Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed. Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been "a bit frightening," Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi. If Marquez is to wrap up the title at Motegi, he needs to beat Pedrosa and Rossi, but he is not looking likely to do that at the moment. He complained of not having found the right set up yet, something which has not happened often this year, but has resulted in him being beaten when he has. But it is still only Friday, and his rivals, at least, are refusing to write him off just yet. "He will be competitive tomorrow," Lorenzo said of Marquez.
Lorenzo, however, is competitive today. The Movistar Yamaha is riding the crest of his return to form, and was fast and smooth throughout the first day of practice. His pace was very strong, regularly touching the mid 1'45s, and looking every inch the Lorenzo of old. The cause? The bike has improved, he has accepted that he has to deal with the tires he has, and he is fitter than ever. Everything has gone to plan from the beginning, perhaps even better than expected. Jorge Lorenzo won at Motegi in 2013, and looks set to repeat the feat in 2014 as well.
If anyone is to defend the honor of Honda at the track they own, it will most likely be Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man is being quietly impressive again on the first day of practice, his race pace close to that laid down by Lorenzo. It was not just his race pace that impressed: during the morning session he had found himself braking harder into the downhill section at the end of the back straight than he intended. His rear wheel lifted spectacularly, Pedrosa pulling off a massive stoppie that lasted over 100 meters. That, Pedrosa proclaimed impishly, was definitely a record for stoppies in MotoGP. So impressive was the stunt that Dorna decided to put up a free video of it on the MotoGP.com website (registration required). Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Pedrosa managed to get into the corner, and complete his lap normally.
The dark horse for Honda is Stefan Bradl. The LCR Honda rider has got off to a flying start in Motegi, being fast right out of the box. The set up was good from the very beginning, and it shows in his pace. Bradl is right up with Pedrosa on race pace, and not that far off the pace of Lorenzo. If he can maintain this through Saturday, the German may be able to finally score one of the podiums which HRC had been expecting of him this year.
Yet it was neither a Honda nor a Yamaha which was fastest on the day. Andrea Dovizioso put the factory Ducati at the top of the timesheets at the end of the afternoon session, sticking in one of the extra soft tires which the Open class bikes and Ducati have at their disposal. It gave him a comfortable lead, but this was not what impressed most. Even on the harder tire – the softer of the two compounds available to the Factory Option bikes, and the same tire used by Pedrosa, Lorenzo, Bradl, Rossi and Marquez – Dovizioso was fast. His race pace is close to that of Pedrosa and Bradl, occasionally dipping into the 1'45s, but he needs just a fraction more pace to compete for the podium. Can he do it? There is every reason to believe that he can. The track suits the Ducatis, and they will be there when it counts.
While the MotoGP race looks to being an open and hard-fought contest, Tito Rabat left no one in any doubt of his intentions in Moto2. The current championship leader ran a straight race simulation on Friday afternoon, putting in a string of 23 straight laps, the majority of which were faster than anyone else managed on the day. He topped the timesheets on Friday, of course, but it was the manner in which he did it which really was most striking. Rabat arrived at Motegi something of an underdog, this is a track where his teammate Mika Kallio has been strong in the past, and was expected to claw some points back from Rabat. The display put on by Rabat must have crushed the spirits of his rivals, so relentless was his pace. If Rabat wins on Sunday, he will have laid the foundations for victory on Friday afternoon.
While Rabat grabbed the Moto2 class by the throat, in Moto3, both Alex Marquez and Jack Miller have struggled. Marquez ended the day in 7th, half a second off the pace, while Miller was a lowly 13th, three quarters of a second slower than the fastest man Danny Kent. That Kent should be quick here comes as no surprise: the Englishman won his first ever Moto3 race here two years ago, and goes very well at the circuit. Of the title contenders, only Alex Rins came anywhere near Kent, showing useful pace while his rivals struggled.
Most heartening of all was the fact that Miguel Oliveira's 3rd-fastest time put three Moto3 constructors into the top three, the Mahindra matching the pace of Kent's Husqvarna (which is a rebadged KTM) and Rins' Honda. Brad Binder's 4th place backed up Oliveira's strong showing, the Ambrogio Racing rider also aboard a Mahindra. The stop-and-go nature of the Motegi circuit helps play to the strengths of the Suter-built Indian bike.
The question is, of course, whether the times in Moto3 will mean much come race day. The circuit suits another mass group slipstreaming each other to the line. Being fastest during practice may not be as important as the right combination of strategy and aggression at the end of the race. Under those conditions, it could be anyone's race.