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12 days ago
By Matthew Birt

Marquez? Rossi? Suzuki? The land of the rising sun awaits...

MotoGP™ commentator Matthew Birt looks ahead to the Motul Grand Prix of Japan

With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.

#JapaneseGP Teaser: The code of the Samurai

An awful lot has got to go the way of Marc Marquez if he is to clinch a third MotoGP™ World Championship at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

Firstly, the Spaniard has to do something he has never managed before in three previous attempts at the track that Honda designed, constructed and owns. Marquez has never won in the premier class in Honda’s backyard and the only way he can give himself a chance to capture the 2016 title is to break that run in the forthcoming 24-lap race. Anything other than a victory for Marquez and the Cava will be on ice for at least another week when the show rolls into Phillip Island.

The best of the #AustralianGP

I’m sure Marquez would love to wrap up the title in front of the great and the good from Honda in Japan.  But I’d imagine he’d relish the prospect of winning the title in Australia, particularly when you consider the abuse and flak he took in the aftermath of last year’s Phillip Island battle. Accusations that he deliberately interfered in the outcome of last year’s epic title fight between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo started in Phillip Island. The abuse and flak hasn’t gone away and probably never will, so a title win in Phillip Island would taste so sweet for Marquez it could rot his teeth.

That said, there is nothing like the extra kudos that comes from winning a world title in the home round of your expectant employer.

Marquez has been there, done it and got the celebration T-shirt before at the Twin Ring Motegi. He won his second premier class title in 2014, but back then the situation was more clear-cut. A sensational charge to 10 wins in the first 10 races of that season meant he arrived in Japan with one hand and four fingers already on the trophy. The game was up once he finished second to Jorge Lorenzo but this year he heads to East Asia with a 52-point buffer over Rossi.

Should Marquez win this weekend then he needs Rossi to finish 15th or lower. I think there’s more chance of me pulling all the aces out of a deck of cards in one go than there is of that happening. Rossi is due to make his 344th Grand Prix start in Japan and in a remarkable career he has never once finished in 15th position.

In fact, he has only finished outside of the top 10 in 13 races and the only time he saw the chequered flag and ended outside of the points scoring places was a 16th place in Le Mans way back in 2009. That day turned into a French farce for Rossi, who suffered a crash, changed bikes three times and was also hit with a ride through penalty for speeding in pit lane. For Rossi to drag the title chase on beyond the next two races he desperately needs to return to winning ways. The Italian is now winless in the last seven and hasn’t triumphed at Twin Ring Motegi since 2008, which coincidentally was a victory that secured him a sixth premier class crown.

Highlights: Iannone takes Ducati’s first win since 2010

The only other rider apart from Rossi and Marquez to win the MotoGP™ title at the Twin Ring Motegi is Casey Stoner, when he won a historic first World Championship for Ducati in 2007. But when you look at candidates to spoil a Marquez and Honda party, Ducati doesn’t immediately leap out as an obvious choice. Since Andrea Iannone won at the Red Bull Ring in Austria to end Ducati’s six-year victory drought in MotoGP™, the Bologna factory’s form has fallen off a cliff.

Ducati’s prospects have not been aided by Iannone’s injury absence in Misano and Motorland Aragon but a Desmosedici has not come close to replicating his success since that unforgettable 1-2 in Austria. It got so ugly for Ducati in Aragon that its highest place finisher was Andrea Dovizioso in 11th place. That was the first time since the French Grand Prix way back in 2008 that the Bologna factory was not represented in the top 10.

Recent history at the Twin Ring Motegi hardly suggests Ducati is about to halt its mini-slump. Ducati hasn’t finished on the podium since Stoner’s win in 2010 and in the five races in Japan since, a Desmosedici has only finished within 25 seconds of the winner on one occasion.

While compiling some commentary notes ahead of Iannone’s expected return to action in the Far East this weekend, I wondered where he’d be in the standings had he not thrown away so many golden opportunities to score big points. He’s crashed out of five races this year and in three of those he was lying in second place. Had he got to the chequered flag in the position he jumped off in Qatar, Argentina, Le Mans, Barcelona and Silverstone, then he’d have picked up 83-points. It’s all could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, but you feel Iannone would still be in with an outside shout of the title himself had things panned out differently.

I don’t know why but I’ve got a sneaky feeling that Suzuki might play a big part in keeping the celebrations on hold for Marquez.

MotoGP Rewind: A recap of the #BritishGP

Since the post-race test at Brno, the GSX-RR seems to have made a big step forward with the controlled electronics. The bike now seems to keep rear grip for longer and extending tyre life was always a weakness that the Hamamatsu factory had trouble ironing out. In the three races since the Brno test, Maverick Vinales has qualified on the front row in all of them and he’s not finished lower than fifth. That includes Vinales grabbing Suzuki’s first win since 2007 at Silverstone. Just how far Suzuki has come in terms of improving rear grip will come under intense scrutiny at the Twin Ring Motegi.

The track is stop-and-go and demands a rock solid front-end for the brutally hard braking zones. You also need exceptional drive grip to power out of the numerous low gear and slow hairpins. If the Suzuki can maintain decent rear grip at the business end of the race then I think Vinales will be right in the mix.

There was a time when Suzuki was unbeatable at the Twin Ring Motegi. Kenny Roberts Junior won the first two races back in 1999 and 2000 in the old 500cc two-stroke days. Suzuki has fallen on harder times on home soil since those heady days and its best in the modern four-stroke era was a fifth place for John Hopkins back in 2005. They are definitely long overdue some success in front of their own fans and I wouldn’t be surprised if it came this weekend.

So, it’s off to the Land of the Rising Sun for the start of the crucial triple-header flyaway races. And if Marquez does the business and grabs his third MotoGP™ title then he’ll undoubtedly cement his position as Honda’s favourite son.