Jack Miller has set the pace in a Ducati Lenovo Team one-two in an extended opening practice session for the MotoGP™ field at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan. The Australian set a 1:44.509 during his late time attack run at Mobility Resort Motegi to finish FP1 0.028 seconds ahead of teammate Francesco Bagnaia, the form rider in the World Championship. However, the man who still leads the title race, Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) took third and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing), a close third in the points, earnt fourth on the opening day in Japan. Aragon GP winner Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing MotoGP™), on the other hand, was just 14th-fastest after a late crash.
Miller churns out the fast laps
With a special timetable in place for the Japanese GP, the premier class’s sole Friday practice session was an extended, 75-minute affair. While that gave teams and riders plenty of flexibility to work on race runs, the threat of rain in Saturday morning’s FP2 session, the only other running before the starting order for Q1 is set, meant that there was always going to be a big emphasis on single-lap pace. Even the appearance of the rain flag, 30 minutes in, for some very light falls was not enough to dissuade anyone, with riders coming on for fresh Michelin slicks at regular intervals.
Miller had a very brief spell at the top of the totem pole inside the first quarter-hour of the session, but it was not until his final run that he really laid down a marker. The ‘Thriller’ leaped from 17th to first with a 1:44.660 as he lapped Motegi with a brand-new soft front tyre and soft rear. Then, despite seemingly being held up by Team Suzuki Ecstar injury replacement Takuya Tsuda through the Hairpin (Turn 10), he went quicker again with the 1:44.509 which would not be beaten. Just for good measure, Miller clocked a 1:44.549 next time through which would be bettered only by Bagnaia.
One tenth covers the top four – and four hundredths cover the top three in the Championship
Even so, the margins were typically tight by the time everyone had completed their time attacks right at the end. Bagnaia looks to have booked his place in Q2 thanks to the 1:44.537 which he set in the final three minutes of FP1, and Quartararo made his place in the top 10 safe when he subsequently clocked a 1:44.558. Even Aleix Espargaro, who was only 14th with a minute to go before the chequered flag came out, finished just 0.068 seconds off the very best pace – and only 0.040 second behind Bagnaia – with a 1:44.577 which was good enough for fourth on the timesheet. Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), who has never ridden around Motegi on a MotoGP™ bike before today, rounded out the top five on a 1:44.645.
One pilot who has lots of miles around Motegi, although relatively few in MotoGP™ in recent years, is a certain Marc Marquez. At his constructors’ own track, the Repsol Honda Team rider claimed sixth with a 1:44.656 after being the initial pace-setter in the session. It was an encouraging result for the eight-time World Champion despite displaying obvious shoulder soreness when he got off his RC213V at the end of one run, in what is his second round back following surgery on his right arm. There was one mishap for MM93 though, when he got his leathers snagged on the onboard camera as a crew member wheeled his bike back into the Honda box! Teammate Pol Espargaro finished seventh on a 1:44.678.
Bastianini on the outside looking in
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing duo Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira took eighth and ninth, respectively, while Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) rounded out the top 10. Those who will be hoping weather forecasts of rain on Saturday morning don’t come true include Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) in 11th and Bastianini in 14th. Both had late crashes, Zarco at Turn 7 after Bastianini had gone down at Turn 5, and for the latter it could prove to be a big blow to the title hopes which he had breathed life back into with his win just five days ago at Aragon. Splitting them in 13th was Alex Rins, who debuted some eye-catching new aerodynamic pieces on the tail unit of his Team Suzuki Ecstar entry.
There’s just one more session before we find out for sure who is going straight into Q2 and who will be fighting to get out of Q1. Don’t miss FP2 on Saturday from 10:50 (GMT +9)!
MotoGP™ Top 10 on Friday:
1. Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) – 1:44.509
2. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) + 0.028
3. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) + 0.049
4. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) + 0.068
5. Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) + 0.136
6. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) + 0.147
7. Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) + 0.169
8. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) + 0.226
9. Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) + 0.234
10. Maverick Viñales (Aprilia Racing) + 0.288