And so the most crucial part of the season begins. Although you could justifiably make the argument that every race is equally important, the three flyaways to the Pacific rim often punch well above their weight in terms of determining the outcome of the championships. If riders haven't all but wrapped up the title before heading East for the triple header at Motegi, Phillip Island and Sepang, then events can throw a real spanner in the works of a title fight. These are three grueling weeks of racing under any circumstances; throw in the pressure of a championship battle and mistakes are easily made.
The first challenge the riders face is the sheer amount of travel it takes to get from one race to the next. First, they must spend at least 18 hours on planes and at airports traveling from Europe to Tokyo. They face a further two hour drive to get to Motegi, and unless they are well-paid enough to be staying at the circuit hotel, will have a 50-minute commute into the circuit every day ahead of the race. On Sunday night or Monday morning, they return to Tokyo for another 10-hour flight (or longer, if they can't fly direct) to Melbourne, and a drive down to Phillip Island. A week later, another flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, this time an 8-hour flight. After the Sepang round, they finally get to head home, another 17+ hour return flight back to Europe, and a week to rest up ahead of the final round of the season at Valencia. They travel from a wet and humid Motegi, to the chill of Phillip Island's early spring, to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang.
Motorcycle racers are hyperactive at the best of times, so getting them to sit still for the best part of a day is not easy. The Japanese manufacturers – a group including Bridgestone, also based in Japan – want to take full advantage of the presence of their top riders in Asia, and so they get taken on whirlwind tours of factories, headquarters, and as a bonus, a trip to key markets such as Indonesia or Thailand. For riders such as Cal Crutchlow and Nicky Hayden, used to spending upwards of 3 hours on a bicycle every day, their training routine is destroyed. Those who prefer training on a motorcycle, such as Valentino Rossi or Marc Márquez, do not fare any better. They might get some time in a gym, but suffering massive jet lag, in a confusing environment where they can understand very little of the language, and surrounded by strange food, it is much more difficult to maintain focus. In a sport where attention to detail has become ever more important, the smallest mistake can be ruinous. It is no wonder that titles can go astray overseas.
The titles in all three classes are still technically up for grabs, though at very different stages in the championship chase. Moto2 is nearly settled, Johann Zarco able to wrap up the championship if he loses no more than three points to Tito Rabat. That would leave Zarco with a 75 point lead, making it mathematically possible for Rabat to tie him if he won the remaining three races. But Zarco would still win even if they tied on points, as he would have more second place finishes than the Spaniard.
Moto3 is more open, Danny Kent needing some help from Enea Bastianini to wrap up the title at Motegi. The Leopard Racing rider needs to gain 20 points on Bastianini to obtain an unassailable lead, which means he needs to either win or come second, and have Bastianini not finish the race. Kent's title will probably have to wait, with Phillip Island a more likely opportunity. With a 55-point lead, the Englishman should fly home to Europe with the championship under his belt.
That is not the case in MotoGP. Valentino Rossi leads his Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo by just 14 points, with four races and 100 points in play. Marc Márquez has already shown his willingness to play the spoiler, and at Aragon, Dani Pedrosa stepped into the fray to assume the same role. It adds spice to a clash that is already highly charged, with history between Rossi and Lorenzo at the circuit.
In 2010, Rossi beat the Spaniard in a scintillating duel, the riders exchanging paint as they swapped places in third. It was the climax of a year of bitterness between the two, culminating in Rossi's decision to leave Yamaha and head off to his ill-fated adventure at Ducati. Feeling usurped by his young teammate, and with nothing left to lose once he was leaving, Rossi was not about to roll over and help Lorenzo wrap up the title he was closing in on. Rossi had suffered serious setbacks and serious injuries that year. After Qatar, he crashed and damaged his shoulder while training, an injury that would plague him all season. Then at Mugello, he suffered a huge crash that broke his leg, causing him to miss a race for the first time in his Grand Prix career. The leg healed quickly, but the shoulder would hamper him throughout 2010.
His shoulder did not slow him at Motegi, however, Rossi pushing Lorenzo to the edge of endurance, and earning both him and his teammate a stern talking to by Yamaha management. For the next three seasons, Rossi was too far behind Lorenzo to cause him any further problems. But that began to change last year. As Rossi's form improved towards the end of 2014, the Italian gave Lorenzo a run for his money in the first few laps, before being passed by the Spaniard and having to let first Lorenzo and then Márquez go.
This year, on a much improved Yamaha M1, and in perhaps the best form of his life, Rossi should be able to make life very hard indeed for Lorenzo. Though the bitterness between the two has subsided, there is much, much more at stake now. Rossi and Lorenzo are riding for the championship, and arguably, Motegi is one of the two tracks where Lorenzo has a clear advantage, along with Valencia. Rossi's goal at Motegi is to limit his losses at the very least, or preferably even finish ahead of Lorenzo.
That will not be easy. Lorenzo has won the last two editions of the race, and finished second behind Dani Pedrosa in the two previous years. He won in 2009 as well, meaning that of the seven times he has raced Valentino Rossi at Motegi, he has only finished behind him twice. Coming off another typically imperious victory at Aragon, Lorenzo is back where he wants to be: laying down a pace so blistering that none can follow.
That, at least, was the plan until last week. Lorenzo fell heavily while training on minibikes, and suffered a sprained shoulder. The injury was diagnosed as being mild, and he has been seen in Japan at public events without a sling. No doubt Lorenzo will still have 2010 in mind, when Rossi beat him with a bad shoulder. Lorenzo will want to turn the tables on his teammate on Sunday.
Lorenzo isn't the only rider who is injured. Marc Márquez also managed to hurt himself while training, falling off his mountain bike and fracturing the fifth metacarpal in his left hand. Add in Andrea Iannone and the continuing issues with his left shoulder, and the list of walking wounded is long. Then of course there is Rossi himself, who crashed while testing the Michelins at Aragon, and suffered some nasty abrasions on his arm. At a track with some of the heaviest braking of the year – Motegi is the only track where the use of 340mm carbon brake disks is compulsory – the race will get tougher as it goes on for those who are injured. Still, it didn't slow Rossi up in 2010, so why should it hinder anyone else in 2015?
What may affect everyone is the threat of rain. September and October are the wettest months in Motegi, as tropical storms and typhoons pass through the region. There are already strong winds as a result of one typhoon passing the neighborhood, and rain could fall in its wake over the weekend. When and how that falls could be decisive for the outcome. Though it appears that Valentino Rossi is superior to Jorge Lorenzo in the wet, that does not tell the whole story.
I spoke to Lorenzo's manager Wilco Zeelenberg about conditions at Aragon, and he explained that what Lorenzo does best is exploit predictable grip. If it's dry, there is nobody faster around a track, as Lorenzo can judge precisely how much grip there is everywhere, and use all of it. That ability disappears when grip becomes unpredictable in the wet, especially when it is half-wet, half-dry, or raining in one part of the circuit, but dry in another. Even at a track like Indianapolis, where the grip differs widely from one corner to the next, Lorenzo has been known to struggle.
Those are the conditions where Rossi excels, judging the grip better as he encounters it. Where Lorenzo tiptoes around changing conditions, Rossi hits the corners harder and figures out what is possible. The ability to improvise is Rossi's strongest suit here. If it rains harder, though, then the pendulum swings back to Lorenzo once again. Zeelenberg pointed out that a fully wet track is more like a fully dry track, with a predictable amount of grip around the circuit. And if Lorenzo has had time on a wet track during practice, he will have had time to figure the circuit out.
Right now, the forecast is for heavy rain on Sunday, starting in the morning and continuing in the afternoon. But different weather services are showing different predictions, some with rain in the morning but dry in the afternoon, some the opposite, and some predicting rain on Saturday as well. Both Movistar Yamaha men will be keeping one eye on the heavens all the time this weekend.
With most of the attention will be on Rossi vs Lorenzo, it is easy to forget there are other factors to take into account. The biggest threat is likely to come from Dani Pedrosa, who has a sterling record here when not being thrown from his machine by malfunction. Pedrosa won the race twice in 2011 and 2012, and finished on the podium in 2013. He spent all last year hampered by arm pump, but that problem appears finally to have been solved. His excellent race at Aragon presaged a return to form for the Spaniard, and boosted his morale. It has been over a year since he last won a race, and he is overdue. Winning at Motegi, the home of Honda, and a place where a Yamaha has won for the last two years, would be a worthy goal to aim at for Pedrosa.
His teammate is likely to struggle with a freshly plated bone in his hand. Motegi is one of the few circuits where Marc Márquez has not won a MotoGP race, though he has finished second here twice. Márquez has suffered a torrid year or so, having crashed out of eight of the last twenty races, a DNF rate of 40%. The problem has always been the same, trying to compensate for a lack of engine braking at the rear by braking only with the front. There is only so much the front tire will take before it gives up the ghost. At a track with a lot of heavy braking, Márquez' fate looks almost sealed. Perhaps his hand injury could save him from himself, leaving him less able to put the incredible pressure on the front with the brakes.
What of the Ducatis? In the past, Motegi has been a very strong circuit for the Desmosedici. Ironically, Motegi could be the one circuit where the sacrifices made to obtain such a huge step forward could hinder the GP15. This year's Ducati will actually go round corners, but to achieve that, Gigi Dall'Igna and his engineers have had to give up some of the braking stability the GP14.2 had in bucketloads. That will hurt the GP15 down the back straight, and into the various hairpins and tight corners which litter the track. Turns 1, 3, 5, 9, 10 and 11 could all be tougher than in previous years.
Of the two Andreas, it is Andrea Dovizioso who seems to suffer most from the lack of braking stability. Andrea Iannone has less of a problem, perhaps because his injured shoulder is causing him to take a more measured approach. That has only made him faster, and Iannone could be a rider to watch at Motegi. An excellent fourth at Aragon is a good basis to go to Japan.
On paper, the track at Motegi should be a nightmare for the Suzukis. The strength of the GSX-RR is its agility, and ability to hold a tight line through a corner. Acceleration is where they are getting hurt most of all, and a track like Motegi which is all stop-and-go should be tough for Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. There are consistent rumors of yet another engine upgrade for Motegi, this time something bigger than the previous smaller changes which have come. At Aragon, Aleix Espargaro and his crew found some real improvement in rear grip, and this should help the Spaniard limit the damage. If he can enough drive to get in the slipstream of the Hondas, Yamahas or Ducatis, then he could pose a real threat on the brakes. Grip was what Viñales was lacking, but if his team can learn something from Espargaro's side of the garage, things could get interesting indeed.
All in all, there is much to look forward to this weekend, including the prospect of one or more titles being wrapped up in the smaller classes. But the highlight of the weekend will be the MotoGP race, and how the two championship contenders handle the pressure. A good result here is paramount, to carry momentum into the next couple of weekends. Many a dream has been shattered around Motegi, and many more could go the same way. There is everything to play for.
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