Even the most secularist and rationalist motorcycle racing fan must by now be thinking that there is some kind of supernatural force at work trying to prevent MotoGP from happening at Motegi. It started in 2010, when the race scheduled for April had to be moved back to October because of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland sent a massive cloud of ash into the skies over Europe which suspended all air flights just as the MotoGP teams were ready to fly to Japan. In 2011, on the weekend of the Qatar MotoGP season opener, the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, sending a devastating tsunami towards Japan destroying the coastal regions, then throwing in a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for good measure.
So it came as no surprise that the first day of practice at Motegi ended up being scrapped due to the weather conditions. You could even say that to only have the first day of practice canceled was a lucky break, as earlier in the week it had looked like a typhoon could have blown through the area and forced the entire event to be called off. Instead, the typhoon track moved further east than expected, sparing Japan the worst of the wind and rain.
What the typhoon did bring, however, was fog, and that turned out to be a bigger problem than the rain was. With poor weather for a couple of days ahead of the MotoGP round, and then fog on Friday, the medical helicopter which is a requirement at every race was grounded, and unable to reach the circuit. Without a medical helicopter, reaching the hospital designated by the circuit medical officer would have taken the better part of an hour by road. In the case of a rider sustaining a life-threatening injury, the medical team could not have gotten them from the circuit medical center to a hospital quickly enough, and that is an unacceptable risk.
The cancellation of Friday action forced Race Direction to put an emergency plan in place. Their problem was handling every possible combination of fog, rain, sun and wind, and so they came up with a list of schedules aimed at each scenario. For full details of each, see the separate story on the possible schedules, but as I write this, conditions are looking favorable. It looks like there could be an extended session of free practice on Saturday morning, and then qualifying and race day as normal. That would be a huge relief to Dorna and Race Direction, who have had to juggle schedules for two races in a row. Unlike Phillip Island, where the problems were both preventable and predictable, the situation at Motegi is beyond the control of those involved.
To add insult to injury, there was also an earthquake off the coast of Japan in the middle of the night, which shook the section of the paddock staying in Mito, close to the coast, awake. Though the earthquake was fairly strong - magnitude 7.1, according to the US Geological Survey - it was also well out to sea, some 300 km from the Japanese coast and 400 km or more from Motegi. No damage was caused, though smaller aftershocks continue, and the earthquake is no threat to the race. Japan's location at the edge of the Ring of Fire, the edge of the tectonic plates which surround the Pacific Ocean, means that earthquakes are common, with 12 quakes having occurred in the area in the last week alone. The earthquake may have sent some of the Europeans in the paddock scurrying for their hotel lobby, the Japanese and Californians (of which there are a few) barely batted an eyelid.
Was canceling practice the right thing to do? Yes, was the consensus among the riders who spoke to the press. This was a simple question of rider safety, and nobody doubted that this was the best course of action. Losing a day of practice was beneficial for those carrying injury, including Stefan Bradl and Scott Redding, as well as making the engine situation less pressing for Nicky Hayden and Jorge Lorenzo. Though it may complicate practice and qualifying, it was the best thing all round.
Who will benefit from this? Jorge Lorenzo seems to think he will. Lorenzo told reporters that he has experience at the track and so should be able to find a set up faster than Marc Marquez. 'It's easy for me to adapt quickly to a circuit,' Lorenzo said, 'I can quickly find a fast rhythm.' Lorenzo's hope is that Marquez' lack of experience on a MotoGP bike at Motegi will work against him. On the evidence of recent races, it is a forlorn hope, however: Marquez has been fast from the off, and if he gets some practice on Saturday, he should be competitive straight away.
This could all be part of Lorenzo and Yamaha's new strategy for trying to beat Marquez. For the past few races, Lorenzo has tried to crank up the pressure on the young Spaniard and force him into an error. Yamaha are hoping that their psychological warfare will help delay the title fight to Valencia, but their latest skirmish failed, Race Direction listening calmly to Yamaha's request for a penalty against Marquez for his collision with Jorge Lorenzo after exiting pit lane, but then rejecting it. It was dismissed as a racing incident, with both parties to blame, Marquez for not looking, and Lorenzo for running wide. Several parties in the paddock pointed out that Lorenzo never runs wide normally, so to do so on that lap is in itself noteworthy.
Though Marquez is still the odds on favorite to be MotoGP champion, he has not quite secured the title just yet. That didn't prevent the Repsol Media account from jumping the gun, and accidentally tweeting a link to the page on the Repsol website celebrating Marquez' title as the youngest champion ever. The web page and tweet were an embarrassing error, but not uncommon in these situations. Press officers and PR staff like to work ahead, preparing pages like this ahead of time so that they can be published as soon as their goal has been achieved, in the same way that newspapers keep obituaries on file of people who are still alive, just in case they have an accident. Publishing such information early remains rather embarrassing, however. As one wag tweeted, Repsol Honda would be better showing their pit boards earlier, rather than their championship celebration pages.