The MotoGP website is somewhat predictably promoting this week’s tilt between Movistar Yamaha tough guys Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi as “The Clash of the Titans.” Which, to an on-the-street local racing fan here, would naturally bring to mind Godzilla. If, in fact, the Motul Grand Prix of Japan gives us a replay of Mothra vs. Godzilla, I assume the indomitable lizard triumphs, suggesting that Rossi will play the role of Mothra. It is easy to envision Lorenzo on the top step this weekend, surrounded by Honda pilots, Rossi’s margin at the top of the 2015 heap vanishing in the haze.
This is the way racing is supposed to be. It’s a relationship thing, really. Rossi and Lorenzo have known each other as friends and rivals for a decade. Together, they gave their present employer Yamaha the 2015 Manufacturer’s championship. They have a bazillion world championships between them, and Rossi’s current 14-point advantage. Lorenzo’s, um, demeanor when he came up as a rookie in 2008 was such that they built a wall down the middle of the garage and had to be kept separated. Since then, each has mellowed, Lorenzo has matured, and Rossi, somehow, remains humble, irrepressible and fast. Beating one another is one of their great pleasures in life.
It doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re a Honda fan, you can still have a good time. You’ll just have to wait for next year to have a rider in contention for a world championship. This is The Year of the Yamaha.
Recent History at Motegi
Heading into the 2012 race, Yamaha Chico de Oro Lorenzo led Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa by 33 points, with Casey Stoner in third recovering from the ankle he trashed in Indianapolis. That day, Pedrosa beat Lorenzo and Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista (?) comfortably in as empty a win as you’ll ever see. During the race, Stoner had issues, as did Rossi, plodding on his Ducati. Ben Spies crashed off the factory Yamaha early, Crutchlow went off his Tech 3 Yamaha late. Pedrosa, with all the momentum, left Japan trailing the rock-hard Mallorcan by 28 points with two rounds left, the fat lady singing in the background.
The 2013 race was summarized elegantly by this publication, as follows:
Sick of all the attention the racing gods were getting in the run-up to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, the weather gods put on a show of their own. They sent Typhoon Lekima barreling toward the island on Thursday, summoned a 7.1 earthquake on Friday night, and topped it all off with Typhoon Francisco on Saturday, making a shambles of the weekend practice schedule. Undeterred by the weather, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo ran a perfect race on Sunday, winning against all odds, and setting up a meaningful season finale against [Marc] Marquez in Valenciana. Take THAT, weather gods!
Last year it was All Aliens, All the Time as Lorenzo led a pack of highly-paid pursuers to the finish line, with Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa all following on their factory machines, the time between 1st and 4th a mere 3.1 seconds. Though Andrea Doviozioso took the pole, the four Aliens were grouped from the 2 to 5 holes. Marquez, leading the series, conceded first place to Lorenzo and clinched the title. The race featured contact between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which arguably cost the Catalan the race. The Samurai ceremony afterwards was cool if somewhat ironic, in that a number of fans might have been offended while most western observers were clearly stoked.
Comings and Goings
The team lineups are beginning to shape up for 2016, the year of the “spec” ECU and Michelins. The four top factory teams will remain the same. A supposedly revived Gresini Aprilia team will feature MotoGP underachievers Bautista and Stefan Bradl. Brit Sam Lowes reportedly has a contract with Aprilia for 2017-18, meaning one of the two vets will have to go. My take on this is that Fausto has barely tolerated Bautista all these years since Simoncelli, and that Bradl hadn’t had enough time to get under his skin yet but surely will. Big changes will be underway for the Gresini team this offseason.
The Monster Tech 3 team is to stand pat with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith as expectations there continue to rise. Pramac Ducati gives Yonny Hernandez’s seat to Scott Redding, who needs all the grunt the Desmosedici can muster, to team with the ascendant Danilo Petrucci. (I’m not sold on Redding in the premier class yet, but am totally sold on Gigi Dall’Igna.) LCR Honda continues with the disappointing Cal Crutchlow, and Marc VDS signs Tito Rabat to a factory Honda, coming up from Moto2 to take Redding’s seat. The Most Blessed Jack Miller, the Anointed One, has a full ride with factory Honda and will land either on LCR or VDS.
Team Aspar, seriously negotiating a change from Honda to Ducati equipment for 2016, has signed Hernandez. Their second seat appears up for grabs, with incumbent Eugene Laverty enjoying no advantage going in. Deposed incumbent Nicky Hayden appears surely to be headed to World Superbike, where he can expect to contend for titles again.
Avintia Racing stays with Ducati, Hector Barbera and the recently-signed Loris Baz aboard. The French Baz appears to have a surprisingly bright future at 6’3”, making the jet setters look like teenagers while whipping his cobbled-up Yamaha toward the top of the heap for open class riders.
Farther down the food chain, two of the remaining three teams looks to be out of business next season. Most likely to continue with Alex de Angelis is brave little Ioda Racing, hoping to field a two-man satellite Aprilia team, rider #2 as yet un-named. Forward Racing seems doomed, and Karel Abraham’s future with his dad’s Cardion AB team is in doubt as he seems to have permanent damage from a foot injury he suffered last season. Dude needs to retire.
All of which suggests that KTM, upon their entry to the grid in 2017, may bump a team out of the chase, in addition to skimming a couple of up-and-coming riders, perhaps on their way up from Moto2. The chase is intended to be more competitive due to the standard ECU, which writers elsewhere have described as something of a target-rich environment for tampering behaviors similar to those admitted to recently by Volkswagen. Regardless, MotoGP continues, at its core, to be rather biblical, as you will always have the poor with you, the “privateer” teams that struggle every season but can’t pull themselves away easily. Those of you who have stood or rode on the tarmac understand the juice that drives these behaviors. I should be nicer to these guys.
The Thing is…
Everybody tells me the tires are everything. Whomever adjusts to the new Michelins most quickly will take the lead in the championship next year. It is probably going to be the worst year in MotoGP history to bet on the outcome. Though it could easily last only for a season, or even part of a season, there could easily be a shakeup in the Aliens lineup come 2016 as the older riders becoming most vulnerable. Suppose Rossi decides to go out on top. Suppose Yamaha begins flirting with Marquez.
It promises, at the least, to be interesting.
Your Weekend Forecast…
…couldn’t be worse for most teams. Sunny on Friday and Saturday with a 90% chance of rain on Sunday. I was going to suggest people “plan to listen to the Spanish national anthem after the race, not the Italian.” But if it is a wet race, all bets are off on the outcome, with Rossi clearly holding the upper hand. Once again the weather gods appear poised to influence the standings.
Mothra may be feeling pretty good about the rematch.