MotoGP: 2009 Motegi Preview

You couldn't find a PS3 in Japan? Really?

Our MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen is back to preview the second round of the 2009 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the Grand Prix of Japan.

Has it only been two weeks since Qatar?

The motorcycle racing media has been desperately trying to fill the time since the season opener, and the results have been, well, mixed. Of course, when I say “mixed”, I mean “bad.” Lots of guys getting quoted talking about:

- how great it is to have finished, like, tenth;
- how they hope to do better at Motegi;
- how they’re learning more about their bike every week, without scoring any points;
- how the Losail experience will help them in Japan – not at all, and
- how it’s very early in the season, and they’re not really officially doomed – yet.

Check out these pearls. (In fairness, it should be noted that most of the riders are providing the media with comments in their second language.)

Casey Stoner was quoted as saying: “We have been pretty happy with the way our bike is working this year…” Running away from the world at Qatar made you guys happy? Blowing away the field at the Jerez testing didn’t upset you? Wow. How about a little understatement next time?

Casey Stoner says he was pretty happy with how the carbon fiber Desmosedici GP9 has performed so far.Dani Pedrosa went way out on a limb in front of the MotoGP microphones, saying “This is a track where I normally go quite well and I will try to go as fast as I can.” Are you kiddin’ me? Moments later, he stuck his neck out again with this chestnut, “Of course I would like to be on the podium again but we just have to wait and see.” Please. It’d be news if he said he didn’t want to be on the podium. Get this guy a translator and see if he can say anything interesting in Spanish!

Alex de Angelis: “Motegi is quite a technical circuit and I like it a lot.” Thank you, Alex.

Rookie Niccolo Canepa: “Anyway for what I have seen on television it doesn’t seem like a technical circuit.” Mr. Canepa, please look up Mr. de Angelis. Niccolo again: “I brought my PlayStation to learn the Motegi circuit on the MotoGP game, but unluckily my system is different compare to here and I am not able to play.” You’re in Japan, and you can’t find a PlayStation that works?

Maybe Canepa would benefit from longer practice sessions. Several websites are reporting that FIM’s Gran Prix Commission will announce prior to Motegi that practice sessions, which had been shortened from 60 minutes to 45 minutes, will be re-set to 60 minutes. Apparently they will stick with eliminating the Friday sessions, and there is speculation that they will limit the number of laps riders are allowed to complete during the sessions. With MotoGP appearing to be coming apart at the seams, it is troubling to see its governing body making hurried, poorly thought-out decisions, and then almost immediately reversing themselves.

Twin Ring Motegi Preview

Judging from the odds posted as of Thursday, April 23, the smart money figures to watch Stoner improve upon his second-place finish from last year, which was his best in three premiere-class visits to Motegi. In 2007, he finished 6th, while in 2006 he completed only 12 laps. Counting his time in the 250cc and 125cc classes, Stoner has only finished three of seven races in Japan, though two of those races were at the Suzuka Circuit. Maybe there’s something in the water.

The co-favorite, Rossi, failed to finish in 2005. In 2006, he finished in second place, five seconds behind Capirossi. Valentino Rossi led all riders in free practice at Motegi.In 2007, he finished 13th, but he won last year in the race that clinched the 2008 championship. In 2008, Pedrosa and Lorenzo finished third and fourth, and Hayden came in fifth, some 18 seconds behind Lorenzo.

The riders with perhaps more riding on this race than any of the others are Repsol’s Pedrosa and Dovizioso. Motegi is Honda’s home track, and Honda has more riders (6) than any other manufacturer in the premier division. Honda riders finished 3rd, 5th and 6th in the championship last year. During the offseason there were rumblings that Honda, along with Suzuki, might drop its sponsorship of MotoGP. And Honda will have itself a new CEO come June, one without a racing background.

From Losail to Motegi: two very different tracks

At 3.4 miles, Losail is the longest circuit on the MotoGP tour. Its sharpest turns aren’t terribly sharp by MotoGP standards, making it ideal for Ducati with its extra horsepower and great speed in the straights. One of the main reasons Casey Stoner has done so well at Losail over the past three years is the layout itself. The advantages that Valentino Rossi enjoys in handling, braking and cornering are largely negated in Qatar.

Originally a Honda test circuit, the Twin Ring Motegi features a road course and an oval course. MotoGP races on the 3-mile long road course which feature several turns that are sharper than anything at Losail, creating some stop-and-go racing. In 2008, four riders were competitive there, with Rossi edging out Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo in that order. Slightly more than six seconds separated the first four riders.

With Pedrosa running hurt, and Dovizioso not yet showing the impressive form he displayed during his rookie year, the pressure is on HRC. The pressure will only get worse if and when Hayden, who was flamed most of last year by Pedrosa, heals from his latest injuries and begins taming the Desmosedici’s carbon fiber frame. Honda’s poor showing in Qatar makes earning a spot on the podium at Motegi a necessity. The suits in Tokyo don’t need the “underachiever” tag splashed across their brand.

Do the Oddsmakers Have This One Right?

I’m not so sure. Motegi is a series of hairpin turns connecting a series of drag strips. Acceleration, braking and fuel conservation are the keys to winning in Japan.

Loris Capirossi, looking for redemption after a disappointing race in Qatar, was sixth in practice, just ahead of Andrea Dovizioso.
Colin Edwards does his best Bruce Allen impersonation, lounging comfortably with a beverage watching the coverage on the monitor.

Stoner should be favored, but this race will put a terrible strain on his healing wrist. Rossi doesn’t like the track, despite having won here last year. These two should be the favorites, and the bookies agree. But there have been scores of crashes at Motegi, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that either Stoner or Rossi will stand atop the podium on Sunday. Rossi set the fastest lap in the Friday free practice. Sure, it’s only practice, but it did put an end to Stoner’s run on top of the timesheets.

I think the factory Honda riders will move heaven and earth to secure a place on the podium. Dovizioso, especially, seems well-suited to this race, and has had several wins here. Lorenzo hasn’t had a serious crash since Laguna Seca, and some might say he’s overdue. My dark horses for a spot on the podium are Chris Vermeulen and Colin Edwards. A number of touts think Capirossi will do well here, while several suspect he may be over the hill. His last two victories did occur at Motegi, so there may be something there. We’ll find out more about him on Sunday.

Whether it’s Rossi, Lorenzo, Edwards, or Dovizioso – SOMEBODY needs to get out to a good start and challenge Stoner early. Otherwise, we may be watching the young Australian on his way to becoming the Tiger Woods of MotoGP. Tiger has been great for the PGA and for golf in general. But for MotoGP, with sponsors leaking oil, teammates building walls in the garages, criticism of “processions”, and track issues (Hungary bailing, Donington Park embroiled in a serious lawsuit), the last thing it needs is one guy dominating the championship. Even if that one guy is Casey Stoner.

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