On the one hand, you could say that MotoGP got lucky. The heavy rain that was expected to cause flooding and potentially force Dorna to delay or even cancel practice at Motegi was not as bad as had been feared. The sessions started on time, and ran without incident, other than the normal perils of motorcycle racing.
On the other hand, the sessions were pretty much useless in terms of race setup. The weather forecast for Sunday is the best it has been all weekend, with some sun and high temperatures. FP3 on Saturday morning was drenched, a fully wet session making race setup and tire testing impossible. FP4 saw a line dry enough for slicks to be used, though times were 4 seconds off the best time from Friday.
And qualifying took place on a mostly dry track, but again, times were more than a second off what the pole time should have been. MotoGP pole was slower than Maverick Viñales' fastest lap in FP1. Even if the track had been fully dry, qualifying is just too hectic to be working on race setup and assessing tire life.
On the record
Qualifying looked like being a straight shootout between the three men who have dominated race and practice in recent races. Marc Márquez was fast straight out of the box, but both Fabio Quartararo and and Maverick Viñales threatened to take the newly-crowned champion's pole from him. The Yamahas were quick through the first and second sectors, but Márquez had the edge in the final sector. Márquez was the first to break into the 1'45s on his first run, and Quartararo, Viñales, and at the end, Franco Morbidelli crept close to Márquez' best time, but always coming up just short.
Differences in the end were minimal, but it was Márquez who took pole in Japan, the 90th of his career in Grand Prix, and his 62nd in MotoGP, maintaining his 50% strike rate in the premier class. It is worth underlining just what a remarkable achievement that is. In the modern era – that is, since 1976, when pole positions started to be consistently recorded, nobody has come close to that percentage consistently.
It also filled an important gap in Márquez' record in MotoGP. Motegi was the only circuit on the calendar he had not yet managed to get pole at. With Indianapolis, that makes a grand total of 20 circuits at which he has started from pole. The addition of Motegi leaves just two blemishes on his record: Márquez started from second on the grid at Laguna Seca in the only year he raced there, and he has never won a race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria in four visits.
The first blemish Márquez is unable to fix, as Laguna Seca is unlikely to ever feature on the MotoGP calendar again, unless it finds a large amount of money to carry out extensive works to improve safety. The second is a failing which Márquez continues to deny he worries about, yet keeps making desperate last-corner moves in an attempt to win there. It seems likely that first win in Austria will not elude him for long.
A lost day
First, he has to win at Motegi. Can he do that? We only really have Friday's pace to judge him and the rest of the MotoGP grid, and even then, the temperature dropped so much in FP2 that the morning session might provide a better guide. "You never know really what we can do in the race, because everybody was working for the race only on Friday morning," Andrea Dovizioso opined. "Yesterday in the afternoon it was too cold, today it was just the qualifying, so nobody has a lot of data."
That is going to make tire choice exceedingly difficult. "The tire choice will be difficult, because everybody used the soft, but it's much softer than last year," Dovizioso said. "So we don't know if we can do the race with that." In FP1, the medium had been the preferred choice, but whether that is the right tire for the race will depend on the temperature.
"It's more crucial to understand the temperature and the air temperature and humidity and all these things," Marc Márquez told the press conference. "In FP1, one tire was working very well. In FP2, it was another tire. So there is where we need to manage in a good way, try to understand well which compound is the best one for the conditions. It will be tricky for everybody, but apart from that, it will be nice to see which is the tire option of each other." That sounds like a recipe for some gambles on the grid, with last-minute swaps as riders try to assess either their preferred choice or an alternative on the sighting lap.
Warm up will be crucial in that respect. The riders will be hoping for a warmer track on Sunday morning to test to see which tires are working. The hard rear will be of particular interest. "We didn't try the hardest one, and I think it's possible for the race tomorrow, depending on the conditions," Alex Rins said. "So tomorrow in the warm up, we will try this harder compound. Let's see if the weather is OK to try it."
The Yamaha assault
Increasing temperatures will be something the Yamaha riders will be keeping their eyes on. The cooler temps have helped the Yamaha M1 exploit the grip the bike has, and use its corner speed and drive to its advantage. The fact that there are three Yamahas behind Márquez is testament to how well the bike is going, even though qualifying wasn't completely dry. "Honestly, normally in this situation our bike is always very difficult," Maverick Viñales said. But not on Saturday, and not at Motegi.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Franco Morbidelli sits second on the grid, between Márquez and Fabio Quartararo. It is a sign of the improvement Morbidelli has made since reverting to the setup used in Qatar at Silverstone. This is the third time Morbidelli starts from the front row of the grid (though only the second time he has qualified there, having inherited third from Maverick Viñales at Barcelona after the Spaniard was penalized three starting positions), and the second time he and Petronas Yamaha teammate Quartararo have qualified on the front row, after their first dual front row at Jerez.
Morbidelli's race pace on Friday was strong, matching that of Maverick Viñales and not far off the pace of Márquez. It was better than his teammate's, something that will give him some optimism. The Italian was modest when asked about his own improvement. "I think it’s a combination of two things," Morbidelli said. "One is Fabio, because he arrived and he showed that with this bike it’s possible to do amazing things and it’s possible to be unbelievably fast. So I think it gave the right motivation to all the Yamaha riders to improve. Moreover, Yamaha of course improved the package. So this brought all the four Yamahas much ahead in the standings."
Fresh faces, new challenges
That is a conclusion shared by Andrea Dovizioso. "Certainly, Yamaha had to recover more in certain areas, but they are doing this," the Italian told GPOne.com. "In my opinion, Quartararo is helping by pushing hard, because if you have a talent that is so strong and free in his mind, it's always good for the team."
Having three strong Yamahas at the front is bad news for the fourth-fastest M1. "Naturally, there are positives and negatives in this situation," Valentino Rossi reflected after finishing tenth in Q2. "From a technical point of view, it's good to have four Yamahas which are fast, because it means you understand more things. It's a great challenge that all four Yamahas are fast, and as a consequence, it has given a good internal challenge. Since the arrival of Quartararo, we are all giving our maximum, but it's difficult."
Putting it together
Can the Ducatis join the Yamahas in battling for the podium? With Jack Miller on the second row, and Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci on the third, it's not impossible. Miller, in particular, is confident, feeling he had a chance at an even better qualifying position. "I felt I had a lot more in the tank today," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I was putting in great sectors here and there, but I just couldn't seem to string them together, whether it was myself just running a little bit wide, or running into traffic, it just didn't come together. I really felt I could have challenged Marc today with our lap times, and especially in those conditions."
"Second row, inside into Turn 1, shouldn't be a problem as long as I don't turn the bike off on the grid again," the Australian joked, referring to the fact that he had accidentally hit the kill switch on the grid in Thailand. "I feel pretty good, I think we've got a podium challenge in us."
Miller's ability to cope with tricky conditions had given him some extra track time. The Australian had been the first rider out on slicks in FP4, when the track was still wet. The rest had followed, but on new tires, while Miller had put in some soft tires with a lot of laps on them. "I went out on softs with 17 laps on, just to put a few more laps on them to really understand what they are going to do in the race," he explained. "So I think we have done a lot of homework, we know where we're at, and I'm looking forward to it."
The factory Ducatis are a little less optimistic, though both believe they have the pace. "Third row is not the best, also because the first four riders have a very good pace, and I have to be there at the beginning of the race to try to stay with them," Dovizioso said. Petrucci finds himself in a similar situation.
Stuck between the Yamahas and the Ducatis is Cal Crutchlow, fifth his best qualifying since the race in Austin. But the LCR Honda rider has no idea what to expect on Sunday, having lost so much time to the weather in practice. "I don't know if I'm going to be on the podium or fifteenth," Crutchlow said. "We have to look at the situation in the morning warm up, because we have a different bike setting to try, because we weren't able to try it today. So today was a little bit of a wasted day with setup, but I'm optimistic about what I can try in the morning."
Worth mentioning is Aleix Espargaro in ninth. The Spaniard has been critical of Aprilia for the lack of development of the RS-GP this year, as the Italian factory focuses on development of the 2020 bike in a bid to make a step in competitiveness. But Espargaro is channeling his frustration in a remarkably efficient and productive way. His ninth place start is his best since Aragon, where he qualified in fifth.
Compare Espargaro's starting and finishing positions – when he finishes, and he doesn't crash or have the bike break down on him – with those of Andrea Iannone. Iannone has accepted his role as temporary test rider while he waits for the 2020 bike, but Espargaro is riding out of his skin, pushing the Aprilia to positions it has no real place being in. It is an enormous amount of effort going largely unrewarded. But on the other hand, it bodes well for 2020, if the new bike is the step forward which everyone hopes.
Motegi also saw a couple of engine punishments, the first in a very long time. First, Sylvain Guintoli was disqualified from practice on Friday, having his times scrapped for FP1 and FP2. The reason was that he had started the weekend with a prototype of the 2020 engine, giving it its first run at a race weekend.
Unfortunately for Guintoli and Suzuki, this is not allowed. For non-concession manufacturers (that is, manufacturers who have scored podiums and wins in the previous season), engine specifications have to be fixed before the Qatar race. This also includes engine specifications for wild card riders, which Guintoli is. However, the wording of the rules is such that this ban is implied, rather than stated explicitly. It requires careful reading and jumping back and forth between sections to clarify the meaning.
That had been lost on the Suzuki Ecstar team, the team of a Japanese manufacturer run by Italians. And that had caused the confusion, Davide Brivio said. "Yesterday we had a misunderstanding in regard to the regulations which meant that we had to swap the engine on Sylvain’s bike this morning," the Suzuki team boss sad. Guintoli was allowed to continue the weekend with an older engine, as he had already set a time within 107% of the fastest rider in the wet conditions of FP3.
The other engine infraction is more surprising. Tito Rabat will have to start from pitlane on Sunday, after using an engine beyond the allocation of 7 engines for the season during practice. It is the first punishment for exceeding the engine allocation since Valentino Rossi at Aragon in 2011.
The surprising thing about Rabat's punishment is that the manufacturers have the allocation system completely under control. It is not uncommon for riders to finish a season with an engine to spare, such are the tolerances built in to the durability regulation.
Even Valentino Rossi's infraction was not down to reliability. Rather, it was the first year of his time at Ducati, and the bike was undergoing a series of massive changes. At Aragon, Rossi had to take a new engine because Ducati had brought a new aluminum chassis, which required different engine mounts (which the rules allowed Ducati to change at the time). His previous engines all had plenty of life in them.
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