MotoGP is about to enter the toughest stretch of the season. Three races on three consecutive weekends is tough enough. But three races separated by three, seven plus hour flights, kicking off with a race in a time zone seven hours ahead of the place most riders live. So riders, mechanics and team staff all start off a triple header struggling with jet lag and facing a grueling schedule.
And they are thrown in the deep end from the very start. Only the MotoGP riders can afford to stay at the Twin Ring circuit near Motegi. Most of the team staff stay in Mito, an hour's drive from the track, meaning they have to travel for two hours a day. Up in the hills in the middle of Japan's main island, and sufficiently far north for temperatures to drop in the fall, Motegi is notorious for poor weather. It is usually cold, often damp, and sometimes ravaged by typhoons.
It is not just challenging on the riders and teams, however. The road circuit which sits half inside, half outside the oval course, giving the Twin Ring its name, is like Le Mans on steroids. A series of straights of varying lengths, connected by a series of precisely engineered corners, as befits a circuit designed specifically as a test track.
It is the toughest circuit on the calendar for brakes, the bikes spending 33 of the roughly 105 seconds of each lap hard on the brakes. The use of the 340mm carbon disks has been made mandatory by the FIM, after incidents in the past which saw brakes overheat and riders end up in the gravel. One of the more worrying of these came in 2012, when Ben Spies was on the factory Yamaha. Spies emerged relatively uninjured, but very shaken up by the crash.
Three points in particular stress the brakes: turns 1 and 5 are tough, coming after the bikes reach speeds of around 280 km/h. But Turn 11, the hard right hander at the end of the long back straight is particularly challenging, bikes hitting 310 km/h, and riders having to brake hard into the turn as the track starts to fall away. It also has one of the most harrowing points of the year, with the wall very close to the end of the straight. One mistake there, and it could all end very badly.
A track which places such incredible demands on the brakes is also going to pose a severe challenge for Michelin. Fortunately, the French tire maker has a significant amount of data from the circuit, as the Japanese factories will often use Motegi for private tests with their test riders. The front tire has to withstand a real beating, especially in the middle of the tire. It has not to collapse too much under braking, to allow the riders to turn the bike in. Michelin have brought a front tire specifically for that purpose, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, when the riders roll out on the new rubber.
Made for Honda?
Hard braking should suit the Hondas. It is the one place where riders can make up ground on the RC213V, using its superior braking to get back the time lost in acceleration. The challenge for the Hondas – all five of them, now that Jack Miller is back from a hand injury – is trying to minimize those losses. In addition to hard braking, Motegi also features a lot of straights preceded by low-gear corners. Finding a compromise where they don't sacrifice too much braking in search of a little more rear grip will be crucial.
In theory, Marc Márquez could wrap up the 2016 MotoGP title at Motegi, but that relies on a sequence of events of varying probability. First of all, he would have to win the race. Márquez has won twice at Motegi, but only in 125s and Moto2. It is the only track he has not won at in MotoGP, however.
To gain the necessary 75 point lead, Márquez would not only have to win, the Movistar Yamaha riders would have to finish off the podium. For Jorge Lorenzo, finishing fourth would put him out of the championship, but Valentino Rossi would also have to finish no better than fifteenth. The chances of all three of those events happening in the same race seems rather remote.
Oh Dani boy
While Marc Márquez may not be Honda's best hope of a victory at their home circuit, his teammate is a more likely candidate. Dani Pedrosa has won three times at the Japanese circuit, including last year. His light weight means he stresses brakes and tires less, making him stronger as the race progresses. That can help him compensate for the lack of drive out of corners, but with HRC having improved the electronics in the second half of the season, getting drive is becoming less of an issue.
Would Pedrosa make way for Marc Márquez, to allow the Spaniard to wrap up the title in Motegi? And would Honda ask him to do so? The answer to both those questions is an emphatic no. Honda has said for many years that they do not issue team orders (beyond the normal "try not to take each other out"), and Pedrosa has plenty of reasons to disobey. The Spaniard has had a tough season so far since Michelin changed the tires in the aftermath of Argentina, and has only just refound his feet. Pedrosa needs results, and wants to win. He will stand aside for no man, teammate or not.
The biggest obstacle to a Márquez title are the two Movistar Yamaha riders. Between them, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have won four of the last eight Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi, much to the chagrin of HRC. This year, the bike could suit Motegi even better, with good drive out of the slow corners and more than acceptable braking.
Blue on blue
Will it be Lorenzo or will it be Rossi? That is a tougher question. Rossi is clearly in better form, the reason why he is leading his teammate in the championship. Rossi does better in the colder conditions, not needing the feeling from the edge of the tires which a warmer track tends to provide. But when Lorenzo has been fast this year, he has been pretty much unstoppable. Last time out, Lorenzo finished ahead of Rossi, and so it is advantage Lorenzo at the moment. But Rossi will not let that stand, and as he has four wins to Lorenzo's three at Motegi – albeit three of those between 2001 and 2003 – he must feel he has the stronger hand.
Strong braking, hard acceleration, and high top speeds? That is a recipe which has Ducati written all over it. The Desmosedici GP16 has been a rocketship all year long, especially at tracks such as Motegi. The winglets have provided extra drive out of corners, and though the bike is not as strong in braking as the GP14 was – keep an eye on Eugene Laverty this weekend – it is good enough to hold on to the advantage gained coming on to the straights.
Could Andrea Dovizioso become the ninth winner of a MotoGP race this season? Motegi is undoubtedly his best chance since Austria. Ducati have notched up four victories at the track since they joined MotoGP, and with Dovizioso's prowess in braking, he is clearly in with a shot.
Dovizioso has Hector Barbera alongside him this weekend, replacing the still recovering Andrea Iannone. Barbera has been the other surprise package of 2016, but switching bikes will make his task that little bit tougher. The GP16 and GP14.2 (or rather, GP14.3, there being enough differences between the current bike and the bike last raced in 2014) are sufficiently different to complicate jumping from one to another, and Barbera will find he needs to adjust his style to adapt.
What of the Suzukis? Maverick Viñales' confidence keeps growing as he continues to put in ever stronger performances. The GSX-RR is a much better bike than it was last year, and has adequate acceleration to match outstanding handling. What's more, it is going to be cold, and that should help solve the lack of drive grip the Suzukis have been suffering. Viñales and teammate Aleix Espargaro could be something of a dark horse this weekend.
Over at Aprilia, the RS-GP fundamentally lacks too much horsepower to be a factor at Motegi. But both Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista will at least have two identical bikes each, Aprilia having brought new chassis for their spare bikes. That will make their jobs a good deal easier, allowing them to work on set up and build on the progress made since Misano. Aprilia are staking their claim as top ten regulars, and Motegi could be a track where both riders manage that.
Of the satellite riders, Cal Crutchlow is the man to watch. Motegi is a race track where Crutchlow has always been strong, and his run of form in the second half of this season has been impressive. Like Márquez, Crutchlow is strong on the brakes, their two crews often comparing data. If the LCR Honda team can find him a little acceleration, there is no reason he can't run close to the podium.
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