararo.
The real favorites are Ducati, of course. Pecco Bagnaia’s winning streak finally came to an end at Aragon, the factory Ducati rider finishing a mere second. But he lost to a rider who could end up being something of a thorn in his side.
At the press conference on Thursday, Bagnaia rejected the idea of team orders out of hand. “I don’t think I need help to be at the front. I prefer to win on the track and not because someone let me pass,” he said.
Enea Bastianini does not look inclined to let him pass at the moment. The Gresini Ducati rider has never been to Motegi with a MotoGP bike, though he does not feel this is such a big disadvantage.
“I don’t know if it is an advantage to have not tried a MotoGP bike here,” the Italian told the press conference. “From 2019 to now, MotoGP bikes are very different, there is more aerodynamics, the rear device and this can change the cards on the table.”
In reality, there are any number of Ducati riders who could be at the front. Jorge Martin finished second in Argentina, the first time he had seen the track on a MotoGP bike. Jack Miller doesn’t have a great history at the track, but is in a solid run of form.
Luca Marini is improving every race, and Marco Bezzecchi is having an outstanding rookie season. And Johann Zarco has consistently been a front runner at most races this year.
Good Bike, Good Riders
The truth of the matter is that Ducati has the best bike on the grid, and a very strong rider line up to match.
They have eight bikes and eight outstanding riders, and for the cherry on the top, Alvaro Bautista is leading the WorldSBK championship on a Ducati Panigale V4, the bike derived from Ducati’s GP15 MotoGP machine.
“It’s an extremely dominant point for Ducati, both here and in World Superbike,” Jack Miller explained when asked about Ducati’s dominance. “Probably the best I’ve ever had. For sure the riders are fantastic, there’s no mistaking that. But yeah, the bike works well.”
It was the combination of bikes and riders that made the difference, the Australian insisted.
“Having not only eight bikes on the grid, but eight fast bikes for eight fast riders, a lot of experience with them. OK, even these rookies, but look at even the newer guys, their resume and what they’ve done, they’re not slouches on a motorcycle.”
Eight fast riders on eight fast bikes produced an absolute avalanche of useful data, Miller said.
“So you get a lot of data, you get to understand what they’re doing differently and try to piece together the, let’s say, ideal scenario for the lap I guess you can say or what you’re looking for race pace. I think that’s for sure in MotoGP one of the biggest things that is helping us.”
Playing the Long Game
Ducati’s success has been a long time coming, something which Miller has seen at first hand since joining the Pramac squad in 2018.
“I think this project didn’t happen overnight. I’ve seen it progress from when I came on board in 2018 to where we’re at now. The bike in general is pretty solid all round. It still works fantastic in the wet, still works fantastic in low grip conditions. We can find a way to make it work in pretty much all scenarios, which is the most important thing with the race bike.”
That versatility is the key to the Desmosedici’s success, Miller explained. “You don’t want to race bike that that only works in a really grippy, ideal track. You need something that works all around because the end of the day we’re racing 20 rounds in all different countries and different asphalts and whatnot.”
“So I think that’s one of the things they’ve found is having that compromise of having like the perfect bike at a certain track, but being able to adapt in all sorts of conditions and that’s why I think we are so strong week in, week out.”
Can Ducati be strong at Motegi? There seems little doubt they will be at the front of the field. But will they be alone, and will Pecco Bagnaia be able to further close the gap to Fabio Quartararo.
Right now, it doesn’t look like it will be that easy. Motegi may yet throw up a few surprises.