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Talking points ahead of the Japanese MotoGP™

Thursday, 28 September 2023

Is Motegi where we get an end to the Marc Marquez soap opera? Is Pecco Bagnaia hearing footsteps? And will a return to a happy hunting ground help Jack Miller's faltering form?

After a MotoGP™ weekend in India where we had first-corner calamities, race-suit malfunctions, riders pushed to the limit by the heat and a title twist, the series skips 6000 kilometres east for the Japanese Grand Prix (September 29-October 1), where Pecco Bagnaia's blunder at Buddh sees the reigning world champion protecting a paltry 13-point series lead.

The Twin Ring Motegi track, while not as energy-sapping as the Buddh International Circuit in Delhi, offers an equally stern test. Michelin bring special bespoke tyres and teams run their biggest brakes of the year to combat a layout that has several brutally-hard braking zones – not least the downhill run to Turn 11, site of many a spectacular pass (or crash) over the 18 previous visits to the remote woodland track.

Motegi is Honda's home territory, the logical place to start this week's pre-race talking points …

An end to the Marquez saga?

It's been the storyline that has bubbled along all season – will Marc Marquez honour the final year of his contract with Honda in 2024, or is the six-time world champion's impatience to get back to his winning ways so great that he'd consider prematurely ending one of the most successful unions of all time?

After his season-opening crash in 2020 and multiple surgeries on his battered right arm, Marquez wasn't sure when he'd be ready to win again, but last year's second place at the tail-end of the season in Australia reignited his belief. Since then, his frustration with Honda has ratcheted up a notch every time he's pushed his RC213V past its limits and crashed, so much so that he's been repeatedly linked to a ride alongside younger brother Alex on a year-old Gresini Ducati next season.

Marquez has switched between being mute, mischievous or matter-of-fact about his predicament ("I have a contract with Honda" has been his preferred way of shutting down questions), but on Honda's home ground and with its corporate heavy-hitters in attendance, this may be the weekend that we get the answer to MotoGP's biggest question.

Bagnaia beginning to wobble?

It's a sentence we've uttered before over the past three seasons; Pecco Bagnaia can win the world championship, but Pecco Bagnaia could also lose it. The Italian looked to have banished the 'win it or bin it' extremes that punctuated his 2021 and early 2022 efforts when he stormed home to win last year's crown, and after taking pole, winning the Sprint and Grand Prix and setting fastest lap in Austria in round 10, his lead was 62 points, and the trophy engravers were being booked in …

Since then, the 'old' Bagnaia has made a surprise reappearance. A huge high-side on the first lap in Catalunya saw him sheepish and sore after his legs were run over by Brad Binder's KTM, and while he gritted his teeth to finish third at Misano, India saw him crash from a certain podium with seven laps left, his series lead over Jorge Martin slashed as a result.

More tellingly, the Ducati man admitted he threw a Hail Mary in India, electing to use the hard Michelin front tyre – something no other Ducati rider did – to combat the front locking his bike experienced earlier in the weekend, eroding his class-leading confidence on the brakes.

With Martin in form and Marco Bezzecchi closing to within 44 points of the series lead after dominating the main race in India, Bagnaia needs to get his mojo back – and fast.

Motegi memories offer solace for Miller

Jack Miller was as stunned as anyone after last year's Japanese GP, where he took the lead early and simply disappeared to record easily the best of his four MotoGP™ victories to date. "I didn't know I could ride a motorcycle like that," was his wide-eyed comment afterwards, visibly shocked by what looked to be an out-of-body experience …

The return visit to Motegi this weekend offers good memories for Miller at a time where his confidence has taken a hammering.

Year one on the KTM started so promisingly with two Sprint podiums and a main-race rostrum in Germany within the first seven rounds, but a series of bike set-up changes since then as he tried to extract some more tenths of a second out of his RC16 have seen the wheels come off, the Australian scoring just 30 points in the past six weekends compared to 79 in the first seven.

The good news for Miller – and KTM, for whom Binder keeps churning out top-five results – is that Motegi's layout plays right into the hands of two of the latest brakers on the grid, and the nature of the corners – slow, right-angled entries and exits interlinked by straights – should help mitigate Miller's frustrations from India.

"I wasn't really able to get the thing to turn. I need to be able to work on corner speed, two-wheeling it rather than sliding it to turn," he said.

Motegi's stop-start layout – think Turns 1, 2, 4, 10 and 11 – should help in that regard. Rekindling some of those winning feelings from a year ago will make Miller smile, too.

Japan MotoGP™ fast facts
Circuit name/location: Mobility Resort Motegi, Tochigi, Japan
Length/laps: 4.8km, 24 laps (MotoGP™), 19 laps (Moto2™), 17 laps (Moto3™)
Grands Prix held/debut: 18, 1999
Most successful rider: Loris Capirossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez (three wins apiece)
2022 podium 1st: Jack Miller (Ducati), 2nd: Brad Binder (KTM), 3rd: Jorge Martin (Ducati)

The 2023 Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix will be available to watch live on Foxtel and Kayo. See our What time does the 2023 Japanese MotoGP™ start in Australia article for timings.