Saturday at Motegi had offered the mouthwatering prospect of the battle we have been waiting for all year. Valentino Rossi had cracked his qualifying jinx and lined up on the grid next to Jorge Lorenzo. The pair were close in qualifying times and in race pace, and with 14 points separating them in the championship, there was a lot at stake. Finally, we might get to see Rossi and Lorenzo go head to head in the struggle for supremacy, and to seize the momentum in the MotoGP title race.
As has so often been the case, the hopes of the fans withered on the vine on race day. The rain wrecked any chance of a straight and open battle between the two protagonists in the title chase, throwing the day's schedule into disarray, and turning what could have been an all-out war into a cagey battle of tactics.
We may not have been given what we hoped for, but there was still plenty for the fans to get their teeth into. Jorge Lorenzo looked to have the race sewn up by the halfway mark, but a slowly drying track blew the race wide open. There were very few direct battles, at least not up front, but an increasingly dry line radically changed the dynamic of the race. There was tension, there were surprises, myths and shibboleths were shattered. The championship took on a new impetus, and the strain of the fight going down to the line started to take its toll. This is going to be a tough year for the men who would be champion.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after Sunday's race at Motegi:
2015 Motegi Saturday Round Up: The Key To Rossi's Qualifying, The Perils Of Data Sharing, And Fast Fenati, Finally
Has Valentino Rossi finally mastered qualifying? The Italian has struggled since the format changed, from the extended hour of qualifying which started out as free practice and ended up as an all-out time attack, to the frenetic fifteen-minute dash for pole. His biggest problem, he always explained, was getting up to speed from the start: leaving pit lane and going flat out from the very first meters. He had spent a lifetime slowly sidling up to a blistering lap, rather than getting the hammer down as soon as the lights changed. The switch from an analog to a binary format had been hard to swallow. Millions of older fans sympathized, as they faced the same struggle in their own lives.
Lorenzo, on the other hand, has thrived in the new format, having learned the skill while doing battle with Casey Stoner. The Australian's greatest legacy was his ability to go as fast as possible the moment he left the pit lane. I was once told by Cristian Gabarrini, Stoner's crew chief, that when they looked at his sector times, they would see that he had set his fastest sector times on his out lap. To beat Stoner, Lorenzo had to learn to emulate him. That ability has benefited him twofold: firstly, in the new qualifying format, he can put the hammer down right out of pit lane, without any mental preparation for speed. Secondly, Lorenzo has been able to convert those pole positions into a lot of wins by being able to blast off the line and into the lead before the first corner, then open a gap which his pursuers can never bridge.
That blistering speed has given Lorenzo an added advantage in qualifying. By having the pace to push from the start, he cuts vital seconds from the out lap. Those seconds add up, and can under some circumstances mean the difference between managing to get in for two stops, and being forced to make do with a single stop. There are upsides and downsides to both approaches: more stops means you need more tires, both front and rear, to be able to extract the maximum lap time. You have no time to make set up adjustments, and you are usually forced into swapping bikes as well, something riders often do not like as the two bikes can feel slightly different.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams, Bridgestone and others after qualifying at Motegi:
Press releases from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams after qualifying at Motegi:
2015 Motegi Friday Round Up: The Key To Zarco's Title, Lorenzo's Strong Shoulder, And The Threat From The Ducatis
It's only Friday, but already, one championship has been decided. Tito Rabat's mission to outscore Johann Zarco was tough enough before he crashed at Almeria and broke his wrist, but trying to handle the immense braking stresses of the Japanese circuit with a freshly plated radius proved too much to ask. Rabat's attempt was brave, but ultimately doomed to failure. After riding in FP1, Rabat realized that it wasn't so much the pain, but rather a lack of strength in the arm needed to control the bike safely. Forced to withdraw, Rabat's title defense came to an end, and Johann Zarco became the 2015 Moto2 World Champion.
It was a rather bewildered Zarco who faced the press later on Friday. His mind was still focused on Sunday's race, rather than on becoming champion. He could barely comprehend that he had already won the title. Mentally, he had prepared to celebrate on Sunday, after the race, so the title had come unexpectedly early. It did not put him off his stride, however. Zarco was twelve thousandths slower than Tom Luthi in FP1, and nineteen thousandths faster than Alex Rins in FP2. He remains the man to beat in Moto2, exactly as he has been all year.
Zarco is a truly deserving champion. He has dominated the Moto2 class all year, despite getting off to a rocky start – and almost disastrously smashing into the pit wall along Qatar's front straight, as he tried to fix a gear lever which had worked loose. He took over the lead in the championship in Argentina, taking the first of six wins so far this year, and held on to it through sheer consistency. Since the second race of the year at Austin, Zarco has been off the podium only once, struggling to sixth at Aragon, the first signs he was starting to feel the pressure as he had his first theoretical chance to lift the Moto2 crown.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the first day of practice at Motegi:
Motegi was the stage for a parade of the walking wounded on Thursday. The first question to half of the riders in the press conference was, "How's the injury?" The answers mattered quite a lot, given that Jorge Lorenzo is engaged in a battle to the wire with Valentino Rossi for the 2015 MotoGP crown, Marc Márquez has proved to be capable of being the joker in the podium pack, and Andrea Iannone is the dark horse always looking to disrupt proceedings at the front. If any of those three are severely hampered by their injuries, it could have a major impact on the outcome of the championship.
There is, of course, one minor problem with asking riders how their injuries are, and how much trouble they are causing: you never know just how close to the truth the answer they gave you actually is. This is not necessarily because they are trying to deceive you, but as Valentino Rossi himself pointed out, often, a rider does not know just how much trouble an injury will cause until they actually get on a bike and ride. "For me, I think it's impossible to know," he replied, when asked if he thought Lorenzo might be hampered by his injury at Motegi. "But also because I think Jorge don't know. He has to wait to see the feeling when he rides the bike tomorrow morning, because the shoulder is always difficult. It can be a big pain, but it depends in normal life for for riding a motorcycle. Sometimes you have pain when you make some easy things, but you go on the motorcycle and you have less problems." He also pointed out that Lorenzo has had much worse, having raced at Assen in 2013 just a day after having his broken collarbone plated.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi:
So at last it's official. "This will be my last year in MotoGP. I will be moving to World Superbikes next year with Honda and the Ten Kate team," Nicky Hayden told the press conference at Motegi. The move had been long expected, as Hayden's options of a competitive ride had petered out. "These last two years haven't been so good, I haven't been able to get the results on an Open Honda to really keep a high level bike in MotoGP," he acknowledged.
That had prompted his decision to finally move to World Superbikes. "I've always thought World Superbikes might be something I'd like to try, I've always liked the racing there," Hayden said. "The opportunity just felt like it would be a good fit. Obviously I'm getting a bit older, but I still enjoy the sport and the game, and thought it would be a fresh challenge and a new opportunity, to go there and try to have a bit more fun. Of course I'll miss MotoGP. I had a great opportunity here. Was part of some great teams and worked with some great people. But nothing lasts forever, and that's life. Have to keep moving. Go to Superbike with Honda and hopefully have some fun."
Honda issued the following press release on Nicky Hayden joining Michael van der Mark at Ten Kate Honda in World Superbikes next season. More on this story soon:
Honda announces 2016 World Superbike riders
Honda has today confirmed the team that will spearhead its campaign in the 2016 World Superbike championship on the CBR1000RR Fireblade SP. Current rider Michael van der Mark will be joined in the team by former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden.
Hayden has been riding in MotoGP since 2003 when he joined the Repsol Honda team and the 34-year-old American has since gone on to start more than 200 Grands Prix, scoring 28 podiums and taking three wins. He won the MotoGP title with Honda in 2006.
His strong flat-track racing pedigree, which began at the age of three, eventually led him into road-racing and the young Hayden turned professional on his 16th birthday, halfway through the 1997 season. He won the AMA Supersport series with Honda two years later before turning to AMA Superbike in 2000. He became the youngest ever AMA Superbike champion, taking Honda’s VTR1000SP (RC51) to victory in 2002 at the age of 21.
And so the most crucial part of the season begins. Although you could justifiably make the argument that every race is equally important, the three flyaways to the Pacific rim often punch well above their weight in terms of determining the outcome of the championships. If riders haven't all but wrapped up the title before heading East for the triple header at Motegi, Phillip Island and Sepang, then events can throw a real spanner in the works of a title fight. These are three grueling weeks of racing under any circumstances; throw in the pressure of a championship battle and mistakes are easily made.
The first challenge the riders face is the sheer amount of travel it takes to get from one race to the next. First, they must spend at least 18 hours on planes and at airports traveling from Europe to Tokyo. They face a further two hour drive to get to Motegi, and unless they are well-paid enough to be staying at the circuit hotel, will have a 50-minute commute into the circuit every day ahead of the race. On Sunday night or Monday morning, they return to Tokyo for another 10-hour flight (or longer, if they can't fly direct) to Melbourne, and a drive down to Phillip Island. A week later, another flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, this time an 8-hour flight. After the Sepang round, they finally get to head home, another 17+ hour return flight back to Europe, and a week to rest up ahead of the final round of the season at Valencia. They travel from a wet and humid Motegi, to the chill of Phillip Island's early spring, to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang.
Motorcycle racers are hyperactive at the best of times, so getting them to sit still for the best part of a day is not easy. The Japanese manufacturers – a group including Bridgestone, also based in Japan – want to take full advantage of the presence of their top riders in Asia, and so they get taken on whirlwind tours of factories, headquarters, and as a bonus, a trip to key markets such as Indonesia or Thailand. For riders such as Cal Crutchlow and Nicky Hayden, used to spending upwards of 3 hours on a bicycle every day, their training routine is destroyed. Those who prefer training on a motorcycle, such as Valentino Rossi or Marc Márquez, do not fare any better. They might get some time in a gym, but suffering massive jet lag, in a confusing environment where they can understand very little of the language, and surrounded by strange food, it is much more difficult to maintain focus. In a sport where attention to detail has become ever more important, the smallest mistake can be ruinous. It is no wonder that titles can go astray overseas.
Press releases from the series organizers and teams after Sunday's World Superbike round at Magny-Cours:
Press releases from the organizers and teams after qualifying at Magny-Cours:
Press releases after the first day of practice at Magny-Cours: