Friday Summary at Motegi: The Key To Zarco’s Title, Lorenzo’s Strong Shoulder, & The Threat from the Ducatis

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It’s only Friday, but already, one championship has been decided. Tito Rabat’s mission to outscore Johann Zarco was tough enough before he crashed at Almeria and broke his wrist, but trying to handle the immense braking stresses of the Japanese circuit with a freshly plated radius proved too much to ask.

Rabat’s attempt was brave, but ultimately doomed to failure. After riding in FP1, Rabat realized that it wasn’t so much the pain, but rather a lack of strength in the arm needed to control the bike safely. Forced to withdraw, Rabat’s title defense came to an end, and Johann Zarco became the 2015 Moto2 World Champion.

It was a rather bewildered Zarco who faced the press later on Friday. His mind was still focused on Sunday’s race, rather than on becoming champion. He could barely comprehend that he had already won the title.

Mentally, he had prepared to celebrate on Sunday, after the race, so the title had come unexpectedly early. It did not put him off his stride, however. Zarco was twelve thousandths slower than Tom Luthi in FP1, and nineteen thousandths faster than Alex Rins in FP2. He remains the man to beat in Moto2, exactly as he has been all year.

Zarco is a truly deserving champion. He has dominated the Moto2 class all year, despite getting off to a rocky start – and almost disastrously smashing into the pit wall along Qatar’s front straight, as he tried to fix a gear lever which had worked loose.

He took over the lead in the championship in Argentina, taking the first of six wins so far this year, and held on to it through sheer consistency. Since the second race of the year at Austin, Zarco has been off the podium only once, struggling to sixth at Aragon, the first signs he was starting to feel the pressure as he had his first theoretical chance to lift the Moto2 crown.

Winning the title this early, with four races still to go, is a sign of just how solid his season has been. He has not put a foot wrong all year, apart from the understandable hiccup at Aragon.

Where his rivals have faltered – Rabat got off to a terrible start, Alex Rins has been brilliant, but made the mistakes you might expect of a rookie, Sam Lowes and Tom Luthi have had their ups and downs – Zarco just kept banging out podiums and wins. He was ready every session of every practice, and in the mix every race.

Zarco owes his title to more than just his own focus and consistency. It makes clear just how important the right environment is. He has been assisted by his friend and mentor Laurent Fellon, the man who nurtured his talent.

But it took the solidity of a great team to allow Zarco to fulfill his potential. The Ajo team had the right team, the right support and the right attitude to give Zarco the confidence to push as hard as he did every weekend. Give a great rider a solid environment, and they will bury you in silverware.

With so little technical variation allowed in Moto2, this is where the real difference is made. The best teams do their homework thoroughly, find and exploit every possible aspect of the bike, and work on optimizing every detail.

They create the right environment for riders, giving assistance where needed, providing feedback both positive and negative, but always making it clear what the goal of that feedback is: to improve and go faster than the rest.

The great Moto2 teams are always at the front. For an example of the difference a team makes, see Mika Kallio. Last year, he was in contention for the Moto2 title. This year, he has been lost without a trace. The biggest difference? The team he is with.

The Moto2 title may be settled, but all eyes were on MotoGP. How would Jorge Lorenzo’s injured shoulder hold up? The answer was clear after FP1, and reinforced in FP2: just fine thanks, Lorenzo a tenth of the race lap record in the morning, two tenths off the outright lap record in the afternoon, and top of the timesheets in both sessions.

His pace was formidable, though his runs were a little shorter than they might otherwise have been. Lorenzo was doing four laps in succession, where others were going for five, six, sometimes even seven lap runs.

He was surprised to be so fast, he said, because his injured shoulder was causing him some trouble, in braking, in acceleration and in the direction changes around the Motegi circuit. It was not real pain, as such, more discomfort, and an awareness that the shoulder wasn’t quite right.

But the bike was good straight out of the box. That had allowed to take charge on the first day of practice, but he expected Saturday to be tougher. “I think that Vale has a lot of margin,” he told the Spanish press.

Rossi and his team would find improvements overnight, and be more competitive on Saturday, he was sure. “He is always competitive on Sunday,” Lorenzo said, something which Rossi has proven time and again.

For his part, Rossi was left feeling optimistic. His race pace with the harder of the two tires – the medium, rather than the soft – was “not so bad,” he judged, but they still had a lot of work to do with the soft rear.

“Usually, when you use the soft rear, you easily improve your time by half a second to one second,” Rossi said. He could only manage to squeeze out a couple of tenths, which left him eighth on the grid. “We are not very balanced with the bike,” was Rossi’s verdict. As Lorenzo predicted, Rossi and his crew have a lot of work to do.

The real danger for Rossi could come during qualifying. With the advantage of the extra soft tire, the Ducatis are incredibly quick at Motegi, ending third and fourth overall on Friday. Long straights and good drive out of corners give them an advantage, as they showed in both sessions of free practice.

Having Ducatis ahead of him on the grid may not be such a problem, Rossi said, as long as they were not in between him and Lorenzo.

“Maybe the best thing for me is two Ducatis in front of Jorge!” Rossi joked. “Because if they are behind Jorge but in front of me, it’s a disaster. For sure will be like this, for sure! Because they are very fast on the straight, they have more than 10 km/h compared to me, I am very slow on the straight. So this, in case of a fight, is difficult to manage. And also, the Ducati with the supersoft, for sure in the qualifying they will be very strong. So I hope that they will be also stronger than Jorge.”

The other possible fly in Rossi’s ointment could be Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard was fast on Friday, finishing in second spot a tenth behind Lorenzo. But Pedrosa was far from happy, struggling with a number of problems with the bike.

He had problems in the heavy braking zones, but above all, he was suffering with the bike wheelying on corner exit, unable to use full throttle. His fast lap had been a one off, and he still needed to work on finding a good race pace.

Marc Márquez looked like less of a threat, the broken bone in his left hand causing him problems. He said the hand was painful, but it had not hindered him too much.

“I could ride well,” he said, helped by having a thicker and shaped handlebar grip. Still, qualifying would be difficult, as putting together a single fast lap would be tough.

Settled between the Ducatis and Márquez sit the two surprise packages of 2015. Bradley Smith is once again a solid fifth, his team having once again given him a strong base setting for his Tech 3 Yamaha.

Aleix Espargaro is extracting everything he can out of the Suzuki GSX-RR, and is quick enough with the extra soft tire. His race pace is a little slower, however, but the improvements found at Aragon have carried through to Motegi, and crew chief Tom O’Kane found more refinements in the electronics to give the bike more acceleration off the corners.

All this dry practice may end up meaning nothing if it rains on Sunday, of course. Initially, race day looked like being very wet indeed, but as Sunday draws closer, the forecast is starting to change.

At the moment, it’s looking like there will be a wet warm up and a dry race, possibly even dry for all three races on Sunday. But the weather in October is always unpredictable at Motegi, so it is still very much open to question.

One nugget of news to emerge from Motegi came as no surprise. Aspar will indeed be switching to Ducatis for 2016, and running Desmosedici GP14.2s. With Yonny Hernandez confirmed last week, and Eugene Laverty in the first year of a two-year deal, the 2016 MotoGP line up is nearing completion.