For nearly half a century, Japanese motorcycles have dominated the premier class of motorcycle racing. Since Giacomo Agostini switched to Yamaha and beat his former teammate Phil Read on an MV Agusta in 1975, Japanese manufacturers have won every single rider championship bar one, Casey Stoner's 2007 title won with Ducati. Honda, Yamaha, and to a lesser extent, Suzuki, ruled grand prix racing with a rod of iron.
But that control has started to wane over the past few years. Since the return of 1000cc four strokes, European manufacturers have slowly started to assert themselves in MotoGP. Ducati started the shift after Gigi Dall'Igna took over as head of Ducati Corse, Andrea Iannone winning the first race for the Desmosedici in 2016, six years after Casey Stoner had departed the Italian factory, and their winning ways with him.
The following year, Andrea Dovizioso would win six races on the Desmosedici, and go on to challenge for the title every year through 2019. KTM were the next to succeed, getting on the podium for the first time in 2018, winning multiple races in 2020, and winning every year since then.
Aprilia have been the last to join the party, Aleix Espargaro taking the Noale factory's first podium in 2021, and their and his first victory in Argentina earlier this year. With Espargaro currently second in the championship to Fabio Quartararo, and Maverick Viñales now also having had two podiums on the RS-GP, the Aprilia is now truly a competitive package.
The rise of the European factories has gone hand in hand with the decline of the fortunes of Japanese manufacturers. Ducati, KTM, and now also Aprilia are taking more and more podiums from Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki, and even forcing them out of the top ten.
That decline has been particularly marked this year. At the season opener in Qatar, six of the top ten bikes were Japanese, with Pol Espargaro taking third spot on the Repsol Honda. In Indonesia and Portimão, half the top ten were riding Japanese bikes, with Fabio Quartararo winning the race in Portugal for Yamaha. Austin and Jerez saw four Japanese bikes in the top ten, with Alex Rins and Fabio Quartararo finishing second respectively in those races.
Since Le Mans, there have been three or fewer Japanese bikes in the top ten, however. That has been particularly severe in the last three races, with just two bikes in the top ten at Assen and Silverstone, and only race winner Fabio Quartararo in the top ten at the Sachsenring.
There are certainly mitigating circumstances for some of these numbers. Though Marc Marquez was still riding either injured or in pain, he was consistently capable of finishing inside the top ten. Beyond Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha riders have struggled, Andrea Dovizioso failing to adapt to the Yamaha M1, Darryn Binder coming straight from Moto3 to being a rookie in MotoGP, and Franco Morbidelli seems to have lost his mojo ever since injuring the ligaments in his knee last year. If Quartararo crashes or struggles, Yamaha are out of luck.
Only Suzuki have provided any kind of consistency, with Joan Mir and Alex Rins regulars in the top ten, and Rins having made a couple of podium appearances. But they, too have had their problems, especially since Suzuki announced they would be withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of this season.
Why have the Japanese manufacturers been struggling so badly in recent years? At Silverstone, Andrea Dovizioso had a very clear explanation for why the European factories appear to have grown much stronger in recent years. "It's not from now. I think this change started in the last five, six years," Dovizioso told us. "It’s clear. The structure of the European manufacturers is completely different to the Japanese, and how much the Europeans are pushing and how many risks the Europeans are taking is completely different to the Japanese. That changed MotoGP completely."
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