The first day of practice was summed up succinctly by Colin Edwards, in the TV interview that all of the riders do with MotoGP.com at the end of each day. The bike felt good, Edwards said, the front feels planted, he felt good on the bike. "It's just them frickin' Hondas!"
A quick glance at the timesheets and you can see his point: places one to four are taken by factory Honda RC212Vs, the three Repsols leading the San Carlo Gresini bike of Marco Simoncelli. The layout of the track helps a lot: a lot of slow corners leading onto long straights, and a fast back straight thrown in for good measure. The Honda's strong points are outstanding acceleration and good top speed, exactly what is needed to go around Motegi at a decent clip.
That should hardly come as a surprise. Motegi is owned by Honda, and as Casey Stoner pointed out, this track is one of the tracks the RC212V is developed around. Although Honda's test riders - including wildcard riders Kousuke Akiyoshi and the hoary veteran Shinichi Itoh, riding a stunning RC30 tribute HRC livery in red, white and blue - divide their time between Suzuka and Motegi aboard the MotoGP bike, Motegi remains a key track for the factory, where much of their development is done.
That development has been led for the past few years by Dani Pedrosa, and it was the Spaniard who demonstrated why Honda have kept faith with him since he moved up to MotoGP in 2006. Lapping consistently under the existing race lap record, Pedrosa ended the day happy to be on top of the timesheets. Behind him, championship leader Casey Stoner was not quite as content, saying he still has work to do on getting the bike to turn, but the team believes they have an idea of how to fix it.
All three Repsol bikes are a cut above the rest, though, Andrea Dovizioso under two tenths behind the leader Pedrosa, but nearly a quarter of a second ahead of the 4th place man Marco Simoncelli. Staying ahead of Simoncelli is important for Dovizioso, as the Italian is closing in a deal to race with LCR, but retaining his factory-supported status. Dovizioso has been angling for precisely this, threatening to switch to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad, but with a factory RC213V, he may be persuaded to remain inside the fold.
The situation at Yamaha is a little more desperate. Reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo is within sight of Simoncelli, but the Repsols are just too far ahead to do much about at the moment. What he needs to be able to compete is a little faster corner entry, better braking stability and better traction off the corners - in other words, a little bit of everything - but improving in one area usually means sacrificing another, and so the half a second to Pedrosa is looking unbridgeable. A podium may be possible on Sunday, but taking points off Casey Stoner, which is what he needs to do, is going to be a very big ask at Motegi.
The other side of the garage was a more troubled place, but it had nothing to do with the bike. Ben Spies almost missed his flight due to a bout of food poisoning, and is still very weak and ill, though attention from the circuit medical center is seeing some improvement. Spies managed to do a reasonably full session in the morning, but was forced to abandon the afternoon session of practice after just 5 laps, too weak and too tired to continue. His main aim is just to make it through race day.
Over in Ducati, things are looking up. Nicky Hayden had an outstanding FP1, ending the session as 3rd fastest. When the pace picked up in the afternoon, Hayden couldn't quite match the improvements the Hondas and Yamahas made, ending FP2 in 6th place, but as he said, still one of his best Fridays in a very long time. They have a few ideas to try on Saturday, so Hayden could well be starting from a little closer to the front than he has been accustomed to this year.
On the other side of the Marlboro Ducati garage, things are not going quite so well, though Valentino Rossi is still in a decent position in 8th, and under 1.2 seconds off the leaders. While admitting that they still had problems with hard braking - crucial at Motegi, with lots of long straights and tight corners - the Italian took comfort from the fact that they are in better shape here than they were at Aragon. The experimentation at Jerez with riding position and weight distribution has paid off a little, but he really needs new parts to make a big difference.
The real difference could be the weather, though. After a hot day at the Japanese circuit, the rain started to fall in the evening, and the weather looks like being much more changeable for the rest of the weekend. Even if it stays dry, as it is forecast to do, the temperatures will have dropped, making Bridgestone's decision to bring softer tires look very prescient. If it stays dry, it is hard to see the order changing, but rain may shake things up quite a bit.
While MotoGP is in Japan - even Valentino Rossi now conceding that they made the right decision to come, now reassured by all of the tests being carried out by IRTA, Dorna and privately by Ducati - in France, the World Superbike and World Supersport championships are nearing their climax. Carlos Checa needs just 3 more points to wrap up the 2011 WSBK title, and the Althea Ducati rider laid out his intentions on the first day of practice at Magny-Cours. Checa ended both FP1 and QP1 at the top of the timesheets, though his provisional pole position was taken by the skin of his teeth. While Marco Melandri is getting to grips with a brand new track for him, and struggling with corner entry, Checa is looking totally in control. Unless a disaster happens, Checa should have clinched the title by the end of the first WSBK race on Sunday.
The title chase is a little tougher for Chaz Davies. An electrical problem - the generator on his Yamaha R6 packed up, leaving the Welshman stranded in the pits for most of practice - meant that Davies only got a few laps in, ending qualifying down in 8th. Davies needs to finish 3rd or better on Sunday to wrap up the WSS title, but given his astounding run of results this year, that should not be beyond the realms of possibility.