It was billed by the respected Italian website GPOne.com as "The Grand Prix Of Fear" and finally it's here. Unless something extremely untoward happens - highly unlikely, but the zone is one of the most geologically active regions in the world - by Friday evening, everyone will have gotten over themselves and we'll be talking about bikes on track again.
There are still plenty of signs of advanced paranoia in the paddock, however. The Italian media contingent is reduced to just a few brave souls, while the Spanish media is a little better represented, but still much thinner on the ground. The English-speaking media is actually a little more numerous than originally planned: out of sheer frustration with the panic-mongering being spread about by some of the more paranoid sections of the paddock, veteran MotoGP journalist Michael Scott has added Motegi to his itinerary, a race he would otherwise have covered from home.
The vast majority of riders are present, and all of the crew for the MotoGP teams, but a fair number of mechanics are missing from the support classes. In Moto2, for example, Alex de Angelis' team are all at home in Italy, their duties being taken over by local Japanese technicians for the weekend. In the 125cc class, the Mahindra squad only have their team manager and their riders with them, the mechanics having elected to stay at home, their places taken by temporary mechanics hired especially for this weekend.
Ducati have brought their own specialists with them, with sampling machines located in each garage analyzing radiation levels constantly. A number of riders are walking around looking particularly scruffy, intending to dump their clothes at Tokyo airport before they leave. A lot of people have smuggled food or water with them, to supplement the food at the track and in the hotels. The most egregious example was the Gresini team. Hiroshi Aoyama rolled his eyes during the press conference when he talked about it: "My team brought a huge amount of water," he said, "I don't know how much it costs!"
And of course, there was an earthquake on Thursday evening at around 7pm local time, just to add to the thrill of being there. Originally reported as a 5.6 magnitude shaker, it was later downgraded to a 5.1, with several people reporting that they felt the earth move beneath their feet. The quake was not strong enough to do any damage, though, Rizla Suzuki team boss Paul Denning quipping on Twitter that he didn't even spill his beer during the quake. Many present didn't even feel the quake, with some people present surprised to have missed it.
A quick trawl through the archives of the US Geological Survey turns up the reason that so many people missed the quake. There have been magnitude 4+ quakes within 150 km of Mito at almost every Japanese Grand Prix since the series returned to Motegi in 2004. The earth has shook on at least one day of each event, 2007 taking the biscuit, with 3 quakes stronger than magnitude 4 on the Friday before the race and a magnitude 5 on the Thursday. Earthquakes are so common in the region that you only really notice them when you start to pay attention.
But apart from talk about the perils of Motegi, there were a couple of other subjects that were vexing the paddock. The time set by Valentino Rossi during the private test at Jerez was one such subject, with Rossi denying in the press conference that his times were much to write home about. The track, he said, had been a little bit dirty, and so the lap time had not been "fantastic." But the team had got a lot of work done on the rider position weight distribution, Rossi said, later telling MCN's Matt Birt that he felt this was the key to understanding the Ducati. He was not happy with his position on the bike, and was looking to move a little forward on the bike, with the tank currently the limiting factor for his position.
Ironically, a similar move is what turned around Casey Stoner's season in 2010 on the Ducati. At Aragon, he and his team moved his position on the bike by just a couple of centimeters, and they suddenly found the front-end feel that Stoner had been missing. The Australian went on to win three of the remaining six rounds from then on, the relatively minor change having achieved a major improvement. Conceivably, Rossi's experimentation at Jerez may have found a similar solution, with better riding position allowing him to get more weight over the front. Whether the team have found the magic bullet - and whether that change will transfer successfully from the GP12 to the GP11.1 - should become apparent on Friday, when Rossi takes to the track.
Much focus also on Jorge Lorenzo, and his increasingly uphill task of defending his title. In the press conference, Lorenzo acknowledged the enormity of the task ahead, especially at a track like Motegi. The long straights with tight corners leading on to them are exactly where the Yamahas are losing out to the Hondas, the M1 down on both top speed and acceleration out of slow corners. But, Lorenzo said, there were still 100 points to play for, and he had to keep believing.
Favorite for Sunday's race remains Casey Stoner, and the championship leader was due to be at the press conference. But a delay to his flight meant he didn't land until well after the affair had finished, causing Lorenzo to joke that he had suddenly become the championship leader - in the MotoGP press conference, the championship leader is always given the central seat of the five. The Honda is both fast in a straight line and strong out of the corners, and Stoner is on a roll at the moment.
Honda badly wants a win at the circuit it owns, not having had a victory here since 2004, when Makoto Tamada took victory on the Bridgestone-shod RC211V. Stoner is their best bet of breaking their unlucky streak at home, with the only minor fly in the ointment the fact that Motegi will be the first race that Stoner has been without his wife Adriana since 2007. With Adriana pregnant, the couple decided that she would remain in Australia while Stoner raced at Motegi. The Australian told the press at Aragon that it shouldn't be a problem, but sometimes, breaking habits and rituals can upset the rhythm that a rider gets into over a weekend. Motegi 2011 will be a general rehearsal for Stoner's future life, attending the races without his wife (and soon child) and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. On the evidence so far, it would be a foolish man who bet against him.
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