At the post-qualifying press conference at Motegi, Jorge Lorenzo reminded his audience of the last two times he had ridden in the wet. At Le Mans, he had had his worst race finish since his rookie season in 2008. Then at Assen, his growing confidence saw him get launched off the bike at over 250 km/h, and break a collarbone in his fall. So when the MotoGP riders took to the track at a rain-soaked Motegi, Jorge Lorenzo had every reason to be cautious. He worked carefully building his rhythm for the first 20 minutes or so of the extended practice/qualifying session, before pushing on hard, eventually destroying the opposition with a lap just under 8 seconds off the dry race lap record. It was a testament to just how quickly Lorenzo can recover his confidence.
It was good just to have any action at the Japanese circuit. After fog had prevented the medical helicopter from arriving at the circuit on Friday, making practice impossible, teams and riders headed to the Motegi Twin Ring with hope in their hearts on Saturday morning. The fog was gone, and when the medical helicopter arrived at the track, a cheer went up in the media center. Practice was on.
Except it wasn't, at least not right away. The fog had departed, making way for torrential rain. The safety car circulated forlornly several times on Saturday morning, throwing up streams of spray in its wake. With the rain easing off towards lunchtime, a new schedule was drawn up: an extended qualifying session in the afternoon (75 minutes for the MotoGP class), followed by a longer practice session on Sunday morning (40 minutes for Moto2 and Moto3, 50 minutes for MotoGP), and the race to be run as normal.
Only one rider managed to get within a second of Lorenzo: his championship rival Marc Marquez. Marquez was his usual blisteringly fast self, getting quickly up to speed in both conditions and at a track he has never ridden a MotoGP bike at. Yet Marquez also revealed his weakness at Motegi: though he was fast, he ran off track often, still struggling to learn the reference points at a track where speeds are much higher in MotoGP than they are in Moto2. Along the back straight - and despite it being soaking wet - the MotoGP bikes were regularly reaching 300 km/h, while the fastest Moto2 bikes were just topping 250 km/h. With more weight and more power, working out where you need to be braking is a delicate balancing act, especially at a track like Motegi which is all stop-and-go.
This is a problem Marquez will face during the race as well. Though he has 50 minutes of practice on Sunday morning - weather permitting - to work on finding those references, the problem could be magnified if the track is dry, as expected. The braking markers he found on Saturday will be useless, and he will have to start all over again, finding the limits with slick tires and carbon brakes. If he doesn't get his braking markers perfect come race time, he could well end up running wide somewhere, and losing a lot of places. Jorge Lorenzo must know this, and will be pushing hard from the start. If Marquez tries too hard to follow, he risks finding himself running into the gravel, and losing a lot of points to the reigning champion.
On a side note, the carbon brakes being used at Motegi are the extra large 340mm carbon disks allowed especially for Motegi because of how hard the brakes are worked at the circuit. Ben Spies - who sadly announced his retirement from racing earlier today - demonstrated just how big a problem is at Motegi last year, crashing out after his brakes overheated. All of the riders tested the larger disks at Misano, and all are likely to run them at Motegi. The Yamaha men would like to have them at other circuits as well, but that is unlikely to happen.
The one garage where the rain was met with smiles was at Ducati. On a wet track, all of the Ducati's weak points - hard to turn, chatter from the rear, a tendency to wheelie, poor corner speed - become irrelevant, and riding hard becomes more about finding the limits of adhesion than the limits of chassis and engine performance. That is something which Nicky Hayden still excels at, as he was all too keen to demonstrate. The Kentucky Kid qualified on the front row of the grid in the rain, and afterwards expressed mild disappointment. A pole position had been possible, he felt, but he had failed to gain extra speed from the softer of the two wet tire compounds. A row behind him sits factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso, also having had a strong qualifying. But with race day looking like it will be dry, the Ducati men are unlikely to finish better than they qualified.
Where Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso were in their element, Cal Crutchlow struggled badly, especially towards the end of the session as the riders focused on putting in a fast time. The Tech 3 Yamaha man put on a new soft front wet tire, but suffered a problem with it on his out lap. He pushed on for several laps, but the tire problem caused him to run wide several times during his final time attack, leaving him way down in 11th, his worst qualifying of the year. Dry weather is Crutchlow's best hope for Motegi, but he has his work cut out for him.
Wet weather came as a godsend to Scott Redding, returning to action just a week after fracturing his wrist at Phillip Island. With the fog causing the first day of practice to be canceled, Redding had another day to allow his wrist to recover. In the wet, Redding was immediately fast and much more comfortable than expected, running close to the front. But as the track started to dry a little, grip became less predictable, and Redding backed off a little, not willing to risk another crash on the already injured wrist. Yet he was confident for the race, knowing that his wrist would hold up wet or dry.
Why did Redding come and race at Phillip Island? After his operation, he thought his chances of becoming champion had gone, but the events of the MotoGP race changed his mind. Seeing Jorge Lorenzo make up 25 points on Marc Marquez after the Repsol Honda rider's team made an epic mistake, Redding knew he still had a chance. If Lorenzo was not prepared to give up on the title when he was 18 points down on Marquez, why should he, Redding, give up on the Moto2 title when he was just 16 points behind Pol Espargaro?
Redding's gamble may pay off. While Redding will have to start from down in 15th, and the 5th row of the grid, Pol Espargaro is only two rows ahead of him. Espargaro will start from 7th, and given the superb starts Redding has been making in recent races, that will give him heart. For Espargaro, the morning practice will be key. In the dry, he will be looking to measure his real pace, and see it against that of Scott Redding. The championship is not over yet.
While everyone was glad to have some action happening on track, there was also some controversy off the track as well. Marc Marquez was once again the cause, the young Spaniard having turned up to Motegi with a special helmet design. Meant as a tribute to Japan, it features a drawing of Marquez pulling the corner of his eyes sideways, in an imitation of Asian facial features.
Predictably, the picture - and the t-shirt Marquez wore when he posted a photograph of his helmet on Twitter - proved to be extremely divisive. Many, including many fans all over Asia, as well as in the US and UK, saw the drawing as offensive, seeing it not as a tribute but as mocking Asians. That action, as one Asian blogger pointed out, was used in the past to ridicule Asians and people of Asian origin. Others saw no harm in the image, regarding it as meant with humor, rather than with malice.
It is certain that Marquez meant no harm with the image, and was completely unaware that it could cause offense. Marquez and his manager, Emilio Alzamora, had come up with the idea, and when they sent it to Shoei to be painted onto the helmet, the Japanese helmet company had not remarked upon the design. Honda were less amused, but by that time, it was too late to do anything about it.
Though clearly, Marquez did not mean to cause offense, his choice of tribute displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the global nature of the sport. In Spain, as it is in Italy, the action of pulling the corners of the eyes is not regarded as offensive to Asians, and so Marquez and his management didn't think twice about putting such an image on his helmet. Had they been aware of the cultural sensitivities of a global audience, they would never have even considered it, or else they would have abandoned the idea after checking with someone who was not Spanish. They could have known that there could have been a problem, however: in 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the Spanish basketball team got into a lot of trouble over a photo of the entire team doing the same thing. That does not appear to have filtered through.
Whether those who object are being overly sensitive or not, Marquez' actions have caused some damage to the sport. Simple ignorance of the fact that this is a global sport, with a global audience, has meant that Marquez' helmet has upset a sizable section of the audience. It makes MotoGP look more like a Spanish backwater than a global sport, and will do severe damage to attempts to attract global sponsorship. If there is one thing major international sponsors do not want to be associated with, it is racism. Whether Marquez' helmet is racist or not is frankly irrelevant, it is how sponsors and the customers they hope to reach perceive his helmet which counts. There was enough anger among a wide section of fans at Marquez' helmet for the issue to be taken seriously.
If something similar had happened in another sport, there would have been serious consequences. If this had happened in the NFL or NBA, for example, Marquez would have likely been suspended and sent on a racial sensitivity course. If this was soccer in the UK or Germany, Marquez would have been called in to the office of the organizing body and told in very clear terms that he should think more carefully.
Clearly Marquez meant no offense with his helmet, but given the cultural sensitivities involved, offense was taken by some sections of fans, especially by many Asian fans. The biggest problem is that Marquez was unaware. He could perhaps be forgiven for that - he is still relatively young - but a manager's job is to protect their rider and prevent them from getting in such situations in the first place. When Marquez - or whoever it was in his circle - came up with the idea, someone should have taken Marquez aside and explained to him that whatever his intention, it could all too easily be misinterpreted, and the lighthearted intention behind the design could be conveyed in a way which would not cause offense.
Marquez is not the only rider to innocently cause offense. Johann Zarco's helmet design features a prominent Japanese Imperial flag, and I have had several Korean fans contact me to express their unhappiness with the design. In that part of Asia, that flag is seen as a symbol of a very dark part of Japanese history, when the country occupied large parts of the region, and subjected them to a very brutal regime. A rider's manager should be aware of such things, and check before allowing them to use such a divisive symbol.
Unfortunately, the MotoGP paddock is all too parochial. The vast majority of the people in the paddock are male, from similar backgrounds, and from a small number of countries (and in fact, given the preponderance of people from Catalunya in Spain and Emilia Romagna in Italy, a small number of regions), and so a common pattern of thought and social code is easily established. There are very few people in the paddock taking a wider view of the sport, and seeing it in a global context. Allowing the man leading the championship, and perhaps destined to be the youngest ever world champion and the global face of the sport for years to come, to accidentally offend a large section of your audience, especially in a market seen as key to the future of the sport, does not bode well for the professionalism of the sport. If MotoGP is to grow as a sport, it needs to guard its image very carefully indeed. As one insider so eloquently put it, the sport needs some adult supervision.