The VROOM Blog #JapaneseGP – Miller masters Motegi as the title fight takes another turn
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the first of the fly-away races didn’t disappoint! After Fabio Quartararo’s crash and DNF in Aragon blew the title fight wide open, there was more drama for the championship front-runners this weekend as the MotoGP paddock arrived in Japan for the first time since 2019.
Seeing as this was the first time here since 2019, there were several riders on the grid who wouldn’t have ridden the Motegi circuit on MotoGP bikes, but that didn’t actually seem to make too much of a difference! There were a total of 10 of the regular riders who had not been to Motegi on their MotoGP machinery, and – spoiler alert – two of them were on the podium this weekend!
We were meant to see two wildcard riders this weekend – Tetsuta Nagashima on the beautiful red, white and blue HRC test bike, and Takuya Tsuda on the Suzuki. We did see both riders on track, but Tsuda was upgraded from wildcard to replacement rider as he stepped in for Joan Mir following his withdrawal from the Aragon GP due to his ankle injury.
Home hero Taka Nakagami had to undergo a fitness test following surgery to two fingers on his right hand after the clash with Marc Marquez in Aragon, and although he had to have a couple of assessments over the weekend, he was allowed to ride. Watching him take his glove off after each session was hellish, and honestly, I think if this hadn’t been his first home GP in 3 years he may not have raced. Kudos to him though – these guys are made of tough stuff.
Taka had a beautiful new design on his helmet and boots this weekend too. There were some stunning helmet designs from many of the Japanese riders throughout the paddock – Tatsuki Suzuki’s in particular was lovely up close. He maintained the basics of the design that Leopard riders have to wear, but the personalisation of it was brilliant. It sparkled too, and I’m a sucker for a bit of glitter!
There was drama in the paddock before any track action got underway as the MarcVDS (Moto2) garage caught fire. Luckily, the teams on either side of the MarcVDS garage – Suzuki and Aprilia – were still working and noticed the fire. They were able to break down the door to the garage and get the fire under control, with the Suzuki team removing the bikes from the garage and then staying behind with the MarcVDS team who returned to the paddock to clean the bikes and rebuild the garage.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, and the team didn’t lose much equipment – only a rear shock and a few other bits and pieces – but you have to wonder what might have happened had the fire happened in the middle of the night once everyone had gone home. The fire could have spread down the whole of the pit lane and destroyed everything in its wake. Surely there should be some kind of protocol in place for such situations?
Track action got underway later than usual – much to the delight of the many Europeans up through the night to watch! – with no action for the GP classes on Friday morning to allow for the arrival of freight and subsequent set up.
The loss of Friday morning action meant that there would only be FP1 (Friday afternoon) and FP2 (Saturday morning) to decide the who would progress directly to Q2.
FP1 was extended to 75 minutes for the MotoGP class, and despite spots of rain during the middle of the session, the session was dry. Alex Rins and Suzuki debuted some new aero – similar to the ‘stegosaurus’ aero on the Ducati, although the Suzuki version looked more like floppy dog ears. Rins did report that he could feel a positive difference with the new aero.
With 10 minutes remaining, it was Alex Rins who was leading the charge ahead of Enea Bastianini and Fabio Quartararo as the final time attacks started. Jack Miller went to the top of the times with 6 minutes left on the clock, before crashes from Enea Bastianini, Johann Zarco and Darryn Binder in the final few minutes brought out yellow flags, hampering the chances of faster lap times.
Jack Miller held on to the top spot ahead of Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo, with Aleix Espargaro, Luca Marini, Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro, Brad Binder, Miguel Oliveira and Maverick Viñales rounding out the top 10.
On Saturday, the paddock woke up to heavy rain and FP2 was a wet session which meant that regardless of who was fastest in the session, it would be the top 10 from FP1 who would be heading straight for Q2. With the rain looking like it was set in for the day, FP2 would be a useful session in terms of building up speed on the wet track ahead of what was almost certain to be a wet qualifying session.
Both Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro had early session excursions into the deep gravel at turn 3, with Aleix visiting the gravel at that turn twice within a few laps. By the mid-point of the session, Marc Marquez was fastest with Jorge Martin, Enea Bastianini, Miguel Oliveira, Zarco and Quartararo hot on his heels, while championship contenders Pecco Bagnaia and Aleix Espargaro were way down the time sheets in 20th and 22nd respectively.
With 16 minutes to go, Brad Binder joined the turn 3 club, but he was unable to stay onboard his KTM, and a few minutes later Pol Espargaro crashed too. With his bike stranded on the track, the session was red flagged to allow the recovery of the Repsol Honda. Footage from the circuit CCTV showed that it had been a nasty high-side for Pol, who was thankfully able to walk away relatively unscathed.
The session resumed with 12 minutes on the clock, and was topped by Marc Marquez from Jorge Martin and Jack Miller.
During Moto2 Q2, the weather took a drastic turn, with thunder and lightening accompanying torrential rain which saw the session red flagged. During the delay of over 90 minutes, it was decided that once the weather settled enough to allow track action Moto2 Q2 would be completed before moving straight on to MotoGP qualifying. FP3 (usually FP4) was cancelled for MotoGP to ensure that there would be time for qualifying to run.
Moto2 Q2 got underway, and as their session ended, the rain started to get much heavier again meaning that MotoGP Q1 was delayed by a further 10 minutes. The wet weather meant that we saw a different approach to Q1, with the majority of riders staying out on track for the full 15 minutes on the same tyre.
Taka Nakagami suffered a crash at turn 14 early in the session, but was able to re-join later on. Early pace-setters were Franky Morbidelli, Jorge Martin and Johann Zarco. The final few minutes of the session saw crashes for Darryn Binder, Enea Bastianini and Raul Fernandez, meaning that there were once again yellow flags disrupting some lap times. In the end, it was Pramac duo Zarco and Martin that would be heading through to Q2.
Q2 saw a massive moment – and a great save – for Jack Miller, as well as a late crash for Miguel Oliveira. Marc Marquez made the most of the wet conditions to take pole position – his first since the Japanese GP in 2019 – ahead of Johann Zarco. They would be joined on the front row by Brad Binder who would line up 3rd for his first ever MotoGP front row. Given Brad’s reputation as a Sunday man, it would be interesting to see how he goes during the race with a decent grid position!
In terms of the race for the championship, the 3 main title contenders would be lining up one behind the other on the grid with Aleix in 6th, Fabio in 9th and Pecco in 12th place.
The weather had settled by Sunday morning, and we were in for a dry day. Morning warm up saw Nagashima, Pol Espargaro, Marc Marquez and Bezzecchi all have crashes, and the session was topped by Quartararo from Martin and Marc Marquez.
Before the MotoGP race got underway, Japanese fans were delighted to see Ai Ogura take the first win on home soil for a Japanese rider since 2006, when Ai’s team boss Hiroshi Aoyama won the 250cc GP.
There was drama before the lights went out in MotoGP as Aleix Espargaro encountered a problem with his Aprilia on the warm up lap, causing him to dive into pit lane and jump on board his second bike, dropping his first one to the floor in the process! Aleix would have to start from pit lane.
As the lights did go out, it was Brad Binder who led into turn 1, closely followed by Marc Marquez and Martin as Oliveira slotted into 4th ahead of Viñales. Viñales soon lost out to Jack Miller too, as the Australian made his way forward. Jack then took Oliveira and Marquez in one move to take 3rd towards the end of the lap, while Jorge Martin had taken Binder for the lead!
On lap 2, Jack passed Binder for 2nd, and by lap 3 he had taken the lead from Martin in spite of Martin’s best efforts to keep 1st place. Further back, Enea Bastianini was once again a thorn in the side of Pecco Bagnaia, swarming all over the rear of his future team mate’s Ducati.
As Jack Miller pulled away at the front of the pack, Enea passed Pecco for 11th, but Pecco took the place straight back. Luca Marini demoted championship leader Quartararo to 9th and Oliveira passed KTM team mate Binder for 3rd.
Lap 6 was a nightmare for Zarco who ran wide allowing Fabio and Pol through, before running so wide again that he dropped down to 13th. 3 laps later Enea made the move stick on Pecco as he passed him for 10th place, and for all of Davide Tardozzi’s talk of no team orders between the Ducati riders he did not look very impressed in the garage as the Gresini Ducati rider sailed past the Factory Ducati rider! He was also soon spotted with the Gresini team on pit wall, so you can read into that what you will!
As Jack Miller extended his lead to over 3 seconds, Tetsuta Nagashima crashed out of the race at turn 2, and Enea passed Pol for 9th. Pol ran wide on lap 12 which allowed Pecco to move up to 10th place, as Tsuda’s Suzuki caught fire! Tsuda did a great job of getting the bike off the track before abandoning it to the marshals armed with fire extinguishers.
Maverick Viñales and Luca Marini had a bit of back and forth for 6th place, with Marini coming out on top, before Darryn Binder crashed. Darryn was able to remount his Yamaha, but only to return to the pits. Jack Miller continued to extend his lead at the front of the race – by lap 15 the gap was over 4 seconds – and Aleix Espargaro had caught and was beginning to pass the riders towards the back of the field, but in 18th place he was still outside of the points.
On lap 20 Pecco passed Enea for 9th place and set off in pursuit of Fabio Quartararo who was in 8th. By the final lap of the race, Pecco had caught Fabio and was swarming all over the back of his championship rival when he crashed out of the race! Not only did he crash out, but he was incredibly close to wiping Fabio out too! When people bang on about the 5 points that Pecco lost when Enea beat him in Aragon, it might be worth reminding them that those 5 points are nothing compared to the number Pecco has lost through crashes this season!
Meanwhile, Brad Binder had passed Jorge Martin for 2nd, and Luca Marini had relegated Oliveira to 6th. With a lead of over 5 seconds by the final lap, Jack was able to wheelie across the line to take his first win of the season, ahead of Brad Binder and Jorge Martin. Marc Marquez finished in 4th place, with Oliveira, Marini and Viñales behind him.
Jack Miller becomes the 6th different winner of the season, and it wouldn’t be a Jack Miller win without a stoppie and a burn-out in pit lane! When interviewed in parc ferme, Jack quipped “I can ride a motorcycle sometimes”, and said that he was over the moon with the result.
Jack finished his day with a “shoey” on the podium before lobbing the boot into the crowd assembled on the track below.
After his disastrous start to the race – which turned out to be human error as someone had forgotten to turn off the eco map used to save fuel on the way to the grid – Aleix Espargaro finished in 16th place meaning he scored no points. Pecco’s crash also meant no points for him, and with his 8th place finish Fabio was only able to score 8 points, so while he was able to extend his lead over Pecco and Aleix, he will be disappointed not to have scored more points as his rivals stumbled.
Still, Fabio now leads Pecco by 18 points, with Aleix a further 7 behind as they head to Thailand this weekend.
It has been confirmed this week that Joan Mir will miss the Thai GP as he continues his recovery, and he will be replaced by none other than Danilo Petrucci! Tetsuta Nagashima will be replacing Taka Nakagami due to the injury in his hand, and you can’t help but wonder if soldiering on through his home GP has done more damage to what sounds like a bad injury.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Nagashima goes with a full MotoGP weekend under his belt, and I cannot wait to see Petrucci back in MotoGP action after his season away in MotoAmerica!