2008 Motegi MotoGP Preview - Own The Racetrack
For the past few years, Suzuki has been using the slogan "Own The Racetrack" to market its legendary and long-running GSX-R sports bikes line. Of course, when they use the phrase "own the racetrack" they mean it in a metaphorical sense, of being the best bike out on the circuit, rather than the literal sense of actually paying money to own and operate a racing facility for your own personal use.
Yet that is exactly what a number of manufacturers have chosen to do. Literally owning your own racetrack offers a whole swathe of advantages if you design and produce any kind of vehicle, and so this is a path that several bike makers have elected to follow. Yamaha owns the Sportsland Sugo track, for example, and Kawasaki owns the Autopolis International Racing Course near Hita in Japan.
As befits the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, Honda owns more racetracks than the others, holding the deeds for both the Twin Ring Motegi circuit, site of Sunday's Japanese MotoGP round, and its former location, the Suzuka International Race Course. And Honda's pair of race tracks could hardly be more different: where Motegi is a straightforward stop-and-go track with little to commend it, Suzuka is fast, flowing and challenging, presenting the rider with a series of problems to overcome. Sadly, since Dajiro Katoh's tragic death there in 2003 - the incident which sparked the initial discussions on reducing engine capacity to 800cc - the Japanese Grand Prix is no longer held at Suzuka, and has been switched to Motegi instead.
A Tale Of Two Circuits
Like Suzuka, Motegi was originally built as a test track for developing Honda's range of vehicles. And like Suzuka, Motegi features a mixture of turns, from tight hairpins to long sweepers, taken at a range of speeds. But where John Hugenholtz managed to imbue Suzuka with character and charm, and connect the corners in such a way as to create a kind of racing narrative, Motegi's designers created a track where a series of turns of a given specification were simply connected by the most straightforward means possible.
Even the corner names are uninspiring, simple descriptions of the type of corner involved. Turns such as S Curve, Hairpin, 90 Corner all speak for themselves, with only the merest sliver of imagination going into Victory Corner, the final turn before heading back down the front straight. For the most part, though, the track consists of a series of medium-length straights, most of which are connected by varying radius hairpins.
Fortunately, in addition to the selection of about-face turns, there's a flowing section to add some appeal. After zigzagging back along the 3rd short straight from the starting line, a sharp right leads on to the most interesting part of the track. The fast 130R gives riders a chance to line rivals up through the S Curve, and that left-right flick and the V Curve gives them a chance to pass and get re-passed before the harsh braking for the Hairpin turn, a tight 180 leading on to the long back straight.
The end of the straight sees another opportunity for a pass - though it is all too easy to end in the gravel, as the end of the straight dips slightly downhill just as the riders are hardest on the brakes - before heading back to the final chicane, and then across the line.
Must Try Harder
Ironically, owning Motegi has not allowed Honda to own the racetrack very often in recent years. The Japanese giant has been forced to watch the tiny Italian usurpers Ducati and Loris Capirossi take the glory of victory for the past three years. Even before Capirossi started dominating at Motegi, it was usually the satellite teams who managed to win at Motegi, rather than the factory riders, with 2001 the last time a rider on a full factory Honda won here.
The biggest problem for Honda has been that the track has favored Bridgestones, with bikes on the Japanese tires taking the last 4 races, while the Repsol Honda team have been left to struggle on Michelins. So overwhelming was the Bridgestone domination last year that the first man home on Michelins was Nicky Hayden in 9th, beaten even by Sylvain Guintoli on the Dunlop shod Tech 3 Yamaha.
A New Hope
HRC don't want to have to go through that again, and this weekend, they could finally have the answer. Four weeks ago, after the Misano Grand Prix, Dani Pedrosa made a shock switch to Bridgestone tires, HRC and Bridgestone finally relenting to the pressure put on them by the Spaniard, his mentor Alberto Puig, and Repsol, the Spanish company which has poured a lot of resources into the program over the years, and is desperate for another Spanish champion.
With Pedrosa on Bridgestones and using the pneumatic valve engine in his RC212V, in theory the Spaniard should stand a very good chance of finally being competitive this weekend. But with just a day's testing and a single race weekend - one which was partially washed out, to boot - Pedrosa is badly short of experience with the Bridgestone tires.
Fortunately for the Spaniard, HRC have full access to the data from the Gresini Honda team to help them set the bike up to take advantage of the tires. But Pedrosa still has to ride the thing, and get completely comfortable with the tires. Expectations are likely to be high, but winning at Motegi could actually be a lot more difficult than either HRC or Pedrosa would like.
And there's a whole host of people lining up to get in Pedrosa's way. First and foremost is the man who can seal the championship on Sunday, and inscribe his name even more clearly in the record books. If Valentino Rossi can finish on the podium in Japan, or concede fewer than 12 points to Casey Stoner and fewer than 6 points to Dani Pedrosa, the Italian will wrap up his 6th MotoGP championship, and his 8th title overall. It would take Rossi ahead of Mick Doohan in the number of premier class titles, and bring Giacomo Agostini's haul of 8 top class titles within reach.
The trouble is that Valentino Rossi has had a troubled relationship with Motegi over the years. Rossi hasn't won here since 2001, and worse, the last time he had a chance to wrap up a title here - in 2005 - he crashed out, spearing Marco Melandri in the leg with his footpeg, and raising further accusations that Race Direction always seemed to treat Rossi more leniently than other riders.
To add insult to injury, Motegi is also the place that Casey Stoner wrapped up the title in 2007, in the year that The Doctor was bent on avenging his title loss of the year before. All too often, Motegi has not been kind to Rossi, but this year, he is determined to make amends. A victory at Honda's home track, or at least a podium to wrap up the title, would be very sweet for both Rossi and Yamaha, and perhaps a way of getting his own back at HRC for the way he felt he was treated by them in the years he rode for them.
The man with the most realistic, albeit still largely mathematical, chance of preventing another Rossi title is going to be the hardest man to beat at Motegi. A Bridgestone-shod Ducati has won the last three races in a row here, but much to Casey Stoner's disgust, it wasn't his bike that took the victory in 2007 in the race that secured him the title. In fact, Stoner's 6th place in Japan was the Australian's worst finish of the year, a fact that grated on him at the time.
So the reigning World Champion has something to put right at Motegi. The fact that he could also at least delay Rossi's title celebration merely adds to his motivation to prevent this, though the most likely outcome of such a stay of execution is that Rossi would be crowned champion at Stoner's home Grand Prix at Phillip Island a week later.
But much as Casey Stoner may want to at least delay Rossi taking the title for as long as possible, he faces a couple of problems. Firstly, even if he wins, he will need at least two other riders to get in between The Doctor and himself. With Rossi in his current form, that is not a particularly likely chain of events.
And secondly, Stoner is still in some pain from a wrist injury, a broken scaphoid which failed to heal properly after a crash in 2003 and separated again at Misano. After arriving in Japan, Stoner told journalists that his wrist was healing well and feeling a lot better, but until he gets out on the track he won't know just how strong it is. His injury could hamper his riding sufficiently to prevent him from dominating races and practice the way he has done earlier in the season, and make Rossi's job easier than it might be otherwise.
Such is the seriousness of Stoner's injury that he needs surgery to fix the problem as soon as possible, but any operation will have to wait until the season is over. If Rossi clinches the title either this weekend or next, then Stoner may decide to cut his losses and get surgery right after his home Grand Prix, choosing to sit out the last two races of the season and concentrate on getting back to testing and preparing for the 2009 season as quickly as possible.
I Own The Racetrack
Of course, for any of the favorites to win at Motegi, they will first have to beat the man who has won here for the last three years in a row. More impressively, last year Loris Capirossi won at Motegi on the Ducati he struggled with all season long. If Capirex can win on the Ducati 800 he was never comfortable on, it seems a fair bet that the Italian veteran can put the Suzuki further up the field than it would ordinarily merit.
And Capirossi has the Motegi track working in his favor. With so many hairpins, the Suzuki won't be spending so much time on the edge of the tire, where the bike has problems. Suzukis always go well at stop-and-go circuits, and with Capirossi's track record here, he shouldn't be ruled out lightly.
The other rider who is likely to be playing party pooper is Jorge Lorenzo. Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate has been thoroughly revitalized by the summer break, starting off slowly at Brno, but taking two podiums in a row since then. The Spanish rookie is largely recovered physically from his injuries, but more importantly, he has found his mojo again, and regained his confidence. From here on in, Lorenzo is going to be impossible to discount, wherever the MotoGP circus sets out its stall.
Honda may have their hopes pinned on Dani Pedrosa, but his team mate, Nicky Hayden, has other ideas. The Kentucky Kid finally led a race again at Indianapolis for the first time since the class switched to 800cc, and was back on the podium after more than a year.
But at least some of Hayden's Indianapolis form must be put down to the track being just a few hours from his home town of Owensboro, Kentucky, and a track which mostly went left. Motegi is a clockwise track, with more right-hand corners than lefts, which both goes against Hayden's natural instinct, and puts more pressure on his cracked heel.
That won't stop Hayden from trying. After announcing his switch to Ducati, and refusing to denounce the situation he has been through in the Repsol Honda garage and, in his own words, acting like "a crazy ex-girlfriend and start talking a bunch of trash", Hayden will want to pay Honda back in the coin he knows will hurt them most. If he can take a win at Motegi, or at least beat his team mate, he will have made his point most eloquently, and most painfully.
The other Honda riders cannot be written off, though. Shinya Nakano is on the - previous - factory spec RC212V on Bridgestones, a combination which should run well at Motegi. And Nakano is also likely to be edged out of MotoGP, with most insiders tipping the Japanese rider to replace the aging Tady Okada as HRC's official test rider. A strong result at Motegi is vital if Nakano is to remain a racer, and avoid premature retirement.
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, will want to make a good impression on his new bosses at HRC by finishing well up the field. Dovizioso is expected to be confirmed as Dani Pedrosa's team mate at Repsol Honda this weekend, and a strong finish will be vital to his standing inside the team. The Repsol Honda garage is currently heavily weighted in favor of the Spaniard, and Dovizioso will be keen to avoid the kind of treatment given to Nicky Hayden. A podium, or very close, is crucial if Dovi is to be capable of holding his own.
The Wild Bunch
MotoGP also has a handful of conundrums, in the shapes of Toni Elias, Randy de Puniet, Chris Vermeulen, Colin Edwards and James Toseland. After a dismal start to the season, Elias has been a podium regular over the last few races, with only the dire weather at Indianapolis preventing another visit to the winners' circle. Elias is also due to be confirmed on a Honda this weekend, joining Alex de Angelis at Gresini. A good finish on the Alice Ducati will make Gresini's choice look a wise one, and strengthen Elias' claim to factory support from HRC within the team.
The seasons of James Toseland and Colin Edwards are the opposite of Toni Elias. The Tech 3 Yamaha team started off brilliantly, with front row qualifying and even a couple of podiums. But their form started going downhill around mid-season, and their decline has steepened since the summer break. The sole bright point is Toseland's 6th place at Misano, but that is a very meager harvest after such a promising start. Team boss Herve Poncharal has started making unhappy noises in the press recently, and with the team likely to lose at least some of its financial backing next year - of which more later - both men could find themselves in need of a ride rather sooner than they banked on.
Randy de Puniet and Chris Vermeulen are different, but strangely similar. De Puniet is incredibly fast, often qualifying way above where you would expect a weak satellite Honda on Michelins to finish. Even in the race, the Frenchman can be very quick indeed, often running well up the order. But that usually doesn't last. De Puniet has a penchant for flinging the machinery at the scenery, a tendency which has only got worse this year. If he can keep it on two wheels, he could be a dark horse.
Vermeulen is a dark horse in a different respect. A race winner, and the only man capable of matching the pace at the front at some tracks, at others, the Australian is nowhere. Whether that is down to the nature of the Suzuki or whether it is down to Vermeulen himself is hard to say. But just looking at race lap times, it is clear that Vermeulen can be competitive anywhere. If only he started racing from lap 1 rather than lap 5, by which time he has an insurmountable deficit to make good.
Where Vermeulen differs from the LCR Honda rider, Alex de Angelis is almost a carbon copy of Randy de Puniet. Undeniably fast, but also predictably unreliable, with an affinity for gravel traps and destroying carbon fiber. If de Angelis can finish, he can finish well up the order. But finishing is harder than you might reasonably expect.
The good news for Kawasaki is that Kousuke Akiyoshi will be joining the MotoGP field at Motegi. Not to ride for Kawasaki, but on board a third Suzuki. Why an extra Suzuki would be good news for Kawasaki is that it at least increases the chance of someone else being dead last. Team Green's Ant West, along with Ducati's Marco Melandri, have a good shot of keeping someone behind them, a fact which will bring them some relief.
This is in itself a tragic state of affairs, as both Melandri and West are clearly talented racers, with multiple wins under their belt. But both men can only look to next season, and hope for better. And for both men, that future will involve Kawasaki. Melandri will be joining Kawasaki's MotoGP team next year, while West is rumored to be moving either to World Superbikes or to World Supersport to ride for Kawasaki. The factory has not done well in any of the series it competes in this year, so the prospects for next year are not looking all that promising.
Deus Ex Machina
While much attention will be focused on the action on the track, there is likely to be almost as much action off the track at Motegi. With MotoGP in Japan, home of 4 of the 5 MotoGP manufacturers and the currently dominant tire manufacturer, a great deal of business is expected to be transacted at Motegi, and several announcements are expected.
In addition to formal announcements from Honda on their remaining vacant MotoGP seats, there is also likely to be a statement from Dorna on the issue of a single tire for MotoGP. The move has been widely anticipated, but the intriguing part will be in the details. Any tire contract is likely to go to Bridgestone, mostly because any other outcome would be impossible to sell to the big names on the MotoGP grid. But the question remains of whether the contract will be for a single tire manufacturer, or for a spec tire.
The distinction is subtle, but important. Under a spec tire system, such as operates in World Superbikes, the tire maker would bring a standardized range of compounds and carcass constructions to the races, and riders would be forced to choose from among the limited options. But with a single tire manufacturer, the system would operate as it did prior to Bridgestone's arrival in the early '00s. The tire maker could make special tires for whoever they please - usually a few favored riders - and fob the rest of the field off with standard, B-grade tires. Speeds would be limited, but tires would still be an important factor in determining the outcome of the race. This time, though, it would be the tire manufacturer who gets to play king maker.
Another detail of interest will be whether the existing restrictions on tires will be maintained. With a single company providing tires, the rationale for the tire restrictions disappears. Even more importantly, there's no longer any need to choose tires on a Thursday, as the tire maker is unlikely to want to spend a lot money producing and flying in "Saturday Night Specials", as they will be paying for it themselves. So riders may be able to choose a completely different set of tires on Sunday morning, no longer stuck with the choices they were forced to make without turning a wheel.
The fans and the riders may welcome a single tire rule, but at least one team may find itself in trouble. With the Tech 3 Yamaha team sporting the colors of Michelin, if not quite plastered with Bibendum's logos, it's an open secret that the French tire make provide a significant portion of the cash for the team. If MotoGP goes to a single tire, Tech 3's income is severely restricted, and finding more sponsorship in the current financial crisis is going to be extremely hard. Though it is aimed at making competition closer, a single tire rule could end up thinning out the grid.
Whatever happens, the Japanese Grand Prix is likely to enter the history books, in one way or another. Valentino Rossi is looking almost certain to clinch his 6th MotoGP title and etch his name yet deeper into the annals of MotoGP. And with Dani Pedrosa finally on the same tires as Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, the Spaniard should be more capable of staying with the front runners, and putting up a fight. And then of course there's a resurgent Jorge Lorenzo and vindictive Nicky Hayden to throw into the mix.
So there's every chance the racing at Motegi could start to get closer too. We can only hope it will, as if it is to overshadow the political storm that is about to hit MotoGP - a storm that could be intensified, if the rumors of restrictions on electronics to be introduced are true, as well as the change to a single tire - it will have to be pretty exhilarating indeed.