The VROOM Blog #JapaneseGP – Jorge Martin reigns supreme at Motegi
Photo: Michelin Motorsport
After the inaugural Indian GP last weekend, this weekend the MotoGP paddock was at Motegi for the Japanese GP. Things were getting close at the top of the championship with only Jorge Martin only 13 points behind Pecco Bagnaia heading into the weekend following a stellar run of form for the Spaniard.
In the run up to the Japanese GP, the provisional MotoGP calendar for 2024 was released. In 2024 Qatar will return to its usual slot as the season opener in March. The season looks fairly similar to this year, and they have optimistically included Kazakhstan again. The British GP will be at Silverstone in early August, and the season will once again see a run of overseas races before a season finale in Valencia in late November.
Alex Rins surprised many by hopping on a flight to Japan on Wednesday with the intention of riding his LCR Honda for the first time since sustaining leg injuries in Mugello. He passed a fitness test on Thursday, and said he intended to use the weekend as the next step in his recovery – he would be taking it session by session, and if the pain was too much, he would stop.
On the other side of the LCR garage, Taka Nakagami had a special helmet and boot design for his home GP, and the helmet was gorgeous. Marc Marquez also had a Japanese themed helmet, while Aprilia team mates Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales had gone for new helmets for this round too. Jorge Martin had a whole new set of kit – helmet, boots, gloves, and leathers – as well as a new font and design for the number on the front of his Pramac Ducati. Jorge’s new kit wasn’t Japanese themed though – his was part of a collaboration with Alpinestars and the Anti Social Social Club clothing brand. Fabio Di Giannantonio had also collaborated with a clothing brand (Neighborhood) for his helmet design this weekend.
Luca Marini and Alex Marquez were both out of action this weekend following injuries sustained last weekend in India. Neither rider was replaced for the weekend. Michele Pirro was once again in for Enea Bastianini, while Cal Crutchlow was in for a wild card ride on the Yamalube RS4GP Yamaha.
There hasn’t been too much going on in terms of rider movement this week, but there have been some interesting comments made. Pedro Acosta was asked by Spanish television how he felt about the calendar for next season – 22 dates would mean 44 races for him – and he said that it would depend on where he was riding as to whether it would be 44 races for him. MotoGP.com followed up with him over the weekend to ask what he meant, and he explained that everything is “up in the air” at the moment and that he doesn’t know where he will be riding next season. He even mentioned the possibility of remaining in Moto2 for another season even though he thinks the time is right to move up to MotoGP.
When asked about how staying in Moto2 would work when his seat has already been filled for next year, Pedro just said “I know, I know. Nothing to say.” He said he might not even know until Valencia at the end of the season.
Gigi Dall’Igna spoke to Sky Italy over the weekend and said that Marc Marquez has decided to leave Honda for an unofficial Ducati, but it seems that his Honda contract is a complicated contract to break. For his part, Marc said there would be no announcement this weekend. I’d imagine it’s a respect thing from Marc not to announce at Honda’s home race that he is leaving them after so many years and so many championships, but you also have to think that if he was intending to remain with Honda, this would be the perfect place to put the rumours to bed by simply saying that he wasn’t going anywhere…
While we still have no official news on Marc and his plans for 2024, his fellow riders have been having some fun with him and his potential move to Gresini Ducati. Cal Crutchlow took the opportunity on the rider parade on Sunday morning to ask Marc if he was familiar with a song and then sang “should I stay or should I go,” while Jack Miller flat out asked him where he was going next year. Marc replied “to your place” while laughing. And following his (spoiler alert) podium on Sunday afternoon, Marc was talking in the press conference how it was a very romantic podium, to which Pecco said “bye bye Honda” and pointed out it was like when Valentino Rossi kissed his Yamaha before leaving for Ducati.
Free Practice 1 on Friday morning saw crashes for Joan Mir and Jorge Martin, although I doubt Jorge would count his as a crash – it was more that he tipped over in the gravel! Jorge topped the session ahead of Augusto Fernandez, Marco Bezzecchi, Bagnaia, and Mir. There was a practice start session at the end of this session – apparently it was requested by the riders.
Friday afternoon saw Practice take place, where riders battle to gain direct entry into Q2 with a top 10 lap time. Raul Fernandez crashed 20 minutes into the session, and at the half way point Fabio Di Giannantonio was sitting in 4th place behind Miguel Oliveira, Martin, and Brad Binder.
With just under 25 minutes remaining on the clock, Jack Miller crashed his KTM at turn 11 before the first run of time attacks got under way. Marquez, Mir, and Aleix Espargaro all jumped up into the top 10, bumping Bagnaia, Miller and Bezzecchi out with 15 minutes left of the session.
Fabio Quartararo had a huge crash which sent him tumbling through the gravel at turn 6. He was on his feet, but he was hobbling and there was a hole in the back of his leathers. Meanwhile, Bezzecchi and Miller had pulled themselves back up into the top 10. Di Giannantonio set the fastest lap of the session so far with 7 minutes to go.
Quartararo was back on track in a fresh pair of leathers with only 5 minutes left of the session, as Raul Fernandez had his second crash of the session at turn 10. Aleix set a new all time lap record, only to immediately lose it to Brad Binder who went even faster. Marc crashed less than a minute before the chequered flag, bringing out yellow flags that scuppered the chance of faster laps for anyone else.
Brad Binder topped the session ahead of Bagnaia, Aleix, Martin, Bezzecchi, and Di Giannantonio. Joining them in heading straight through to Q2 would be Zarco, Viñales, Pol Espargaro, and Miller. Alex Rins completed only 6 laps, and finished the session last and 3.7 seconds off the time set by Brad Binder. Rins withdrew from the rest of the weekend, saying that there was too much pain in his leg when he was trying to ride. Stefan Bradl was back on the bike for the rest of the weekend.
FP2 on Saturday morning was topped by Bezzecchi ahead of Bagnaia, Miller, Di Giannantonio, and Binder.
After the first run of laps in Q1, it was Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo who held the top two spots – but could they hold on to them and head through to Q2? One of them could…
Raul Fernandez jumped up to 2nd place to knock Fabio out of a potential Q2 slot, and with a minute to go, both Fernandez and Mir were on fast laps, while Fabio was not. Fabio Quartararo regrouped and was on a fast lap with less than a minute remaining, but he fell foul of the track limits and had his lap time (which would have seen him through to Q2) cancelled.
Joan Mir crashed at turn 5 as the chequered flag came out, and it was Marquez and Raul Fernandez who headed through to Q2.
Q2 saw Marco Bezzecchi crash on his out lap. The crash itself didn’t look too bad, but then Marco was sent on a massive barrel-roll through the gravel. I was genuinely amazed to see him stand up and run away. He jumped on the back of a scooter and was given a lift back to the pits where his team were prepping his second bike.
Jorge Martin took pole position with a new all time lap record, and would be joined on the front row by Bagnaia and Miller, with Bezzecchi, Binder, and Di Giannantonio – who was having a really good weekend – making up the second row. Marquez, Viñales, Aleix, Zarco, Raul Fernandez, and Pol Espargaro would line up on rows 3 and 4.
Jorge Martin’s pole position is his second of the season, and last time he took pole (at Misano) he went on to win both the Sprint and the GP – could he do the same this weekend?
There were dark clouds gathering overhead as the riders headed to the grid for the Sprint, but the rain held off long enough to allow the 12 laps to go ahead uninterrupted. Martin made the most of his pole position and was leading by turn 1, with Jack Miller behind him. Binder passed Bagnaia for 3rd into turn 1, and Marc was running in 5th place.
Binder made his way through to 2nd, pushing team mate Miller wide in the process, before further back Aleix passed Di Giannantonio for 8th. Fabio Quartararo had dropped down to 18th place and was battling with test rider Crutchlow, while Zarco passed Bezzecchi for 6th.
Jorge was stretching things out at the front – he was ahead of Binder by over a second, and Miller was a further 2 seconds back. Marco Bezzecchi definitely looked like he was faster than Marc Marquez, but he was struggling to find a way through. On lap 8 Bez made his move, but ran them both wide which allowed Zarco and Aleix through, dumping Bez back down to 8th place.
Jack Miller was feeling the heat from Pecco Bagnaia as the Italian swarmed all over the rear of his KTM, but Miller was holding strong until he ran wide on lap 10 allowing Bagnaia through to 3rd. Bezzecchi managed to make his way back up to 6th place as he passed Marquez on the penultimate lap.
Martin took the win ahead of Binder and Bagnaia to cut Bagnaia’s lead in the championship to 8 points, with the disappointed world champion saying after the race that he had expected more, but that he had to be happy. He might have told that to his face though, because that was not a happy looking man!
The track looked a bit sketchy for warm up on Sunday morning following overnight rain, so most riders headed out on wet tyres at the start of the 10-minute session. Many riders then pitted for slicks, and took the opportunity to practice a bike swap – there was rain forecast for around the time the MotoGP race would take place.
The session was topped by Miller, with Marquez, Quartararo, Augusto Fernandez, and Raul Fernandez rounding out the top 5.
As the riders headed out on their sighting lap to the grid, there were spots of rain being reported in pit lane, and following a beautiful rendition of the Japanese national anthem, there were coats going on and umbrellas going up in the crowds with only 5 minutes to go before the race was due to start.
The riders completed the warm up lap as rain began to fall, and there was a flurry of activity in pit lane as the lights went out and Jorge Martin took the lead of the race, with Miller and Binder hot on his heels. Bezzecchi had a moment into turn 1 – picking his bike up to avoid contact with another rider – which caused others around him to do the same, sending Zarco and Viñales wide, with Viñales crashing as a result. Viñales was able to re-join the race.
The marshals were now waving the white flag alongside the rain flag, signalling to the riders that they could now swap bikes should they wish. Aleix Espargaro had made his way up to 3rd place, but it didn’t last for long as Bagnaia was soon ahead of him. Jack Miller took the lead of the race at turn 11 before almost all riders peeled into the pit lane to swap bikes.
Suddenly Michele Pirro was leading the race from Quartararo, Bradl, Morbidelli, and Crutchlow. It looked like Bagnaia had completed the quickest bike swap and was going to lead the rest of the riders back out onto the track, but Jorge Martin pounced and headed onto track ahead of Aleix and Marc. Jorge was leading the riders on wets, but was 6th on track as there were still 5 riders ahead of him on slicks.
At the end of lap two Quartararo and Crutchlow completed their bike swaps, promoting Martin to 4th. He soon ran wide though and dropped back to 9th place. Michele Pirro continued to lead the race from Bradl and Morbidelli on slicks, but those on wets were closing in on them. Bradl swapped bikes at the end of lap 3, and while Pirro was still out front, the chasing pack had caught Morbidelli who was now just a mobile chicane. He was quickly dumped back to 6th place, while Pirro’s team put a box call on his dash.
Pirro duly pitted and re-joined the race on wet tyres, leaving Morbidelli the only rider still out on wets, and plummeting down the order. I had to wonder what was going through Franky’s head – why would you stay out on slicks while it was still raining and everyone else had swapped to wet tyres? Perhaps because you hoped the rain would stop, and then you would be the only rider left on slicks and therefore the fastest. I get what he was thinking, but it was a gamble that didn’t pay off, and he did eventually pit for his wet bike, but not until lap 8 when the rain was really starting to hammer down!
Meanwhile, Aleix had inherited the lead when Pirro pitted, but Martin had worked his way back through the field and re-took the lead on lap 6. Brad Binder crashed out of the race on lap 6, before Maverick Viñales, Raul Fernandez and Cal Crutchlow were handed long lap penalties for “incorrect bike swaps”.
The Repsol Honda riders were making the most of the weather conditions and were sitting in 6th and 7th before Marc passed Aleix for 5th place, while Mir lost 7th to Miller. It wasn’t to last for Miller though – he locked the front of his KTM and ran wide. Luckily, he managed to stay upright, but he was now down in 10th place. Jorge Martin was once again pulling a gap at the front of the race – he was over a second clear of Bagnaia, with Bezzecchi a further second back.
Marc Marquez was on the move, passing Miguel Oliveira for 4th on lap 11, before passing Bezzecchi for 3rd a lap later. Miguel Oliveria pulled into the pits at the end of lap 12, while Joan Mir dropped to 13th place. Just as I had written down in my notes that the weather looked awful, and that there was now a huge amount of spray, Marc Marquez raised his hand and a red flag was thrown. I know I am often very critical of Race Direction and their decision making, but that was spot-on – the conditions were getting too close to being unsafe and they reacted quickly.
Johann Zarco crashed out of the race just before the red flag was put out, and his bike looked trashed, but he still managed to get it back to pit lane in the hopes of getting back out for the re-start.
It was announced that the race would be restarted, and that following a quick start procedure, there would be 12 laps. Zarco was excluded from the restart because he had failed to get his bike back within 5 minutes “without taking shortcuts” – he was shown to have brought his bike around the back of the tyre wall which counted as a shortcut. Zarco and his team said after the race that they felt this was unfair as he only went that way as he was following the directions of the marshals.
Viñales and Oliveira would be allowed to re-start, but would have to do so from pit lane as they were each a lap down at the time of the red flag. Massimo Rivola – team boss at Aprilia – was seen running into the RNF garage, presumably to check that they had seen that Miguel would be allowed to restart.
Pit lane opened for riders to head to the grid for the quick start procedure, but it still looked very wet – there was lots of spray from the bikes, and there looked to be standing water on some areas of the track. Riders were sent on the warm up lap, and lots of them were raising their hands. The red flag was thrown again before they had completed the warm up lap, and as they filed down into the pits, it was very quickly announced that a result had been declared with full points as more than 50% of the race distance had been completed.
Jorge was greeted by his team in pitlane, and thanks to his clear visor you could see in his eyes the moment he realised he had won the race. He would be joined on the podium by Bagnaia and Marquez.
Marc’s podium is his first podium (remember, Sprints don’t count towards stats) since the Australian GP in 2022, and moves him above Angel Nieto in the list of riders with the most GP podiums. Marc now sits 5th on that list with 140 podiums. Speaking after the race, Marc said he thought he had a good chance of winning the restart, but that the decision not to race was the right one, which was a sentiment echoed by Martin and Bagnaia with both saying that it would have been too dangerous to restart in those conditions.
It was still pouring down as they headed to the podium, but it didn’t dampen their spirits. Ominously, Jorge Martin – who had never won in the rain before – said after the race that he feels that none of the tracks coming up for the rest of the season are ones where he will struggle.
Franky Morbidelli finished the race in 17th place, which now means that there are no riders who have scored in every race this season.
We have a weekend off before action gets back underway in Indonesia, and the championship lead is down to just 3 points. With 37 points available over a weekend now, we could see a change in leadership at the next round if Jorge keeps up this run of form, which I hope he does!