For much of the year the Japanese Grand Prix has been in limbo, but this weekend the 2011 MotoGP series is finally arriving at the Motegi circuit. With only four rounds remaining and Casey Stoner in a commanding lead over the championship, Repsol Honda enters home territory for the first time since Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Seen as one of the most anticipated races of the season since its inclusion in the 2011 calendar, Motegi stands as a major test for Stoner and teammates Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso. The event also marks Honda’s last visit to Japan during the 800cc era, so the stakes are high for Repsol Honda riders to put on a good show this weekend.
“Motegi is quite a different circuit,” said Stoner. “It’s similar in a way to Le Mans and is very much stop-start, a little like a go-kart track, but in general it’s nice and more fun than some of the other circuits we visit. It has a lot of hard braking, a lot of hard accelerating, it’s pretty tough on the body and physically demanding. If you miss your braking points it’s easy to run wide, so it will be important to get the setup on the bike just right.”
Despite being one of the biggest opponents of participating in the Japanese Grand Prix, Jorge Lorenzo will suit up for Motegi.
It’s close to a miracle that the Motegi GP is even taking place this year. Following Japan’s natural disaster and subsequent nuclear threat, multiple riders were on the brink of boycotting the round due to fears of radiation exposure. Leading the opposition was Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard was a stalwart supporter of skipping the round, saying: “I don’t feel safe to go there [Motegi]. I do not want to wait 20 years wondering if something will happen to me or my children.” But in the weeks leading up to Round 15 it appears the defending champ has had a change of mind. The fact that it’s also Yamaha’s home race during its 50th year in GP racing seems to be an added pressure for Lorenzo to attend, but regardless – Lorenzo will be suiting up in special anniversary leathers at Motegi.
“After all the confusion with Fukushima we are here, fit and ready to put on a good show for Yamaha in this special year for them,” said Lorenzo. “We will begin on Friday and try to do everything really well.”
Dovizioso is currently third overall in the series and is heading to a circuit which he placed second at last year. Tension is also developing between Dovizioso and Pedrosa as the two teammates remain only 15 points apart. Pedrosa had notched second-place finishes in the last three consecutive races, making him a favorite to win the upcoming contest.
“Motegi is one of my favorite circuits, not only for the layout, but also for the atmosphere,” said Pedrosa. “I always ride well there and feel a lot of support from the Japanese fans and I think this year will be even more special for them. Obviously, last year I had a hard time there due to my injury, but I want to focus on my riding and enjoy the GP. I go there with the same approach as the last races; trying to do our best in all the sessions.”
San Carlo Honda’s Marco Simoncelli has also been showing strength this year by consistently qualifying on the front two rows. Despite excellent starting positions, the Italian has suffered numerous mishaps throughout the year which have thwarted his results. In the last two rounds, however, Simoncelli has just missed podium finishes in fourth and appears to be settling into a groove. Super Sic also re-signed with Gresini Honda recently, giving the 24-year-old even more incentive to prove his grit this weekend.
“To be wearing the colors of Team San Carlo Honda Gresini for another year and riding a Honda RC213V gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Simoncelli said. “It gives me a lot of confidence and all the motivation I need to show that I can be amongst the best in MotoGP again. 2012 will be an important season for me and I want to give all those people who have believed in this project plenty to get excited about.”
Ben Spies had a tough introduction to Motegi last year but is determined to set the record straight.
Yamaha’s Ben Spies is returning to Motegi for only the second time in his career. In 2010 Spies ran wide during the start of the race and spent the remaining laps doing damage control to finish in eighth. Despite his troubling start, Spies has proved he can fight through poor starts by passing riders with his quick pace. Along with teammate Lorenzo, Spies will also be donning special anniversary leathers for Yamaha.
“I really enjoyed the race here last year once I got over the frustration of losing so many places in the opening laps,” commented Spies. “I managed to overtake quite a few riders on my way back up to eighth which always makes the race more exciting. I hope to be higher this year from the start so won’t have to do so much catching up! We’re racing in the red and white livery again which always seems to bring me luck!”
Ducati’s Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden are currently running sixth and seventh respectively in the championship. Rossi’s past experience at the Japanese track includes six top-three finishes, with the Italian fighting through severe shoulder pain to fend off Lorenzo last year. Also comforting Rossi is the fact that, on paper, the Ducati runs well at Motegi. In the last round Rossi was forced to start from pit row after the team used its seventh engine. If Rossi is going to increase his odds of running at the front, he’ll have to pump up his performance during qualifying.
Valentino Rossi: “It’s true that we’re having to work very hard, but we approach every Grand Prix with the goal of doing better.”
“The Ducati won last year and has also gone well there in the past, so we’ll see if we can do any better than we have at the recent races. It’s true that we’re having to work very hard, but we always approach every Grand Prix with the goal of doing better. We’ll try hard this Sunday as well, working on the track with what we have available at this time.”
Meanwhile Hayden is looking to improve his 12th-place finish from last year. The American is not the greatest fan of the Japanese circuit, and his best finish of the season so far has been third at Jerez. Hayden is only eight points ahead of Simoncelli with four rounds remaining, so his performance in the upcoming round will be crucial.
“The radiation situation seems to be under control, so earthquakes are the only concern,” joked Hayden. “Hopefully we can have a good race. Motegi has probably been my worst track since I’ve been with Ducati, as I’ve struggled to get turned in those hairpin corners and get out strong. I’m not expecting an easy weekend, but Ducati is really working hard to give us options and to find the best direction for the future.”