Perhaps that weight off Johann Zarco's shoulders improved his bike setup.
The season's six-time race winner set FP2's fastest practice time shortly after being told he was the 2015 Moto2 champion as a result of Tito Rabat withdrawing from the race. Rabat's withdrawal after a handful of practice laps -- he didn't have sufficent strength in the left arm he broke in a training accident -- meant the Spaniard's distant mathematical chance of defending his 2014 championship evaporated.
And it meant Zarco was the rare rider to become champion during a practice session.
Alex Rins finished second-fastest less than a tenth behind Zarco. Thomas Luthi, fifth in the championship, managed third, nearly two-tenths behind the new champion.
Jorge Lorenzo used the Friday's second free practice at the Motegi circuit in the same the way he used the first: To determine if anyone -- particularly title rival Valentino Rossi -- had the consistent speed to stay with him in Sunday's race. So far, no one has answered.
Late in the session, Dani Pedrosa became the second rider to dip into the 1'44s with a 1'44.858 that put him only a tenth of a second slower than fellow Spaniard Lorenzo. It's a good sign for Pedrosa who has shown terrific form of late. But as close as he got to Lorenzo, he didn't run the same consistently quick laps. Andrea Iannone, on the mend from injuries, climbed into third with a 1'45.043. His Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso -- the pole setter last year with a 1'44.502 -- was right on his heels with a 1'45.059. He, too, was closely followed by Bradley Smith.
And where was points leader Rossi who saw his championship lead shrink to 14 points following Lorenzo's win at the prior Aragon round? He managed to climb into eighth late in the session but remained nearly a second behind his teamate and title rival. It remains to be seen if Rossi can find something extra for Saturday's practice and qualifying. But perhaps Rossi's help won't come from the team or the bike setup; Maybe it will come from the sky.
Niccolo Antonelli ended FP2 in the same the way he ended FP1: By setting the fastest Moto3 time of the day at the Motegi circuit in Japan. The rider’s 1’57.500 put him one-tenth of a second clear of second place in the final Friday practice.
Miguel Oliveira – winner at the prior round in Aragon -- earned the number two time. Enea Bastianini ended his session in third another two-tenths back. In the first practice, Bastianini crashed at Turn 9. He is second in the championship behind Danny Kent who finished the day in 13th.
Thomas Luthi just pipped championship leader Johann Zarco to set the fastest time in FP1 Friday at the Motegi curcuit in Japan. With just a handful of minutes to go, Luthi at 1'51.556 clipped Zarco's class-leading time by 12-hundredths of a second. Sandro Cortese grabbed third in the session.
Zarco, who needs onyl three points to clinch the 2015 championship, finished well ahead of his only remaining mathematical rival Tito Rabat, who ended his session early because of injury. After the session, his team decided he will not race at Motegi.
Jorge Lorenzo made it clear he going to help decide the 2015 championship by setting the fastest time in the first free practice at Japan's Motegi circuit. Lorenzo, only 14 points behind championship leader Valentino Rossi, ended the clear-weather session fourth-tenths of a second ahead of the field. Andrea Iannone, fighting an injury, took the second-quickest time, closely followed by countryman Rossi.
Bradley Smith got fast late to take fourth with Dani Pedrosa slipping down the order to fifth after holding second for much of the session. Andrea Dovizioso finished sixth, just in front of 2014 champion Marc Marquez, who is hamped by a hand injury.
Niccolo Antonelli started off his weekend in Japan with a bang by setting the fastest time in FP1 Friday at the Motegi circuit. Antonelli’s 1’57.500 put him one-tenth of a second clear of Miguel Oliviera who claimed second-fastest at the Twin Ring. Brad Binder seized the third-fastest time another half a second back from the leader.
Motegi was the stage for a parade of the walking wounded on Thursday. The first question to half of the riders in the press conference was, "How's the injury?" The answers mattered quite a lot, given that Jorge Lorenzo is engaged in a battle to the wire with Valentino Rossi for the 2015 MotoGP crown, Marc Márquez has proved to be capable of being the joker in the podium pack, and Andrea Iannone is the dark horse always looking to disrupt proceedings at the front. If any of those three are severely hampered by their injuries, it could have a major impact on the outcome of the championship.
There is, of course, one minor problem with asking riders how their injuries are, and how much trouble they are causing: you never know just how close to the truth the answer they gave you actually is. This is not necessarily because they are trying to deceive you, but as Valentino Rossi himself pointed out, often, a rider does not know just how much trouble an injury will cause until they actually get on a bike and ride. "For me, I think it's impossible to know," he replied, when asked if he thought Lorenzo might be hampered by his injury at Motegi. "But also because I think Jorge don't know. He has to wait to see the feeling when he rides the bike tomorrow morning, because the shoulder is always difficult. It can be a big pain, but it depends in normal life for for riding a motorcycle. Sometimes you have pain when you make some easy things, but you go on the motorcycle and you have less problems." He also pointed out that Lorenzo has had much worse, having raced at Assen in 2013 just a day after having his broken collarbone plated.
Although neither David Emmett nor Neil Morrison are at Motegi this weekend, that hasn't stopped us putting out another episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast. Recorded after Aragon, we took a brief look ahead to the Japanese Grand Prix, and ran through the various rumors and reshuffling of riders in all three Grand Prix classes. Despite being recorded in advance, we still managed to get just about everything right so far, except for the lack of announcements. And finally, we turn our attention to listener questions, including such items as why there is no safety car in MotoGP, why MotoGP does not have a combined rider/bike minimum weight, and who will adapt to the Michelin and spec electronics best.
If you don't want to miss out on these episodes as they are released, make sure you follow The Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to it on iTunes or Soundcloud. Enjoy the show!
Press releases from the MotoGP teams ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi:
Press releases from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams ahead of this weekend's race at Motegi:
So at last it's official. "This will be my last year in MotoGP. I will be moving to World Superbikes next year with Honda and the Ten Kate team," Nicky Hayden told the press conference at Motegi. The move had been long expected, as Hayden's options of a competitive ride had petered out. "These last two years haven't been so good, I haven't been able to get the results on an Open Honda to really keep a high level bike in MotoGP," he acknowledged.
That had prompted his decision to finally move to World Superbikes. "I've always thought World Superbikes might be something I'd like to try, I've always liked the racing there," Hayden said. "The opportunity just felt like it would be a good fit. Obviously I'm getting a bit older, but I still enjoy the sport and the game, and thought it would be a fresh challenge and a new opportunity, to go there and try to have a bit more fun. Of course I'll miss MotoGP. I had a great opportunity here. Was part of some great teams and worked with some great people. But nothing lasts forever, and that's life. Have to keep moving. Go to Superbike with Honda and hopefully have some fun."
Honda issued the following press release on Nicky Hayden joining Michael van der Mark at Ten Kate Honda in World Superbikes next season. More on this story soon:
Honda announces 2016 World Superbike riders
Honda has today confirmed the team that will spearhead its campaign in the 2016 World Superbike championship on the CBR1000RR Fireblade SP. Current rider Michael van der Mark will be joined in the team by former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden.
Hayden has been riding in MotoGP since 2003 when he joined the Repsol Honda team and the 34-year-old American has since gone on to start more than 200 Grands Prix, scoring 28 podiums and taking three wins. He won the MotoGP title with Honda in 2006.
His strong flat-track racing pedigree, which began at the age of three, eventually led him into road-racing and the young Hayden turned professional on his 16th birthday, halfway through the 1997 season. He won the AMA Supersport series with Honda two years later before turning to AMA Superbike in 2000. He became the youngest ever AMA Superbike champion, taking Honda’s VTR1000SP (RC51) to victory in 2002 at the age of 21.
And so the most crucial part of the season begins. Although you could justifiably make the argument that every race is equally important, the three flyaways to the Pacific rim often punch well above their weight in terms of determining the outcome of the championships. If riders haven't all but wrapped up the title before heading East for the triple header at Motegi, Phillip Island and Sepang, then events can throw a real spanner in the works of a title fight. These are three grueling weeks of racing under any circumstances; throw in the pressure of a championship battle and mistakes are easily made.
The first challenge the riders face is the sheer amount of travel it takes to get from one race to the next. First, they must spend at least 18 hours on planes and at airports traveling from Europe to Tokyo. They face a further two hour drive to get to Motegi, and unless they are well-paid enough to be staying at the circuit hotel, will have a 50-minute commute into the circuit every day ahead of the race. On Sunday night or Monday morning, they return to Tokyo for another 10-hour flight (or longer, if they can't fly direct) to Melbourne, and a drive down to Phillip Island. A week later, another flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, this time an 8-hour flight. After the Sepang round, they finally get to head home, another 17+ hour return flight back to Europe, and a week to rest up ahead of the final round of the season at Valencia. They travel from a wet and humid Motegi, to the chill of Phillip Island's early spring, to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang.
Motorcycle racers are hyperactive at the best of times, so getting them to sit still for the best part of a day is not easy. The Japanese manufacturers – a group including Bridgestone, also based in Japan – want to take full advantage of the presence of their top riders in Asia, and so they get taken on whirlwind tours of factories, headquarters, and as a bonus, a trip to key markets such as Indonesia or Thailand. For riders such as Cal Crutchlow and Nicky Hayden, used to spending upwards of 3 hours on a bicycle every day, their training routine is destroyed. Those who prefer training on a motorcycle, such as Valentino Rossi or Marc Márquez, do not fare any better. They might get some time in a gym, but suffering massive jet lag, in a confusing environment where they can understand very little of the language, and surrounded by strange food, it is much more difficult to maintain focus. In a sport where attention to detail has become ever more important, the smallest mistake can be ruinous. It is no wonder that titles can go astray overseas.
Tito Rabat has suffered a fracture of the radius of his left arm. The reigning Moto2 champion crashed while training at Almeria in preparation for the Pacific triple header, falling and injuring his arm. He immediately underwent surgery to have a plate fitted to his arm, and is to fly to Japan where he intends to try to race.
The cause of the crash is not clear. Rabat blamed the crash on a technical problem, causing him to fall at the chicane, but due to his injury, he has not been able to take a look at the bike to determine what caused the problem. This is Rabat's second training-related injury this season, having also broken his collarbone earlier in the year after a crash at Almeria.
Rabat's decision to race is forced by his desire to defend his title. Johann Zarco leads Rabat by 78 points, so if Rabat wants to keep his title hopes alive, he has to score 4 points more than Zarco at Motegi. Even then, Rabat will need the Frenchman to score a number of DNFs. But riders are not willing to give up on a title until the mathematics says it is impossible.
Below is the press release from the Marc VDS Racing Estrella Galicia team:
Rabat ready to race in Japan despite training injury
The move to a standard electronics package, both hardware and software, had raised the hopes of fans, teams and organizers that a more level playing field could be established, and costs cut. The ideal sketched by Dorna and IRTA when the plan first came out has proven to be impossible to achieve. The manufacturers have resisted calls for a completely spec hardware and software package, and so a compromise has been reached. The ECU hardware and software will be built, updated and managed by official electronics supplier to MotoGP, Magneti Marelli. Factories will be free to choose their own sensors, but those sensors will have to be homologated, and made available to any other manufacturer which wishes to use it at a reasonable price.
Not quite all of the sensors, however. In response to a request by the factories, the inertial platform will remain what is called a free device, i.e. any manufacturer can choose to use whichever inertial platform they like, without first submitting it for a approval to Dorna, or making it available to their rivals at a price. The inertial platform is a crucial part of the electronics package, consisting of a collection of gyroscopes and accelerometers, which describe the attitude and motion of the bike. In other words, the inertial platform tells the ECU what lean angle the bike is at, whether it is braking or accelerating, how hard it is corner, etc.
Giving manufacturers the freedom to use their own inertial platforms has created a lot of suspicion. Because the inertial platform plays such a pivotal role, there have been accusations that some manufacturers, especially Honda and Yamaha, wish to use their proprietary units to circumvent the rules. There are good reasons to build some intelligence into inertial platforms, as such intelligence can increase accuracy, and therefore help the ECU software perform better. This is the reason the factories give for wanting their own inertial platform; experience with the spec unit used by the Open class machines has shown it to be insufficiently accurate.
But the intelligence built in to the inertial platform could go well beyond just improving accuracy. By including a powerful processor in the inertial platform, one which could be programmed by a manufacturer with their own software, and their own algorithms and strategies, the inertial platform could hypothetically be used to modify the strategies being used by the unified software in the spec ECU.