Marc Marquez had come to Motegi to give Honda the world championship at their home circuit for the first time ever. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to Japan to score a win in front of their home fans, and factory bosses. In the end, the Battle of the Bosses can be declared a draw: Jorge Lorenzo was just about unstoppable on his way to victory, winning in front of Yamaha's top brass. And Marc Marquez nudged his way past Valentino Rossi to take second, finishing ahead of the two men who could prevent him from wrapping up the 2014 MotoGP title. Marquez brought Honda a championship at the circuit they own, in front of the company's CEO, Takanobu Ito. Both Lorenzo and Marquez came to Motegi with a job to do, and they both got the job done.
The win capped a weekend of near perfection at Motegi for Jorge Lorenzo. Qualifying had been the only minor bump on the road to victory, the Movistar Yamaha man forced to start from the second row. He made up for that with raw aggression off the line, sitting Marc Marquez up into the first corner, then picking of the men ahead of him until he sat on the tail of his teammate, Valentino Rossi. Rossi had capitalized on his front row start, leading off the line and into the first corner, shuffling pole sitter Andrea Dovizioso back to second, Lorenzo demoting the Ducati man to third the next corner.
Rossi pushed hard from the off, and Lorenzo was happy to sit quietly on his tail and follow. But once Marc Marquez had gathered his composure again, passed Andrea Iannone, and closed down Andrea Dovizioso, Lorenzo decided he could wait no longer. A hard but clean pass on Rossi at the end of the back straight put Lorenzo in the lead, and though Rossi thought about attacking straight back, he found himself off line and with Dovizioso ready to pounce behind him.
From that point on, the race was Lorenzo's. The pace he set left everyone gasping for breath, even Lorenzo himself. Both the Yamaha men described the race the most intense of the year. All four riders at the front – the same four who have dominated the 2014 season – raced with the utmost intensity, Lorenzo said.
That intensity, the ability to ride at maximum pace without making a single mistake, with a ferocious focus, that was what Lorenzo had been missing in the first part of the season. The reasons are well known: a lack of fitness after surgery over the winter; the new Bridgestone rear tire which has a fraction less edge grip than last year; the problems Yamaha had creating smooth throttle response with a liter less fuel than last year. Lorenzo worked hard on his fitness, and says he is fitter than he has ever been before. Yamaha did what both Lorenzo and Rossi described as 'an incredible job' to turn the M1 around and make it rideable again – proof of how perfectly they now have the balance was visible when both factory bikes had to be pushed into parc fermé after running out of fuel on the cool down lap.
Above all, what changed was in Jorge Lorenzo's mind. He gave up on complaining about the rear tire – even though he still doesn't like it, and can't use it as well as the 2013 Bridgestone – and worked on adapting his mindset. The improvement was immediately visible after the summer break. He scored a string of second places when MotoGP resumed at Indianapolis, finally scoring the win he had desired so badly at Aragon. That, he admitted, had been unexpected, and down more to circumstances and the rain, though Lorenzo had been competitive in the first part of the race when it was dry.
The win at Motegi was the Jorge Lorenzo of old. Imperious, his rivals dispatched at will, his M1 harried round the Japanese circuit like a Roman general leading a chariot charge. Though Lorenzo's close friend Max Biaggi was given the soubriquet The Roman Emperor, it is Lorenzo who deserves it much more. Lorenzo has the aquiline nose, the commanding look, the imperious and proud manner, the sweeping way of harrying his M1 around a circuit, as if driving the Seleucid hordes before him. It is, quite honestly, a spectacle best enjoyed from track side, where you get a sense of just how powerful a figure Lorenzo is aboard a motorcycle. On TV it looks effortless. From the side of the track, you see how Lorenzo steers the bike more by the force of his will than anything else.
If this Jorge Lorenzo had turned up at Qatar, Marc Marquez would have had a great deal more trouble defending his MotoGP title, but that Lorenzo had gone AWOL in the first part of the season. His return means Marquez will face a much tougher challenge in the last three races, with the prospect of 2015 being a much closer contest.
Lorenzo owes a large part of his revival to the improvement of the Yamaha M1. Lorenzo's two victories come on top of Valentino Rossi's victory at Misano, making it three in a row for Yamaha. The bike is now competitive, and with the winter to work on a seamless gearbox that downshifts, and more power and a still smoother engine, Yamaha should be competitive right from the start. Lorenzo has rediscovered his form from his championship years, and Valentino Rossi is arguably riding better than he ever has before, driven by the exceptional level of competition he now faces. Marc Marquez will find defending his title for the second time a good deal harder than his first title defense.
Yet Marquez still has something to spare when he needs it, as he showed at Motegi. After a cautious start – Marquez said afterwards that he had been scared, worried by the crashes at the last two races at Misano and Aragon – he quickly found his feet and made his forward. He dispensed with Andrea Dovizioso with relative ease, exploiting the reluctance of the Ducati to turn by sliding underneath it through the S Curve. Valentino Rossi proved a tougher obstacle, but one he was determined to get past anyway. His first attempt at the V Corner was thwarted when he ran wide at the next corner, the Hairpin. He was through on the next lap, and sure of the championship as long as he prevented either Rossi or the approaching Dani Pedrosa from coming through.
After the race, he explained that he had given up on Lorenzo as soon as he saw the Spaniard get past Rossi. From that point on, the race was between Rossi and himself, he said. He pushed to hold on to second, collapsing in pure relief at the end of the race as he crossed the line ahead of Rossi and Pedrosa to win his second successive MotoGP title. The relief he displayed was a sign of just how hard the last few races had been on the 21-year-old Spaniard. The pressure may not have been visible to the outside world, but it had been there. His first championship had come without any expectations, he said. "Last year I didn't have pressure and if I made some mistakes it was okay, because I was a rookie." The perfect start to 2014 had made it look easier than it was for Marquez, and perhaps made him a little over-confident, he admitted. "Maybe with the advantage I had in the second part I had the chance to take more risks at Misano and Aragon." Those risks had not worked out well, Marquez losing the chance to tie up the title at Aragon, in front of his home crowd. It had been a painful but useful lesson.
The key to this title was experience, the experience gained from last year, and how to handle situations he found himself in, Marquez told the press conference after the race. He now had a reference at each circuit he rode at, instead of having to learn his way around on a MotoGP bike first. But learning how to handle setbacks had been key. He had arrived at Qatar after not riding for six weeks, the layoff a result of breaking his leg in training. He had ignored the criticism which had rained down on him for riding dirt track and pushing hard enough to crash and injure himself. "People said I was stupid because I trained on the dirt track, but in the end if you want to improve, if you want to be faster, you need to train, you need to take risks."
Some of the lessons on handling setbacks had been learned in his first year in Moto2, when a crash at Sepang nearly ended his career. He damaged his vision in the crash, suffering double vision afterwards. With his family and his manager, Emilio Alzamora, he visited five or six doctors to try to gain an understanding of his injury, Marquez told the press conference. He was told ahead of surgery to fix the problem that there was no guarantee of success, no guarantee that he would be able to race a motorcycle again. He had tried to stay positive throughout the five months – "but it was five really long months," he added – and once he realized the operation had been a success, he felt he had learned perhaps the most important lesson of his career: "You have to enjoy the moment, because you never know what will happen."
The MotoGP race may have seen the championship settled, the two support races brought the title races closer to a conclusion. Despite the fact that Tito Rabat had utterly dominated Moto2 practice, the Spaniard could not find that same form during the race. Instead, it was Tom Luthi who took control of the race, leading almost from the start and managing the gap all the way to the line. Maverick Viñales got close, but Luthi responded, holding the Spanish rookie off quite comfortably.
Despite Rabat's failure to show the form he had during practice, his main rival for the title, Marc VDS Racing teammate Mika Kallio, failed to capitalize. The Finn crossed the line in fifth, two places behind Rabat. That was another five points Kallio ceded to Rabat in the title chase, Rabat's advantage now up to 38 points. Kallio's chances of wrenching the Moto2 title from Rabat's grasp are getting slimmer and slimmer. At this rate, the Moto2 title chase looks likely to be over at Sepang.
The Moto3 race was the best of the weekend, as ever, but here, too, the title chase took a decisive turn. Alex Marquez had already capitalized on the collision with Jack Miller at Aragon, which saw him take over the leadership in the title chase from the Australian. Miller's gritty determination to make amends at Motegi ended up costing him dearly. After a gripping five-way battle (it had been a six-way battle, until Miguel Oliveira crashed out), victory came down to who would be bravest on the final lap. That, in turn, meant jockeying for position on the penultimate lap, no one really wanting to lead onto the back straight, as it meant that the riders behind were certain to slipstream you, then swamp you into Turn 11. Miller, Danny Kent and Marquez all came onto the back straight together, but Marquez had the smartest line. Miller tried to outbrake the other two, but in his haste to downshift, hit neutral and missed the corner. Kent found himself on the wrong line, after having been forced briefly onto the dirt, and missed the final corner as well. That handed an almost simple victory to Alex Marquez, as well as allowing him to extend his lead from 11 to 25 points. Marquez was helped further by the fact that Jakub Kornfeil pushed Alex Rins wide at the start of the race, leaving him stuck in midfield. Luck – or perhaps events is a better word – is pushing the title Marquez' way.
The two Marquez brothers are close, and both played key roles in helping the other celebrate their triumphs at Motegi. When Marc was asked once again if he would be racing in Moto2 at Valencia, now that he had the title wrapped up, the elder Marquez denied it, but seized the opportunity for a quick jest. Maybe Moto3, he said, if he needed to help his brother win the Moto3 title. That would be better, after all, Honda have an entry, right? It was a joke, but still, with Marc Marquez, you always suspect there is a slim chance he might actually do it. After all, when did Marc Marquez ever turn down the chance to race a motorbike?