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.
Lorenzo himself was keen to downplay the injury. He had been worried when he first crashed the bike, a silly accident caused as he was training on a minimoto and racing with some friends. That had been a mistake, he confessed to Spanish media, to start riding minimotos for the first time this year at such a crucial part of the season. He recognized the pain immediately, from an injury he suffered in 2009, when he crashed at Laguna Seca and injured his shoulder. Fortunately, examination of the shoulder in hospital saw that it was a type 1 sprain of the acromioclavicular ligament, an injury which usually has a recovery time of between one and two weeks. He had been working hard on his recovery since the accident, and was getting better every day. The shoulder was still a little painful, "not so comfortable when I move the shoulder," Lorenzo said. He did not expect to be back at 100% on Sunday, but he was confident of being able to compete. "Today I feel very good," he said. "I think tomorrow I will be better and by Sunday better again. Maybe I will be close to 100%."
For Márquez, he faced a much more difficult problem. The metacarpal bone in his hand was broken, and at Motegi, a track with such heavy braking zones, that is likely to be a problem. "We will see tomorrow how it is on the bike, especially the braking points where we are pushing a lot," he said. His team had prepared a special handlebar grip and lever for him, thicker to make it easier to grip with less pressure. Having already had experience this year with a broken left hand, they had a head start on getting it ready.
Iannone, like Márquez, will struggle more. There are very few flowing sections at Motegi, and a lot of corners where the key to success is heavy braking. "At the moment, my condition is at 70%," Iannone said, "This is really important at this track, because this track is famous for the strong braking points." The bike will also struggle, as braking stability has been an issue for the Ducati.
Andrea Dovizioso concurred with that assessment. Last year, he said, Ducati had done really well, because the Desmosedici GP14.2 was so strong in braking. This year it would be tougher, as the bike is much less strong in braking zones, having sacrificed some stability for agility, the ability to get the bike through the turns. They needed to work on set up to fix this, Dovizioso said, but they were running into limits to be able to solve it. Even a small improvement would help them to exploit the bike's ability to turn.
For Honda, the problem is at the opposite end of the straight. They have no rear grip, and have trouble controlling wheelies out of the corner, a problem which is made worse coming out of slow corners. There are a lot of those at Motegi, and all of the Honda riders will have their work cut out trying to figure out a solution to that problem. To compensate, they have to brake harder into the corners, overloading the front tire. That has ended in disaster for most of the Honda riders all season, all of them having hit the floor at some point or another.
The one exception might be Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard reinvented himself at Aragon, and comes to Motegi, a track he loves, full of confidence. He had received a lot of messages congratulating and encouraging him after his head-to-head battle with Valentino Rossi at Aragon, and saying he should ride like that more often. "We will have to see if I can!"
Slow corners are where the Suzuki suffers most, and neither Aleix Espargaro nor Maverick Viñales were particularly optimistic about being competitive at Motegi. It was a big race, they acknowledged, the first race for Suzuki in Japan for three years. There were a lot of senior people coming to the race from the Japanese factory, and a good result was important.
They would not be getting the seamless gearbox at Motegi, the two Suzuki riders revealed, and most likely they would not see it until after the end of the season. It may make its debut at the test after Valencia, but they may have to wait until a private test at Sepang, scheduled for November after the Valencia test.
The good news was that Espargaro and Viñales had attended a meeting with over 50 people, all of the engineers involved in the MotoGP project. There, they had been able to air their issues with the bike, and speak directly and plainly about the problems it still has, spending two hours talking to the engineers there. Both Suzuki riders were extremely positive about the meeting, and very happy to have been given the chance to communicate their experience directly. The aim was now to have a much better bike ready for Qatar in 2016.
That really leaves only the Yamaha. "Theoretically this track is not the best for our bike because there is a lot of big braking, slow corners and acceleration," Lorenzo said at the press conference. That is as may be, but Lorenzo has won here for the last two years in a row. The M1 is vastly improved in terms of braking stability, and has excellent grip and drive out of corners. The Yamaha is nearly as strong as the Honda into the corners, especially if the rear of the RC213V starts sliding, and nearly as strong as the Ducati coming out of the corners, without the weakness of those two bikes at the opposite ends of the straights. The stage is surely set for a Rossi-Lorenzo battle, with the possibility of a Monster Tech 3 rider, turning up to join the fun. An all-Yamaha podium at Motegi would be a dream for the Japanese factory, adding insult to injury after Bradley Smith, Pol Espargaro and Katsuyuki Nakasuga took victory at the Suzuka 8 Hour races earlier this year. Beating Honda twice, at the two biggest events of the year on the Japanese motorcycle racing calendar, at tracks owned by Honda, would be a very sweet victory indeed for Yamaha.
Nakasuga is also at Motegi, racing a factory-backed Yamaha in 60th anniversary livery. Fortunately for the fans, the bike is using the Yamaha USA bumblebee scheme in yellow and black, rather than the more staid official Yamaha colors in white and red. Nakasuga is having a fantastic season in 2015, and a wildcard at Motegi is a just reward.
A late addition to the press conference line up was Nicky Hayden, drafted in at the last moment to announce he would be switching series, from MotoGP to World Superbikes. The round of applause he received after his announcement was heartfelt and warm, Hayden being widely respected and liked by almost everyone in the paddock. The details of his move are reported elsewhere on the site, but there are a few points worth mentioning. First, though Hayden may hope to return to fighting for victory, that will be hard on the current iteration of the Honda CBR1000RR. The Ten Kate team is one of the best in the WSBK paddock, and have made big steps forward already this year, but the bike is basically down on power. That will not be addressed until 2017, and only then, it will only cut the deficit, rather than exceed the specs of other manufacturers. At least Hayden will have the chance to race the bike in 2017.
The switch from MotoGP to World Superbikes is just what Dorna needed. Hayden is the kind of high-profile name that WSBK is missing. The talent in WSBK is beyond question, Jonathan Rea having demonstrated beyond question that he could be competitive in MotoGP when he got the call to replace Casey Stoner in 2012. But the series has lacked appeal to a mass audience, especially in the US. Hayden still has that kind of fan base, and websites with a large section of American fans have been full of discussion of how to watch World Superbikes in 2016. If Hayden can be competitive, then spectator numbers and TV audiences will grow.
Can Hayden be competitive, though? It will be hard on the current Fireblade, but Michael van der Mark and Jonathan Rea have both shown it's not impossible. Hayden isn't going to go to WSBK and clean up, but he should be in among the group fighting for the top five or six slots regularly. The problem is that the Kawasaki is such a strong bike already, and that Yamaha are making their entry into the championship next year, with an R1 which has proven itself in national series and endurance racing. The series will be well worth watching in 2016.
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