With the Japanese round of MotoGP at Motegi now just five weeks away, it is getting close to crunch time for the riders to decide whether they are going to race at the circuit or not. The report on the radiation situation at Motegi commissioned by Dorna has been presented to the riders and the teams, and everyone has had some time to digest the report. Some teams have already made clear that they will be attending the race - the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team made an official announcement at Brno, and Jorge Martinez of the Aspar team said earlier this week that his teams would be attending the race in Japan - but many teams have not yet made a decision.
The problem for the undecided riders centers around the situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where continues on bringing the damaged reactors under control and cooling the plant. This issue was not addressed in the report, and with the media reporting both every new earthquake and every incidence of high radioactivity found at or near the plant - though maintaining a deafening silence on the progress being made towards getting the plant under control - fear of the situation is still running high among the riders.
The differing advice given by various governments is also clouding the situation: while the Japanese government is maintaining a 20 km exclusion zone around the plant, other national governments are advising their citizens to keep further away from the plant. The Dutch and Belgian governments advise remaining 50 km away from Fukushima, while the British government are telling UK citizens to stay 60 km away, the only exception being for traveling through the area on the Tohuku Expressway and the Tohuku Shinkansen Railway, which both pass closer to the plant that 60 km. The Australian foreign office is the most cautious of western governments, advising its citizens to keep at least 80 km away from Fukushima.
Calls remain to have the whole race moved to the Suzuka circuit, in the south of Japan and several hundred kilometers away from Fukushima. When asked at Brno whether such a move would be possible, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto told the press that he felt it was not possible, given the safety standards at the circuit: Suzuka is currently classified as Class C, while MotoGP is only permitted to race at circuits homologated to Class A, with much higher safety standards. He did express a preference for Suzuka as a motorcycle racing track, a statement which appears to have been misinterpreted by some sections of the Italian media as condoning a switch from Motegi to Suzuka. You can judge for yourself what Nakamoto said on the subject in the transcript of the press conference the HRC boss gave at Brno here. According to Spanish TV presenter Marc Martín, Dorna managing director and member of the Safety Commission Javier Alonso said that Suzuka was not an option. "It's not safe and the changes made for Formula One have made it even less safe," Alonso told Martín.
Naturally, with the riders reconvened at Indianapolis, the press asked the riders for their opinions on the subject. Below are some of their comments on Motegi, and how they fell about racing there.
When asked if he had made a decision on racing at Motegi, Nicky Hayden was non-committal. "I haven't, no," Hayden told reports. "Our team is looking at some different reports. It's looking more likely we're going now, though there was another earthquake two days ago. So it changes every day, every report you read is something different. But I certainly don't have that on my mind this weekend." Asked whether he had a deadline for a decision, Hayden responded that he did not. "The team's still getting some information," Hayden said. "There's a lot goes into it, it's no just staying home. Until we get more information, no, I haven't made a decision."
Jorge Lorenzo emphasized that the problem was not one of information, but of who to trust. "I think it's a question of trust. Anybody can say that Motegi is OK, and anybody can say Motegi is not OK," he told reporters. "The situation is changing every day, with earthquakes." On the report, Lorenzo said it was "one source of information. But for us, we need more information. You can have all the information you need, but you have to trust this information." Lorenzo said he would make a final decision in September.
Rossi expected to make a decision earlier, he told the press. "I have still not made a decision. I have to understand exactly the situation, but I'm not happy to go," the Italian said. "But between here and Misano I will say my position, and I hope that the other riders will also agree with me."
Now that Lorenzo and Casey Stoner had relaxed their earlier total opposition, Rossi was forced to explain his position in more detail. "For me is not a good idea to go to Motegi to make a motorcycle race, because it is dangerous," Rossi told reporters, "especially because it is not too far from the nuclear power station, and the station is not under control. And over there [in Japan - Ed.], always the earth move, so... It's scary. I'm very scared to go, and also all the people that have to come with me are very scared, from my people to also all the people from Ducati, all the guys, all my team. So I think it is not a good idea. You know, risk in a place like this is not good for a motorcycle Grand Prix." Asked whether he had come under pressure from Ducati and main sponsor Marlboro, Rossi replied that he had not. "Not a lot, less than the other manufacturers. For a choice like this, for me the pressure from outside is not the main problem. You have to be brave to take your decision."
Factory Yamaha rider Ben Spies spoke at some length on the subject of Motegi. "I'm not thrilled about going there," the Texan said. "I think everybody has the same exact feeling. We want to race, we want to go to Japan, we want to represent for everybody, but there's a lot of unknowns, and we don't know..." It was the long-term effects that were most worrying, according to Spies. "You know, everything could fine, but there could be repercussions years down the road that we don't know. I'm not saying that will happen, but nobody knows, Japan doesn't even know and they're not saying anything. It's a touchy subject, and to go just for a motorcycle race, I don't think it's the best time to do it. It's not something I'm worried about too much, but I think there could have been some alternatives, for sure."
The irony of a motorcycle racer - someone who rides a motorcycle at over 300 km/h for a living - being afraid of something unseen like radiation was not lost on Spies, but he emphasized that the difference was one of control. "We have a choice to go 300 km/h, that's normal for us," Spies told reporters, "but this is something that's out of control." Spies also questioned whether the risk was worth it: "And just for a motorcycle race, it's a difficult one to answer, because you want to do it, but also at the back of your mind, you know what's going on there, but you don't know how bad it is. I didn't study any of that stuff at school, and don't know anything about it, but I just know from what I've read that nobody knows exactly what can or can't happen and what could happen in twenty years."
The Dorna-commissioned report had been useful, Spies added, but it had failed to address some of the riders' fears. "It's not that I don't have faith in the report," Spies said, "it's just that it's not 100%, it's one of those things, you don't know. It's like having stuff in food, OK, it's good to eat now, but it really might not be. It's not very clear what can happen or what could happen down the road. Maybe nothing happens, but not knowing is one of those things." Other venues for the Japanese Grand Prix could have been explored, Spies told the press. "Like I said, I think there could have been alternatives. Different places to race at..." Spies did have some sympathy for the situation the Japanese manufacturers found themselves in. "It's tough, because all the manufacturers but one are Japanese, so they have to represent and it's totally understandable, but in the end, it is what it is and it's not a great situation, and it's just for a motorcycle race. So think it's a little bit pushed upon for everybody to go. I think everybody's on the same opinion, it's not the best scenario, so, what do you do?"