Japanese Grand Prix, Motegi: Weekend preview – MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3
The Twin Ring Motegi has made a legend for itself since its construction in 1997. Built by Honda as a test facility, MotoGP™ touched down on the circuit for the first time at the turn of the millennium and the first part of what has now become a multi-chapter action adventure was written. Honda hold the record of the most wins at their home track in the MotoGP™ era – six – but compatriot rivals Yamaha are close, on four. Geographically the home GP of three manufacturers, Motegi has a unique character as Yamaha and Suzuki race at home – yet in enemy territory. The home glory of the land of the rising sun shines brighter on those who do battle on a Honda.
The lap record holder at Motegi is however the reigning Champion, Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), and the ‘Spartan’ is tied on premier class wins at the track with great rival Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) – 3 each. ‘Baby Samurai’ Pedrosa pulls ahead when a 250 and 125 victory are added to his tally – but Lorenzo counts on more recent dominance with lights to flag victories at Motegi in 2013 and 2014. Pedrosa then hit back with his 2015 heroics, making up more than 16 seconds on initial leader Lorenzo as the track dried and the Samurai came alive; a win that was crucial for the 2015 title fight as points leaders Lorenzo and teammate Valentino Rossi were left to battle over the podium. Motegi will surely prove crucial once again this season – and both Lorenzo and Pedrosa will be sure to make the Championship leader’s life a little more difficult. Incredibly, that leading rider has never won a MotoGP™ race in Japan.
Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez has two tracks at which victory has eluded him. The Red Bull Ring in Austria is one – but the MotoGP™ paddock have only visited the venue once to date. The victory to have eluded Marquez thus far since the year he graduated to the premier class is the top step at the home of Honda – the Twin Ring Motegi.
The Japanese exploits of the Championship leader have not been without success, with a podium in 2013 and then a safe ride home in 2014 to take the glory – just not from the top step. After his incredible winning run in 2014, Marquez played it safe in Japan and ensured he took the crown; focused on the title and title alone. Arriving in 2016 with a 52 point advantage over Rossi and more over Lorenzo, Marquez can either play the long game once again – with his patience this season proving him more than capable – or he can roll the dice and go for that one tick of the box he has yet to conquer. Very aware of those choices will be the man waiting in the wings – Valentino Rossi.
The Italian legend is another of those with a fantastic record at Motegi, although his most recent win at the track pre-dates the first time Lorenzo or Pedrosa won in Japan as Rossi took the victory in 2008. However, 2016 has seen the rider from Tavullia in the hunt for victory more often than not, and untouchable on some venues that had seen his younger contemporaries previously dominate, such as at Jerez. Rossi is the closest challenger to Marquez – and the 9-time World Champion will do anything to keep it so once the lights go out.
The four horsepower men of the Championship lead are not the only riders who will have their eyes on the prize in Japan, either. Team Suzuki Ecstar and Maverick Viñales are now heading into their final four races together ahead of the Spaniard’s departure for Yamaha to replace outgoing Lorenzo, and Viñales – now a race winner and far from a rookie – will have his eyes on that top four in the title as the paddock touches down in Japan. Not only that, the event marks the Suzuki rider’s 100th GP start.
More home manufacturer glory will be up for grabs for leading Independent Team rider Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), as it will for the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 squad of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. Espargaro will be back on track in Japan for the first time since winning the Suzuka 8H for the second time this year, and teammate Smith will be back from injury after a difficult crash in practice for the Oschersleben 8H saw the Brit out of action.
Assen winner Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) is another who should be back out to do battle, as well as Ducati Team’s Andrea Iannone, both of whom have been out of action of late. The man to have given Ducati their best results at Motegi since Stoner’s 2010 win, Andrea Dovizioso, will also prove a force to be reckoned with – as could home wildcard entry Katsuyuki Nakasuga, riding for Yamalube Yamaha Factory Racing.
The Twin Ring Motegi: the ultimate test facility turned legendary racing venue, ready to welcome MotoGP™ once again – and maybe crown another Champion on its famous soil. The stage is set and the curtains are ready to go up – will Marquez keep his costume of the cool, collected Championship leader? Or will he push to the limit once more, with a margin to play with and an empty space in his trophy cabinet labelled ‘Japan’?
FP1 sees MotoGP™ head out on track on Friday 14th October at 9:55 local time (GMT+9), before qualifying on Saturday and Marquez’ first title chance on Sunday 16th October – in Honda’s backyard.
Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) had an incredible run mid-season in Moto2™, and the reigning Champion looked set to retain his crown after winning four of the five races after and including the Catalan GP at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The road then got bumpier, however, and fellow pre-season favourite Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) set about cutting the gap to his French rival – with that gap now standing at one single point as the paddock head east.
With Zarco struggling in Brno and Rins taking P2, the Spaniard’s comeback began and, despite a collarbone break in training ahead of the British GP, the Paginas Amarillas HP40 rider has kept gaining on the reigning Champion. With Zarco penalised at Silverstone for an incident with fellow title hopeful Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) and not scoring, Misano and MotorLand both gave Rins further chances to catch up – chances he took and made the most of, crossing the line ahead of his Moto2™ Championship rival in both cases.
The Twin Ring Motegi is the first of the gruelling three-race back-to-back flyaway stint, with every point now more than crucial. With Lowes now 40 points behind, the race for the crown seems to have developed into a duel, but the mathematics don’t lie. As the pressure mounts for the top two, those on the chase have much less to lose – and everything could change once again.
Zarco has form at Motegi however, taking his first GP win at the venue in 2011 in the 125 category, and taking the win from pole position in 2015 – sealing the Moto2™ World Championship in the process. With a tough run of late, Motegi could well prove a talisman for the Frenchman as he fights to get back the dominant form that has become his trademark for much of the last season and a half in the intermediate category. In addition, a look at the stats for rival Rins make good reading for the Frenchman as he aims to find some traction and hit back.
The Twin Ring Motegi is the only venue on the calendar at which Rins has never had a rostrum finish. Fourth as a Moto3™ rookie in 2012 was followed by qualifying on pole the year after as he fought for the title – but a crash when fighting for the podium took him out of the race and dented his Championship aspirations. 2014 saw him finish in P10 in his final season in Moto3™, before an eleventh place finish in his rookie year in Moto2™. The Spaniard will be looking for more in the land of the rising sun in 2016, but as his momentum of late sees him roll in so close to the Championship lead, Rins is sure to wipe the slate clean before FP1.
Sam Lowes is now the man free of any pressure in the Championship, and looking to throw caution to the wind on his mission to simply push from lights out to the flag. After Misano saw the Brit crash out and fail to score, MotorLand Aragon saw him bounce back as a timely reminder of his pace – and his mathematical chances at taking the title. A win in which he simply left the field in the Aragonese dust sees Lowes arrive on a high – and the Brit took a top ten at the venue in 2015, too, as he crossed the line in P8.
Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) is the man right behind Lowes in the points table, and the experienced Swiss rider has fantastic form at Motegi. On the podium in 2011 and 2013, the former 125 World Champion also took a stunning win at the track in 2014 as he took off from the middle of the front row and wasn’t seen again. Bouncing back incredibly after his tough crash in qualifying for the Czech GP, Luthi took victory in Silverstone and has been a constant challenger at the front throughout the season – something sure to continue on known, successful ground. Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) is another 2016 frontrunner who will be looking for glory in Japan – with the added incentive of racing on home turf for both him and his team. Taking his first GP win in Assen and a constant podium challenger, Nakagami is one of those in the field sure to complicate the lives of the men heading the Championship – with pace, experience and home support on his side.
Jonas Folger and Sandro Cortese (Dynavolt Intact GP) will also be ones to watch having been on the podium at the track in 2015, and Folger having already won a GP in 2016 in Brno ahead of his move to MotoGP™ in 2017. Franco Morbidelli will also be looking for another podium as he puts together an impressive and consistent challenge for the rostrum with Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS – as will his teammate Alex Marquez. Marquez took his first GP win at Motegi, like Zarco, when he took the honours in his rookie Moto3™ campaign in 2013 – a feat he repeated the following season on his way to taking the crown in the lower category. Fresh from his first Moto2™ podium at MotorLand, Marquez is looking for points, consistency and confidence – but is another rider free of the pressure that comes at the top of the title table.
Dominique Aegerter will not be traveling with the Swiss squad as he is being replaced by Spaniard Iker Lecuona for the remaining of the season. The 16 year old already substituted him in Silverstone and Misano.
One point as the three week flyaway stint arrives will surely change by the time the paddock packs up to return to Europe and the season finale in Valencia. With 75 on offer in the three back-to-back races, the pressure is on in Moto2™ for Rins and Zarco as they face down not only each other, but a field of race winners and former world champions looking to get in their way.
Moto2™ attack the Twin Ring Motegi for the first time in 2016 at 10:55 local time (GMT+9) for FP1 on Friday, as the title fight hits another high.
After his stunning first half of the season, newly crowned Moto3™ World Champion Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) is ready for his next challenge: the Twin Ring Motegi. Confessing to having ridden conservatively in some races so far in 2016, the Red Bull KTM Ajo rider now has even less to lose and is sure to put on another fantastic show as he aims for his sixth win of the year after coming so close at MotorLand Aragon. Last year, Binder crashed out of the race early – but came third in 2014 and will be looking to take his first win at the Japanese track as he arrives on a high.
There are those who aim to stand in Binder’s way, however. Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) will be the man to replace the South African in the Red Bull KTM Ajo squad in 2017, and the Italian is the only rider on the current Moto3™ grid to have taken a win at Motegi. Although suffering some difficulties of late in the lower class, Antonelli should be one to watch with his history at the track and his experience – in addition to looking to fly the flag for home manufacturer Honda.
Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0) won the Aragon GP in some serious style for only his second GP victory, and the Spaniard will be looking to take back-to-back wins for the first time in his career. Locked in a tight battle with Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3) for P2 in the title and currently ahead, Navarro is getting back to full strength after some injury problems earlier in 2016 – and stood on the podium at Motegi in 2015 in his first full season, staging a great comeback from 13th at the end of lap one.
Bastianini, after coming close to the win in Misano and again standing on the podium in Aragon, will be sure to take the fight to Navarro as the two duel it out over second in the Championship. The man closest to Binder ahead of the South African’s title win, the ‘Beast’ was knocked down again to P3 after Navarro’s win in Aragon and – like the Spaniard he is dueling with for that second classification – now has less to lose as the title is wrapped up and done. The Italian has seen himself rise through the title ranks due to consistency – and will give everything to take his first win of the season in his four remaining chances in 2016, beginning in Motegi.
The fight for P4 in the Championship – and the title of ‘Rookie of the Year’ – will be another one to watch in Japan. With Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing Moto3) and Joan Mir (Leopard Racing) locked in a three way fight below the three men at the top, the next three races will prove crucial for taking the honour of top Rookie come the season finale in Valencia. All three have stood on the podium in 2016 – Mir on the top step in Austria – proving past experience isn’t always an indicator of what awaits when the lights go out. The track may be new to the three – but that was also true at the Austrian GP when Mir took his stunning maiden win. The new kids on the block have proven they aren’t shy when it comes to fighting at the front, and although not counting on experience of the track from the FIM CEV Repsol will be eager to hit full speed as the points start to really count.
Hiroki Ono (Honda Team Asia) is another who will be looking for another good haul of points at home, as he flies the flag at the classic venue – and will have nothing to lose as he goes for glory.
Japan awaits and Binder, now, can truly show his full hand – but so can those around him as the paddock heads for the Twin Ring Motegi. With the title done and decided, the pressure of the melting pot has been released – ahead now lies the fight for points, and honour.
Moto3™ lead the pack from pitlane first in the morning of Friday 14th October, before Sunday sees the lights go out for another modern thriller.