Part of the Japanese round of MotoGP always seems to involve learning a new name for a natural phenomenon. In 2010, we heard of Eyjafjallajökull for the first time, the volcano which awoke from under its ice cap and halted air travel in large parts of Europe and Asia. We laughed as newsreaders and MotoGP commentators tried to pronounce the name of the Icelandic volcano and ice cap (for the inquisitive, Wikipedia has the correct pronunciation), and the race was moved from the start of the season to October.
A year later, in April 2011, it was Tōhoku which was the name on everyone's lips. The massive earthquake which shook Japan and triggered an enormous tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power station. Again the Motegi race was moved to October, by which time the incredible resilience and industriousness had the track ready to host the MotoGP circus. 2012 turned out to be a relatively quiet year, but 2013 saw the tail end of typhoon Francisco ravage the region, causing the first day and a half of practice to be lost to fog and rain.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 round of MotoGP at Motegi teaches us yet another new name. This time it is Vongfong, a category 5 super typhoon which threatens the race in Japan. The super typhoon has been described as "the most powerful storm of the year" with recorded sustained winds of 285 km/h, and gusts of up to 350 km/h. It is currently over open water southwest of Japan, but is heading northeast towards Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago.
The good news for Japan is that Vongfong is expected to weaken as it heads towards Japan, and arrives over much cooler water. Even better news for Motegi is that the typhoon looks unlikely to reach the region in time to affect the race. Vongfong is set to make landfall nearly 1200 km southwest of the Twin Ring circuit, and have weakened dramatically by the time it reaches the area by the middle of next week. 2014 looks like being another year in which Motegi was spared.
That will please Honda greatly. With Repsol Honda riders first and second in the championship, Honda within 10 points of the manufacturers' title, and the factory Repsol squad closing in on winning the team championship – though admittedly, both Movistar Yamahas would have to not score to achieve that at Motegi – Honda would really like to celebrate at home. The Motegi Twin Ring circuit is owned and operated by the Mobilityland Corporation, which is itself a 100% subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company, and so the stakes are high. Motegi is also the main test track used for developing the factory's MotoGP machines, the RC213V having racked up monster mileages around the circuit. The combination of hard braking zones, slow corners, long, fast straights and the occasional fast combo should suit HRC's Honda RC213V down to the ground.
It is therefore odd that Hondas have not been so successful at the circuit. Of the ten MotoGP rounds held at the circuit so far, only three have been won by Hondas. Of the rest, another three have been won by arch rival Yamaha. But taking the lion's share of wins at Motegi has been Ducati, Loris Capirossi taking three wins, on both the 990 and 800cc incarnations of the Desmosedici, and Casey Stoner taking a fourth. Of the current riders, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo share the spoils, with two wins a piece.
Can Honda or Yamaha match Ducati? Can Ducati extend their superiority at the track? Can either Lorenzo or Pedrosa gain the upper hand? Will Valentino Rossi take a second win to match his two rivals? Or will Motegi 2014 be yet another Marc Marquez show, as MotoGP has been for most of the season?
Marquez made his intentions clear at the pre-event press conference. "You know how I ride, and my mentality. I always try to push." There are still four races left in the championship, and so Marquez can afford to fail here. That doesn't mean he will sit quietly and aim for a conservative result. "I will push like always, try to find the limit."
At Aragon, that approach did not quite work out for Marquez. The reigning champion stayed out a lap too long when the rain started to fall, and crashed out of the lead when the rain cooled his slick tires too much. It seemed like the right choice at the time, Marquez said, but when he looked back at it on TV, his mistake was clear. It was a learning experience, and a mistake he would probably not make again.
To do so at Motegi would greatly displease Honda. Before the race, the Repsol Honda riders visited Honda's headquarters, where they met with Honda President Takanobu Ito. After the meeting, Marquez joked that Ito-san had given him two sets of contradictory instructions. The first? "You must not crash any more. What happened at Aragon must not be repeated." The second: "I am coming on Sunday to see you win." No pressure then...
Winning is of course the best way for Marquez to wrap up the title. He himself was clear what he needed to do: finish ahead of Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi, which means either winning, or coming second to Jorge Lorenzo. The smart money is on Marquez going for the win.
His main obstacle is likely to be his teammate. Dani Pedrosa's record at Motegi is impressive: alongside his two wins are another three podium finishes, including a third place here last year. All five podiums have come in the last six years, the only time he missed out being in 2010, when he broke a collarbone during practice. Pedrosa will want to atone for his Aragon crash, and a win his best chance of doing so, as well as keeping his title hopes alive, slim as they may be.
Despite Motegi nominally being a Honda track, the Yamahas have done well here in the past. Honda have had to watch their Japanese rivals take victory in half of the last six races, with Rossi racking up a single win, and Lorenzo taking another two. That includes the win here last year, when he mastered the lack of set up time due to the weather and difficult conditions on Sunday to take victory at Honda's home circuit. Things could be more difficult for Lorenzo this weekend, with the cooler conditions not helping with the tire situation. Yet if the weather really is as cold as predicted, it may yet play into the hands of the Yamahas. Both Yamaha and Honda struggle when temperatures drop, but the Yamaha seems to handle the weather a little better.
Lorenzo feels he has adapted better during the second half of the season than he has. He pointed out that he has scored the most points of all of the top MotoGP riders in the last six races, and the Spaniard has not been off the podium since Indianapolis, finishing either second or first since Brno. His goal is to maintain that record, a target which will be tough, but achievable.
Hoping to get in his way is his teammate. Valentino Rossi's 2014 season has seen him return to the competitive form he showed before he left Yamaha for Ducati. The win at Misano a month ago helped rekindle the fire within him, though the crash last time out at Aragon took some of the wind out of his sales. He was knocked unconscious when he was clipped by the rear wheel of his bike, but, he told the press conference, he was fine from that. His problem is that he fractured his right index finger in the crash, one of the worst injuries a rider can have. Rossi is used to braking with three fingers, applying the most pressure with his middle finger, but using this index finger as well. That was still very painful, he said, and though he could try to change his style to just use his middle finger, it was hard to throw away years of riding habit in a single race.
If the injury had come ahead of Phillip Island, it may not have been so difficult. But Motegi is a circuit with a lot of heavy braking zones – new rules were introduced last year to allow the use of bigger brake disks at the track – and so Rossi faces a rough weekend at Motegi. If practice turns out to be too painful, then the Italian will have to resort to painkillers.
Motegi's hard braking zones will also be a real test for Nicky Hayden. The American made a return from major wrist surgery two weeks ago at Aragon, but that track is relatively kind to right wrists. Though there are some hard braking zones, most of them are before turning in to left handers. Motegi is completely different: almost all of the circuits hardest braking areas are before right hand turns. If Aragon was a test for Hayden to see if he can still control a MotoGP bike, Motegi will be the real test of how his wrist is holding up. Hayden may need a mouth guard to bite down on if he is to cope with 24 punishing laps of the Japanese circuit.
Those hard braking zones may well play into the hands of the Ducatis. The Ducati is now the strongest bike on the grid when it comes to braking. Add to that, its improved turn in and a decent corner exit, and the Desmosedici is starting to resemble a competitive motorcycle. It is still handicapped by its unwillingness to turn, the understeer still there even in the latest GP14.2 version of the machine, but forward steps have already been made this year. Both the factory Ducatis have been on the podium this year – though the weather was a factor in both Cal Crutchlow's third place at Aragon and Andrea Dovizioso's second place at Assen. But both Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone have been competitive in the dry, Dovizioso unlucky to miss out on a second dry podium this season at Misano, the first one coming at Austin.
While Dovizioso and Iannone have been fast all year, Cal Crutchlow only really found his feet at Aragon. That followed a half-decent weekend at Misano for the Englishman, the combination of the two providing something of a step forward for Crutchlow. He has still not had the revised engine and chassis which the two Italians are using, nor will he receive them, given that he departs for LCR Honda at the end of the season. But, as he discussed in an interview with MotoMatters.com at Aragon, his morale is key. The podium at Aragon provided him with a boost which he needed, and he will be carrying in to Motegi. At a track which suits the Ducati, he needs to reduce the gap to the front.
His teammate, meanwhile, has every reason to be hopeful of more than just reducing the gap. At Brno, Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone had crossed the line 17 seconds behind the winner, Dani Pedrosa. At the next race at Silverstone, Dovizioso had cut the gap in half, to just 9 seconds. Two weeks later at Misano, and the gap was halved again, to five seconds, and a second behind the man in third. At Aragon, the weather worked against both Dovizioso and Iannone, the two men crashing out of the race. But after Aragon, Dovizioso, especially, stands ready to make the next step. Excellent braking and a strong engine will stand the Italian in good stead, and if it is as cold on Sunday as the forecasters say, then the extra soft tire could give the Ducati men another advantage. Ducati are the real wildcards at Motegi, and could finally break onto the podium in the dry. Though it may be difficult, even a win is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Motegi is a track which Pol Espargaro has been looking forward to for a while. The young Spaniard has been experimenting all year with a different style of corner entry, bringing something of his Moto2 style to Tech 3 Yamaha. So far, his attempts to let the rear slide more to assist braking have met with limited success, given that the Yamaha has been built around the premise that the bike should be ridden as smoothly as possible. Espargaro's style has only really worked with a certain kind of corner, where the braking is done in a straight line, before tipping the bike into the corner.
In other words, the kind of corner which his abundant at Motegi. Like Le Mans, the Motegi circuit has a lot of stop-and-go sections, giving Espargaro a lot of space to experiment. At Le Mans, Espargaro came very close to the podium. With an extra half a season of experience under his belt, he can finally get onto the box.
For the support classes, the flyaway races could be decisive in the championship. In Moto2, Tito Rabat has been wresting the initiative away from his Marc VDS teammate Mika Kallio, extending his lead to a comfortable 33 points. But Motegi is a circuit where Kallio has been very strong in the past, and the Finn will be looking to take back as many points as possible from his teammate. He could be assisted by Aragon winner Maverick Viñales, who won the race at Aragon in impressive style. Fresh from announcing his signing with Suzuki in MotoGP next season, Viñales is looking to carry on his momentum into Motegi, and notch up a few more wins before moving up a class.
Moto3 has seen the most dramatic turnaround, with Jack Miller and Alex Marquez coming together on a very narrow drying line at Aragon, and Miller going down. The incident was reviewed by Race Direction, but found to be a racing incident. However, with Marquez taking the win and Miller not scoring, Marquez took over the lead in the championship. The momentum has swung firmly in favor of the Hondas in the last few races – despite Romano Fenati winning last time out at Aragon – and Miller needs to turn the season around. A strong result, and preferably a win at Motegi could help Miller get his title chase back on track, especially going into the next race at his home track of Phillip Island. The Moto3 title chase looks like going down to the wire, but if Miller wants to settle it in his favor, he needs to start in Japan.