Jonathan Rea stands on the verge of defending his World Superbike title after finishing second at Jerez in Race 2. The Northern Irishman came out on top of a tussle with his Kawasaki teammate, Tom Sykes, and will enter the final round of the season with an almost unassailable 48 point lead.
Chasing down a championship lead can be both liberating and extremely stressful. On the one hand, your objective is simple: beat the rider who is leading the championship, and try to outscore them by as much as possible. On the other hand, you have to take more risk, as riding conservatively means you risk not scoring enough points to close the gap to the leader. Finding the balance between the two is always difficult.
Defending a championship lead is just stressful. The best way to defend it is to keep trying to win races, and make it as hard as possible for your rivals to catch you. But winning races means taking risks, and a crash can mean throwing away a big chunk of your lead in a single race. Riding conservatively is not necessarily an easier option: it is paradoxically harder to ride just off the pace than right on the pace, requiring more focus and concentration to manage the race. Giving away points every race can be like Chinese water torture, your rivals closing the gap with each drip. Tension rises every race, and containing it without bursting is extremely stressful.
The Motegi MotoGP race provided a perfect example of both of these situations. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo came into the Japanese Grand Prix knowing that they had to win the race if they were to retain any hope of keeping the 2016 MotoGP title out of Marc Márquez' hands. The job was significantly easier for Rossi than for Lorenzo. Outscoring an opponent by 52 points in four races is easier than trying to make up a deficit of 66 points. Conversely, that put more pressure on Rossi: keeping an achievable target within reach makes winning paramount.
If anyone was nostalgic for the days of 500cc two strokes, they got a glimpse of what the dark side of that era was like this weekend at Motegi. Rider after rider has been flung from his bike, spat into the air as a rear tire slipped then bit again, snapping the bike around, suspension compressing and then explosively decompressing, catapulting the rider into the sky. It has kept the medical helicopter busy: Eugene Laverty and Jorge Lorenzo have been flown to and fro for medical examination, with the second helicopter kept on standby having to take its place.
On Friday, the victims had been Eugene Laverty and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa had paid the heaviest price, snapping his right collarbone and flying home to Spain for another operation – his fourteenth, by all counts. Laverty had escaped relatively lightly, but was still forced to sit out the morning session on Saturday as a precaution. Jorge Lorenzo was even more fortunate. He was launched at Turn 3 at the end of FP3, and had to be flown to hospital for checks, before being allowed to return and take part in FP4. He feared he had damaged his left ankle, but checks revealed it was just bruising.
What is the biggest downside of the flyaways? The three back-to-back races are crucial on the way to the end of the championship. This is the time you need to perform, where you can make the difference by pushing that little bit harder. The downside, of course, is that if you push too far you can lose everything. "Three races in a row is always complicated," Valentino Rossi told the press conference on Thursday. "You can have a small problem in the first race and pay a lot."
MotoGP is about to enter the toughest stretch of the season. Three races on three consecutive weekends is tough enough. But three races separated by three, seven plus hour flights, kicking off with a race in a time zone seven hours ahead of the place most riders live. So riders, mechanics and team staff all start off a triple header struggling with jet lag and facing a grueling schedule.
And they are thrown in the deep end from the very start. Only the MotoGP riders can afford to stay at the Twin Ring circuit near Motegi. Most of the team staff stay in Mito, an hour's drive from the track, meaning they have to travel for two hours a day. Up in the hills in the middle of Japan's main island, and sufficiently far north for temperatures to drop in the fall, Motegi is notorious for poor weather. It is usually cold, often damp, and sometimes ravaged by typhoons.
The legal oddity that riders' contracts are out of sync with the MotoGP season creates an uncomfortable truce among the factories. When riders sign with a factory, their contracts run from 1st January to 31st December. But for the factories and teams, the new season starts on the Tuesday after the last race of the year, at Valencia.
This is a particular problem for the 2017 season, with so many riders changing factories. Traditionally, there has been a gentlemen's agreement among the factories to allow the riders to test with their new team, despite still being under contract to the old one. So in previous years, the likes of Valentino Rossi (twice) and Casey Stoner have lapped Valencia aboard their new steeds dressed in plain leathers.
The plain leathers are just one side of the compromise. As a rule, the riders switching factories are not allowed to speak to the media, or only allowed to speak in the most general of terms, avoiding direct comparison between their new bikes and their old bikes. The riders continue to perform PR duties for their old factories up until the end of the contract deadline.
It was smart strategy that won Chaz Davies the opening race of the French round of WorldSBK but in Race 2 it was patience and perseverance that won out. The Welshman clocked up his third win in four races and each have come in very different circumstances. A dominant victory in Germany started this rich vein of form but France showed how strong Davies has become. Having the mental strength to stick to his guns, and his intermediate tyre choice, in the opening race was contrasted with his patience in waiting for an opportunity to pass the Kawasaki riders in Race 2.
The decision on whether to be conservative or aggressive with your choices wasn't the key in Magny-Cours rather it was just about having belief in your convictions. With a drying track Chaz Davies was one of the few riders to start the race with intermediate tires and the gamble proved worth the risk for Davies as he romped to victory.
In the early stages with a wet track Davies was a sitting duck to riders with more grip from full wet weather tires. The Welshman even said afterwards that “I was so slow that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone had hit me!”
Momentum. That's what the last race before the Australasian triple header is all about. Momentum heading towards the end of the championship. Coming out on top and carrying it forward to Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang is vital. The deal may get done on one of the flyaways, but Aragon is the place where the riders put their chips on the table.
All three races on Sunday had a huge impact on the MotoGP championship. In the first race of the day, a title was settled. In the second race of the day, the championship was blown even further open. The final race of the day saw another brick hammered into the wall of Marc Márquez' third MotoGP title, and further cemented his legacy. It was a good day's racing.
There are a lot of ways to win titles, but the way the 2016 Moto3 championship was settled was about as fitting as it could be. At the end of a classic Moto3 race, where a strong group battled for control until the final four laps, four men broke away from the pack. That group consisted of Brad Binder, the two men who could still mathematically challenge Binder for the 2016 title, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Navarro, and rookie revelation Fabio Di Giannantonio.
Motorcycle racing is the cruelest form of addiction. What racers need to feed their habit is to win, but winning is hard, one of the hardest things of all. To do so, you have to go beyond yourself, push beyond your limits, exceed what you thought was possible.
That creates a paradox: if you want to win a championship, sometimes you have to accept you can't win a race. Too much of that servility, though, and ambition will chafe at the bit. The temptation to have a go is hard to resist, with the risk of ending in gravelly ignominy.
That has been the fate of Marc Márquez so far this season. Wins have been few this season, just three in thirteen races. Even podiums have eluded him, Márquez ending off the box in three of the last four races. There is only so much a young man bursting with ambition can take.