Once again MotoGP embarks on its annual Darwinian excursion through some of the world’s most exotic time zones for what is laughingly called The Pacific Swing. As if it were a square dance and not a grueling test of mettle and metal. One week at Honda’s glowing home crib, one on the windswept tundra of the south Australian coast, and one in the autoclave of Sepang. Can Honda’s Marc Marquez seize his fourth MotoGP title on this chaotic cruise, or will he leave things dangling for the Valencia finale?
When Last We Left our Heroes…
They had just completed the Aragon round in which triple world champion Marquez opened a can of whup-ass on his pursuers and vaulted into a 16-point lead over Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and a 28-point spread over Maverick Viñales, everyone’s pre-season pick to win the title this year. Except me. My vast experience in this game (okay, it’s just a wild ass guess) tells me Viñales has another DNF left in him this season as the pressure mounts and Marquez piles up heart-stopping save after heart-stopping save, seemingly avoiding disaster each time out by the sharpest of razor-thin margins. As good as Viñales is, and will be, it must be daunting to watch Marquez perform his magic act week after week, crash six times in practice every weekend and lead the championship.
Recent history at Motegi
In 2014, it was All Aliens All the Time as Jorge Lorenzo led Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa to the flag, the gap between 1st and 4th a scant 3.1 seconds. Though Dovizioso took pole, the four Aliens were grouped 2 to 5 at the start. Marquez, leading the series, conceded the win to Lorenzo and, in the process, clinched the 2014 title. The race featured a close encounter between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which might have cost the Catalan the race, had it mattered. The post-race Samurai ceremony afterwards was a little over the top.
Pedrosa chose Motegi to make his annual stand in 2015, leading Rossi and Lorenzo to the line in a wet-ish affair. Marquez struggled into fourth place ahead of Dovizioso on the Ducati. Rossi and Lorenzo chewed up Bridgestone rain tires on a drying surface; Pedrosa, winless all season and dawdling in the middle of the pack for a while, came on strong at the end. This was the race in which Lorenzo and the rain became a thing. Rossi left Japan leading the series by 18 points with three rounds left, a virtual lock for a 10th world championship that would come unlocked on the macadam griddle at Sepang.
Last year, for the third time in four seasons, Repsol Honda supernova Marquez claimed the MotoGP world championship. He did it by winning the Japanese Grand Prix while the Bruise Brothers of the factory Yamaha team – Lorenzo and Rossi – choked on the bile of their rivalry, both riders crashing out of a race in which neither could afford the slightest error.
Marquez has now won two of his three premier class titles in The Land of the Rising Sun. He won’t clinch a title on Sunday, but he is at a pivot point of the season. A win, especially a dominating win with sub-par performances by his main chasers, and he could wrap things up before returning to Europe at the end of the month. A crash, combined with podium finishes from Dovizioso and/or Viñales, could set us up for an all-the-marbles showdown in Spain in November. Let Valencia Decide!
Life in the Tranches
After Round 13 Misano
Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, (Rossi)
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Folger, Lorenzo, Petrucci, Rins
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Barbera, Bautista, Baz, A. Espargaro
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, P. Espargaro
Tranche 5: Abraham, Rabat, Smith, Lowes
After Round 14 Aragon
Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Lorenzo, A. Espargaro↑, Bautista↑
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Rins↓, Folger↓, Petrucci↓, P. Espargaro↑
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, Barbera↓, Baz↓,Rabat↑
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes
There are 10 Spanish riders in the premier class of MotoGP, a multiple of that number in Moto2 and Moto3. Of those 10, seven (7) are Catalans. Seems Catalonia wants independence from Spain, with its ponderous federalism, broken economy, black-shirted police reminiscent of the fascist Franco regime, and Castilian lisp.
Much the same as the Scots, the Catalonians have felt pinched by being part of a largely foreign federation for generations despite sharing a common language. Although turnout was reported to be light, the vote this past Sunday was over 90% in favor of Catalexit, despite the horrific presence of the Spanish police, shown on video dragging young women out of the polls by their hair. Allow me to make three points here. One, don’t be surprised if symbols of the Catalan independence movement find their way to the paddock. Two, Catalonia has every right to refer to itself as the capital of Spanish motorcycle racing. Three, if, somehow, Catalans were to form their own government and retain the euro, they will be screwed in years to come by not being able to control their own currency. Paging Greece. Just sayin’.
In case you’re wondering, or haven’t yet discovered Wikipedia, the seven Catalans are Marquez, Pedrosa, Viñales, Tito Rabat, the Espargaro brothers, and Alex Rins. The three outliers are Lorenzo (Mallorca), Hector Barbera (Valencia) and Alvaro Bautista (Castille). This is quality research you’re just not going to find on other motorcycle publications. Unless they’ve discovered Wikipedia, too.
Gazing at the Crystal Ball
The locals at Sunday’s race will have two of their own on the grid. Given the fact that Japanese-made bikes dominate MotoGP, it must be irksome not to have any Japanese riders competing in the premier class. Not to worry, as factory test rider Katsuyuki “Katman” Nakasuga has been tagged for a wildcard by Yamaha. Hiro Aoyama, whose last full season in MotoGP was 2014, will substitute for Jack Miller who, in his ongoing mission to emulate Valentino Rossi, broke his leg in a training accident last week. Expect Nakasuga to collect a few points and Aoyama to scuff his leathers battling with Tito Rabat and Sam Lowes to avoid finishing last.
Another late scratch is Tech3 Yamaha’s Jonas Folger who will miss Motegi – and perhaps more – due to illness (suspected to be mononucleosis). In his place, Tech3 will line up Japanese rider Kohta Nozane, a Japanese superbike racer and member of Yamaha’s World Endurance Championship team.
Before laying myself open for the usual scathing criticism of my picks, I just want to remind readers that Marquez is on a 2013-style roll. In the eight rounds since Mugello, he has compiled four wins, three podiums, and a DNF when his engine went up at Silverstone while he was in contention. Had he podiumed at Silverstone, which appeared likely at the time, his lead would now stand closer to 40 points than 20, and we would be readying ourselves for some over-the-top title celebration at Phillip Island. As it is, we can still light candles for Dovi and Maverick as we look forward to Valencia.
Right. The long-range forecast for race weekend calls for cool temps and wet conditions. Music to the ears of Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci, while such news gives Maverick Viñales the creeps and has no effect whatsoever on Marquez. Dovi needs to start another hot streak about now, although Motegi is not the friendliest layout for the Desmosedici. As we say every round, perhaps this is the week Aleix Espargaro puts an Aprilia on the podium. Probably not.
Your podium on Sunday – Marquez, Dovizioso and Crutchlow, who needs to sack up and start winning races again. Rossi is still recovering, Viñales is all tensed up, and no one else is relevant to the conversation. If history is a teacher, Dani Pedrosa will have trouble getting his tires up to temperature; besides, he’s already had his win for this year. This is Honda’s home crib, and all the other manufacturers want to stick it to them at their place. But with the season on the line, don’t expect Marc Marquez to hold anything back. He’s playing with house money these days, and can afford to take a few chances. 2017 just feels like his year. Again.