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Race report: Motegi MotoGP

Photo: Honda

TWIN RING MOTEGI CIRCUIT, Kanto Prefect, Japan – The Moto GP main event in Japan was, as famed baseball star Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “déjà vu all over again,” uncannily repeating the finish of the race at the Austrian Red Bull Ring circuit back in August.

In both races Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso and Honda’s Marc Marquez – the top protagonists in this year’s title chase – passed each other multiple times in the last three laps. In both races Dovi led into the final corner of the last lap. In both races Marquez pulled a gonzo inside dive to get past. In both races he then ran wide, letting Dovizioso power to victory by a few hundredths of a second.

In this case, crucial to the championship race, the result pulled Dovizioso to within 11 points of Marquez, with 75 up for grabs in the last three races.

Third place went to Octo Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, making it two Ducatis in the top three. “Petrux” took the lead for most of the first third of the race, eventually being passed by Marquez and then Dovizioso. The Italian has been oh-so-close to his first win several times this year, and when asked post-race if he’d had any problems, said wryly, “When I was in front I start to think about my first win, but there are always two problems – Dovi and Marc, always the same two!”

Although the rain let off compared to the Moto 2 and 3 classes, conditions were still horrible for the riders, who were fighting dreadful visibility, a slick track, and standing water as much as they were struggling against one another. A slowly drying track – or more accurately, a progressively less wet one – also contributed to tire problems for many of the riders.

Dovizioso said, “I didn’t give up and that was the key of my race … It is always difficult to fight with Marc and we were pushing really hard. In the last six laps our [rear] tire was gone, we were spinning in sixth gear and it was very difficult to be precise … I knew that he was going to attack me in the final two corners but I was prepared for this, I closed the door on him and he had to go a bit wide to pass me. It was absolutely vital to win here!”

Marquez agreed about the conditions, saying, “Today there was a lot of water on track! … Entering the last lap, I knew I had only a very small advantage ahead but then I made a small mistake in turn eight, well, quite a big mistake actually!, and he caught me. After he passed he was very strong on the brakes and I wasn’t able to match him.”

The rest of the top 10 were rounded out by Suzuki riders Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins getting their and Suzuki’s best finishes of the season in fourth and fifth, followed by Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati), Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia), Johann Zarco (Tech 3 Yamaha), Maverick Viñales (Yamaha), and Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati).

Lorenzo was tipped to be strong in the race, perhaps even collect his first win for Ducati, but instead did his now-patentable dash and fade. He led on the first lap, fell back out of the top 10, then clawed his way back up to sixth by the finish. He had his usual string of reasons and complaints, including a gripe about being passed too closely by Johann Zarco.

Espargaro was disappointed with his seventh place, having qualified on the front row and truly fancying his chances in the race. The Aprilia’s made great strides since the summer break, and a podium can’t be that far away. His team-mate Sam Lowes, in his last year in Moto GP (at least for now) collected a creditable 13th for the team as well.

The Yamahas, as ever, suffered in the wet conditions, seemingly unable to get power down and ruining the rear tire very quickly. Valentino Rossi crashed without injury, while Zarco faded from pole to eighth but was still ahead of factory rider Viñales.

The other Tech 3 bike was ridden by Japanese youngster Kohta Nozane in his first GP appearance. He went well in practice and qualifying, but crashed and broke bones in his right hand; he bravely still raced but eventually crashed. He was replacing Jonas Folger, who’s back in Germany getting medical tests for a severe illness suspected to be the Epstein Barr virus that causes mononucleosis. He’s unlikely to return this season and may be replaced by Australian Broc Parkes for at least the next two races.

Loris Baz rode his aging (circa 2015) Avintia Ducati to an excellent 10th. The French rider has certainly proven he belongs in Moto GP, but as anywhere, money talks, and he’ll be replaced in 2018 by Moto 2 rider Xavier Simeon, who will be bringing big bucks to the team. Baz hopes to land on his feet back in World Superbikes, where he used to be Tom Sykes’ team-mate on the Kawasaki factory squad.

Viñales and Dani Pedrosa (who retired in Motegi with bike problems) still barely have a mathematical shot at the title, but it seems unlikely that both Marquez or Dovi, separated by only 11 points, will both fail to finish any of the remaining three races – so it’s game on between Honda and Ducati.

Moto 2

Marc Marquez’ younger brother Alex collected his first Moto 2 win outside of Spain, and his second of the season. That confirmed his third place in the Moto 2 standings, although he’s too far behind the series leaders to challenge for the title.

Those leaders, Franco Morbidelli and Tom Luthi, either struggled or played cautious in the atrocious weather at Motegi – probably a bit of both. They both qualified poorly, and while Luthi started strong he quickly faded back with apparent fogging problems with his helmet. Morbidelli, on the other hand, progressed slowly through the field, eventually finishing eighth to Luthi’s 11th. That gives the Italian a 24-point advantage over Luthi with three races left; not insurmountable, but Luthi will need some bad luck to strike his opponent if he hopes to gather in the title.

Of course, with the two being paired as team-mates in the Marc VDS Honda Moto GP  team next year, the fireworks are even more interesting.

Second in Motegi went to Spanish youngster Xavi Viergi riding the Mistral chassis built and raced by the Tech 3 team who run Yamahas in the Moto GP class. It was Viergi’s best finish to date in Moto 2, and the first podium for Mistral in two years.

Third went to “The Fish”, Malaysian Hafizh Syahrin, who always seems to excel in wet conditions. He made a late-race charge and given a couple of more laps might well have collected Viergi, and possibly even Marquez. His result won’t do any harm to advance ticket sales for his home GP in Malaysia in two weeks!

Moto 3

While Italian Romano Fenati won in a walk in an absolutely streaming downpour – the worst rain any of the races ran in – and slightly closed his chase of championship leader Joan Mir of Spain, he’s still got at best an outside chance of the title.

Mir had a dreadful weekend, qualifying poorly in the wet conditions, then being penalized a further six places for misbehaviour at the previous race at the Aragon track in Spain. Still, the Spaniard has a 55-point lead over Fenati, with only three races (75 points) left on the table.

The weather, as in the Moto 2 race, seriously scrambled the usual running order at the top with Niccolo Antonelli coming second for his first podium since Qatar at the start of 2016, and Marco Bezecchi making it an all-Italian top three with his first podium in GP racing.

Aron Canet, the only other rider with a mathematical chance to catch Mir coming into the weekend, struggled to a relatively poor fifth place, putting him out of contention for the title.

Next week is the Australian round at Philip Island, the week after that they’re in Malaysia at Sepang – a grueling schedule of three races on successive weekends. Then there’s a two-week break before the circus returns to Valencia in Spain for the series final.

World Moto GP Championship Standings after 15 of 18 races

  1. Marc Marquez, Spain, Repsol Honda, 244 points
  2.  Andrea Dovizioso, Italy, Ducati Team, 233
  3. Maverick Viñales, Spain, Movistar Yamaha, 203
  4. Dani Pedrosa, Spain, Repsol Honda, 170
  5. Valentino Rossi, Italy, Movistar Yamaha, 168
  6. Johann Zarco, France, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 125
  7. Jorge Lorenzo, Spain, Ducati Team, 116
  8. Danillo Petrucci, Italy, Pramac Ducati, 111
  9. Cal Crutchlow, U.K., LCR Honda, 92
  10. Jonas Folger, Germany, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 84

 

Next race October 22, Philip Island, Australia

 

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