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12 days ago

The gloves are off: Moto2™ head for Motegi

Zarco and Rins only one point apart in the Championship as engines fire up for the flyaways

Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) had an incredible run mid-season in Moto2™, and the reigning Champion looked set to retain his crown after winning four of the five races after and including the Catalan GP at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The road then got bumpier, however, and fellow pre-season favourite Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) set about cutting the gap to his French rival – with that gap now standing at one single point as the paddock head east.

With Zarco struggling in Brno and Rins taking P2, the Spaniard’s comeback began and, despite a collarbone break in training ahead of the British GP, the Paginas Amarillas HP40 rider has kept gaining on the reigning Champion. With Zarco penalised at Silverstone for an incident with fellow title hopeful Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) and not scoring, Misano and MotorLand both gave Rins further chances to catch up – chances he took and made the most of, crossing the line ahead of his Moto2™ Championship rival in both cases.

The Twin Ring Motegi is the first of the grueling three-race back-to-back flyaway stint, with every point now more than crucial. With Lowes now 40 points behind, the race for the crown seems to have developed into a duel, but the mathematics don’t lie. As the pressure mounts for the top two, those on the chase have much less to lose – and everything could change once again.

Zarco has form at Motegi however, taking his first GP win at the venue in 2011 in the 125 category, and taking the win from pole position in 2015 – sealing the Moto2™ World Championship in the process. With a tough run of late, Motegi could well prove a talisman for the Frenchman as he fights to get back the dominant form that has become his trademark for much of the last season and a half in the intermediate category. In addition, a look at the stats for rival Rins make good reading for the Frenchman as he aims to find some traction and hit back.

The Twin Ring Motegi is the only venue on the calendar at which Rins has never had a rostrum finish. Fourth as a Moto3™ rookie in 2012 was followed by qualifying on pole the year after as he fought for the title – but a crash when fighting for the podium took him out of the race and dented his Championship aspirations. 2014 saw him finish in P10 in his final season in Moto3™, before an eleventh place finish in his rookie year in Moto2™. The Spaniard will be looking for more in the land of the rising sun in 2016, but as his momentum of late sees him roll in so close to the Championship lead, is sure to wipe the slate clean before FP1.

Sam Lowes is now the man free of any pressure in the Championship, and looking to throw caution to the wind on his mission to simply push from lights out to the flag. After Misano saw the Brit crash out and fail to score, MotorLand Aragon saw him bounce back as a timely reminder of his pace – and his mathematical chances at taking the title. A win in which he simply left the field in the Aragonese dust sees Lowes arrive on a high – and the Brit took a top ten at the venue in 2015, too, as he crossed the line in P8.

Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) is the man right behind Lowes in the points table, and the experienced Swiss rider has fantastic form at Motegi. On the podium in 2011 and 2013, the former 125 World Champion also took a stunning win at the track in 2014 as he took off from the middle of the front row and wasn’t seen again. Bouncing back incredibly after his tough crash in qualifying for the Czech GP, Luthi took victory in Silverstone and has been a constant challenger at the front throughout the season – something sure to continue on known, successful ground. Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) is another 2016 frontrunner who will be looking for glory in Japan – with the added incentive of racing on home turf for both him and his team. Taking his first GP win in Assen and a constant podium challenger, Nakagami is one of those in the field sure to complicate the lives of the men heading the Championship – with pace, experience and home support on his side.

Jonas Folger and Sandro Cortese (Dynavolt Intact GP) will also be ones to watch having been on the podium at the track in 2015, and Folger having already won a GP in 2016 in Brno ahead of his move to MotoGP™ in 2017. Franco Morbidelli will also be looking for another podium as he puts together an impressive and consistent challenge for the rostrum with Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS – as will his teammate Alex Marquez. Marquez took his first GP win at Motegi, like Zarco, when he took the honours in his rookie Moto3™ campaign in 2013 – a feat he repeated the following season on his way to taking the crown in the lower category. Fresh from his first Moto2™ podium at MotorLand, Marquez is looking for points, consistency and confidence – but is another rider free of the pressure that comes at the top of the title table.

One point as the three week flyaway stint arrives will surely change by the time the paddock packs up to return to Europe and the season finale in Valencia. With 75 on offer in the three back-to-back races, the pressure is on in Moto2™ for Rins and Zarco as they face down not only each other, but a field of race winners and former world champions looking to get in their way.