Following a one-weekend break after the inaugural Thailand Grand Prix, MotoGP now returns to Asia and Oceania for the three-week back-to-back trip that will include Japan this weekend, then it is straight on towards Phillip Island followed by Malaysia.
First up is the Japanese leg of the trio tour and a visit to Twin Ring Motegi. The 4,801m circuit has been the home of a motorcycle Grand Prix in Japan since 1999, making this year the 20th consecutive running at a circuit that is one of the most demanding and stressful on tyres and brakes across the whole calendar.
With numerous hard braking zones over its layout of six left and eight right-hand bends, the most famous of which is the perfectly-named 90-degree corner. This turn is preceded by a high-speed downhill run into a hard braking right-hander, which puts huge stress on the front and needs a tyre that can give the riders the stability and grip they require as they brake and turn through the corner. The circuit requires huge demands from the tyres due to both its stressful configuration and its abrasive surface, so the range of Michelin Power Slicks will have a lot of work to do through the 24-lap race.
Located approximately three hours’ drive north of Tokyo, between the cities of Mito and Utsunomiya and set in area of dense woodland in the northern Kantō region of the Haga District within the Tochigi Prefecture, the Twin Ring Motegi circuit can also be prone to wet weather. This was perfectly demonstrated in 2017 when every session and the race were affected by rain.
Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) has wrapped up the title on the home turf of manufacturer Honda before, and in 2018 he has chance to do it again in the Motul Grand Prix of Japan.
“We have our first match ball at Honda’s home race, which is very important for our Factory. Of course we’ll try to get the best result in front of Honda’s people and home fans, but Motegi is a stop-and-go track where strong acceleration is a key factor, so we’ll have to work hard and improve a little bit in that area if we want to fight with Ducati. Otherwise, we’ll try to remain focused and calm and handle the situation as well as possible. The important thing is to ultimately achieve our goal at some point.”
If Marquez scores points and finishes ahead of Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), and if he doesn’t concede more than two points to Dovizioso and 24 to Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), Marquez will be crowned Champion and take his seventh crown. The hard-braking behemoth of the Twin Ring Motegi could decide everything.
The mission for Dovizioso is clear, then. He has to be ahead of Marquez and the best case scenario is to win. Dovi has good form at the venue including two poles – 2010 and 2014 – and two podiums, one of which was a win, last season. And who could forget the stunning showdown in the rain as Marquez and Dovizioso dueled it out? The Italian certainly won’t, nor the fact that he won it in style. Despite the Spaniard fighting back last time out, Dovi remains ahead in their last lap showdowns.
So what of Valentino Rossi? The Italian remains third by virtue of consistency and consistently getting the best from the package, despite some struggles for Yamaha of late. He needs to go big to play a big part in the title decider, but like most venues, he’s a former winner at Motegi – that’s a given.
Could Thailand have been a turning point for Yamaha too? Both Rossi, who came fourth at Buriram, and teammate Maverick Viñales, who locked out the podium, had much improved pace there – and that despite the hot temperatures and high tyre wear. They’ll hope to be a force to be reckoned with as it’s their home race and also the home track of arch rivals Honda – something also true of Hamamatsu factory Suzuki and Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone.
One unknown quantity who could have a big say in the weekend is Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team). Crashing out at Aragon and left riding through the pain barrier on Friday in Thailand, the ‘Spartan’ was on the pace – until a monster highside in FP2 put paid to his weekend at Buriram.
It was caused by a mechanical problem and Lorenzo, classed fit to race, nevertheless chose to sit the weekend out. He’ll be back at Motegi, however, and he has quite a CV at the Japanese venue, including three wins. As does Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team), who crashed out in Thailand.
The fight for top Independent Team rider continues to rage just behind Lorenzo in the standings. Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) has 128 points, Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Racing) 126 and Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) 123 – so it remains incredibly close and every weekend is pivotal, with Motegi no different.
Johann Zarco – P8 – 123 points
“Motegi is a very nice track in Japan. I got great memories there from the 125cc Category in 2011, the title in 2015 and the pole position last year. Sometimes I forget that I got the pole there last year. I think if we have dry conditions during the weekend, for me it would be the first time on dry surface with the Yamaha because last year the entire weekend was wet, but anyway, I think I can get some good results there. I don’t know if I can be close to the race winner like in Thailand, but after this great Sunday in Buriram I for sure wish to be back up there again. Another top 5 would be fantastic. Being the first independent rider is anyway the main target, so let’s see. The track is good and the circuit of the big manufacturers like Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki. There’s always a special atmosphere, also in the paddock. I just look forward to go fast on this circuit.”
Jack Miller scored a top ten result in Thailand and will want to continue that form for the rest of the season. The Australia is currently 12th in the MotoGP World Championship and has his work cut out for him if he is going to try and break into that top ten before season end.
Hafizh Syahrin (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) closed on Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) in the battle for Rookie of the Year last time out and it’s just five points between the two, but at Motegi, local eyes will be on a different rookie.
Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) is one of the home heroes who will be on track and the Japanese rookie has had some good pace of late – and then suffered bad luck on race day. He’ll want to put on a good show at his home race and the home race of HRC after extending his contract with LCR Honda for season 2019. The 26-year-old born in Chiba will again ride the Honda RC213V in the 2019 MotoGP World Championship.
“First of all I am really happy to continue with LCR Honda Idemitsu Team in 2019. A big thank you goes to our sponsor Idemitsu for its great support and of course to Honda HRC for believing in my skills and providing a competitive technical package. This Team is very professional and I could not ask for more in my debut season in the premier class, so I am very happy to continue with Lucio and his crew. I can’t wait to start the new season but at the same time I am very focused on my home race in Motegi and the last races of this 2018 championship”.
Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga will be another Japanese rider on the grid as he wildcards, giving the home crowd a rookie and a veteran to cheer for.
The Motul Grand Prix of Japan has everything hanging in the balance. Marquez is on the cusp of yet more history and, again, it’s Andrea Dovizioso the key man in his way.
MotoGP 2018 Championship Standings
Marc MARQUEZ Honda SPA 271
Andrea DOVIZIOSO Ducati ITA 194
Valentino ROSSI Yamaha ITA 172
Maverick VIÑALES Yamaha SPA 146
Jorge LORENZO Ducati SPA 130
Cal CRUTCHLOW Honda GBR 128
Danilo PETRUCCI Ducati ITA 126
Johann ZARCO Yamaha FRA 123
Andrea IANNONE Suzuki ITA 113
Alex RINS Suzuki SPA 102
Dani PEDROSA Honda SPA 87
Jack MILLER Ducati AUS 74
Alvaro BAUTISTA Ducati SPA 72
Tito RABAT Ducati SPA 35
Franco MORBIDELLI Honda ITA 33
Aleix ESPARGARO Aprilia SPA 32
Pol ESPARGARO KTM SPA 32
Hafizh SYAHRIN Yamaha MAL 28
Bradley SMITH KTM GBR 19
Takaaki NAKAGAMI Honda JPN 18
Scott REDDING Aprilia GBR 12
Mika KALLIO KTM FIN 6
Karel ABRAHAM Ducati CZE 5
Michele PIRRO Ducati ITA 1
Francesco Bagnaia was happy after he crossed the line at Buriram for a magnificent seventh win, but that ramped up even more as teammate Luca Marini pulled up alongside him to signal he’d made it a Sky Racing Team VR46 1-2.
Bagnaia had been set to gain five points on rival Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) by the latter stages but after Marini’s late charge saw him get past the Portuguese rider, five became nine and the advantage for Bagnaia is now more than a win. Worth celebrating? You bet.
There is a fair way yet to go and 100 points up for grabs beginning in Japan, but Bagnaia knows that was an important result. Oliveira does too, and he knows it’s now gloves off and there’s no margin to play it safe. Motegi needs to begin a fight back before the venues the Portuguese rider dominated last season appear on the horizon; friendly faces after some tougher rounds.
Tougher round is something on the lips of Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS), teammate Joan Mir, Lorenzo Baldassarri (Pons HP 40) and Marcel Schrötter (Dynavolt Intact GP) after Buriram. All crashing out and heading for Japan empty headed, it was a Sunday to forget for all. But there are some positives for many to take from the weekend, and some positives looking ahead – Marquez, for example, took his first ever GP win at Motegi, in 2013 as a Moto3 rookie.
An expensive day for those guys was a welcome gain for Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) though, as the South African stoked his points haul with another solid result. “Better than my usual sixth,” was the smile after a hard-fought fourth in Thailand, and the South African is now in a comfortable third overall in the standings. Consistency has been a buzz word for Binder, with the 2016 Moto3™ World Champion only surpassed by Bagnaia and Oliveira in that department as the two remain the only two to take points every race.
The crowd will also have their eye on some home favourites, including Tetsuta Nagashima (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia). Nagashima has been consistently progressing and getting further to the front, and Thailand saw the Japanese rider take his best ever result in eighth. He’ll be gunning for another top ten and points at home.
Moto2 Championship Standings
Francesco BAGNAIA Kalex ITA 259
Miguel OLIVEIRA KTM POR 231
Brad BINDER KTM RSA 157
Lorenzo BALDASSARRI Kalex ITA 132
Alex MARQUEZ Kalex SPA 126
Joan MIR Kalex SPA 124
Marcel SCHROTTER Kalex GER 118
Mattia PASINI Kalex ITA 113
Fabio QUARTARARO Speed Up FRA 111
Luca MARINI Kalex ITA 104
Xavi VIERGE Kalex SPA 101
Jorge NAVARRO Kalex SPA 55
Iker LECUONA KTM SPA 52
Simone CORSI Kalex ITA 47
Sam LOWES KTM GBR 46
Andrea LOCATELLI Kalex ITA 41
Remy GARDNER Tech 3 AUS 28
Dominique AEGERTER KTM SWI 27
Tetsuta NAGASHIMA Kalex JPN 16
Romano FENATI Kalex ITA 14
Friday and Saturday seemed to give us a clue to what was going to happen on Sunday in the PTT Thailand Grand Prix, as Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3) struggled with the fitness of his left hand and key title rival Marco Bezzecchi (Redox PruestelGP) took pole. Even come Sunday, the Spaniard looked to be on the back foot.
It was a big about face by the flag, however, as Martin was able to steadily make his way through the pack and Bezzecchi was crashed out through no fault of his own. The result? 26 points of advantage for the Gresini rider, a serious mountain for Bezzecchi to climb, and a new big contender…
After his first win earlier in the season, Buriram marked the second for Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3) and it’s taken him to within just three points of second in the standings.
With Enea Bastianini (Leopard Racing) failing to finish in the incident with Bezzecchi and Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0) missing through injury, where there were once a group of five contenders there now appear to be three and ‘Diggia’ is far from a dark horse. The hard-braking monster of Motegi will be a challenge for Martin and his recovering hand, and both the Italians chasing him down know it’s increasingly now or never as the season barrels on.
As well as that fight at the front and the key names so often in contention, there will be a lot at stake in Japan for those riding on home turf, too. Buriram became something of a turning point for two of them: Kazuki Masaki (RBA BOE Skull Rider) and Ayumu Sasaki (Petronas Sprinta Racing).
Masaki put it on the front row for the first time and briefly led before sadly crashing out, and Sasaki led FP2, showed top pace and battled at the front for a good while until falling victim to some racing that got a little too close. Motegi is a page turned but there are some big positives to take there.
That’s also true for Kaito Toba (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), who took P12 and was back in the battle for points and recovering some Sunday form. He also has a new deal for next season in his pocket, as does compatriot Tatsuki Suzuki (SIC58 Squadra Corse), although he sadly crashed out in Thailand. It was a mixed bag for the Japanese contingent at the flag, but they’ll mean business once again at Motegi.
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