The 15th round of the 2015 MotoGP season at Motegi was another nerve-jangling affair, with Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa mounting a classic come-from-behind victory on a wet track — his first for the season — to finish well clear of Movistar Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
While Pedrosa vaulted up two spots in the championship to fifth with his sublime victory in the 24-lapper, out front Rossi extended his lead over Lorenzo to 18pts with three races to go, starting at Phillip Island next week followed by Sepang and Valencia.
It was a race of halves in Japan, with polesitter Lorenzo bolting from the start and producing the fastest lap of the race on lap three as he set about building a three-second buffer over Rossi, with Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso in third from Pedrosa and Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda). Aussie Jack Miller (LCR Honda) also made up chunks of places in the first few laps before he crashed out—followed by another spill 20 minutes later.
Then the tide turned. Just when it appeared that another Lorenzo victory was inevitable he began to slow as his front tyre couldn’t hold it together on a drying track — while the diminutive Pedrosa was charging after struggling at the start with a lack of rear grip.
Pedrosa easily passed Rossi with nine laps to go and then immediately latched onto the back of Lorenzo, hitting the front two laps later. Rossi then seized second place with five laps to go — and with it the 18pt championship lead that at one stage looked like it could have been as low as 5pts as Lorenzo ran rampant.
The Lorenzo and Rossi championship battle will now continue at Phillip Island, while Pedrosa was the man of the moment after winning his 50th GP race — and on Honda's home circuit.
"I'm so happy with this win! It has been a long time since my last one and I'm really pleased," said Pedrosa. "It was a fun race, because at first I took things calmly and lost too much time, but the strategy worked out because afterwards I recovered ground gradually.
"I had a special feeling at that point in the race and I'm happy to take this victory for Honda at its home track, for the team, the sponsors, my friends and family, because it has been a difficult season."
Marquez, riding with an injured hand after a recent mountain bike crash, was a lonely fourth from Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), who passed fellow Briton Bradley Smith (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) on the final lap. Wildcard Katsuyuki Nakasuga (Yamaha Factory Racing), Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing Ducati) and Scott Redding (EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda) completed the top 10.
Wet-weather specialist Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Racing Ducati), Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and Maverick Vinales (Ecstar Suzuki) were others to crash out, while Andrea Iannone (Ducati Team) was felled by a mechanical issue.
Miller was disappointed, particularly after he tried to "be a little bit calmer this time in the wet conditions".
“I didn’t look to overtake so many people and got in a nice groove and got settled," Miller said. "But then I had small loss of the front and I’m not really sure why.
“After that I tried to work my way back into a points position but it was not quite possible. I caught up to (Eugene) Laverty, but when I was right behind him I locked the brake up on the white line and that was the end of my race. It was a real shame, I’m not very happy but we also gained a lot of experience out of this.”
MotoGP Race Results
1. Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda, 46m50.767s
2. Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha, +8.573s
3. Jorge Lorenzo, Movistar Yamaha, +12.127s
DNF. Jack Miller, LCR Honda, +8 laps
Pole position: Lorenzo, 1:43.790 = 166.5km/h
Fastest lap: Lorenzo, 1:54.867 = 150.4km/h
Championship top 3
Rossi 283 • Lorenzo 265 • Marc Marquez 197
Frenchman Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) arrived on the wet Motegi startline as world champion-designate after the only man who could stop him lifting the title, Tito Rabat (EG 0,0 Marc VDS), had to withdraw from Japanese proceedings due to injury.
And Zarzo rode like a weight had been lifted, riding brilliantly from the outset on a wet, but drying track, winning the shortened 15-lap race from Jonas Folger (AGR Team) and former Moto3 world champion Sandro Cortese (Dynavolt Intact GP).
“The race went very well. I knew Jonas (Folger) would push very hard from the beginning and I tried to follow him. I saw that gradually the asphalt was drying out and I decided to overtake him and try to escape, because it was the safest strategy," Zarco said. "I felt comfortable and I tried to stay focused and not make any mistakes.
"The last two laps were not easy, because although I had a good advantage it is easy to make a mistake in the wet. The end of the race was fantastic and I was overwhelmed. I want to thank the team and all the partners who have allowed me to be in the world championship all these years. I am very happy; thank you.”
It was a great day for Malaysian riders, with Azlan Shah (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) and Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Raceline Malaysia) finishing inside the top five.
Australia's Josh Hook, in his first deputisation assignment for the injured Dominique Aegerter on the Technomag Racing Interwetten machine, crashed out with 12 laps to go, while big guns Sam Lowes (Speed Up Racing) and Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) finished well back in eighth and 11th positions respectively.
Moto2 Race Results
1. Johann Zarco, Ajo Motorsport, 31m17.900s
2. Jonas Folger, AGR Team +4.505s
3. Sandro Cortese, Dynavolt Intact GP, +15.433s
DNF. Josh Hook, Technomag Racing Interwetten, +12 laps
Pole position: Zarco, 1:50.339 = 156.6km/h
Fastest lap: Folger, 2:04.166 = 139.1km/h
Championship top 3
Zarco 309 (world champion) • Tito Rabat 206 • Rins 189
Danny Kent (Leopard Racing Honda) increased his championship lead by a solitary point over main rival Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Honda) after the pair finished in sixth and seventh in the wet race, but out front Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold Honda) was in complete control as the Italian won his second GP in 2015 from Portugal's Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and young Spaniard Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0).
Antonelli said: “It has been an amazing win, and after the victory in Brno it was important to continue the good results. Today I pushed from the first lap until the end. I got the gap at the beginning of the race and I managed it until the finish line."
Isaac Vinales (RBA Racing Team KTM) and Zulfahmi Khairuddin (Drive M7 SIC) were fourth and fifth, while Kent's sixth place now has him 56pts ahead of Bastianini.
Australia's Remy Gardner (CIP Mahindra) failed to finish after crashing with three laps to go, while other to slide out were all riders pushing for podiums at various stages: Livio Loi (RW Racing GP Honda), Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and local rider Hiroki Ono (Leopard Racing Honda). Poleman Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46 KTM) was never in the hunt.
“A wet and shortened race added to a back starting grid position is not the best combination to get a good result and we knew it from the beginning," said Gardner. "I’ve been trying to do my best and recover the maximum positions during the race but at I lost the front end at turn three and crashed”.
Moto3 Race Results
1. Niccolo Antonelli, Ongetta-Rivacold Honda, 28m03.391s
2. Miguel Oliveira, Red Bull KTM Ajo, +1.053s
3. Jorge Navarro, Estrella Galicia 0,0, +8.529s
DNF. Remy Gardner, CIP, +3 laps
Pole position: Romano Fenati, 1:56.484 = 148.3km/h
Fastest lap: Isaac Vinales, 2:07.602 = 135.4km/h
Championship top 3
Danny Kent 244 • Enea Bastianini 188 • Oliveira 179
Next round: Phillip Island, Australia, October 16-18