About 99.9% of the time, motorcycle racing is treated with deadly earnest, but from time to time, something comes along to remind us that in the grand scale of things, it rates pretty low down, only marginally above the question of the height of Paris Hilton's heels, to pick a celebrity with at least some connection to racing. This was brought home all too sharply by the news that Japan was hit by a massive earthquake in the early hours of Friday morning, wreaking havoc and destruction. The huge shock - magnitude 8.9, the largest ever recorded in Japan - also created a huge tsunami, inundating the coast of Honshu, Japan's main island.
The scale of the disaster was merciless, touching every corner of Japanese life. Industry and business came to a halt, all transport was stopped dead in its tracks, gas and electricity supplies are badly hit, and patchy in places. The disaster even touched Japan's motorcycle industry, with one worker dead and thirty injured at Honda's R&D plant in the Tochigi Prefecture. The effects of the quake could affect production, and supplies of some selected Honda motorcycles are expected to be limited, according to the respected motorcycle news site Asphalt & Rubber.
The disaster may even affect MotoGP. The Motegi Twin Ring, home to the Japanese Grand Prix, is located to the north-west of Tokyo, and a few hundred kilometers southwest of the earthquake's epicenter, just off the Japanese coast. The circuit itself is tucked away in the hills, far from the coast and the tsunami that destroyed much of the region there.
But being so isolated, Motegi is dependent on the surrounding areas, and two dependencies could threaten the running of the Japanese Grand Prix. The first is Tokyo Narita airport, the airport where most of the teams and equipment fly into on their way to Motegi, located just outside the Japanese capital. Tokyo itself was badly affected, and even now it appears that parts of the city are still without electricity. Tokyo Narita shut down shortly after the quake, but has recently been partially reopened, to at least allow outbound flights to depart, and alleviate the strain that stranded passengers would put on an already overloaded system. The airport appears to have survived the quake in relatively good condition, and should be back up to full capacity within the next couple of weeks.
The same cannot be said of Ibaraki and Mito, two areas where many of the teams reside during the weekend of the race. The authoritative Italian website GPOne.com is reporting that damage in the area could affect the ability of the region to house the teams and fans, making staging the Japanese Grand Prix an extremely difficult proposition.
So shortly after the quake, it is extremely premature to make any judgement on the wisdom of staging the race, and Dorna - the company running the series - is waiting for the situation to stabilize before considering their best course of action. If the Japanese MotoGP round had to be rescheduled or even canceled, it would be a double blow to Japanese race fans, after another natural disaster forced the rescheduling of the 2010 race. The ash cloud generated by the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjalla brought Europe's air traffic to a halt right before the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix was due to take place, leaving most of the MotoGP personnel and riders stuck in Europe and unable to get to Japan. Dorna was forced to move the race from April 25th to October 3rd, by which time the Icelandic volcanic eruption had subsided and the race could be staged.
The tragedy in Japan reminds us of the central place that nation takes in motorcycle racing in general, and MotoGP in particular. Though you may be surrounded by the Italian and Spanish languages on any trip through the paddock, you will also encounter a significant number of Japanese faces: with three Japanese manufacturers supplying a sizable contingent of race engineers, a small army of Japanese tire engineers from Bridgestone and, to a lesser extent, Dunlop, and a smattering of Japanese riders and engineers in the paddock, MotoGP has a distinctly Japanese flavor. And everyone, from Italian journalists to Australian mechanics and Dutch truck drivers, knows someone from Japan. Twitter and Facebook have been full with the best wishes of everyone involved in the series for their Japanese friends and colleagues.
And taking a bit of a tangent, the Japanese engineering excellence so prominently displayed in MotoGP is also evident in the incredibly low numbers of casualties from the quake. Just over a year ago, a quake of 7.0, a thousand times less powerful than Friday's Sendai quake in Japan, struck just off the coast of Haiti, and 300,000 people died. Thanks to Japan's strict building codes and outstanding engineering, the earthquake and ensuing tsunami have so far claimed just a few hundred deaths, though that total will surely rise. The incredible survival rate after the quake is a testament to Japanese ingenuity, engineering and discipline, most Japanese workers and students trained to know exactly how to react in the case of an earthquake.
Our thoughts, and we are sure we speak for our readers here as well, go out to the people of Japan, both those involved in the motorcycle industry and those who are not. It would be nice if the Japanese MotoGP round could go ahead as scheduled, but on the list of priorities for the nation of Japan, motorcycle racing must necessarily come a very long way down the order.