After the farcical yet compelling Australian Grand Prix, the Grand Prix paddock heads north to Japan for the last of the three overseas races. The contrast could not be greater: from unusually warm weather at the magnificent, sweeping Phillip Island circuit, it is cold and very wet conditions which greet the riders at Motegi, a circuit dominated by stop-and-go corners with little rhythm to it. While almost every rider on the grid adores Phillip Island, you would be hard pressed to find a rider not holding a Japanese passport with any affection for Motegi. The challenges the riders face are mainly of physical endurance, with very few spots testing their mettle and skill.
Adding the test of endurance will be the weather this weekend. Though Typhoon Francisco has now weakened to a tropical storm and is forecast to pass much further south than was feared, large amounts of rain are still expected at Motegi, especially on Friday evening and Saturday morning. While all of practice looks set to be wet, at least the riders will get some practice, as early forecasts had suggested that several, if not all, sessions could be a complete washout. For now, it just looks like the riders will be cold and rather wet.
That could add to some real excitement at the Japanese circuit. The championship is still far from decided in all three classes, after the surprises at Phillip Island stirred up the title fight. Alex Rins' victory in Australia saw him close the gap to Moto3 championship leader Luis Salom to just 5 points with two races to go; Scott Redding's qualifying crash in which he fractured his wrist allowed Pol Espargaro to turn a 9 point deficit in the Moto2 title chase into a 16 point lead; and the bizarre mistake by Marc Marquez' crew which led to him being disqualified meant that his lead over Jorge Lorenzo was slashed from 43 points to just 18. Two of the three titles could be decided at Motegi on Sunday, but there is a strong possibility that all three championships could be taken down to the final race at Valencia, the first time that has happened in the history of the series.
Marc Marquez looks the rider most likely to wrap up his title at Motegi, a result which would be a dream come true for Honda. The Japanese factory owns the Motegi Twin Ring circuit, which also serves as a test track for HRC. Sunday will see all of Honda's top brass present, and given the resources which HRC continues to invest in MotoGP, and their wish to spend heavily in Moto3, winning the championship at home would go a long way to pacifying any internal resistance from Honda's board.
The track is ideal for the RC213V, playing to the bikes strengths. Hard braking areas, followed by slow corners with hard acceleration, a long, high-speed back straight and a circuit which is very heavy on fuel: if there is a circuit where you'd bet on a Honda to win, it is Motegi. Yet at the pre-event press conference, Jorge Lorenzo was sounding confident. The Yamaha is strong in acceleration, he told the press, especially since they received the new gearbox, and the larger diameter brake disks which the teams are allowed to use because of the very heavy braking zones at the circuit help with the Yamaha's weakness on the brakes.
The biggest obstacle Lorenzo faces is fuel consumption. The Yamaha is the thirstiest of the MotoGP bikes - in part due to the long bang firing order of the inline four cylinder, which requires a balance shaft to cut down on vibration - and Motegi is very hard indeed on fuel. Last year, Cal Crutchlow ran out of fuel on the last lap, while battling with Alvaro Bautista for a podium. Lorenzo has finished 2nd at Motegi for the past two years, and that will be his aim again on Sunday. A 2nd place finish in Japan is all Lorenzo needs to take the title fight to a final showdown in Valencia.
To do that, he has to beat one of the two Hondas. Dani Pedrosa has won the last two MotoGP races here, and Marc Marquez won the Moto2 race in 2012, after failing to get his bike into first gear at the start, and leaving the starting line almost dead last. Staying ahead of either Pedrosa or Marquez will be a massive challenge at Motegi for Jorge Lorenzo.
Two things could come to Lorenzo's aid. The first is an appeal by Yamaha to Race Direction over Marquez' exit from pit lane at Phillip Island. When he rejoined the track after swapping bikes, Marquez cut across the track just as Lorenzo was hurtling into Doohan Corner, the fast, sweeping first corner. At the time, Lorenzo judged blame for the incident as being 50/50 between himself and Marquez, Lorenzo admitting he had run wide, and Marquez having left him little room after rejoining from pit lane. But after reviewing the footage with team managers Wilco Zeelenberg and Maio Meregalli, Lorenzo had felt that Marquez' move was more dangerous than he had at first though.
A delegation from Yamaha is to face Race Direction on Friday, where they are set to make their case for penalizing Marquez. The omens are not good for the Yamaha team, as Race Direction has not summoned either rider to hear their side of the story, a sign that penalties are unlikely. Race Direction already examined the move during the race at Phillip Island, and dismissed it as a racing incident then. The four members of Race Direction are unlikely to have changed their mind since then.
What may be of more assistance to Lorenzo is the weather, with heavy rain expected throughout practice. As the forecast stands, the first dry session the teams will get is likely to be Sunday morning warm up. What that means is that the team that gets their set up right first time will have the advantage. Though Honda have the benefit of having tested recently at Motegi, Lorenzo's crew, led by the irascible Catalan genius Ramon Forcada, have been very quick to find a working set up all this year, and for the rest of the season. If the crews have to gamble on a set up for the race, Forcada is a safe bet to get it pretty close first time.
The wet weather will also help Lorenzo's engine situation. Though it is far from critical, Lorenzo only really has one good engine, with three more that are starting to get very tired. If it's wet, then engine performance becomes far less important to setting a good time, with traction a far more significant issue. Two days of wet practice would allow Lorenzo to rest his good engine, and run up some more miles on the old motors.
Rain would also be welcomed in the Ducati garage, and not just because wet conditions are the only hope of being competitive for Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden. Hayden is running dangerously close to needing to take a 6th engine, which would incur the penalty of starting from pit lane. Two days of heavy rain - preferably including a couple of sessions where conditions made riding impossible - could be the difference between a pit lane start and making it to the end of the season without penalty. Even ordinary wet sessions would help, taking the engine decision to Valencia. There, pit lane is just about in the perfect location if you had to start from there for a penalty, offering a clear run into Turn 1.
The weather may also throw a lifeline to Scott Redding. His championship hopes seemed to be in tatters after his crash in qualifying at Phillip Island, the Marc VDS Racing rider fracturing his radius as he tried to grip on to his bucking Kalex and prevent a highside. It did not work, and Redding was forced to have surgery that Saturday night. At first, the team had announced he would not be at Motegi, but Redding was not ready to give up. After intensive therapy, he will attempt to race, and has already been passed fit by the circuit doctor, subject to another examination on Friday after free practice.
Wet weather would be a godsend for the Englishman, as it would massive reduce the stresses of braking. Fortunately - if you can call it that - for Redding, it was his left wrist he fractured, and not the crucial right. Racing at Motegi with a hand or wrist injury is always painful because of the stresses placed by the braking zones, but at least the left wrist is not needed for braking and accelerating. What effect bearing most of the strain on his right arm will have on the arm pump he recently had surgery for remains to be seen.
Having Redding competing is also good for Pol Espargaro, as the Spaniard told the press conference. Winning while your competition is absent is not the same as beating them out on track, but mistakes and accidents are part of racing, he told the press. And while wet weather favored Scott Redding, conditions on Sunday look to be going Espargaro's way, with the weather set to be sunny and dry. With tropical storms involved, of course, those things can change very rapidly, however.
The 2013 Grand Prix motorcycle racing may be drawing to a conclusion, but it isn't there yet. There is still plenty to play for, and a group of willing combatants ready to slug it out. Titles may be decided this weekend, but don't be surprised if all three championships go down to the wire. That is a sign of just how competitive all three classes have become, at least among the elite in each class. The fat lady may be waiting in the wings, but she doesn't look like she'll start warming her vocal chords just yet.