2011 MotoGP Motegi Preview

Stoner leads Honda teams to Japanese Grand Prix

MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen previews the Aragon round of the 2011 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the Aragon Grand Prix.

After seven months of tragedy, uncertainty, posturing and, finally, contrition, MotoGP makes its annual visit to Japan this week. Thus begins the three-races-in-one-month Pacific swing that will officially decide the 2011 championship. Casey Stoner, having already unofficially won this year’s title, headlines an octet of Honda riders, as HRC stacks the deck in a show of support for its homeland, manufacturing base and internal combustion in general.

In a normal week, Honda fields six riders – three on the tough-as-nails Repsol factory team, two riding for Fausto Gresini’s San Carlo team, and the hapless LCR faction fronted by soon-again-to-be-ex-MotoGP pilot Toni Elias. Looking to add to the three (3) points he amassed earlier this year at Assen is fan favorite Kousuke Akiyoshi, who will join Elias wearing LCR colors. Honda pilot number eight this week is none other than Shinichi Ito, who will have his own HRC team behind him. With Loris Capirossi out of contention due to an injury suffered at Aragon, the fans’ attention will doubtless be riveted on the looming three-way battle for last place.

Honda is coming out in full force for Motegi.

Recent History

Despite their rich tradition and thirty years of racing history, Honda has only won one premier class MotoGP race at Motegi. That was in 2004, when the Japanese Grand Prix moved from its longtime home at Suzuka Circuit. Valentino Rossi had won the previous three races in Japan for Honda, but switched that year to the rival Yamaha. His successor on the factory Camel Honda team, Makoto Tamada, smoked Rossi that day at Motegi by over six seconds, to the delight of Honda fans in Japan and elsewhere.

To be fair, in 2004, this was considered a good PR stunt.

Based upon their results since 2004, Honda’s effort to load the Motegi field with eight out of 19 entries appears to be more symbol than substance. The 2009 Japanese Grand Prix produced only two Hondas in the top ten, as Jorge Lorenzo edged former teammate Valentino Rossi, trailed by Dani Pedrosa (HRC), Casey Stoner on the Ducati GP9, and Andrea Dovizioso (HRC). The third Honda to cross the line that year was LCR’s Randy de Puniet in 11th place. Four of that year’s six RC210V machines finished outside the top ten.

The 2010 tilt at Motegi was relocated from May to October due to travel difficulties brought about by the Icelandic volcano. Stoner won on the Ducati, and was joined on the podium by Dovizioso and Rossi. Hondas accounted for only two of the top eight finishers. (Also relocated last year was Dani Pedrosa’s collarbone, in a brutal practice crash in which his throttle stuck open.)

Casey Stoner was victorious at Motegi last year with Ducati. Honda hopes he'll change the manufacturer's luck at its home race this year.

It’s somewhat surprising that the Hondas haven’t performed better at Motegi, given the stop-and-go layout of the track. With their silky new gearbox, it’s easy to envision four RC212Vs in the top six, although none of them will manned by guys named Akiyoshi or Shinichi Ito.

The Big Picture

Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo will race with Yamaha's 50th anniversary livery at Motegi.

Simple. Unless Casey Stoner has a sudden, complete mental Mardi Gras and crashes out of the race, he will claim the 2011 title at his Philip Island home next week. End of conversation. Once Stoner clinches, we’ll be reduced to wagering on Pedrosa overtaking Dovizioso for third place, whether Ben Spies can deny Rossi fifth position, and if “Sideshow Bob” Simoncelli can wrest seventh place from Nicky Hayden. From here, I’d say all three are good possibilities.

Permutations and Combinations at Monster Tech 3 Yamaha

With Colin Edwards moving “ahead” to the Forward Racing CRT team next season, there’s plenty to ponder at his satellite Yamaha team. Cal Crutchlow, who has enjoyed a respectable rookie season on the M1, is signed through 2012. Candidates to join him next season, according to published reports, include Andrea Dovizioso, World Superbike rider Eugene Laverty, Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista and the fading Stephan Bradl from Moto2. The team recently announced that Brit Bradley Smith will be promoted from their Moto2 team in 2013.

Cal Crutchlow is still waiting to learn who his teammate will be next year.

While it’s reasonable to suppose that Laverty or Bradl might sign a one year contract, such is far less likely for either Dovi or Bautista, both of whom are firmly established and would be coming from factory teams. If either of them joined Herve Poncharal on a two year deal, it would mean big trouble for Crutchlow, who would seemingly become the odd man out with Smith waiting in the wings. I can’t remember an instance where a rider was forced to endure lame duck status for an entire season, but such would likely be Crutchlow’s fate if either Dovizioso or Bautista joins up with him for next season. As your homeys say, Cal, that would be some “hard cheese.”

Simoncelli Signs One Year Deal with Gresini

To the surprise of virtually no one, Gresini re-signed the brash young Italian for 2012. What is surprising is the fact that a) it is only a one year deal, and b) they were able to secure a factory ride. Honda was pretty specific earlier this year when they announced they would only sponsor two Repsol factory bikes, with Dovizioso the odd man out. Now, the third place Dovi must sit and watch his rival Simoncelli, sitting in eighth position, prattle on about his love for Honda, his commitment to Gresini, blah blah blah.

It could be worse. Dovi could be Hiro Aoyama, who can’t have missed Fausto’s repeatedly pronounced intention to field an all-Italian team in 2012. Wow. Paging Andrea Iannone.

This Just In

Motorcycle.com has obtained an exclusive transcript of the interview between Pramac Racing Technical Director Fabiano Sterlacchini and Damian Cudlin that resulted in Cudlin, a relative unknown, joining Randy de Puniet on the Pramac team for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. This is a case in point as to how difficult it must be for the satellite Ducati teams to find riders. Here’s the interview.
FS: “Name?”
DC: “Cudlin, sir. Damian Cudlin.”
FS: “Age?”
DC: “26, sir.”
FS: “You kind of resemble Nicky Hayden.”
DC: “Thank you, sir.”
FS: “Know how to ride a motorcycle?”
DC: “Yes, sir. Since I was a boy.”
FS: “Ever been on a Ducati GP12?”
DC: “No. Sir.”
FS: “Ever been to Motegi, over there in Japan?”
DC: “No. Sir.”
FS: “Any good at recognizing life-threatening situations?”
DC: “Not really, sir.”
FS: (Pause) “OK, you’re hired. Have the boys make you up some leathers, choose yourself a number, and be in Japan by Thursday. Got it?”
DC: “Got it, sir. Thank you sir. You won’t regret it.”
FS: “We’ll see about that. Just try to beat those two Honda test riders, will ya?”

Your Weekly Forecast

The weather in east central Japan this weekend looks to be a crew chief’s nightmare. Friday is expected to be sunny and warm, but conditions on both Saturday and Sunday are looking cool and wet. True, this is basically the same forecast we had for Aragon, and that one turned out alright.

After much worrying over radiation risks, Twin Ring Motegi welcomes the MotoGP World Championship.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Pedrosa and Dovizioso, as the Italian must be right on the brink, with Pedrosa similarly frustrated by three consecutive second place finishes. I expect a good showing from Ben Spies, who wants to keep Rossi out of fifth place. And, I’m hoping for a Simoncelli-Hayden matchup, although the American has a dismal history at Motegi – on the Dismalsedici.

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