The Twin Ring Motegi has seen many a battle fought, won and lost on its asphalt. Coming as it does at a pivotal part of the season, the Japanese GP may not have always seen the throne taken – but it has always been a protagonist in the title fight. Last season was Marc Marquez’ (Repsol Honda Team) coup de grace, and this year the rider from Cervera again arrives ahead. But with such unpredictability throughout so much of the season, does the number 93’s 16-point advantage leave the field in check?
The defending Champion will be hoping so. But Japanese soil had never – until last season – given the now five-time World Champion a victory in the premier class. In Moto2™ yes, and in the 125 World Championship, but Marquez has never had the air of invincibility at the venue he can count on at some other circuits in the premier class. That said, his stunning victory last season – and winning the title there – could see that change, as well as some scintillating pace at another venue characterised by hard braking and acceleration: Austria.
The man on the other side of that duel in Austria was Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team); the man who heads the chase behind Marquez in the standings – and the man on the machine that, on paper, is very well suited to the Twin Ring Motegi. The hard braking and acceleration should play into the hands of the Borgo Panigale Factory – and the Japanese GP will be crucial in terms of cutting that gap back down before the maths really begins to kick in and the races remaining tick towards zero. Dovizioso also has two podiums at the track – one in 2010 and one last season – to raise his spirits even further on the way to Japan.
Behind the two out front in the points, however, there may lurk two dark horses: their teammates. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) is the most successful rider at Motegi with five wins – 1 x 125, 1 x 250 and three in MotoGP™, and Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) equals that premier class win count. Pedrosa is also at a disadvantage from having missed some events through injury, and his stats could have been boosted even further. With incredible podium form this season and a shot at the title remaining, the ‘Baby Samurai’ will be pushing hard to give it everything.
Then Lorenzo. At Aragon, the ‘Spartan’ was both back on the podium for the second time in red and led the most amount of laps on a Ducati thus far – this time well over half the race. Lorenzo’s three wins at Motegi have all been in MotoGP™, and he was optimistic about adding his first top step for Ducati when asked about it at Aragon. Could the time be now? And could that timing be worse for those who need that 25-point haul for their title aspirations…
Mathematically, there remain five contenders. Marquez and Dovizioso at the top, Pedrosa in fourth and then the two Movistar Yamahas: Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi.
That was the order in which they crossed the line at Aragon, only half a second apart despite Rossi riding just 24 days after breaking his leg. Viñales had expected to challenge for the win, Rossi hadn’t dared to expect anything given the injury. The Italian is now fifth in the standings and two points behind Pedrosa, making it still possible, but it remains to be seen how Motegi – and three back-to-back races – will treat the ‘Doctor’. That said, his confidence will be high following Aragon, when he stunned the field – and his teammate.
Viñales is the man who arrives in Japan with time running out to make up the gap. It’s a longer shot for Pedrosa and Rossi and therefore in many ways they have less to lose, whereas Viñales remains in the difficult zone between risking everything for the chance at victory, and avoiding making a costly error. Last year at Motegi he was on the podium, and he’ll need to repeat that or go a couple better and take the top step. Anything can still happen, and everything is unpredictable as ever – but should the coming races play out as writ, Viñales is the man who needs to strike. Every move matters, and Viñales’ position could prove either the perfect amount of pressure or an end-of-season Zugzwang.
Last year Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) crossed the line behind Viñales, and last time out this year – now on an Aprilia – the Spaniard took his equal best result of the season. He’ll want to back that up and make an assault on the Independent Teams classification which is currently led by Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3). Zarco will be tough to be as ever, however, as well as teammate Jonas Folger, who is looking for a reset in the flyaways to end the season on a high after a difficult stint of late. Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) are also big players in the Independent Teams – and there will be one missing, as Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) is forced to miss the race due to injury.
The Australian’s absence is set to boost the home ranks though, as the team have called in former 250 World Champion Hiroshi Aoyama – the Japanese rider who took the most recent home podium at the venue, back in the intermediate class in 2009. He’ll join Yamalube Yamaha Factory Racing rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga to fly the flag, as Nakasuga wildcards following his win in the 2017 Suzuka 8H alongside WorldSBK duo Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes.
Suzuki are another manufacturer racing on home turf at Motegi, and Andrea Iannone had positive things to say after a more solid performance for the Suzuki Ecstar squad at Aragon. Both he and teammate Alex Rins will have a lot of home support for the Hamamatsu factory behind them, and will be pushing for more progress. Progress is also the name of the game for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, who once again got straight through to Q2 and took a top ten in the race – with wildcard Mika Kallio and Pol Espargaro respectively. Motegi is more of a leap into the unknown, but the positive trend and impressive first season for the Austrian factory just keeps rolling.
Four rounds remain, which make it 100 points. But now, as the season finale approaches and 75 of those points are played in the next three rounds back-to-back, it’s no longer a simple game of maths or watching ahead and playing the long game: every move matters, beginning from Friday at 9:55 (GMT + 9) for MotoGP™ FP1 and with lights out for the race at 14:00 on Sunday.
MotoGP World Championship Classification
1 – Marc Márquez (SPA – Honda) 224 points
2 – Andrea Dovizioso (ITA – Ducati) 208 points
3 – Maverick Viñales (SPA – Yamaha) 196 points
4 – Dani Pedrosa (SPA – Honda) 170 points
5 – Valentino Rossi (ITA – Yamaha) 168 points