Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) said in Thursday’s pre-event Press Conference that he had a fairly single-minded mission this weekend: force key rival Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) to wait that little bit longer to celebrate his seventh crown. After going fastest on Day 1 at the Motul Grand Prix of Japan it’s therefore so far so good for the Italian, with ‘DesmoDovi’ just over a tenth clear in a dry FP1 and wet weather then putting paid to any improvements. But what of Marquez? It was far from a difficult start for the reigning Champion but the number 93 began Honda’s home Grand Prix in P4 overall.
The man Dovizioso beat to P1 was instead Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) as the Brit proved fastest Honda on Friday, taking second place and the honour of top Independent Team rider. That was a close battle however, with Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) just a fraction further back to complete the top three and end Day 1 as fastest Yamaha – making it three different machines and three men split by just 0.125 at the top, with Marquez lurking only a further 0.015 in arrears.
Meanwhile in P5, Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) wasn’t so far off either – and the showing was a good one for the Iwata marque after some struggles of late. Their much improved pace at Buriram appears to have brought some positives to Motegi too, with the Spaniard moving up late on to complete the top five and teammate Valentino Rossi likewise within that all-important top ten on Friday. Nine-time World Champion Rossi was ninth overall and says he reserves a little more judgment on the all-out optimism of his teammate but it was a good start to the race weekend that sees Yamaha on home turf in Japan and yet also in the enemy territory of Honda…
Rossi was in a second, close group in the latter half of the top ten that was headed by Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Andrea Iannone. The Italian took P6 overall to please the Hamamatsu factory, although teammate Alex Rins had a tougher day down in P19. Their test rider, wildcard and 2014 WorldSBK Champion Sylvain Guintoli, was P21 but he made more headlines with his continued work towards the 2019 bike.
Alvaro Bautista (Angel Nieto Team) followed up his win in the minibike event on Thursday with seventh on Friday, just ahead of fellow Independent Team Ducati rider Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Racing) as the Aussie edged ahead of Rossi. Behind the rider from Tavullia it was Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) who completed the top ten, and teammate Scott Redding took an impressive P12. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu), meanwhile, was the fastest rookie fresh from a renewed contract for 2019 and he took P13, ahead of a Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) of much-improved fitness and an ever-impressive P15 from Yamalube Yamaha Factory Racing wildcard veteran Katsuyuki Nakasuga.
So who’s missing? One key name is Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team), who withdrew from the event following just one exit in FP1. The former Motegi winner was in too much pain from his injuries sustained at Buriram in that FP2 crash. Another missing from the top echelons was fellow Japanese GP ace Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team), who missed out on the top ten and was P11, but the ‘Little Samurai’ did top the wet FP2 session. Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Racing) is likewise a rider who had a tougher start to the weekend, and surely one of those to watch on Saturday.
That’s it from a half-dry, half-wet Twin Ring Motegi on Friday – tune back in on Saturday morning for more practice and then for qualifying from 14:10 (GMT +9). Then we’ll have the grid for the Motul Grand Prix of Japan with the Championship on the line – and anything can and will happen.
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