A surprisingly bright Motegi greeted the premier class on Sunday but the 24-lap race wasn’t shaping up to be a lazy lie-down in the sun, with the rebellious outsiders on the front row and the title contenders spread throughout the pack by the heavy rain on Saturday. In the end the drama didn’t quite unfold in the way we expected, but Jack Miller won’t have minded for a second, the Australian making a fast start and soon dominating proceedings to secure an impeccable first victory of the season. The Ducati man became the sixth different winner in 2022, which unfortunately also meant the return of the dreaded shoey. Brad Binder did his first front row start justice with a last lap attack for second, which returned him to the podium for the first time since the opening night in Qatar. Jorge Martin added another Ducati to the podium, in another bittersweet Sunday for the Italian factory – but more on that later.
As a taster of things to come, the warm-up lap saw Aleix Espargaro shaking his head in disbelief and entering pitlane instead of taking his spot on the grid. There was little time to clear the confusion as the lights went off and Brad Binder’s lightning start stole the show, the South African taking the lead from poleman Marc Marquez into the first corner. A cautions Marquez allowed Martin to get past at turn two and the Pramac man went on to lead the way by the end of the opening lap, while Marquez continued his early struggles, encouraging Miller and Miguel Oliveira to sweep past as well. Marquez wasn’t the only rider losing ground early on, as fellow front row starter Johann Zarco dropped to seventh after a poor start, behind Maverick Viñales. Meanwhile, amongst the title contenders, Fabio Quartararo held station in eighth position, ahead of Pol Espargaro and Luca Marini, with Pecco Bagnaia climbing into 11th, ahead of a fast-starting Alex Rins and with Enea Bastianini also making up some places early on. The replays also soon clarified that an electronic problem had prompted Aleix Espargaro’s impromptu trip through pitlane to change bikes, the Aprilia man joining the race at the back of the field, eight seconds behind the leader.
Back at the front, Martin was untroubled early on, but Miller was making fast progress and was up to second by the third lap, attacking Martin just one lap later to take the lead. The two Ducatis had a slight advantage ahead of the factory KTMs and the Honda of Marquez, while Viñales dropped almost a second behind the four leaders in the early stages, holding back a sizeable group. The group included most of the title contenders, but outside of the top eight, with Quartararo unable to fend off Marini, while Bagnaia was under pressure from Bastianini in the early battle for 11th position.
By lap six, a rampant Miller had quickly extended a half second advantage over Martin, who in turn had almost two seconds on Oliveira, Binder and Marquez. Marquez’s soft rear gamble didn’t seem to pay off early on, the Honda man losing tenths here and there on the KTMs, but was under little threat from behind, where Viñales was struggling to close the 1.5 seconds gap to his compatriot and focused on fending off the Ducati of Marini. A tough lap eight for Zarco dropped the Frenchman down to 14th position, after running wide on a couple of occasions, allowing Quartararo to get back 8th place, but the world champion was at the helm of a feisty group including Pol Espargaro, Bagnaia, Bastianini and Marco Bezzecchi. Meanwhile, Aleix Espargaro was still outside the top 20 but not unrealistically far from point-scoring positions.
Back at the front, Miller kept the fastest laps rolling, building a buffer of over a second and a half over Martin by lap 10, which suddenly doubled one lap later, helped by a mistake from the Spaniard. However, Martin also had a two-second advantage over the friendly fire between Binder and Oliveira, with Marquez biding his time behind the familiarly orange machines. If there were few changes at the top end early on, the halfway point saw Marini overhaul Viñales to claim sixth position, while Quartararo was also closing in on the Spaniard and Bastianini and Bagnaia had joined the top 10 not too far back.
The next few laps weren’t particularly eventful at the front, with the top three men separated by significant gaps and Marquez sniffing around Oliveira but struggling to find a gap and presumably starting to struggle with his fitness as well. On the other hand, it was quite eventful for the Suzuki squad, with Takuya Tsuda’s machine catching fire on lap 12 and Rins retiring three laps later with some yet-mysterious tech issues – an unfortunate farewell on home soil.
With five laps remaining, it looked like we might finally get some more action in the battle for second, where Martin seemed to suffer and was dropping back towards Binder, as well as the fight for seventh, where Viñales was reeled in by Quartararo, and a familiar squabble for ninth, between Bagnaia and Bastianini, rising the tension in the Ducati garage once more. However, the first move came from Marquez, the Spaniard finally attacking Oliveira at turn nine to claim fourth with three laps to go, showing some surprisingly solid late pace to fend off Oliveira and Marini in the closing stages. Binder soon followed his example to demote Martin at turn one, at the start of the final lap, giving the Spaniard no chance to retaliate.
Miller was long gone by this point and the three podium men took the chequered flag with no more drama. Marquez secured fourth, some three and a half seconds later, while Oliveira and Marini traded blows throughout the final lap, with the KTM man eventually taking fifth. Viñales resisted late pressure from Quartararo to keep seventh position, although things were close to ending in disaster for the Frenchman, when Bagnaia saw a gap at turn nine and lost control very close to the Yamaha’s rear tyre. Bagnaia's last lap crash allowed Bastianini to inherit ninth place, with Bezzecchi rounding out the top 10. Although Espargaro benefitted from his rival’s late misfortune to climb into 16th place, he was over six seconds behind the final point-scoring position.
Although the title contenders had nothing to do with the fight for victory this time around, Quartararo’s lowkey race to eighth place allowed him to extend his lead in the championship to 18 points over Bagnaia, with Espargaro dropping 25 points back. Bastianini conceded only one point, but with a deficit of 49 points, he is running out of time to mount a proper challenge.
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