Last time out Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) won the race and Championship, and the celebrations have doubtless been continuing for the now eight-time World Champion since the paddock packed up and left Buriram. But despite that title fight being over, the season is far from it and the first of the four remaining races of the year sees us head for the hard-braking home race for so many manufacturers in the paddock – with plenty of pride on the line.
For Marquez, it’s a chance to race without his mind set quite so much on the maths – and he’ll also surely be chasing pole as Motegi is the last venue on the calendar at which he’s never achieved the feat in the premier class. He’s won though – twice in MotoGP™, once in Moto2™ and once in the 125 World Championship – so his record says it’s a surprise he’s not yet started from the front. With no Championship pressure, will he be the man to beat? Likely. But there are the team and manufacturer standings to consider, and it’s Honda’s 60th anniversary year of racing in the World Championship as well…so it won’t be quiet weekend. It will be a milestone for teammate Jorge Lorenzo too, as he celebrates 200 premier class Grands Prix.
Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), meanwhile, will be hoping to make more of a fight of it at Motegi. The venue has been a good one for the Italian and he is a man who’s been on pole before: the track was where Dovizioso took his first pole in the premier class in 2010, and he did it again in 2014 and 2018. He also won the 2017 showdown with Marquez in the rain – one of the most stunning duels of recent years, and there have been a few – and he’s been on the podium in the dry, so it makes for good reading. And there’s no home race pressure for the number 04, although the team and constructor standings add some back in. On that count, however, there could be more for teammate Danilo Petrucci, as the Italian is now fifth overall – although only a handful of points off Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) in third and one point behind Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP). He’ll want more from Motegi and the final four rounds overall.
That tight fight will certainly be one to keep an eye on. Rins will be pushing to the max to try and get the most from the home weekend for Hamamatsu factory Suzuki, as will rookie teammate Joan Mir, but Viñales is closing fast on third overall – so gaining back some consistency is also key for Rins. Suzuki will also have another machine on track too in Japan in the form of a wildcard for test rider Sylvain Guintoli, so that could aid them in their search for more speed.
Yamaha, meanwhile, have been seriously gaining traction as the latter half of the season goes on, especially Viñales as he chases down a place in the top three overall, and limelight-stealer Fabio Quartararo’s (Petronas Yamaha SRT) shining performances speak for themselves. The French rookie is now only two points off Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) overall and could conceivably still catch Viñales for top Yamaha. More pressing, though, is Rookie of the Year – with Quartararo 85 points ahead of Mir as it stands. If he leaves Japan 75 points ahead of the Spaniard, he’s taken the first of what could be a few accolades in 2019.
The Independent Team rider standings are another key battlefield. Quartararo has now got a nice buffer back to Jack Miller (Pramac Racing) in the fight for top Independent Team rider, but Miller will be pushing and so will Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol). Crutchlow is on Honda turf and will want to bounce back after an issue in Thailand…although the pressure will likely more be on the other side of the garage and home hero Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu). What can the Japanese rider do? Rumour has it he’ll be undergoing surgery in the near future on his shoulder, but not before Motegi – so it’ll be a big push on home turf, with lots of home support.
So many narratives make up a MotoGP™ season and we may well be reading the first epilogue of the riders’ Championship but we’re far from the end of the story overall. Teams, constructors, rookies, Independent Team riders; milestones, records and more remain just around the corner in the final four rounds of the season, so tune in for the Motul Grand Prix of Japan on Sunday 20th October at 15:00 local time (GMT +9) to see another spectacular chapter. Will Marquez now turn it up to 11? Or are there a few more trophies to be taken care of first...