After a two-week break, the 2017 MotoGP™ title race heats up again at Motegi in Japan this weekend, with world champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) holding the upper hand.
The gifted Spaniard is 16 points ahead of Italian Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) in the 18-round championship, with Motegi marking the start of the most intense period of the year with consecutive rounds in Japan, Australia and Malaysia.
Marquez is in turn 28 points ahead of countryman Maverick Vinales (Movistar Yamaha), with the championship likely to come down to a battle between those two and Dovizioso.
There’s a maximum of 100 points up for grabs in the final four races, which means that world championship aspirations for Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda, 54 points behind Marquez) and Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha, 56) are probably done and dusted.
Of course, what happens at Motegi – which is celebrating its 20th birthday in 2017 – will play a huge part in who ends the year as MotoGP™ world champion.
For Marquez, the much-liked Japanese venue has been a happy hunting ground.
He wrapped up the world title in both 2014 and 2016 at Motegi – last year quite unexpectedly as then Movistar Yamaha teammates Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo both crashed out.
That was a jackpot, but this year he knows he must maintain focus around the 4.8km circuit.
“There are four GPs to go, and we must give 100 per cent at every one, starting with the three flyaway rounds,” said Marquez.
“These races are always demanding due to the different time zones and conditions, and this year with the championship so close, they’ll be even more of a challenge.
“The most important thing for us is that since Montmelo, we’ve been on the podium in every race but Silverstone.
“We’ve done a good job of managing different conditions and different circuits, which gives us confidence and shows that we’re at a good level everywhere.
“We have some great memories in Japan, because we won last year and got the title there twice, but every season is a new story and we must remain focused and ready to handle every situation.
“Track conditions in Motegi can vary dramatically, and we’ll have to work hard on the set-up to find a good compromise for the hard acceleration and braking.
“We’ll give our best effort and push hard to get another good result in front of Honda’s home fans.”
Dovizioso is confident that the nature of the Motegi circuit will be a good match for his factory Ducati.
“Motegi is a special circuit, one of my favourites, because you have to brake very hard and I feel sure that we can be up amongst the frontrunners once again on this track,” he said.
“I’m pretty confident because I’ve always scored good results here in MotoGP™, twice taking pole and finishing second last year.
“The next four races will be vitally important in the battle for the title, and we’re ready to fight things out right until the very end.”
Pedrosa, Lorenzo (Ducati Team) and Rossi have also won at Motegi, so the pressure will be on from the start of practice on Friday – minus Aussie Jack Miller (Marc VDS Honda) who recently broke his right tibia in a training incident.
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Miller’s place at Motegi has been taken by former 250cc world champion Hiroshi Aoyama, who these days is a test rider for Honda.
Meanwhile, Rossi’s recently broken leg should cause him less grief than it did at Aragon, while Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and Lorenzo are the other factory men in strong form – Lorenzo inching towards what could be a maiden victory in Ducati colours.
The usual Independent Team riders such as Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Monster Yamaha Tech 3’s Johann Zarco, Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Ducati) will also be pushing hard.
And let’s not forget it’s also a home round for Suzuki, whose lead rider Andrea Iannone has struggled all season, but what better time to push his way into the top 10.
Honda, with eight wins, is the constructor with the most victories at Motegi, followed by Yamaha and Ducati with three wins each.
Italian Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) heads to Japan with a 21-point cushion over Tom Luthi (CarXpert Interwetten).
But that buffer could be reduced again as Luthi is a master of Motegi, having won two of the past three years in convincing fashion.
Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) has a good record at home, while Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team) has had a habit of starting from pole and proving to be a real protagonist this season.
Pasini is also a 125cc winner at Motegi, as is Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS).
Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) can never be counted out, while a bevy of local wildcards will be looking to put themselves up in lights as well.
Remy Gardner (Tech 3 Racing) will again fly the Aussie flag as he counts down to returning to home soil the week after.
One rider has a match point at Motegi in runaway Moto3™ leader Joan Mir (Leopard Racing Honda).
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 equalled the all-time victory count since the class was introduced in 2012, Motegi gives Mir his first shot at the crown.
To become world champion, Mir must have an advantage of 75 points or more by the end of the race.
The nearest challenger is Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers Honda), who is the man Mir must mark to ensure he takes the crown.
Mir must lose no more than five points to Fenati in Japan to take the title.
The likes of Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda), 2016 Motegi winner Enea Bastianini (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Honda), Marcos Ramirez (Platinum Bay Real Estate KTM) and Andrea Migno (Sky Racing Team VR46 KTM) will be doing their best to make it as tough as possible for Mir.
The three world championship races at Motegi will be held over the following distances and times on Sunday:
- MotoGP™: 24 laps, 115.2km, starting at 2.00pm local time (4.00pm AEDT)
- Moto2™: 23 laps, 110.4km, starting a 12.20pm local time (2.20pm AEDT)
- Moto3™: 20 laps, 96km, starting at 11.00am local time (1.00pm AEDT)