It has been three long years since MotoGP last embarked on its Pacific tour, the flyway races in Asia and Australia which form the crescendo which build toward the season finale, and invariably decide the MotoGP championship. So the Motegi race, first of four overseas rounds, provided both a solid benchmark for the progress made over the last two and a half seasons, and gave us a foretaste of what is to come.
Motegi also changed the complexion of the championship. The importance of each race ramps up exponentially, as there are fewer and fewer points available. Closing gaps in the championship gets harder each race, the penalties for mistakes harsher, the rewards for success richer. Motegi mattered more than Aragon, and next Sunday, Buriram will matter even more than Motegi.
What we saw in Japan was a masterful display of riding, Jack Miller rising head and shoulders above the rest. We saw two Ducatis on the podium, though both of them the 'wrong' Ducatis in terms of the championship. We saw Marc Marquez complete a MotoGP race without pain for the first time since 2019 (and frankly, probably for much longer than that), and give a taste of what he is still capable of.
More significantly, we saw the momentum in the championship swing back in Fabio Quartararo's favor due to the fickle nature of events. Aleix Espargaro suffered the consequences of human error, a mistake by an engineer forcing him to swap bikes. Pecco Bagnaia was a victim of the vagaries of the weather and the condensed calendar, missing out on track time to sort out a setup that would allow him to be competitive. Quartararo, meanwhile, soldiered on, building on the start of his season and eking out the points needed to strengthen his hand in the title chase. There is still a long way to go. But Quartararo leaves Japan with much better odds of retaining his MotoGP crown than he had on the flight into Tokyo.
Let's start with Jack Miller. Since he adopted the more typical Ducati base setting also used by Pecco Bagnaia at the Barcelona test, Miller has gone from strength to strength. In the nine races including Barcelona, Miller had just two podiums and a total of 65 points, and was ninth in the championship, 82 points behind the leader, Fabio Quartararo. In the seven races since Barcelona, Miller has had four podiums, including the win at Motegi, and scored 94 points. He is now fifth in the championship, 60 points behind Quartararo.
It is rare that a rider is utterly dominant on a weekend, but Miller was pretty much unstoppable from the start. Off to a strong start in FP1, quick in the wet in FP2, it was only in qualifying that he came up short, ending up seventh on the grid. It didn't matter all that much: after trying the hard rear tire in morning warm up – one of only five riders to do so – Miller got a strong start, took three laps to get past everyone in front of him, and disappeared. Grinding out a pace in the low to mid 1'45s, he had a gap of nearly 4 seconds by the halfway mark. From there, he cruised to victory, still clearly faster than anyone on track.
"It went better than planned, to be honest," Miller told the press conference with more than touch of understatement. "I felt strong all weekend. I knew my pace from the Friday practice, and even this morning in the warmup I was able to put in a heap of consistent 45’s on that H. Felt like that was the race tire. Once I got going, I seemed to be able to pick off the blokes relatively quickly. But once I hit the front, I was able to sort of just sit at my pace. I knew where I could push. I knew where I needed to manage it. The bike worked amazing all day. Rode out of my skin, that’s for certain."
The hard rear tire was clearly the right choice for the race. Of the five riders who tried it in warm up – Miller, teammate Pecco Bagnaia, Marc Marquez, Luca Marini, and Miguel Oliveira – all but Marquez would race it. In addition to Miller winning, Oliveira finished fifth, Marini ended sixth, and Bagnaia was running in ninth until he crashed out trying to pass Fabio Quartararo.
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