Rider insight: Japanese Grand Prix


Freddie Spencer looks back on the Japanese Grand Prix

What weather conditions the riders had to race in! Some of that is the area of Japan it’s in; I remember four years ago when I was there two things happened that I’ve never experienced before, in fact one of them was a first in the history of motorcycle Grand Prix racing: Friday practice was actually cancelled. It was the same weather conditions as they had this year but more overcast and the helicopter couldn’t fly, so they couldn’t run for medical and safety reasons in case there was an accident. The track is located up in the mountain regions of central Japan so it is not the easiest place to get to because of the type of roads it has.

The other thing I experienced four years ago was an earthquake on Saturday night, early Sunday morning. It was one of the tremors after the large earthquake and tsunami that year. It’s a very interesting place and you seem to get a lot of different things happen.

The other great thing about Motegi circuit is certainly the Honda collection. If you ever get the chance to visit I would certainly recommend it, even if you’re not a Honda fan­­, because they have many different bikes. It has more Hondas, of course, every generation and every bike and car that you could imagine. Their racing heritage is so well on display there, it’s an amazing place.

I’ve ridden Motegi a few times but I never raced there – it wasn’t built until the 1990s. It is very interesting because of the topography, in fact I think when it was being built it had the distinction of being the largest dirt excavation project in all of Asia. It was not easiest place to build the circuit that they wanted to, originally it was actually not just a road course but it’s part of an oval. The road course doesn’t use any part of the oval but the way it’s segregated is why it’s called Twin Ring Motegi.

It’s not a difficult race track but it’s certainly specific – it’s very stop/go. It requires very heavy braking and it’s all about acceleration, getting the bike turned and the changes of direction. This weekend the emphasis certainly was on getting the bike set up for those challenging conditions. The rain started on Friday and it looked like it was going to stay all weekend, and it did. The riders were challenged not just by having to get around the race track as fast as they possibly could, but also because there’s nothing worse than having to get on a bike and being wet and the challenge of the focus that requires.

The other thing you know riding in those conditions, especially one with that much horsepower, is that it’s very delicate and so it’s a challenge for the aggressive riders. It’s one of the unique things about Marc Márquez, he’s very good in wet conditions despite being extremely aggressive in dry conditions. He uses that aggression a little bit in the wet but he has a good feel and he’s able to adjust. He takes risks in wet and challenging conditions, certainly, but I think his biggest asset in the wet is his ability to adapt and adjust in a short amount of time. I think it’s one of the reasons why he’s so good in the flag-to-flag races, he can jump on the bike from wet tyres and when conditions are changing from wet to dry and get up to speed very quickly.

The conditions were always going to be a challenge for the riders, certainly the mental part of it. Just being able to stay focused in those conditions, you have to be way ahead of what the bike’s doing. You’re trying to go as fast as possible but not make too many mistakes, and that’s certainly the case for Valentino. He was coming into it still injured, only one race out and barely five weeks since his crash. He certainly didn’t want to take too many risks and get injured again so it was going to be a challenge for him. It was a different challenge for his right leg, support wise, to Aragon, being a right-hand circuit with a lot of right-hand corners.

From the beginning Marc was quick and that didn’t really surprise anybody. You knew that he was going to be tough to beat. The other interesting thing was seeing how Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi would get on with the struggles they’ve had in these conditions all year long. The rear grip on the 2017 Yamaha has been the problem, and they are using the 2018 chassis so that shows you how obviously they’re trying. It seems to be an improvement but if you look at the Tech 3 guys, especially Johann Zarco, they seem to be doing better with the 2016 than the 2017, so they’re certainly going to have to take a look at that as they’re getting ready for next season.

Of course, Zarco’s team-mate Folger wasn’t racing this weekend, I guess he showed up on Wednesday and he was not feeling well. He’s suffered from Epstein–Barr syndrome before, which is a virus that affects your ability, your strength and your endurance. I guess he was even having trouble getting out of bed in the hotel and going to answer the door, he was so completely exhausted. He and Hervé Poncharal made a decision on Thursday or Friday that he would go back to his home country and run some tests to see if it was that or mononucleosis, which was the other virus they suspected it may have been. They’ll find out, and that’s the main thing. You certainly can’t race at the top level without the energy that you need. Hopefully he’ll get back and get that squared away.

Going into qualifying it was going to be interesting to see if Marc had maintained the pace he showed on Friday. Marc had mentioned he expected Jorge to show strongly for the race, especially Jorge’s pacing having been good in practice and qualifying. At the beginning Valentino went out on slicks because it was the driest it had been all weekend and there were actually some drying patches. So Valentino went out on slicks but he couldn’t get within 10 seconds of those on rain tyres, so it really didn’t benefit him. In fact, by the time he put on rain tyres at the end of Q2 he qualified 12th so he didn’t get up to speed at all. It really wasn’t the best choice for him.

Marc actually did the opposite of that, he went out and did a 1min 53sec, which was a second and a half faster than anybody with about six minutes ago. Then he put on slicks, and if you were going to do it, then that was probably the way to do it. You get your time in and then you can put on the slicks in case the conditions are the same for Sunday, even though they were predicting rain. If it did dry out you’re maybe a little better prepared than everybody else because you know what the slicks feel like in damp conditions.

Marc went out and never got up to speed and so everyone else caught up. The main rider that did that was Johann, who got his second pole of the season. The Yamaha is capable of being up there but the factory guys were struggling, with Valentino 12th and Maverick 14th. He didn’t get out of Q1. Their championships hopes are looking pretty dimmed, especially with Valentino crashing in the race on Sunday and not scoring any points. Maverick struggled and was pretty much out of the game back in that part of the top 10. It looks like his championship hopes have gone by the wayside, so that leaves the two main protagonists: Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso.

It looked like Jorge was going to be up there and Marc’s prediction of Jorge being tough to beat and maybe getting his first win looked to be true. But then after three or four laps he started to fade and he had that little incident with Zarco. They came together and that really affected Jorge, he dropped back four or five positions over the next couple laps.

He was complaining about Zarco’s aggressiveness, saying that Zarco thinks that out there was like being in a video game. He’s the second rider this year to get into it with him, Zarco and Valentino had a little squabble at Austin. It’s just that Johann is aggressive, he comes from Moto2 and he gets out there with a lot of confidence, he’s strong-willed and very stubborn. That’s got a benefit if he uses it in the right way, if he hangs in there and keeps driving and doesn’t give an inch. But being stubborn can be detrimental if it affects your judgment. We’ll see at the top level how that works out for Johann.

As the race started it certainly looked that Jorge was going to be there, but he faded back and then it was just Marc and Dovi, but everybody stayed pretty close. Then with five or six laps to go it became just Dovi and Marc.

We’ve talked about Dovisiozo before this year because he’s doing such a great job. He has a mental clarity under pressure and when he needs it. His mindset off the track has improved, he believes he should be there and he’s got Marc’s number. He’s able to anticipate what Marc is going to do and he chose the perfect place to make a pass – the strong suit for him on the Ducati was at the end of the back straightaway on the downhill before right hairpin.

He was able to take advantage of the mistake that Marc made on that last lap, which was being too aggressive coming through the esses. It threw off Marc’s rhythm and Dovi was able to close down and make the pass. And then he anticipated, just like he did in Austria, where Marc was going try to make a pass in the last corner. He doesn’t fall for Marc’s aggressiveness, he uses his head and really does a great job of suckering Marc to be more aggressive than he needs to be. And that, when I was watching it take place, was my biggest concern – I was telling Marc in my mind ‘don’t fall for it, don’t be so aggressive making the pass. Just get next to Dovi.’ It’s easier said than done, I know; I’ve been sitting there watching it and willing someone to do it and I’ve been in position on the track to do it. It’s not easy to time that properly but both times it’s worked in Dovi’s favour.

It was great race and you knew Marc was going to try, which he should, because if he won the race he would have been 21 points ahead going into this weekend in Australia instead of just 11 points. It changed the reflection of the championship, so it’s going to be interesting this weekend. The weather should certainly be better than it was in Japan, the riders will love the sunshine of southern Australia.

I’m really looking forward to the Australian Grand Prix this weekend, I hope you are too.

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