The 2018 MotoGP World Championship chase came to a screeching, grinding halt today in a Japanese gravel trap on Lap 23 of the Motul Grand Prix of Japan. It fell to earth in the person of Italian Andrea Dovizioso who, chasing Marc Marquez for the lead, lost the front in Turn 10. Everyone know there was going to be no stopping Marquez this year. Still, the moment the title is decided, weeks too early, is just a big ol’ bummer. But there it is.

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Marc Marquez celebrates winning his fifth MotoGP title (in just six seasons) and seventh overall world championship including his Moto2 and 125GP titles.

Practice and Qualifying

The top five on the timesheets for FP1 and FP3 were sufficiently similar to suggest who might expect podium treatment on Sunday. FP1 was topped by Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, Johann Zarco, Marquez and Maverick Viñales. FP3 included Dovizioso, Crutchlow, Zarco, Marquez and Rossi. FP2 was wet enough to keep a number of riders in their garages, so, once again, it came down to FP3 to separate the Q1 goats from the Q2 lambs. Eight of the top ten riders in the world championship went directly to Q2, the lone exceptions being Danilo Petrucci, having a miserable weekend on the Ducati GP19, and Jorge Lorenzo, who declared himself out of Sunday’s race due to a wrist injury suffered in Thailand. This allowed Dani Pedrosa and Jack Miller to sneak directly into Q2.

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Andrea Dovizioso knew he was the only one who could stand in the way of Marc Marquez securing the title this weekend. Dovi got off to a strong start, leading the first practice session and securing pole position.

In a fun Q1, Alvaro Bautista (Angel Nieto Ducati) and Taka Nakagami (LCR Honda) teamed up to punk KTM’s Brit Bradley Smith, both laying down fast laps very late in the session to deny Smith the glory of passing into Q2. Once there, unfortunately, they did very little, ending up sharing row four with Pedrosa.

As has become the custom, Q2 got trés busy late in the session. For a while, it appeared Crutchlow and Marquez would sit 1 and 2, Honda executives praying to any number of gods for deliverance from Gigi Dall’Igna. Alas, their prayers went unanswered, as Miller threw his Ducati GP17 across the line into second before he crashed out at Turn 5. As the session closed, Dovizioso hammered his way onto pole, and the prodigal Frenchman, Zarco, blew past Miller into second place, leaving the factory Hondas and Yamahas off the front row for, like, the first time since The Berlin Wall came down.

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Andrea Dovizioso was joined on the front row by Johann Zarco and Jack Miller. That means two Ducatis and a satellite Honda lined up on the first row, leaving no Japanese factory machine starting from the front in Motegi.

With conditions on Saturday pretty good, Dovi put in a pole lap of 1:44.590. This compares to 2015, when the top six qualifiers beat his time using Bridgestone tires. Lorenzo’s brilliant pole lap that day, 1:43.790, is a full eight-tenths faster than Dovizioso’s on Saturday. Track record intact; season record now stands at 8 for 13 as I continue to seek support for my prediction that track records “would fall like dominos” in 2018. From this perspective, Motegi appears to be an outlier. Oh, and let’s not forget Lorenzo’s unique ability to qualify Yamahas on the front row. On Bridgestones.

If Marc Marquez intended to win the title on Sunday, as his gold helmet clearly suggested, he would have his work cut out for him, starting from sixth place against Dovi’s pole. The first lap could easily tell the story.

The Japanese Grand Prix – 2018 in Microcosm

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Andrea Dovizioso got off to the strong start he needed but Marc Marquez was not far behind.

If you’ve followed the 2018 season, you will have a pretty good understanding of how today’s race unfolded. Aside from  Miller, who started third, veered into Johann Zarco’s path at the start, and stayed with the leaders until Lap 5, it was Dovizioso and Marquez from the very start. Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi occupied third and fourth, with Miller in 5th being stalked by both of the Suzukis, Álex Rins and Andrea Iannone. By mid-race, Dovi and Marquez had put some space between themselves and their chasers. Keeping the pace relatively slow, they allowed a few lower tranche riders – Rossi, Rins and Iannone – to enjoy visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. For a while.

Finally, at Turn 9 on Lap 21, Marquez went through on Dovizioso and made it stick. Dovi, season on the line, chased the Spaniard desperately for two laps before losing the front in Turn 10 of Lap 23 and sliding off. He would re-enter the race and end his day in 18th position, out of the money, reduced to looking forward to 2019.

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Marc Marquez’s patience bore out as he eventually passed Andrea Dovizioso on Lap 21. This forced Dovizioso to be more aggressive, but made a mistake on Lap 23.

The more astute readers out there will realize about now that today’s race was, in fact, nothing like the 2018 season in microcosm. I happened to be reaching for a section header. It won’t happen again.

Dovi’s crash out of second place improved life for Crutchlow, who ended up second, and Rins on the Suzuki, who found himself on the podium for the first time since Assen after having started eighth. Rossi finished a kind of limp fourth, while Yamaha teammate Viñales could do no better than seventh. The fear amongst Yamaha bigwigs that Buriram (a third and a fourth) was a fluke has now been confirmed.

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It took just two laps for Jorge Lorenzo to confirm his fractured wrist would not be strong enough to race. Marc Marquez likely would have won the title eventually anyway, but one wonders how the Motegi race would have gone had Andrea Dovizioso had his Ducati teammate with him.

With top chasers Dovizioso and Rossi off the podium today, a measure of Marquez’ dominance this year was to be found on the podium itself. If one were to take Crutchlow’s point total for the year (148) and add it to Rins’ (118), it would still fall short of Marquez and his 296.

Clearly, my prediction that Marquez would end 2018 with fewer than 298 points was worthless. At least he won’t be able to top Rossi’s 2009 total of 373. That would have been awful.

Big Picture

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With his second-place finish, Cal Crutchlow leapfrogged the injured Jorge Lorenzo for fifth in the standings.

Most sports leagues set up their season so that there are a few exhibition matches early on, with tension building up to the last game of the season, the one deciding the championship. MotoGP, due to the nature of the game in The Marquez Era, holds the climactic race in, like, Week 16 or 17, then plays a couple exhibition matches to close out the year. By which time most of the owners have jumped on their yachts and sailed off for Barbados.

This is a pity for the fans attending the races in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia. There will continue to be the little “races within the race” that light up so many true believers. There will be, one expects, continuing efforts to set new track records at the remaining venues. For all involved, it’s kind of like macular degeneration. The big picture shrinks; the importance of team and individual accomplishments is elevated the moment the title moves out of reach. From then on, it’s pretty much down to Beat Your Teammate. Once the trophy has been won, most of the competitive air leaves the balloon.

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Despite Yamaha’s struggles, Valentino Rossi sits third in the standings, with Maverick Viñales in fourth. One storyline still to be determined over the final three rounds is whether Yamaha will be held winless on the season.

When I was new to MotoGP I didn’t clearly understand what people meant when, at this point in the season, they would say, “Man, I can’t wait for the Valencia test.” I now know fully what this means. Between now and then I plan to post nothing but Monty Python and Peter Sellers videos.

Tranches

After Buriram

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Rossi, Lorenzo, Petrucci, Crutchlow, Rins, Pedrosa
Tranche 3: Zarco, Viñales, A. Espargaro, Miller, Iannone, Bautista
Tranche 4: Morbidelli, P. Espargaro, Smith, Nakagami,
Tranche 5: Redding, Abraham, Luthi, Syahrin and Simeon

After Motegi

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Rossi, Viñales, Crutchlow, Zarco, Rins, Bautista
Tranche 3: Petrucci, Morbidelli, Pedrosa, Iannone, Lorenzo, Miller
Tranche 4: P. Espargaro, Smith, Nakagami, A. Espargaro, Syahrin
Tranche 5: Redding, Abraham, Luthi, and Simeon

Head Down, Keep Rowing

Next week in Australia, perhaps the most scenic venue on the calendar. The winds on the southern side of Australia can be fearsome, with cold temps, gray skies and seagulls. We will bring you a preview on Wednesday or thereabouts.

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Marc Marquez joins Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi and Giacomo Agostini as the only riders to win at least five premier class titles.