Haydn Cobb assesses this weekend’s Japanese MotoGP, the 16th round of the 2019 season which for many will act as first preparations for next year!
MotoGP’s traditional late-season surge with the triple-header of flyaways begins at Motegi for the Japanese Grand Prix and despite Marc Marquez wrapping up the riders’ world title there’s still plenty to play for.
Marquez has made it clear he’s out to seal another Triple Crown for Honda, with the constructors’ and teams’ crowns next on his to do list, and while Honda holds a dominant 77-point lead over Ducati in the constructors’ standings it is going to take some doing for Repsol Honda to overhaul Ducati in the teams’ with the Italian squad holding a 19-point advantage with four rounds to go.
The 26-year-old might have to single-handedly take on Ducati duo Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci given team-mate Jorge Lorenzo has failed to score a point since Misano.
But given Marquez’s exploits so far this season, his fight can’t be discounted starting this weekend at Honda’s race – one he’s claimed victory at in two of the last three seasons.
But with the all-important riders’ crown tied up in Thailand, it also provides Marquez with the ideal opportunity to get an early start to his 2020 preparations.
The same can clearly be said for the rest of the MotoGP grid and while in truth the riders’ world championship has been largely decided for the last few races the mathematical certainty provided at the Chang International Circuit will only fast forward thoughts towards next season.
Fabio Quartararo has already cemented himself as one to watch for the rest of the season and going into 2020, when Marc Marquez expects him to challenge for the MotoGP world title, despite the rookie still hunting his maiden race win in the premier class.
After coming so near but so far to that first victory in Thailand, losing out in another final-lap duel with Marquez, Quartararo has four more chances to become the first rookie to win in MotoGP since the newly-crowned eight-time world champion back in 2013.
Even before leaving Thailand and the disappointment behind him, the French rider was eying Motegi has a favourable circuit for him and Petronas Yamaha.
Quartararo won last year’s Moto2 race at the Japanese track, before losing it a couple of days later due to disqualification for a tyre pressure infringement, something many believed wouldn’t have changed the result of the race.
While Yamaha hasn’t tasted victory at Motegi since 2014, and hasn’t even featured on the podium since 2015, the team will be reasonably optimistic of a strong showing at the Japanese circuit given at least one Yamaha rider has featured on the rostrum in four of the last five rounds across a wide variety of circuit characteristics.
Regardless, if Quartararo can keep up his current form there is a growing sense the 20-year-old’s maiden premier class is a case of when rather than if.
With Valentino Rossi currently going through his longest rostrum drought since his first year at Ducati in 2011, the 40-year-old is desperate for a turnaround before the end of the season.
But rather than moving forward the nine-time world champion has been going backwards with a hat-trick of fourth place finishes followed up by a pair of eighth places in Aragon and Buriram.
Focus is starting to build on Rossi’s side of the factory Yamaha garage given the general upward momentum Maverick Vinales is producing with three podiums from the last four races along with the standout rookie charge from Quartararo.
It has led to Rossi being forthright on his current situation as he searches for an immediate overhaul.
“During these upcoming three consecutive races we will try to solve some of our problems with the bike,” Rossi said. “Obviously, we are not happy about the latest results and in Motegi we will try other solutions, something different.”
Key to Rossi’s major pace problems this year has been a loss of rear grip causing frustrations under accelerations and in stability – something all other Yamaha riders have been able to partially or fully temper as the season has progressed.
Rossi will have to wait until the end of the season for a more radical shake-up, as he changes crew chief to Davide Munoz for 2020 along with receiving a prototype of next year’s Yamaha M1, but he’ll be anxious to rediscover some momentum heading into another long winter without success.
Japan’s international airport halls have been filled with a range of sporting icons in recent weeks.
With the Rugby World Cup currently ongoing across the country, which enters the quarter-final stage on the same weekend as MotoGP takes place, Formula 1 has just left Suzuka having been preceded by the World Endurance Championship at Fuji the weekend before.
During all of this Japan has battled the biggest typhoon its faced in decades, Typhoon Hagibis, which has left at least 73 people dead and thousands homeless. The strength of a nation frequently hit with deadly storms has been commendable and sport has provided a release of joy and focus.
While F1 saw its Saturday activities cancelled by the weather, with qualifying held on Sunday morning at Suzuka, the Japanese MotoGP is set to be unaffected by last weekend’s typhoon with the Motegi region avoiding the worst of the weather.
As a result, Japan’s sporting season will see the MotoGP race take place just hours before the home nation’s first-ever Rugby World Cup quarter-final when the Cherry Blossoms take on South Africa in Tokyo.
Whether this will impact the Japanese Grand Prix spectator attendance seems unlikely but MotoGP certainly has strong competition this weekend.