It may have come to a premature end, but the Japanese GP threw up enough drama to last an entire MotoGP™ season as the title fight tightens even further.
In terms of pure drama, any other Grand Prix would be doing very well to produce half of what was thrown up on Sunday at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan, despite a premature end. A rain-soaked flag-to-flag race saw Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Race) make it two wins on the bounce ahead of Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) while Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) claimed his 101st MotoGP™ podium.
Conditions worsened progressively in Motegi, so much so that we saw the red flags wave after 13 laps due to rain, and despite attempts to get going again, it proved too much of a hurdle as full points were awarded, meaning the ‘The Martinator’ moves to within three points of Bagnaia atop the Championship standings.
Drama before lights out!
As anticipation was building for lights out, we had drama on the sighting lap as the rain flags were waved. Teams and riders had already been posed a tyre selection dilemma given the uncertain conditions, and on the grid we saw some tyre changes. Five minutes out, the crowd reached for their ponchos as the rain began to fall with some concerned looks on the grid directed towards the clouds above.
The rain began to fall even more but nevertheless, the race began! Martin started on pole and got the dream start to take the holeshot, while Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) also got off the line superbly. The same can’t be said for reigning World Champion Bagnaia, who missed the start and entered the Turn 1 in fourth place as Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), though the factory Ducati bit back on the exit of the second corner.
There was immediate disappointment for Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) who ended up in the gravel after contact with several riders going into Turn 1, while Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) went wide with him.
Flag-to-flag madness at Motegi
Due to the worsening conditions, pitlane was opened immediately for riders to swap bikes, something which the vast majority opted to do. Martin led them into pitlane, with Bagnaia, Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), Marquez and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) following closely behind. However, five riders opted to stay out! Fabio Quartararo (Moneter Energy Yamaha MotoGP™), Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™), Cal Crutchlow (Yamalube RS4GP Racing Team), Stefan Bradl (LCR Honda Castrol) and Michele Pirro (Ducati Lenovo Team) were the quintet of riders, and all of a sudden, Pirro led the Japanese Grand Prix.
From those who chose the change bikes, Martin led a large group out onto the track, with Espargaro, Marquez, Bagnaia and Marquez next. At Turn 10, Espargaro challenged Martin for the lead of the swapped bikes group but the Pramac rider struck back. As we went to clock off another lap, Quartararo and Crutchlow then changed machines. Pirro, Bradl and Morbidelli did not.
It was an incredibly dramatic start to the race, and it showed no signs of slowing down as Martin went wide under pressure from Espargaro, dropping to P9 before Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) picked him off. A ballsy move around Turn 6 though returned the position to the title hopeful as he went up the inside of the Gresini machine.
By the end of Lap 3, the riders on wets caught Morbidelli as Marquez tried to battle past Espargaro at Turn 11, but couldn’t keep it pinned as he slipped back behind the Aprilia. A little further back, Martin was out to make amends from his earlier error and got through on Miller at Turn 3 for sixth, lining up behind title rivals Bezzecchi and Bagnaia.
Drama, more drama, and even more drama!
Amid all of this, Michele Pirro, incredibly, still led the Grand Prix by 10 seconds, but he soon swapped bikes meaning we had a new race leader in the form of Espargaro, who had time to spare over Marquez in second. There were then further shifts in the pecking order, as Bagnaia and Martin then both picked off Bezzecchi, before the Ducatis then flew past Marc Marquez by the end of the lap to move for the podium places.
Just five laps in, and we had enough drama to last a season… and it was far from over.
A look at the timing screens showed Aleix Espargaro out front, but his lead was cut to half a second over Bagnaia, with Martin completing the provisional podium paces. Bezzecchi picked off Marquez as the Repsol Honda began sliding the wrong way, with Miguel Oliveira (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) the next to get the better of him. By this stage, we lost Brad Binder from the race as he slid out at Turn 3.
Back out front, Martin was on the march, battling past Bagnaia for second and then making light work of Espargaro for the lead, and the in form Spaniard opened up a seven tenths cushion. 1.5 seconds behind the front two, the rider sitting third in the Championship standings moved into third place at the expense of Espargaro, who seemed to lose all drive aboard his RS-GP with Oliveira and Marquez both coming through on him seconds later.
After nine laps, it looked like the race began to settle down after probably the most hectic start to a MotoGP™ race in recent memory. Martin’s lead was out to a second, with Bagnaia still holding his advantage over Bezzecchi. Oliveira was next in line, but the master of the wet in recent times couldn’t mount a podium challenge and then entered the pits to retire by the end of Lap 12.
The action was still coming thick and fast behind the leaders though, with Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) and Miller battling for seventh, and the Aussie lost out after running it wide at Turn 11, somewhat fortunate not to crash as he rejoined the chasing pack in 10th.
Red flag waved
Conditions were worsening, with bikes spraying up water from the asphalt as the pace slowed, but that couldn’t stop Marc Marquez from making moves, as the eight-time World Champion went by Bezzecchi and onto the podium on the drive into Turn 11. He then began taking chunks out of Bagnaia’s advantage, and it looked like just a matter of time before he reeled him in…. but then the red flag waved. Riders returned to pitlane, including Johann Zarco who crashed moments before the red flag and wrote off his GP23, rider ok.
With 13 of 24 laps completed, a restart would happen if conditions were to improve, but that was a big if. It seemed that conditions had cleared enough for a restart, but before they could complete the warm up lap, the red flag was waved once again, and a race result was declared. As over 50% of the race had been completed, full points were awarded.
Who took points home from Motegi?
Bezzecchi missed the podium but collected 13 points ahead of Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller in P5 and P6 respectively. Augusto Fernandez (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3) finished ahead of Fabio Di Giannantonio for seventh, while Raul Fernandez (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) and Fabio Quartararo completed the top 10. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) came home in 11th in his home Grand Prix, with Joan Mir, Cal Crutchlow, Stefan Bradl and Pol Espargaro (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3) completing the point scoring places.
Perhaps it was a muted end to what was simply a breathtaking, spectacular and simply sensational race at the Japanese Grand Prix. Jorge Martin takes another win and is now within three points of Bagnaia in the Championship chase heading to Mandalika.
We’ve got two weeks until the Pertamina Grand Prix of Indonesia gets underway, which might just be as well, because it’s going to take some time to unpack this one.
JORGE MARTIN (PRIMA PRAMAC RACING)
|2||Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team)||
|3||Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team)||
|4||Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team)||
|5||Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing)||
Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing)
Augusto Fernandez (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3)
Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™)
Raul Fernandez (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP Team)
Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™)