In many ways, the MotoGP season is structured like a Hollywood action blockbuster. There is preseason testing, the opening sequence in which we are introduced to the main cast of characters. After the opening credits, we start off by flying across continents to a range of exotic and colorful locations, where the first threads of plot are laid out, some of which will turn out to be red herrings later in the season. There then follows a regular sequence of dramatic action sequences, the narrative of the season taking dramatic twists and turns along the way.
If MotoGP is a Hollywood blockbuster, then the Pacific triple header of flyaway races is the frantic last 10 minutes, where the protagonists face off again and again leaving the audience barely a moment to catch their breath. It is where the battle for MotoGP reaches its crescendo, the drama of the season raised to another level and compressed into the briefest of windows. The flyaways are intense.
If the fans feel the triple header takes its toll on them, just imagine what it's like for the riders. Back-to-back races within Europe are usually manageable, as the riders are only a few hours away from their homes, and spend the weekends in their motorhomes, which are a home away from home. For the flyaways, the riders spend four weeks on the road, moving from hotel to hotel. They kick off the trip with a 15-hour flight to Japan, follow it up with an 11-hour flight from Japan to Melbourne, then another 9-hour flight to Malaysia.
When they're not on a plane, their teams have sponsor events lined up for them in the all-important Southeast Asian market. There is no time to train, the food is different, the water is different, and they are in and out of air-conditioned spaces, moving from relatively temperate-but-humid Japan to four-seasons-in-one-day Phillip Island, then ending up in the sweltering tropical sauna which is Malaysia. Shaking hands with strangers, spending hours on end in planes, breathing the recycled air of hundreds of travelers, several of which are statistically certain to have some form of contagious illness. And three weekends operating at peak concentration and effort place their demands on mind and body as well. If you ever wonder about athletes talking about giving a mathematically impossible 110%, this is what it looks like.
You can't overstate the importance of the races, either. Mistakes become ever more costly, because there are fewer chances to rectify those mistakes as each race passes. With 25 fewer points on the table after every race, the points still left become ever more valuable. And there is no time to recover from injury either. Fall off and break something at Motegi and you kiss your title chances goodbye. Hurt yourself at Phillip Island – and if you do hurt yourself at Phillip Island, you really hurt yourself because of the speeds involved - and you can pretty much forget about it too. Sepang's saving grace is the extra week off before Valencia, but even then, there's no time to recover from a serious injury.
What this means is that momentum is vital. The rider coming in to the flyaways with recent successes and a points advantage is not one, but two steps ahead. They can afford to manage risk better, and need worry less if conditions confound them and reduce practice. Momentum offers a cushion to help carry them through the flyaways.
Coming in to Motegi, there is no doubt that it is Marc Márquez who is carrying the momentum. Coming off the back of two wins, and leading the championship by 16 points, the pendulum is swinging very much in Márquez' favor. As it has been since the summer break. After the first seven races of the season, Maverick Viñales had outscored Márquez by 23 points. With Viñales suffering a DNF at Assen and finishing fourth at the Sachsenring, Márquez managed to claw back 28 points in two races, leading by 5 points going into the summer break.
Since the summer break, Márquez has been unleashed. In five races, he has vastly outscored his rivals: 23 points more than Viñales, 28 points more than Pedrosa, 46 points more than Valentino Rossi. Yes, Rossi missed Misano due to injury, but Márquez had a DNF at Silverstone when his engine blew up.
Winners and losers
Only Andrea Dovizioso has been able to keep Márquez within range. The Italian has ceded only 10 points to Márquez since the summer, though unlike the Repsol Honda rider, Dovizioso has finished every race. Mediocre results at Brno and Aragon have proved costly, however.
Dovizioso is not the only Ducati rider to have been strong in the second half of the season. In the nine races before the summer break, Jorge Lorenzo scored 64 points fewer than Marc Márquez, and was ninth in the championship behind Johan Zarco, Jonas Folger, and Pramac Ducati rider Danilo Petrucci, the third rider on a GP17. In the five races since the summer break, Lorenzo ranks sixth, behind the two Repsol Hondas, the two Movistar Yamahas, and his factory Ducati teammate. Lorenzo has still given up 54 points to Marc Márquez, but he has also crashed out of the lead at Misano. Things are looking up for the Spaniard.
It is the Movistar Yamahas which have suffered the most in the second half of the season. Viñales and Rossi went from second and fourth respectively to third and fifth in points accumulated, and the drop was all in the last five races. Rossi was 10 points behind Márquez after 9 races, but scored 46 fewer points than Márquez since the break. Viñales was just 5 points behind Márquez after 9 races, but has been outscored by Márquez by 23 points in the last 5 races.
Tough second half
The situation is worrying for Viñales, especially. Since the season resumed at Brno, he has only been on the podium twice, at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone. Márquez has had three wins and a second in that period, and Dovizioso has won twice and had a third place as well. If momentum counts, it is very much against the Movistar Yamaha rider.
Motegi is the site of the first battle in the overseas triple header, and the results there will be crucial. The weather looks set to be thoroughly miserable, with rain forecast for all three days. That will at least mean that the riders won't lose much time working on a dry setup, if it's going to rain all weekend. But rain means a greater risk of falling, and falls can mean injuries. The pressure is on, and the rider who bears it best will benefit most.
Below is a breakdown of the points of the 10 best riders for the first 7 races, last 7 races, first 9 races, and last 5 races of the season so far.
|Total points after 14 races, championship standings|
|Points from first 7 races (Qatar to Barcelona)|
|Points from last 7 races (Assen to Aragon)|
|Points from first 9 races (races before summer break, Qatar to Sachsenring)|
|Points from last 5 races (after summer break, Brno to Aragon)|
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