MotoGP heads to the far-east this weekend with the Japanese Grand Prix taking place in Motegi. The race was originally scheduled for April but had to be postponed after the volcanic ash cloud made air travel impossible from Europe. The enforced change to the calendar has meant that the end of season will now see five races in just six weeks.
With Jorge Lorenzo still comfortably leading the championship the pressure once more falls on Dani Pedrosa to continue his strong run of form that has seen him eat into Lorenzo’s lead. Pedrosa turned 25 yesterday and he will hope to continue his love affair with the Twin Ring circuit, in nine races he has only missed out on the podium three times.
Lorenzo, winner at Motegi last season, has generally struggled for pace on the challenging 4.8km circuit. The championship leader has only one other podium finish to his name in Japan. With his advantage at the top of the standings being eroded and failing to finish on the podium last time out this could be an ideal opportunity for Pedrosa to put some serious pressure on his rival.
Lorenzo’s consistency has been the key to his domination of 2010 and it will be very interesting to see how he deals with his performance at Aragon. While it is likely that he will be back to his brilliant best this weekend the chinks that began to appear in Spain may become more apparent in Japan. The way Nicky Hayden outmuscled Lorenzo on the last lap made it clear that the double 250cc champion is now thinking solely of winning his first premier class title. To enter races with that mindset has led many riders down a dangerous path in the past and while Lorenzo is well-known for his mental fortitude he will never have felt anything like the pressure he is now under. Win or lose this weekend will tell a lot of what we can expect for the title battle.
Behind the Spaniard’s in the title chase is Australian Casey Stoner. The Ducati rider finally won his first race of the season at Aragon and will be keen to finish the season in good form. The 2007 world champion will leave Ducati for Honda at season’s end and he has stated that winning more races would be the perfect send off for the team that delivered his only title.
While Stoner ended his victory drought Valentino Rossi’s barren streak is now moving onto historic proportions. Not since his rookie season in the class has the Italian struggled for eight races without a win. His injuries should see that run extended once more. Rossi continues to struggle with his shoulder woes and while he has said he will have surgery, possibly after the Philip Island race, it is clear that his performance is being hampered and while it is admirable to see him continue racing it is also clear that the time is nearing for him to begin concentrating on 2011. The nine times world champion though continues to look forward to the challenge of the next month, ““I have some great memories from Motegi, especially winning the Championship in 2008, but I am expecting this weekend to be quite difficult on my body,” said Rossi. “We have a hard three weeks ahead but after this race two of my best tracks are coming up, and I am hoping for some good results. We will do our best and see what happens!”
While Stoner and Rossi lead the fight to finish third in the title chase they will face stiff competition from Andrea Dovizioso and Ben Spies during the remaining races. Spies has been electric in his first season in MotoGP and while Motegi is a new track for the American to learn he has shown no issues in the past at quickly coming up to speed. Spies, riding for Yamaha, has finished on the podium twice this season and if he is to challenge his more experienced rivals for third in the championship it is crucial that he finishes the season in strong fashion. The American has qualified terrifically lately but will know that his race performances have left some room for improvement.
After Lorenzo’s dominant start to the season it seemed wildly optimistic to even hope that with five races to go that there would still be a battle for the title and while it is far from a titanic struggle at the top the pressure that Pedrosa continues to exert has to be having an effect on Lorenzo’s performances. If the Honda rider can continue to outperform his compatriot the mid-season optimism could well be rewarded.
In Moto2 Toni Elias has been the dominant force of the new class. The Gresini rider has the chance to wrap up his first world title this weekend but it is much more likely that he will need to keep the champagne on ice until Sepang. Elias’ form of late has been stunning; his fourth place finish in Aragon saw him come through the field after a poor qualifying session. Elias been victorious twice at Motegi in the now defunct 250cc class and he will start as a short priced favourite once again on Sunday.
Andrea Iannone, victor last time out, will come to Japan full of confidence. Last year the Italian won the 125cc race and his form this season has seen him become one of the hottest properties in the paddock. The speed of Iannone is most evident when he gets out in front; each of 2010 victories have come by a healthy margin. While he can still technically win the title Iannone will be focusing his attention on Julian Simon.
Simon, riding for Aspar, has continued to impress throughout the season. It took the reigning 125cc champion time to get used to the new class, an early season chassis change did not help either, but his form has been impressive lately and he will be keen to continue his run of three consecutive podiums. Simon is still searching for his first win of the season but his recent run of good form should correct that before the end of the season.
While Elias, Iannone and Simon will look to continue their strong form riders such as Yuki Takahashi are looking to show that they can be competitive next season. The Japanese rider started the season as a title favourite but has only shown glimpse of his talent. His sole victory, in Cataluña, showed that he can still perform at the highest level but this weekend could be an acid test for his chances next season. Takahashi made his Grand Prix debut at Motegi, qualifying seventh, and came to prominence as a wild card 250cc rider the next season as he battled with Marco Melandri and Toni Elias for the win before finishing in third. The Tech 3 rider knows that his knowledge of the circuit could be crucial in this ultra competitive class; he could well be a rider to look out for throughout the weekend.
The 125cc class features a superb title fight between three riders with Marc Marquez, Nico Terol and Pol Espargaro all battling for their first title. After Aragon Terol leads Marquez by just six points with Espargaro a further five points adrift. Espargaro will come to Japan exceptionally confident following his victory in Aragon, he out duelled Terol on the final lap. The manner of his defeat is sure to have deflated Terol slightly but the Aspar Aprilia rider has shown terrific mental resolve to maintain his title fight after missing races due to a back injury.
Marquez faces the greatest challenge of the trio. After crashing out at Aragon on the first lap the young Spaniard will need to dust himself off and get ready for another strong showing this weekend. It seems amazing now but at the start of the season Marquez had yet to win a race, the poise he showed during his mid-season run of victories was almost Rossi-esque and the Derbi rider will need to channel those performances once more if he is to regain his title lead.