#JapaneseGP Motegi, Sunday roundup: MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3
It was a day for nerves of steel at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan, with the Championship on a knife edge before the race start and drops of drizzle becoming a flag-to-flag and then some serious rain. But on a day when faltering would likely have lived long in the memory, neither in the duel at the top of the standings did. Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) overcame arguably his biggest test of late to put on a wet weather masterclass at the front, outpacing Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) to cut the gap to just three points. The test was also a huge one for Bagnaia, on the back foot in terms of momentum and faced with the toughest conditions of the season so far, but the reigning World Champion dug in, held on, and took the necessary 20 points needed to keep that lead.
As the top two in the Championship held their nerve, so did the rider in the centre of his own storm as rumours about the future swirl: Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) got back on the Grand Prix podium for the first time in 2023, and on home turf for Honda.
On the grid the tyres were slicks and the skies were grey, with Martin getting the dream start to take the holeshot, while Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) also got off the line superbly. The same can’t be said for reigning World Champion Bagnaia, who headed into Turn 1 in fourth as Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), though the factory Ducati bit back on the exit of the second corner.
There was immediate disappointment for Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) who ended up in the gravel after contact with several riders going into Turn 1, while Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) went wide with him.
As the rain started to increase, pitlane was opened almost immediately for riders to swap bikes, something which the vast majority opted to do. Martin led them into pitlane, with Bagnaia, Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), Marquez and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) following closely behind. Five opted to stay out: Fabio Quartararo (Moneter Energy Yamaha MotoGP™), Franco Morbidelli(Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™), Cal Crutchlow (Yamalube RS4GP Racing Team), Stefan Bradl (LCR Honda Castrol) and Michele Pirro (Ducati Lenovo Team) were the quintet of riders, and all of a sudden, Pirro led the Japanese Grand Prix.
From those who chose to change bikes, Martin led a large group out onto the track, with Espargaro, Miller, Bagnaia and Marquez next. At Turn 10, Espargaro challenged Martin for the lead of the group but the Pramac rider struck back. As we went to clock off another lap, Quartararo and Crutchlow then changed machines. Pirro, Bradl and Morbidelli did not.
It was an incredibly dramatic start to the race, and it showed no signs of slowing down as Martin went wide under pressure from Espargaro, dropping to P9 before Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) picked him off. A ballsy move around Turn 6 though returned the position to the title hopeful as he went up the inside of the Gresini machine.
By the end of Lap 3, the riders on wets caught Morbidelli as Marquez tried to battle past Espargaro at Turn 11, but couldn’t keep it pinned as he slipped back behind the Aprilia. A little further back, Martin was out to make amends from his earlier error and got through on Miller at Turn 3 for sixth, lining up behind title rivals Bezzecchi and Bagnaia.
Amid all that, Pirro, incredibly, still led the Grand Prix by 10 seconds, but he soon swapped bikes too, meaning we had a new race leader in the form of Aleix Espargaro, who had time to spare over Marquez in second. There were then further shifts in the pecking order, as Bagnaia and Martin both picked off Bezzecchi, before the Ducatis then flew past Marc Marquez by the end of the lap to move for the podium places.
Just five laps in, and we had enough drama to last a season… and it was far from over!
A look at the timing screens showed Aleix Espargaro out front, but his lead was cut to half a second over Bagnaia, with Martin completing the provisional podium paces. Bezzecchi picked off Marquez as the Repsol Honda began sliding the wrong way, with Miguel Oliveira (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) the next to get the better of him. By this stage, the race lost Binder to a crash as he slid out at Turn 3, rider ok.
Back out front, Martin was on the march, battling past Bagnaia for second and then making light work of Espargaro for the lead, and the in form Spaniard opened up a cushion of seven tenths. 1.5 seconds behind the front two, Bezzecchi moved into third place at the expense of Aleix Espargaro, who seemed to lose all drive aboard his RS-GP with Oliveira and Marquez both coming through on him seconds later.
After nine laps, it looked like the race began to settle down after probably the most hectic start to a MotoGP™ race in recent memory. Martin’s lead was out to a second, with Bagnaia still holding his advantage over Bezzecchi. Oliveira was next in line, but the master of the wet in recent times couldn’t mount a podium challenge and then entered the pits to retire by the end of Lap 12, a lost chance.
The action was still coming thick and fast behind the leaders though, with Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) and Miller staging a spectacular battle for seventh before the Aussie lost out after running it wide at Turn 11, somewhat fortunate not to crash as he rejoined the chasing pack in 10th. That suddenly put the Constructors’ crown in reach for Ducati…
Conditions were worsening, with bikes spraying up water from the asphalt as the pace slowed, but that couldn’t stop Marquez from making moves as the eight-time World Champion went by Bezzecchi and onto the podium on the drive into Turn 11. He then began taking chunks out of Bagnaia’s advantage, and it looked like just a matter of time before he reeled him in…. but then the red flag waved. Riders returned to pitlane. Including Zarco who crashed moments before the red flag and wrote off his GP23, rider ok.
With 13 of 24 laps completed, a restart would happen if conditions were to improve, but that was a big if. It seemed that conditions had cleared enough for a restart, but before they could complete the warm up lap, the red flag was waved once again, and a race result was declared. As over 50% of the race had been completed, full points were awarded.
Martin’s nerves of steel in the face of a very different challenge see him confirmed the winner, with another 25 points putting him just three off Bagnaia. But to keep that lead, if he didn’t beat him and Martin won, Pecco had to follow him home. And that he did.
Bezzecchi missed the podium but collected 13 points ahead of Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller in P5 and P6 respectively. Augusto Fernandez (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3) finished ahead of Fabio Di Giannantonio for seventh, while Raul Fernandez (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) and Quartararo completed the top 10. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) came home in 11th in his home Grand Prix, with Mir, Crutchlow, Bradl and Pol Espargaro (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3) completing the point-scoring places.
The fairytale continued for Idemitsu Honda Team Asia as they secured a one-two at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan, with Somkiat Chantra (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) perfect under the pressure of having been the fastest rider all weekend and stealing the spotlight in the Moto2™ race. The Thai rider dominated from start to finish, establishing a lead which ultimately proved insurmountable.
Ai Ogura (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) gave it a good go before being forced to settle for second, with Championship leader Pedro Acosta (Red Bull KTM Ajo) completing the podium as he battled through a gaggle of riders to extend his lead.
The lights were barely out before the drama started. Chantra’s rapid launch ensured the holeshot to establish his lead. Meanwhile, Aron Canet (Pons Wegow Los40) – who was fast away from seventh on the grid – and Acosta made aggressive starts before coming together, something that proved costly for both riders as they made life difficult for themselves early on. Jake Dixon (Inde GASGAS Aspar Team) took advantage, moving up to P2 briefly before going wide at Turn 5 and falling to fourth.
Alonso Lopez (Beta Tools SpeedUp) made his way up to second from sixth, despite a double long-lap penalty looming over him for irresponsible riding last weekend in India. Two laps in, Ogura made his move on Lopez, and the Idemitsu Honda Team Asia one-two that had become so familiar at Mobility Resort Motegi this weekend was restored.
Lopez would eventually have to pay the price for his misdemeanors in India, doing so with 15 laps to go and dropping into 10th, just ahead of Tony Arbolino (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team).
Acosta began to advance up the field, picking off Filip Salač (QJMotor Gresini Moto2™) before overtaking Dixon to move into third, a podium position and crucially 16 points in the Championship that Acosta wouldn’t relinquish without a fight.
Meanwhile, his title rival Arbolino struggled and spent much of the race engaged in a duel with Canet for ninth place, managing to hold off the Spanish rider until lap 13, at which point the Spaniard successfully made his move.
Joe Roberts (Italtrans Racing Team) found himself in the gravel trap at Turn 10, plummeting out of the points, with Fermin Aldeguer (Beta Tools SpeedUp) doing the same shortly afterwards. The duo rejoined, but the next two to take a tumble couldn’t: Kohta Nozane crashed out of his home Grand Prix at that same corner after a career-best Qualifying, before Sam Lowes (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team) had been progressing as well, before crashing out at Turn 14 with 12 laps to go.
On the final laps, Dixon sought to cut the gap with Acosta in the battle for third, but was unable to position himself to make a move on the #37. At the same time, Chantra’s lead, which had looked insurmountable, suddenly started to shrink. Ogura managed to make up sixth tenths of a second with eight laps to go, before Chantra pushed back to hold his lead for a spectacular finish. It was a win which also meant that Kalex claimed the Moto2™ Constructors’ World Championship.
Behind Dixon, Salač completed the top five ahead of Manuel Gonzalez (Correos Prepago Yamaha VR46 Team), with Marcos Ramirez (OnlyFans American Racing) in seventh ahead of Canet. Zonta van den Goorbergh (Fieten Olie Racing GP) took another top ten result in ninth, with Darryn Binder (Liqui Moly Husvarna Intact GP) completing the top ten.
Third place was enough for Acosta to extend his lead in the riders’ standings to a whopping 50 points, but there remain plenty left on the table.
Jaume Masia (Leopard Racing) is now the Moto3™ Championship leader! The Spaniard put in another masterclass performance, this time at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan, to take back-to-back wins and take over on top. Ayumu Sasaki (Liqui Moly Husqvarna Intact GP) moves up into second after taking second by pipping Daniel Holgado (Red Bull KTM Tech3) to the line, with Deniz Öncü (Red Bull KTM Ajo) crashing out and seeing his Championship challenge take a dent.
Öncü just held onto the holeshot ahead of Stefano Nepa (Angeluss MTA Team) and Holgado as Masia lost out off the line, and the Turk immediately got the hammer down at the front. But he didn’t manage a breakaway as those on the chase regrouped, with most of the key players in the Championship locked together: Öncü, Sasaki, Masia and Holgado.
With seven laps to go, the fight at the front was getting decisive. The Husqvarna and two KTMs were going toe-to-toe and Masia’s gap in the lead grew by a tenth, then a few more, and by the time the big drama hit the Spaniard was over a second clear. That drama? A sudden crash for Öncü as the Turk slid off into the gravel, rider raging but ok. That left Holgado vs Sasaki in the podium fight, with both also looking over their shoulders as Ivan Ortola (Angeluss MTA Team) and Nepa gained ground.
1.2 seconds, six laps to go… could Sasaki reel Masia in? The Japanese rider was certainly giving it a good go as that duo gained a chunk of time on those behind, and it got to under a second, then down to eight tenths… but it was just too big an ask. Masia kept it clean to the line to take victory by over a second, taking back-to-back wins and the Championship lead too.
Behind, Holgado was still with Sasaki and the Spaniard made a brutal but clean lunge to take over in second. But that wasn’t all she wrote as the number 96 then had a big wobble out the final corner and Sasaki was able to just slipstream past, taking those valuable 20 points to move into second in the Championship. Holgado, still, with less experience at Motegi and after a tougher couple of rounds, takes a valuable podium as we begin the final stretch.
The duel for fourth saw Nepa just hold off Ortola at the line, the two split by thousadnths, with a big, close group behind them led by David Muñoz (BOE Motorsports). David Alonso (Gaviota GASGAS Aspar Team), Kaito Toba (SIC58 Squadra Corse), Ryusei Yamanaka (Gaviota GASGAS Aspar Team), Jose Antonio Rueda (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Collin Veijer (Liqui Moly Husqvarna Intact GP) and Taiyo Furusato (Honda Team Asia) completed the group down to P12, with Riccardo Rossi (SIC58 Squadra Corse), Diogo Moreira (MT Helmets – MSI) and Joel Kelso (CFMoto Racing PrüstelGP) completing the points.