The three Pacific flyaways are all tough, but each is tough in its own particular way. At Sepang, the brutal combination of heat and humidity punishes the body and the mind. At Phillip Island, the fickle weather, which can change in the blink of an eye, always manages to catch out the unwary. And Motegi is tough because of the physical demands of the circuit, featuring the hardest braking sections on the calendar, combined with often cold and wet weather.
Motegi can really take its toll, on machinery, but especially on the riders. Braking is so tough at the circuit that the MotoGP rules specifically state that 340mm carbon discs must be used there. There are plenty of riders who paid the price of trying to run the smaller 320mm discs, their brakes overheating on the run into Turn 1 and then never really getting a chance to cool off properly as they approach the next hard braking section after crossing the finish line.
Those braking sections are illustrative of the stop-and-go nature of the Japanese track. Like Le Mans, the circuit has a bunch of straights which loop back toward each other, with tight corners in between. Once the riders exit Turn 5 and head under the bridge, they enter a more flowing and natural section. 130R is a fast right hander, which is followed by one of the better overtaking points on the circuit, the left of Turn 7, then the right-handed S Curve of Turn 8.
After the tight left of the V corner, where the bikes weave between barriers which are worryingly close to the track, battle commences at the Hairpin of Turn 10, before the bikes launch themselves down the back straight towards the hardest braking section on the calendar, Turn 11, or the 90° Corner. It is a tough point indeed: walls are close at the end of the track, where the bikes are traveling at well over 300 km/h with no room for error. As they brake, the track drops away slightly, putting even more weight onto the front. It is an ideal place to overtake, but it punishes errors severely. Get it wrong, and you run on into the gravel. Get it right, and you are safe all the way to the line.
Designed for the Ducatis
High speed and heavy braking is a combination which has Ducati written all over it, though it has been a while since Casey Stoner last put a Desmosedici on the top step in 2010. But the Japanese circuit has seen plenty of success for both Yamaha and Honda too. In the twelve seasons from 2005 through 2016, Ducati have won four races, Yamaha have won four races, and Honda have won the remaining four. Conditions, bikes, riders will play a major role at the track on race day.
Conditions are not looking favorable. It is raining, and it will rain all day on Friday, and even worse on Sunday. Just to complicate matters, it looks like Saturday will be dry, meaning that Friday will be the day for finding a race setup which works in the wet.
Wet weather may be a great performance leveler, but that doesn't mean it helps all riders equally. There are those that love the rain, those that fear the rain, and those that merely hate it. But a rider's attitude towards the rain does not necessarily correlate with their speed: loving the wet is not enough to be fast, nor does hating the rain make a rider slow. It's about feel, and understanding just how much grip the track is going to give you.
With the championship still close, who will the rain favor? Well it's bad news for Maverick Viñales. The Movistar Yamaha rider has never really got to grips with riding in the wet on a MotoGP bike, struggling with grip, especially in the second half of the race. Viñales has always had problems in the wet since entering MotoGP, but the 2017 Yamaha M1 makes things worse. The bike has managed tires badly in both wet and dry, and though the latest iteration of the chassis, combined with updated electronics, has helped, the M1 still tends to use a little too much tire at the end of the race.
Viñales may struggle with tire wear in the wet, his Movistar Yamaha teammate has fared a little better. But the problems are more down to the amount of water on the track, according to Valentino Rossi. "After some laps the rear tire start to lose a lot of grip," he told reporters. "Full wet is not so bad, but if not a lot of water we suffer. So we need to understand because last year we were very strong." If it's dry, he feels the Yamaha can be competitive. Rossi's broken leg is now much better, and though he still has some pain from the injury, he will be in much better shape than in Aragon.
The Ducatis are likely to benefit the most from the wet weather. The Desmosedicis have historically been very good in the wet, able to leverage the excellent mechanical grip they can generate to maximize drive, while lower corner speeds mean the lack of turning is camouflaged somewhat. The Ducati's aerodynamic package should come into play as well, providing better feedback as the front wheel has more contact with the ground.
Dovi's little helper
That should help Andrea Dovizioso post a good result on Sunday, and perhaps recover some points on Marc Márquez. Dovizioso has always been strong in the rain, and the combination of the Ducati acceleration and top speed and the wet weather could offer him a great opportunity to swing the momentum of the championship back in his direction.
It is not unthinkable that his teammate could help him out with that. When the track is properly wet – and the forecast is for rain during the race – then Jorge Lorenzo can shine. The Spaniard has made solid progress in the last couple of races, leading both the Misano and Aragon races for a substantial length of time. A win is in sight, and though Lorenzo is playing down the necessity of winning a race before the end of the season, he feels his first victory on the Ducati is close. Rain may play into his hands; it is only when the track is drying and grip conditions are changing where his riding goes to pieces. As long as the rain is steady, Lorenzo is in with a chance.
Ducati has a couple of other jokers up its sleeve. Danilo Petrucci is a monster in the wet, and has shown his ability to be competitive in all types of conditions with a couple of podiums this year. Petrucci, as he put it, would "not be the saddest rider if it rains". He left home suffering a bad bout of salmonella poisoning, but fortunately, he is just about recovered in Japan. Petrucci also knows his first win is close, and a wet Motegi could be his best shot of the season. His Pramac Ducati teammate Scott Redding has been similarly strong, and could also figure if it's wet on Sunday.
That may end up complicating matters sufficiently. Having a bunch of fast riders on Ducatis could end up helping Andrea Dovizioso in his championship quest if they finish behind him and ahead of Marc Márquez. But if Márquez wins and his fellow Ducatisti finish between the Repsol Honda and Dovizioso's Desmosedici, then it could also end up being a major setback for the Italian's hopes of a first title.
Can Marc Márquez win at Motegi? If there is one thing we know about Márquez, it is that he can win virtually anywhere. He is strong in the dry and in the wet, and the Honda has gotten better in the second half of the season. Márquez already has two wet victories to his name this season, at Brno and Misano, and he won the race at Motegi last year, albeit in the dry. He will be no pushover in Japan.
If Ducati has a few riders capable of complicating matters, then so does Honda. Dani Pedrosa is strong at Motegi – when he is not being catapulted off his bike and breaking a collarbone, that is – having won three times at the circuit. Motegi could be the place where the Spanish veteran chalks up another victory, putting him level with Eddie Lawson for premier class wins. But he could also get in between Márquez and his rivals, in both positive and negative sense, either stealing points away from Márquez' rivals, or taking points from his teammate.
Then there's Cal Crutchlow. The LCR Honda is another wildcard factor at Motegi, and a very strong rider in the wet. He too could be mixing it up at the front, and providing either his fellow Honda riders, or rivals on Ducatis or Yamahas with a major headache. Crutchlow doesn't have a championship position to defend, and so is only interested in a good result. Coming off the back of two poor races which he crashed out of, he wants to make amends. His finger injury now largely healed, he should be back to full form in Japan.
There could be trouble ahead
There are plenty of other riders to be watching out for if it rains. Aleix Espargaro thinks the track will really suit the character of the Aprilia RS-GP, and they will lose out less in acceleration if the track is wet. The KTM could cause a surprise or two in the wet, Pol Espargaro showing the real potential of the bike in recent races.
In the dry, the calculation at Motegi is normally much simpler. In the wet, though, the Japanese Grand Prix has the potential to throw a real spanner in the works. So many riders can be competitive, and are spoiling for a fight. That has the potential to shake up the championship, with a lot of riders capable of taking points from the title contenders. That could end up being a good thing, keeping the title wide open for a few more races. Or it could mean the championship is as good as settled by the time the bikes cross the line on Sunday. There's only one way to find out.
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