In MotoGP, October means only one thing; the flyaways.
The three races before returning to Europe for the Valencian finale take place in Japan, Australia and Malaysia, with the Japanese Twin Ring Motegi circuit first up this weekend.
The Honda-owned track has been part of the MotoGP calendar since 2000, after initially being built by the Japanese manufacturer as a test track in the late 90s. Unsurprisingly, it’s Honda that has the best record at Motegi with six wins compared to the four wins each for Yamaha and Ducati in the MotoGP class. This dominance is in no small part due to the little Samurai himself, Dani Pedrosa, who has won at the circuit five times across all classes, with three in MotoGP, equalled only by Jorge Lorenzo in the current grid.
It was at the Japanese Grand Prix last year that Pedrosa first brought out his ‘Soul Warrior’ helmet (now a firm favourite) and battled his way to his first win of 2015 as he demonstrated a sheer masterclass in tyre management in tricky conditions. Whether he is able to replicate that success this year will depend largely on how well he is able to adapt the Michelin tyres to the track, but braking will also play a big part for Dani. His crew chief Ramon Aurin admitted that the stronger brake discs needed for Motegi do cause the Spaniard some issues with handling as he’s normally able to use the slightly smaller discs for the rest of the year.
On the other side of the Repsol Honda garage, the Japanese Grand Prix could turn out to be a very big weekend indeed, as Marc Marquez gets his first shot at the 2016 World Championship crown. But don’t get too excited (he’s not) because for him to seal the title on Sunday he would need to win, with Rossi finishing no higher than 15th and Lorenzo finishing no higher than fourth. It’s incredibly unlikely, but not impossible thanks to the complete unpredictability of 2016, a season when Marquez is the only rider to have scored points in every race so far.
While Marquez won’t be focusing on the title this weekend, he will still have a fight on his hands as he prepares for a challenging time. Motegi is one of only two tracks on the current calendar where Marc hasn’t won in MotoGP and as he said earlier this week “Motegi is one that I marked for giving up as few points as possible”. So it’s damage limitation for the smiling assassin on Sunday, but points ultimately mean prizes and as long as he stays on the bike he’ll be one step closer to his third MotoGP championship.
For the men currently in second and third in the standings, Motegi marks the start of the final leg of the Yamaha battle before they split next season. Jorge Lorenzo is 14 points behind his team-mate Valentino Rossi, but the current World Champion has traditionally had the upper-hand in Japan, he has won three times in MotoGP and has achieved the most pole positions with four, compared to Rossi’s one. For Lorenzo, this weekend is all about returning to competitiveness and where better to do that than Yamaha’s home Grand Prix, albeit on Honda soil.
But catching his team-mate will be tough for Lorenzo because this is one of Valentino Rossi’s favourite points of the year. The Italian loves the three back-to-back flyaway races because it gives you the chance to build momentum and although he only has two premier class wins at Motegi, he does have 11 podiums, and thanks to a bike that he says is “strong on paper” he’s hoping to be fighting for the win on Sunday afternoon.
The Twin Ring track is all about hard-braking and strong acceleration, and if you like tight hairpins then this is the circuit for you. The stress on the brakes will be key, particularly at turn 11 (also known as the 90-degree corner for obvious reasons once you see it) which is a sharp right turn after a thunderous top speed tear along the “downhill straight” after exiting the tight hairpin at turn 10. Aprilia has already said that they will be trying some new solutions for cooling the brake calipers this weekend and combined with tyres this will be a key area for the teams to work on.
Speaking of tyres, Michelin are continuing their tailored approach by bringing tyres designed to cope with extra stress on the centre of the tyre (remember Brno?) which is caused by the heavy braking and this should enable riders to have more stability throughout the race. The tyres are also designed to work better with the lower temperatures expected at Motegi at this time of year. In terms of compounds, the front slicks will be available in soft, medium and hard, while the rear slicks will be asymmetric with a harder right side and are available in soft and medium. Wets will, of course, be provided if the weather turns with soft and medium compounds, along with the intermediates for mixed conditions.
Thanks to the heavy braking, the front of the bike will be even more crucial than usual this weekend. Yamaha’s Ramon Forcada has said that he expects to be working on a slightly shorter bike this weekend while trying to find the balance between weight on the front for grip and weight on the rear for acceleration. Ducati’s Marco Rigamonti expects wheelie-ing to be something the Italian team will be battling in Japan, so the wings on Andrea Dovizioso’s GP16 will probably be out in full force (his team-mate Andrea Iannone is not riding due to the back injury from Misano), and at Suzuki, Maverick Vinales’ crew chief Jose Manuel Cazeaux felt that the braking and acceleration demands would probably call for a harder front on their GSX-RR.
The Japanese Grand Prix also marks the return of two injured riders, with Bradley Smith and Jack Miller both back in action after missing previous races due to leg (Smith) and hand (Miller) injuries.
Will we see winner number nine? Possibly. Andrea Dovizioso will be the main candidate for that on Sunday, especially as the hard-braking should suit the Ducati’s strengths, and with his team-mate sidelined all the focus will be on the Italian.
Motegi will bring blistering speeds, hold-your-breath-and-hope braking, and usually high fuel consumption (hopefully the teams have got the spec ECUs ready for that challenge). The Japanese circuit also promises some fantastic overtaking, with the main hotspots being the front straight and into turn one, the right-handers of turns three and four, the change of direction between seven and eight, and of course, into turn 11 at the end of the long back straight.
Tyres will play their part as they always do this season, brakes and suspension setup will be first on the agenda for Friday morning and you can never quite predict what the weather will be like in the Northern Kanto region.
What we can predict is that Sunday’s race should be fantastic and one that you won’t want to miss.