Thursday Summary at Motegi: Of Team Orders, Relative Strengths, & Title Chases

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The press conference room at the Motegi circuit was a busy place on Thursday. The assembled press filed in twice during the afternoon, once to hear the head of Dorna talk about the long-term future of both motorcycle racing world championship series, and then again to hear five world champions talk about this weekend’s racing. There was much to digest.

What Carmelo Ezpeleta had to say about Dorna’s takeover of the World Superbike series has been covered elsewhere, though the irony of Ezpeleta hosting a press conference to talk about what was essentially an end run around HRC’s threats of a withdrawal at a facility owned and operated by Honda was not lost on everyone. The significance of the occasion was clear to all, and the groundwork has been laid for the future of both WSBK and MotoGP, though many fear the outcome.

An hour later, a much lighter mood prevailed when the riders filed in for the usual pre-event press conference. The long term was forgotten for a while, as everyone concentrated on two items: the return of Casey Stoner, and the impact of the Australian’s return on the championship. Will Stoner help Dani Pedrosa in his battle with Jorge Lorenzo for the 2012 MotoGP title? And is he fit enough and fast enough to be able to help if he wanted to?

To take the latter question first, the jury is still very much out. “We won’t know what to expect until tomorrow,” Stoner told the press. Walking around the paddock on the ankle he damaged so badly in the highside at Indianapolis was one thing; the pressures of riding, and the rapid changes of direction required to get around the Motegi race track were something altogether different.

Stoner hadn’t even tried testing his ankle on a bike, he told the press conference. The danger of damaging the ankle somehow, even only slightly, had been sufficient to keep him sat at home on the couch, bored and frustrated, his only relief the occasional trip to see a V8 Supercars race. His fear was that he would miss Phillip Island, something he is simply not willing to countenance. In his last season – and given his personality, I believe that this truly is his last season, with a return completely beyond the realms of possibility – Stoner is determined to race at the track he loves, in front of his home crowd, even if they have to duct tape him to the bike, as he told the crowd at a recent V8 Supercars event.

Given Stoner’s performance the day after he suffered his ankle injury, it seems likely he will be quick from the moment he takes to the track. But being fast enough to mix it with Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo is another matter altogether. Even if he is, the second question remains: would he be willing to sacrifice his own chances in his final year of racing to help his teammate win his first MotoGP championship?

Despite the wave of imploring requests emanating from Spain, the answer appears to be no. Asked if Honda had requested Stoner help Pedrosa win the title, the Australian was terse. “They haven’t and I don’t believe they will.” That, Stoner said, was not the way to win a title. “As I’ve said in the past, championships are won fair and outright, and not because of the result of a teammate helping out.” The chances of Stoner helping Pedrosa? “There’ll be none of that.”

Nor would Pedrosa want such help. At Aragon, the Spaniard had already made it clear that he expected nothing from Stoner, nor would he dream of asking. You win championships on your own, Pedrosa had explained, and there was no point in hoping for help from other quarters. “Casey is a winner,” Pedrosa had said. Expecting Stoner to throw away his own chances was entirely unrealistic.

But Pedrosa may not need much help. The Repsol Honda man has been getting stronger as the season has progressed. Pedrosa has been getting more and more competitive, and, according to Casey Stoner, the tracks in the last part of the season suit the Honda better than the tracks in the first half. At Motegi, Honda’s home track and the place that HRC bring the RC213V for testing, Pedrosa should be even stronger than normal: the stop-start nature of the track favors the Honda’s fearsome acceleration, with few places where the bike is on its side for long enough for chatter to be a significant problem.

Motegi holds a bad history for Pedrosa, though. This was the circuit where he crashed so badly in 2010, causing the injury that came close to ending his career. Asked if he had bad memories of the track because of that, Pedrosa showed some of the humor he has been less and less shy in displaying this year. “For me, this is common in many tracks!” Pedrosa joked. Motegi is not the only track where Pedrosa has been hurt…

Jorge Lorenzo remains confident, however. The factory Yamaha man is far more sure of his M1 than he was last year, the bike proving massively more competitive than in 2011. Leading the championship by 33 points gives him a comfortable margin, if he can keep within sight of Pedrosa. “At this moment it is difficult to fight for the win,” he told reporters, “but we can still do it, we can still be competitive for the victory.” His goal was to win another couple of races before the season was out, and the bike is good enough to do that.

A win would be hard at Motegi. Acceleration, never Yamaha’s strong point, is where he believed he would struggle, Lorenzo said. But there were plenty of points where he can make up for that: the outstanding stability under braking and excellent corner entry mean that Lorenzo can leverage those advantages in the many areas of hard braking that are such a feature of Motegi. He may lose on corner exit, but there were plenty of opportunities to make it all back up again, on the way into the following corner.

A thirty-three point deficit is large, and Pedrosa is not confident of being able to close it. He knows he cannot rely on his teammate Casey Stoner, whether the Australian is fit or not. But with four race still left to go, everything is still to play for. At Motegi, the title race could close up just a little bit more.

Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.