It rained but then it stopped. Tire choices were made then changed. But in the end the battle between factory Yamaha teammates, two time world champion Jorge Lorenzo and seven times MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi was not so much about winning the race itself, but about finishing ahead of each other to decide this year’s crown.
The Twin Ring circuit of Motegi, Japan is essentially a contorted figure eight, but it is known for several slow, low gear corners that make it a challenge for ill handling motorcycles. It was this quality, together with a variable grip surface that caused so much of yesterday’s excitement on the track.
Jorge Lorenzo and Rossi both qualified on the front row, together with Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda. Marc Marquez, the most successful qualifier this season, was down a few roads nursing an arm injury, leaving the first corner tussle to others for the first time this year. From the lights, Rossi rather uncharacteristically charged into the lead but Lorenzo retook his place at the front in turn three and didn’t look back.
By the end of the fifth lap, Lorenzo was nearly 4 seconds ahead of second place Rossi who was in turn about seconds ahead of Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso in third. It was looking like another formulaic event where Lorenzo would simply ride away never to be challenged again. Neither Rossi, nor the Ducati of Dovizioso seemed to be in the same league as Lorenzo, unable to match the Spaniard’s speed.
But grip issues resulting from a drying track changed everyone’s fortunes. All of the riders started the race on wet tires, both Lorenzo and Rossi opting for the hard front and soft rear. Dani Pedrosa was alone among the leaders to go with a hard option rear as well. From the start, Pedrosa lost ground as his rear tire needed several laps to build up the heat to maintain grip in the spotty, damp conditions. By midway through the race, the sun emerged and the racing line was drying fast, which meant that the wet weather tires began to overheat, sending chunks of rubber flying off in ragged strips, particularly along the edges.
Slow motion video captures told the story. Lorenzo, who’s blistering pace impressed in the first half of the race had come at a terrible price in front tire wear. The video showed a tire with flailing strips of black fluttering in the wind, and his lap times began to slow. Rossi too was suffering from tire wear, but his more conservative pace meant he had more tread left and gained on his teammate.
Pedrosa meanwhile, had built up heat critical to rear wheel grip and also not worn as much of his front, allowing him to storm effortlessly past first Rossi, then Lorenzo to a smooth and deserved victory. Lorenzo, just able to keep his Yamaha from crashing, had to slow significantly in the final laps, even going wide in one corner and kissing the gravel trap. Rossi passed him to finish second and gain 4 critical points over his teammate Lorenzo in the world championship. Lorenzo finished third.
Marquez came home in a distant fourth, but came home despite nursing a painful injury and seemingly overcoming his penchant for over-reaching and crashing. Dovizioso was fifth, and Cal Crutchlow also managed to remain upright long enough to finish sixth.
Just three races remain in the 2015 season, and Lorenzo must finish significantly ahead of Rossi if he wants to win the championship. Of course Rossi could crash or suffer a mechanical failure, which could hand Lorenzo the chance to catch up in the points, but given Rossi’s masterclass in tire, points and competitor management this year, that seems unlikely.
Pedrosa once again showing some talent. One has to wonder even more now than after last race just how much that arm pump problem dogged him.
Rossi must be actually making an effort not to think about tasting that 10th title yet.
Pedrosa has had some kind of problem for the better part of a decade. He is enormously talented, has enjoyed on the whole the best equipment, and seen some lean years in terms of competition, but he has never put all the eggs into the basket as it were.