Motegi was tempestuous, in every sense of the word. It was as if the elements were conspiring to become a metaphor for the 2017 MotoGP season. The weather is always a factor in an outdoor sport such as motorcycle racing, and in Japan, the elements threw almost everything they had at MotoGP, the cold and the rain leaving standing water all around the track, throwing yet another spanner into the works.
The teams had seen almost every variation of wet conditions during practice, from soaking wet to a dry line forming, so they at least had an idea of what to expect. What they feared was that each rider, each team had their own Goldilocks zone, the precise amount of water on the track in which their bike worked best. For one rider, too little water meant they would eat up their tires, whereas for another, a track that was merely damp was just right. For one rider, too much water meant not being able to get enough heat into the tires to get them to work and provide grip. For another, a lot of water meant they could keep the temperature in their tires just right, and really harness the available traction.
One man seemed immune to this Goldilocks trap. Whatever the weather, however much water there was on the track, Marc Márquez was there or thereabouts. He was quick in the wet, he was quick in the merely damp. So confident was he at Motegi that he even gambled on slicks for his second run in qualifying, which meant he missed out on pole and had to start from third. But would it make any difference? Would anyone be able to stop Marc Márquez from taking another step towards the championship?
Hurry up and wait
The answer to those questions would have to wait until Sunday afternoon. As if the situation needed any more tension added, Andrea Migno's Sky VR46 Racing KTM Moto3 bike started leaking oil during morning warm up. That would have been just a minor headache, and required a quick clean up, had Migno not proceeded to be incredibly boneheaded, and tried to ride back to the pits with a bike trailing oil everywhere. The Italian left a vast trail of oil over a quarter of the track or so, causing the session to be red-flagged.
It took well over an hour for the track to be cleaned up, a task complicated by the fact that it had started to rain, and the rain was getting heavier. Warm up was shortened for all three classes, and the Moto3 and Moto2 races to cut to two-thirds distance. The compressed schedule left barely time to breathe between races. Even though the Moto3 race had been cut from 20 to 13 laps, and the Moto2 race from 23 to 15 laps, a soaking wet track slowed those races such that they still took half an hour or more to complete.
The sky had grown darker and duller as the races went on, as rain continued to fall and the cloud cover thickened. Under a sky the color of lead, the MotoGP riders gathered on the grid. Those for whom the Goldilocks zone was a soaking wet, with hope in the hearts, those who needed a dry track with trepidation, or the vain hope that using the extra-soft rear wet would bring salvation. 24 laps would tell who had got it just right.
Quick off the Marc
Marc Márquez got off the line well, but it was Jorge Lorenzo who soon charged through to take the lead, just as he has done at the last two races. Danilo Petrucci followed Lorenzo past Márquez at the end of the front straight, while pole sitter Johann Zarco dropped to fourth.
Behind Zarco, Andrea Dovizioso was on a charge. The factory Ducati rider was in a hurry, needing to catch Marc Márquez if he wanted to keep his championship hopes alive. Fortunately for him, the weather was on his side. "We were very competitive with a lot of water. Today with less water it was more difficult but we improved the setup a little bit," he had said on Saturday, explaining why he had ended up on the third row of the grid. "I think with normal rain like it looks like Sunday will be, we will be really competitive."
Competitive he was. On lap 2, he was past Zarco and on the back of Márquez, right where he need to be if he was going to make a fight of this. A lap later, he made a lunge for Márquez at Turn 8, but Márquez struck right back, taking third again at Turn 9. It was to be the opening salvo into what would develop into a war, one of the most intense battles of recent history. By the time they reached the final laps, it was clear that this race would go down as one of the greats.
First, there were obstacles to be dealt with along the way. It was clear that Jorge Lorenzo didn't have the pace that his early burst of speed had promised. Danilo Petrucci took the lead from the Spaniard on lap 2 and quickly opened a gap, lapping nine tenths faster than Lorenzo once he had a clear track. The factory Ducati rider was starting to collect traffic behind him as well, but he held them off for a couple of laps.
On lap 4, the dam burst. Márquez swung past at Turn 5, and Dovizioso quickly followed in the brief straight between Turns 6 and 7. That left Johann Zarco on Lorenzo's tail, and eager to get past. He was perhaps a little too keen, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider getting ahead as he dived up the inside at Turn 9, but Lorenzo carrying corner speed to draw level and marginally ahead on the exit. Zarco, however, was running wide to the exit, right where Lorenzo was. The pair touched lightly, but it was enough to put Lorenzo onto the kerbs and shake his confidence. Lorenzo was already going backwards, but he plummeted like a stone for the next couple of laps.
Opinions of the collision were, as expected, divided. Zarco felt he had done nothing wrong, merely maintained his line. "I was quite confident with the front, so in this corner nine, I could attack," the Frenchman said. "He tried to stay outside when I went out of the corner, I didn't see him and didn't think he could be there, and we touched because acceleration went normally on my line and we touched each other." As far as Zarco was concerned, he had the inside line, and so it was a normal racing incident. "It was normal in the race, and because I was inside I got this advantage."
Ghost in the machine
Lorenzo saw it very differently indeed, and the incident left him fuming. "You saw what happened," he told reporters, pointing out that this was not the first time Zarco has been involved in incidents like this. "You know, it’s not the first time that he’s making these kinds of things. Not with me but with two or three riders. He keep doing that like he’s playing with the Playstation with the ghost setting. It looks like he doesn’t have anyone by his side. He’s inviting you, trying to get your position, very aggressively. It’s a contact and you need to go outside the track."
Adding insult to injury, when Lorenzo went to have it out with Zarco about the incident afterwards, Zarco wouldn't acknowledge any blame. "The problem is that I went to his box but didn’t understand that he was making something bad," Lorenzo fumed. "He will not change. Somebody maybe will have to tell him to be a bit more calm. He didn’t understand anything. He thought he was right and he’s doing good and you need to be careful. He needs to be more calm."
The incident was almost a carbon copy of the collision between Zarco and Valentino Rossi at Austin earlier this year. There, too, Zarco barely got past and left the rider he was passing nowhere to go. It was aggressive, perhaps excessively so, but strictly speaking, entirely legal. The point of debate, if there is one, is whether Zarco was ahead. He was, just, at Austin, and making it more acceptable was the fact that the weather was perfect in Texas.
At Motegi, it is debatable, the onboard footage showing Zarco's seat unit behind Lorenzo's seat unit when they touch. The helicopter shot is less clear, Zarco apparently having a tire thickness advantage just before they touch. Whether it was a wise move in the thoroughly miserable conditions at Motegi is a different question altogether.
The weird up and down adventures of Jorge Lorenzo
Once Zarco got past, Lorenzo dropped like a stone. Was Zarco's move responsible for Lorenzo's precipitous drop through the field? While it certainly briefly unnerved him – the factory Ducati rider lost another place to Andrea Iannone after Zarco got past, then two more places the following lap – Lorenzo was already going slow. He had been slower than Márquez and Dovizioso on lap 2, nine tenths slower than Petrucci once the Pramac Ducati rider had gotten past, and the riders who passed him immediately picked up the pace. Lorenzo didn't really find his feet again until half distance.
Zarco's move didn't help, but Lorenzo's problem was simply one of confidence. "In the warm up, I already felt in the last three laps when it started raining heavily I didn’t have any confidence on the rear," Lorenzo explained. "I needed to drop the pace so much. We tried to modify the setting of the bike to put more weight on the rear to gain more grip with heavy water. But from lap two I already felt like I had no grip. The other riders catch me very quickly – much more quickly than other races and when they overtook me I could see in the entry of the corner and mid-corner they had much more confidence. I was very tense and very slow."
Once Lorenzo started to push from mid-race onwards, he was basically one of the fastest riders on track. On lap 12, he was the fourth quickest rider on track, only Dovizioso, Márquez, and Aleix Espargaro going quicker. On lap 18, on the two leaders were fastest. On laps 19 and 20, he was the second fastest man on track, and the next two laps he was the fastest rider. In the last seven laps of the race, Lorenzo took nearly 3.5 seconds out of the rider ahead of him. After dropping to ninth by lap 6, he made up three places in the last six laps.
All in the mind
How can this be? How can Lorenzo go from being one of the slowest riders on track to being the fastest? It is a question of confidence. That is what Lorenzo needs to go fast. Lorenzo struggled on the Ducati until he got the wings, which gave him the front end feel he wanted. Since then, Lorenzo has been quick at the tracks he loves. At half distance, Lorenzo started using the throttle a little harder, generating more heat in the rear tire, and then he started to fly. He found confidence in the rear, especially in braking, and his confidence made him quick.
While Lorenzo was going backwards, Márquez and Dovizioso were gradually closing on Danilo Petrucci. The Pramac Ducati rider had gone with the extra soft rear tire, and used it to open up a gap in the opening laps. But it was a gamble which would not quite pay off. Petrucci was quick early, but as the race progressed, the rear started to spin up, losing drive and speed.
"I decide to make a gamble before the race trying to put the extra soft tire, but at the beginning sincerely the bike was very good," Petrucci told the press conference afterwards. "Not pushing at 100%, I have more than two seconds of gap. Then at the end I got a lot of spinning on the rear and the conditions were critical, especially on the straight. I couldn’t open all the throttle because there was a lot of spin and slide."
His two pursuers came closer as Petrucci started to lose drive. Petrucci's problem was becoming visible as the race approached the halfway mark, Márquez and Dovizioso closing on the Pramac Ducati as they exited the hairpin leading onto the back straight. Petrucci had managed the gap for three or four laps, but on lap 13, he had to concede defeat. Petrucci's slowness onto the back straight was punished at the other end by Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider taking the lead on the way into Turn 11. A few corners later, Dovizioso followed suit, passing the Pramac man at Turn 1 the following lap.
With Petrucci dropping away, the stage was set for what will turn out to be a key battle in the 2017 campaign. Márquez led for ﬁve laps, Dovizioso stalking the Honda rider, never letting him out of his sight. On lap 17, a slight hiccup by the Italian allowed Márquez to open a gap, but Dovizioso responded immediately, closing it down on the next lap, before launching an attack on Márquez on lap 19.
That looked like the winning pass, Dovizioso now pushing hard to open a gap of near a second, but little by little Márquez back onto the rear wheel of the Ducati. On lap 22, Márquez attacked, and he and Dovizioso swapped places for a couple of corners before Márquez settled the duel to his advantage.
Now it was Márquez' turn to push. A sign of just how hard he was pushing was the sound of his rear wheel spinning up down the back straight, especially in sixth gear. Dovizioso's rear tire was little better, but he could manage the spin a little better and closed a fraction again.
As they started the final lap, Márquez pushed again, giving everything he had to make a break, his rear wheel spinning up on each of the three short straights that start the lap. It was enough to open the first hint of a gap, which looked like it might just be enough for victory.
A sublime lap
It was not. Márquez' pursuit of the limit came back to bite him, the rear of his Honda RC213V coming round on him on the first touch of the gas in the middle of Turn 8. It cost him three tenths of a second, but those three tenths were just enough to bring Dovizioso back in range. As the pair launched out of the dog-slow hairpin and onto the back straight, Dovizioso was closing. He had just enough of a run to be close enough to attack on the brakes going into Turn 11, the last realistic opportunity to attack.
Dovizioso's final pass was a masterpiece, outbraking Márquez into Turn 11, and taking away the inside line on the entry to the corner. Outbraking Márquez needed a supreme effort, Dovizioso's Desmosedici waving its head and wagging its tail deep into the corner. The rear of Márquez' Honda snaked right and left, but he could do nothing to stop the Italian.
It looked like Dovizioso had the race in the bag, but Marc Márquez never, ever gives up until the checkered flag has fallen. In a move born of sheer desperation, Márquez tried the only option still left open to him. Carrying corner speed through Turn 13, he dived up the inside at Turn 14, the aptly named Victory corner. But victory would not belong to the reigning world champion: it was a move doomed to failure, Márquez running wide and Dovizioso cutting easily back to get the better drive and take victory.
It was a fitting climax to a breathtaking race, and embodied the essence of what the 2017 MotoGP championship has become. A fierce battle between the two strongest riders of this season, neither of whom neither asked for nor gave any quarter. They were forced to draw on the very last ounce of their skill, courage, and intelligence, and in the end, intelligence carried the day.
The last lap was the 2017 season distilled. By rights, Marc Márquez should have crashed at Turn 8 when the rear came round on him. Every other rider would have been left picking gravel out of their sense of self worth. But Márquez' outrageous talent and reflex meant he caught it and continued, giving up a minimum of time.
By rights, Andrea Dovizioso shouldn't be able to outbrake Marc Márquez, the rider who does most of his passing on the brakes. Nor should Dovizioso be able to withstand Márquez' last corner attack, but Dovizioso stayed calm, let Márquez past, and gave him just enough rope to hang himself with. Dovizioso won this race with intelligence, stringing together all the smart choices and adding in a dash of chutzpah and a large measure of courage to put himself in first place across the line.
The last corner was reminiscent of Austria. There, too, Márquez tried a desperate last-corner lunge to try to snatch victory from Dovizioso. There, too, Dovizioso held his nerve, let Márquez run wide, and concentrated on getting enough drive out of the final corner to ensure he crossed the line ahead of the Spaniard.
An explosion of emotion
But this was a much more important race than Austria. The significance of Dovizioso's victory was evident from the very different reactions of the two men after they crossed the line. Dovizioso, normally a calm, almost stoic figure, almost exploded with elation. He raised his right hand and pumped his fist as he crossed the line, which meant he missed the brake point for Turn 1 and he ended up riding through the gravel. All round the cool down lap, Dovizioso was screaming into his helmet, punching the air, sitting up and attempting to release what looked like fifteen year's worth of pent-up hopes and expectations. This win meant an awful lot to Dovizioso.
The loss came as just as much a blow to Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider was furious as he crossed the line, his shoulders tense, his head bowing forward as he screamed expletives into his helmet. His body language on the bike told you this had been a body blow to his hopes. Márquez had expected to win at Motegi, and Dovizioso had not just put up a fight, but actually made it impossible for Márquez to win. Though Márquez was back waving to the crowds again after the first couple of corners, it was with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. And when he rode into the corral of Parc Ferme, the reception he met with was muted.
Momentum is key going into the flyaways, and Dovizioso has seized the initiative. Dovizioso and Márquez are now equal, on five wins apiece. More importantly, Dovizioso cut his deficit to Márquez by 5 points, trailing the championship leader by 11 points with three races left to go. But above all, Andrea Dovizioso took his Ducati into the lion's den, to Honda's home track at Motegi, and beat their golden boy and reigning champion. This one counts.
Smashing the stereotype
Though this was a typically calm and analytical race for Dovizioso, it also helped dispel a persistent myth about the Italian. It may surprise the fans and the media to see Dovizioso battle Márquez so hard, but this was a side to him which has always been there. "This battle surprised a lot of people," Dovizioso said, "but I’m not too surprised, because in the past it was my characteristic, my style. I didn’t change this. The difference is now I’m fighting for the championship, but when I was fighting with a lot of riders, my characteristic, it was very similar." In previous years, though, Dovizioso was battling for fifth or sixth. Now he is fighting for the win.
Dovizioso's win promises much for the coming races. Winning at the home of Honda had been important, for Ducati as well as for Dovizioso, but in the press conference, Márquez hinted that he was spoiling for revenge. "Now we are already past Motegi," he said. "That was one of the circuits that for some years I struggled a lot. Now we go in other racetracks that normally I enjoy more."
Dovizioso is all too aware of the challenge he faces. Up next is Phillip Island, a track where things could be very different. "It's one of the favorite tracks of Marc," the Italian said, "so for sure it will be difficult because he is fast in every condition, every track. But last year we did a good race. This year we are more competitive. Now we are working in a relaxed way because we are in a strange situation. We are fighting for the championship, but we knew if we can get the championship is something unreal and if we don’t win the championship I think we did until now a great championship."
One race at a time, is how Dovizioso is taking it, and that may be the best approach. On paper, Marc Márquez is favorite to win at Phillip Island, but Dovizioso is in much better shape for the track than previous years. Sepang is a track which could suit the Ducati, and Dovizioso and Márquez were pretty well matched there in testing. Valencia would appear to suit Márquez, but if the pair head to the last race of the season close in points, then anything could happen.
While all eyes were on Dovizioso and Márquez, Danilo Petrucci came home to take a comfortable third, ten seconds behind the winner, but eight seconds ahead of the chasing Suzukis. Petrucci's gamble on the extra soft had not paid off, but in the press conference, he acknowledged he had a bigger problem after leading for the first half of the race. "Sincerely, it’s two times that I am in front and I’m starting to think about my first win, but there are always two problems – Dovi and Marc. Always the same two."
The last couple of times he had lost out on a chance to win, he had ended the race frustrated. Not this time. "I’m really happy compared to the other two podiums, Misano and Assen, where I lost the victory at the last lap. Today was for me the last lap was impossible." But this was Petrucci's fourth podium of the year, and another demonstration of the Italian's potential.
Above all, it is proof both of Petrucci's determination and that there is talent to be found outside of the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, the traditional pool in which MotoGP team managers go fishing. Petrucci came across from Superstock 1000, took a chance on a very poor CRT ride, and earned a shot on a Ducati. There, he has consistently beaten his teammates, both of whom have come up through the traditional route. He is living proof that if you believe you have the talent, then you should seize an opportunity when it is offered. You still need luck on your side, but talent will out in the end.
Fourth and fifth places were occupied by a brace of Suzukis, Andrea Iannone beating his rookie teammate Alex Rins in the end. It was the best result for either of the Suzuki men, and the best result for Suzuki all season. It was perhaps a sign of some progress, though the only real innovation is that they had a new aerodynamic fairing, more closely resembling the Ducati fairing rather than the Yamaha, which the previous aerodynamic model was based on.
Is this a sign of a Suzuki renaissance? It seems a little premature to start to think that. The weather put the Suzukis into their Goldilocks zone, the bike well suited to the very wet track. But they also benefited from the absence of riders you might normally expect to be at the front. Neither Iannone nor Rins needed to deal with the Yamahas, Valentino Rossi crashing out, betrayed by a cold tire, and Maverick Viñales unable to get any traction in the wet. Nor was Dani Pedrosa a factor, the second Repsol Honda rider suffering his usual fate in the wet, a lack of grip from the rear.
Fourth and fifth may yet turn out to be preferable to podiums for Suzuki, however. Maverick Viñales' outstanding 2016, with a win and three third places, meant that Suzuki had their concessions taken away. They, like Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati, had to freeze their engine design at the start of the year, had testing limited, and had just seven rather than nine engines. If Suzuki do not score a single podium in 2017, they will have their concessions restored. That would mean the ability to develop the engine during the season.
Suzuki are already working on their engine for 2018. After the race, both Suzuki riders spoke briefly about their experience of the test they had after the Aragon race. "We have a very good result from the test in Aragon, but it's not possible to use these parts for this year," Iannone said. "These parts are only for next year." The only parts which are frozen for this year for Suzuki are the aerodynamic package and the engine. And they just debuted a new aero package at Motegi...
Lorenzo crossed the line in sixth, the factory Ducati rider having found a burst of speed in the second half of the race, as described. He finished ahead of a disappointed Aleix Espargaro, who had cherished much greater ambitions for the Aprilia in Japan. Too much water on the track, was the Spaniard's explanation. "I had a lot of aquaplaning in the straights, the bike was stopping," Espargaro said. "It's frustrating. We need to understand why."
A tale of two Yamahas
Johann Zarco was the first Yamaha home, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider finishing in seventh, seven seconds ahead of the factory Movistar Yamaha of Maverick Viñales. Both Yamaha riders complained of similar issues, though with slightly different causes. Zarco suffered with aquaplaning and a rear that kept spinning up, and not creating drive. The Frenchman was relatively optimistic, seeing it as a learning experience. "It was interesting," he said. "I had the same comment at the start of the season, but in dry conditions. And now at the same step in the wet. So it means we are doing a good job."
Viñales was a good deal less positive, putting the blame fairly and squarely on the bike, and the tires. "Honestly, I gave everything," the Spanish youngster said. "Especially in the first laps when I was feeling better and I was trying everything. I did a good start, I was trying to push from the beginning, but a very difficult race. Very difficult to ride the bike. I've been quite close to the ground five or six times. So I said, 'okay, this is the limit'. The bike didn't allow for more."
The 2017 Yamaha's weakness once again reared its ugly head in the second half of the race, the bike using too much of the tires, and leaving Viñales with no rear grip. "I started to ride a little bit more fast in the middle of the race, when I was behind Aleix. But then from one lap to another I start to lose three seconds. It was impossible to keep full gas on the straights, so I needed to play a lot [with the throttle] until the last lap. We had a big drop from the tires."
Viñales is now 41 points behind Márquez, and has just about written off any chance of the title. It's not impossible, but he would need a lot of help from others. If he can win at Phillip Island and Sepang, tracks he dominated at in winter testing, then he might be able to get back in the game. But it is a very tall order indeed.
M and M1
His teammate has now been eliminated mathematically from the championship, after crashing out at Motegi. Valentino Rossi didn't feel like he had done much wrong, he said. "It was a big crash this time," he said, his second crash in two days. "Also yesterday but today more. Today Turn 7, yesterday Turn 8. It was a highside. I mean I was behind Espargaro and tried to not give up because I can keep his pace, but on the left I have zero grip. It was like riding on ice. With the constant throttle the rear slid. It was very fast. When I realized I was already flying. So very lucky that the leg is okay. I have pain everywhere. But not a lot, so this is good."
The problem, according to Rossi, is a mismatch between the Michelins and the M1. "For me now the match between our bike and the Michelin rear tire gives a lot of problems, in all the conditions. And especially in the wet."
To Rossi's mind, the rear tire had also changed, become softer compared to 2016. "For me, compared to last year, it's very difficult to understand when you speak with Michelin. But me, when I ride the bike, I have a different feeling, like the tire is more soft and we suffer. But this is an idea. I don’t know if it's true." Michelin has denied the construction of the tire is different, saying it is the same as last year. "For sure from the bike is different," Rossi said. "So if from the bike is different, something is different. But is also difficult to understand - if they say no - we need to understand. Also because anyway on the Honda and Ducati, the tire work, so is our problem."
Short and sweet
The shortening of the Moto2 and Moto3 races ended up having little effect on the outcome. Though the races were much shorter, the finishing order in both races felt like the natural result of the contest. Alex Márquez took an excellent and well-deserved win, shadowing early leader Taka Nakagami once he got past Mattia Pasini, passing on lap 11 and never looking back. Xavi Vierge took a superb second place on the Tech 3 Moto2 machine, just reward for a season of hard work, while Hafizh Syahrin lived up to his reputation as a wet weather rider and took the last spot on the podium.
The result of the Moto2 race had little effect on the championship, Franco Morbidelli finishing eighth and gaining another 3 points over Tom Luthi, who came home in eleventh. The disqualification of Dominique Aegerter from the Misano race made a bigger difference, Luthi gaining an extra 5 points from the victory-by-jury in Italy. Luthi now trails Morbidelli by 19 points, leaving the championship still open.
Fierce Fenati, Miserable Mir
The championship in Moto3 is also still open, though by rights, it shouldn't be. Joan Mir came to Motegi leading the title chase by 80 points from Romano Fenati, and could afford to give away 5 points to the Italian and still be crowned champion in Japan. But the pressure of trying to clinch his first title got to him. He made it extra difficult on himself by qualifying in fourteenth place, which meant that he would have to start from twentieth once the six-place grid penalty from Aragon was tacked on. Mir never got anywhere near the points, finishing a lowly seventeenth.
Mir could still have been crowned champion if Romano Fenati had had a bad day, but the Italian was absolutely imperious. The Italian took two laps to get past Niccolo Antonelli, and then proceeded to pull away. He was completely unchallenged, taking a superlative win in Japan, and closing the gap from 80 to 55 points. And so Joan Mir goes to Phillip Island in exactly the same position as he arrived in Motegi in, being able to afford to give away 5 points to Romano Fenati.
Will his nerve hold? At Phillip Island last year, he was taken out in a mass pile up in the Southern Loop, then a week later, in Sepang, he slid out of the race while he was leading it. That history will not help his nerves.
Fenati was at the head of a trio of Italians on the podium in Motegi. Niccolo Antonelli finally found some form this year, taking second on the Red Bull Ajo KTM, while Marco Bezzecchi put in a sterling performance on the CIP Mahindra to take third. Three Italians on three different manufacturers was something of a turn up for the books in Motegi.
Next up, Phillip Island. What the weather does there is anyone's guess. The most likely event is that it does, well, everything. As usual.
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