After losing the first day of practice at Motegi to the weather, Race Direction have announced contingency plans for a schedule to allow practice, qualifying and the races to be run at the Japanese circuit however the weather turns out. With rain set to continue on Saturday morning, but clear up on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, schedules have been drawn up to take account of all the possible combinations of weather.
The problem is not the rain, it is the fog and low-hanging cloud, Race Director Mike Webb explained in a press conference at Motegi. Because of the location of the Twin Ring circuit, set in a bowl up in the hills in the Tochigi district in Japan, the combination of heavy clould and relatively weak winds saw the surrounding hills cloaked in cloud. That cloud and the reduced visibility it caused meant that the medical helicopter, which is required to transport injured riders to the nearest hospital, was not allowed to fly, Japanese aviation law preventing helicopters flying in such circumstances. The helicopter had not yet arrived at the circuit, being stationed a few minutes flight time away. Without the medical helicopter, practice could not be run safely, as the hospital designated by the chief doctor at the circuit is an hour away by road. Should a rider sustain a severe or life-threatening injury, they could not be transported to the hospital quickly enough to ensure proper care, Webb explained.
The lack of visibility was why Friday practice had been postponed all day, rather than canceled right away. Practice could not go ahead without the helicopter on site, but it was waiting on standby for permission from the Japanese aviation authority, ready to fly to the circuit as soon as they were given clearance. The cloud never lifted enough for the helicopter to be allowed to fly, however, and in the end, practice had to be called off.
Preparations are now being made for practice and qualifying for the race, and Race Direction has drawn up a number of scenarios depending on the weather. The sole factor is visibility, Webb explained. Rain may make for a wet practice session, but if visibility allows the helicopter to fly to and from the track, then practice will go ahead. If the fog is still preventing the helicopter from flying, then practice will have to wait until the fog lifts. If the helicopter is still unable to fly on Saturday, plans are in place to dismantle the helicopter, transport it to the Twin Ring circuit by road, and have it ready to go on Sunday morning.
The actual schedule will depend on the weather. Because of the time zone Motegi is located in, it gets light around 5:30am and light conditions fade around 5pm, restricting the window for practice. The following possible schedules have been drawn up for different scenarios:
Acceptable weather on Saturday morning
If conditions permit practice on Saturday morning, then there will be extended sessions of practice on Saturday morning, followed by qualifying as normal on Saturday afternoon, and then a normal schedule on Sunday, with warm up on Sunday morning and the race in the afternoon. This is the most optimistic scenario, as the current forecast is for rain to continue on Saturday morning, though there is no word on what visibility conditions will be like.
Poor visibility on Saturday morning, good weather Saturday afternoon
If practice is not possible on Saturday morning, qualifying will be moved from Saturday and an extended session of free practice for all three classes will be scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Free practice will likely be 75 minutes for the MotoGP class, and the same for Moto2 and Moto3 if possible. Warm up and qualifying would then take place on Sunday morning, with the race taking place as scheduled on Sunday afternoon. This is the most likely scenario given the current forecast, which is for the rain to clear around 2pm on Saturday.
Poor visibility on Saturday, good weather on Sunday
If no practice is possible all day on Saturday, then the entire program will be scheduled for Sunday. Race Direction's plans are for all three classes to have one session of practice and one session of qualifying in the morning, followed by the race as normal in the afternoon. In a meeting between Race Direction and the teams, the teams expressed a preference for a single, long session of combined practice and qualifying in the Sunday-only scenario. Race Direction has agreed to put both proposals to the riders, and adopt the single practice session if both riders and teams prefer it. Whatever the schedule adopted, it will mean a very early start. Moto3 riders could take to the track as early as 6am if practice is only possible on Sunday.
There was currently no plan to run the race on Monday, in case the weather prevented the race on Sunday, Dorna's Javier Alonso told the press conference. That scenario had not yet been discussed with the promoter. Given the weather forecast, that is extremely unlikely to be necessary.
Decisions on when practice will take place will be made entirely based on the weather. No schedule can be set until visibility actually clears up enough for the medical helicopter to fly.
The weather conditions at Motegi continues the run of bad luck the Japanese Grand Prix at the circuit has had in recent years. In 2010, the race had to be postponed from April to October after ash clouds from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland forced the cancelation of much air travel inside Europe, preventing teams from flying to Japan in April. In 2011, the Tohoku Earthquake hit off the coast of Japan, triggering a massive tsunami which devastated much of the Japanese coastline, and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, causing a massive release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Dorna was forced to commission a report into the safety of the region, investigating background radiation in the area. Radiation continues to be a problem at the Fukushima plant, with radioactive cooling water leaking into the groundwater and surrounding ocean.