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MotoGP Title Race Enters Critical Stage at Motegi

A thrilling and unpredictable 2017 MotoGP championship battle kicks into high gear starting with this weekend's #JapaneseGP.

Dorna Communications

The Twin Ring Motegi has seen many a battle fought, won and lost on its asphalt. Coming as it does at a pivotal part of the season, the Japanese GP may not have always seen the throne taken – but it has always been a protagonist in the title fight. Last season was Marc Marquez’ (Repsol Honda Team) coup de grace, and this year the rider from Cervera again arrives ahead. But with such unpredictability throughout so much of the season, does the number 93’s 16-point advantage leave the field in check?

The defending Champion will be hoping so. But Japanese soil had never – until last season – given the now five-time World Champion a victory in the premier class. In Moto2 yes, and in the 125 World Championship, but Marquez has never had the air of invincibility at the venue he can count on at some other circuits in the premier class. That said, his stunning victory last season – and winning the title there – could see that change, as well as some scintillating pace at another venue characterized by hard braking and acceleration: Austria.

The man on the other side of that duel in Austria was Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team); the man who heads the chase behind Marquez in the standings – and the man on the machine that, on paper, is very well suited to the Twin Ring Motegi. The hard braking and acceleration should play into the hands of the Borgo Panigale Factory – and the Japanese GP will be crucial in terms of cutting that gap back down before the maths really begins to kick in and the races remaining tick towards zero. Dovizioso also has two podiums at the track – one in 2010 and one last season – to raise his spirits even further on the way to Japan.

Behind the two out front in the points, however, there may lurk two dark horses: their teammates. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) is the most successful rider at Motegi with five wins – 1 x 125, 1 x 250 and three in MotoGP, and Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) equals that premier class win count. Pedrosa is also at a disadvantage from having missed some events through injury, and his stats could have been boosted even further. With incredible podium form this season and a shot at the title remaining, the ‘Baby Samurai’ will be pushing hard to give it everything.

Then Lorenzo. At Aragon, the ‘Spartan’ was both back on the podium for the second time in red and led the most amount of laps on a Ducati thus far – this time well over half the race. Lorenzo’s three wins at Motegi have all been in MotoGP, and he was optimistic about adding his first top step for Ducati when asked about it at Aragon. Could the time be now? And could that timing be worse for those who need that 25-point haul for their title aspirations…

Mathematically, there remain five contenders. Marquez and Dovizioso at the top, Pedrosa in fourth and then the two Movistar Yamahas: Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi.

That was the order in which they crossed the line at Aragon, only half a second apart despite Rossi riding just 24 days after breaking his leg. Viñales had expected to challenge for the win, Rossi hadn’t dared to expect anything given the injury. The Italian is now fifth in the standings and two points behind Pedrosa, making it still possible, but it remains to be seen how Motegi – and three back-to-back races – will treat the ‘Doctor’. That said, his confidence will be high following Aragon, when he stunned the field – and his teammate.

Viñales is the man who arrives in Japan with time running out to make up the gap. It’s a longer shot for Pedrosa and Rossi and therefore in many ways they have less to lose, whereas Viñales remains in the difficult zone between risking everything for the chance at victory, and avoiding making a costly error. Last year at Motegi he was on the podium, and he’ll need to repeat that or go a couple better and take the top step. Anything can still happen, and everything is unpredictable as ever – but should the coming races play out as writ, Viñales is the man who needs to strike. Every move matters, and Viñales’ position could prove either the perfect amount of pressure or an end-of-season Zugzwang.

Last year Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) crossed the line behind Viñales, and last time out this year - now on an Aprilia - the Spaniard took his equal best result of the season. He’ll want to back that up and make an assault on the Independent Teams classification which is currently led by Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3). Zarco will be tough to be as ever, however, as well as teammate Jonas Folger, who is looking for a reset in the flyaways to end the season on a high after a difficult stint of late. Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) are also big players in the Independent Teams – and there will be one missing, as Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) is forced to miss the race due to injury.

The Australian’s absence is set to boost the home ranks though, as the team have called in former 250 World Champion Hiroshi Aoyama – the Japanese rider who took the most recent home podium at the venue, back in the intermediate class in 2009. He’ll join Yamalube Yamaha Factory Racing rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga to fly the flag, as Nakasuga wildcards following his win in the 2017 Suzuka 8H alongside WorldSBK duo Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes.

Suzuki are another manufacturer racing on home turf at Motegi, and Andrea Iannone had positive things to say after a more solid performance for the Suzuki Ecstar squad at Aragon. Both he and teammate Alex Rins will have a lot of home support for the Hamamatsu factory behind them, and will be pushing for more progress. Progress is also the name of the game for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, who once again got straight through to Q2 and took a top ten in the race – with wildcard Mika Kallio and Pol Espargaro respectively. Motegi is more of a leap into the unknown, but the positive trend and impressive first season for the Austrian factory just keeps rolling.

Four rounds remain, which make it 100 points. But now, as the season finale approaches and 75 of those points are played in the next three rounds back-to-back, it’s no longer a simple game of maths or watching ahead and playing the long game: every move matters, beginning from Friday at 9:55 (GMT + 9) for MotoGP FP1 and with lights out for the race at 14:00 on Sunday.

Moto2

After a stunning duel with Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team) at MotorLand, Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) heads into the flyaways with a 21 point lead – and although mathematically the title remains a four horse race, there remain only two men in the ring who are likely to lift the crown. Morbidelli and Tom Lüthi (CarXpert Interwetten): a master of Motegi.

In 2014, Lüthi won. In 2015 he crashed out in the rain, but in 2016 he won once again – a crucial part of his incredible run of form in the latter half of last season as he moved up to take the runner up spot in the title fight. In 2011 and 2013 he was on the podium in Moto2, he has top tens in the 250 World Championship, and a podium on a 125. The Twin Ring Motegi is a venue that Lüthi will have penciled in as a good shot at the victory.

Morbidelli was also on the podium last year, and he has much less to lose with the 21 point cushion. But there are more rivals lining up to stage an attack in Japan – including the home hero.

Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) has a good top ten record at home, and will be racing without the pressure of the title fight. Now out of it, the Japanese rider – who also graduates to the premier class next year alongside Morbidelli and Lüthi – can push 100% for home glory. That’s sure to be his plan of action, and with a win and four podiums so far this year, Nakagami can be a real threat.

Then there’s Pasini, the man who has had a habit of starting from pole and proving a real protagonist this season regardless of the formbook by venue. And the man who just pipped him to pole at Aragon, Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo), can never be counted out. Oliveira has a podium at Motegi in Moto3 and Pasini is a winner at the track in the lightweight class – as is Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS).

Marquez tooks points as a wildcard in 2012, won his first Grand Prix at the Twin Ring Motegi as a rookie in 2013, and then followed it up a year later with another win at the venue on his way to the Moto3™ World Championship. He will be hoping to arrive fitter and able to stay at the front. Injuring himself at Misano, the rider from Cervera sat out the San Marino GP before returning for Aragon and qualifying on the front row – but after fighting for the podium in the initial stages, he was forced to retire. If back full force, Marquez could play a role.

Alongside the usual suspects, there are more home heroes too: Nakagami and Tetsuta Nagashima (Teluru SAG Team) will be joined by wildcards Ikuhiro Enokido (Moto Bum Honda) and Ryo Mizuno (MuSASHi RT HARC-PRO) as the paddock touches down for one of the biggest events of the year.

Will it be a chance for Morbidelli to turn the screw and increase his lead? Or will Motegi prove the start of Lüthi’s last stand as the Swiss rider looks to overhaul that 21-point gap.

Moto3

Now 80 points clear after a record-breaking Aragon where he became the first rider to win eight or more races in one season of Moto3 - and equaled the all-time victory count since the class was introduced in 2012, with nine – Motegi gives Leopard Racing’s Joan Mir his first shot at the crown. To be World Champion, he has to have an advantage of 75 points or more by the end of the race. So, what does that mean?

The nearest challenger is Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers) – the man 80 points in arrears – and so the man Mir must mark to ensure he takes the crown. The Majorcan must lose no more than five points to the Italian at the Japanese GP, and he’s Champion. If Fenati wins, Mir must be second. If Fenati is second, Mir must come third – and so the maths continues to fluctuate as the relative points rewards diminish. If the Spaniard wins the race or is ahead of the Italian, however, the outcome is simple: game over and a new man on the Moto3 throne.

For Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0), the situation is simpler and it’s a must-win to stay in the chase. If the Spaniard takes the victory, Mir must come fifteenth or fail to score to mean Canet remains in the running. Canet will know it’s a long shot and his focus will be on winning races and on preparing for 2018 – but anything can happen.

Last year’s winner at Motegi was Enea Bastianini (Estrella Galicia 0,0), and the Italian has been a key frontrunner once again of late – including a stunning podium at MotorLand Aragon, only a hair’s breadth behind compatriot Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3). They will surely be strong once again, as well as ‘Diggia’’s teammate Jorge Martin – with the Gresini duo split by only a handful of points in fourth and fifth in the Championship. John McPhee (British Talent Team) is next up as he battles with Marcos Ramirez (Platinum Bay Real Estate), Mugello winner Andrea Migno (Sky Racing Team VR46) and the aforementioned Bastianini for the top six – and then there are the home heroes to contend with.

Tatsuki Suzuki (SIC58 Squadra Corse) is the highest-placed ahead of the Japanese GP, and will be hoping to lead the charge. Ayumu Sasaki (SIC Racing Team) has also shown incredible flashes of pace and will push, as will compatriot Kaito Toba (Honda Team Asia). With nothing to lose, the local heroes will surely give it everything.

Whether to give it everything will be the question on Mir’s mind. Does he attack or defend? Go for glory or play the patient, waiting game? Motegi will tell us – and there’s one added extra challenge as the Leopard Racing rider readies himself for match point: a six-place grid penalty for his last lap maneuvers at Aragon. The points margin is certainly on his side, but can he hold his nerve? We’ll find out on Sunday at 11:00 (GMT +9).


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