After Sumo on Wednesday and the now-classic minibike race at the Twin Ring Motegi on Thursday morning (SCROLL DOWN!), it was time for talk to get back down to business for the pre-event Press Conference. Reigning Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) – who faces his first chance at the 2018 crown this weekend – was joined by 2017 Japanese GP winner Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) and home hero Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) to discuss the upcoming Japanese GP and get in gear.
Marquez was first to speak, looking back at recent successes before looking forward to the weekend. “The victories in Aragon and Thailand were important because in this second half of the season Ducati are very, very fast, so it was important and with these wins we were able to increase the advantage. We’re closer to our final goal! Here we have our first match point but the target is the same as every other weekend, start well in FP1 and try and be ready to fight for the victory. After Warm Up we’ll see whether we can fight – let’s not forget these guys are very strong in Motegi, so no stress and no panic.”
No stress, no panic – just like the stunning duel in the rain last season? The Spaniard says he remembers it well: “Those kinds of battles are in my mind like they happened yesterday! It was nice but a difficult race with a lot of water but a great battle. He beat me on the back straight and braked later, he was already in front and I tried at the last corner but it was too much. He made a great move in that race but this year on Sunday it looks like it will be dry, and it could be different…”
It could be very different and, as Marquez says, the forecast certainly is different for race day. But on Friday? It could well rain. Dovizioso debriefed Thailand a little – where he lost out to Marquez by thousandths – before talking about what he thinks are very good chances in the Japanese GP.
“After the race it’s easy to think about doing things different or better,” smiles the Italian. “I think the strategy was good until the last lap when he made that special overtake at Turn 5, I answered immediately and maybe it wasn’t the best choice but I was always leading in the race. I couldn’t prepare the last braking point perfectly and I went a bit wide but it’s ok, the race went ok and the weekend was a very good one for us because we started quite far away like in the test but practice by practice we got very competitive and fought for the victory. We have to be happy about that and now here in Japan it’s a good track for us but let’s see the weather, tomorrow it could be wet.”
So does the Italian have any specific goals for the weekend? “Let’s try and win the race and make Marc have to wait for the celebrations!” And the approach, says the Italian, will be the same: “I think, unfortunately, I’ve been racing not thinking about the Championship for a long time because the gap is so big. Here is just another race and we want to win, come back to victory and it could be a good track for us.”
Next up was Maverick Viñales, who was back on the podium in Thailand to mark Yamaha’s first rostrum since the German GP – and teammate Valentino Rossi took P4 in a much-improved showing from the Iwata marque. Just in time for their home GP? The Spaniard is feeling positive: “Thailand was good, I think for me the biggest change was the balance of the bike more than the tyres so I’m confident we can be strong here. It will be important in front of the Yamaha fans and the president, so I’m really motivated.”
There was something else that came to light during the two weekends, however, that was a little less racing related – Viñales made a big donated to a man from close to his home town in order to help him with his recovery from cancer: “Normally I try to always help but keep it quieter, and try and be altruistic. But I saw it on Instagram, He lives close to my hometown and I wanted to help. We have the money to help so I wanted to, but now we’re focusing on the weekend and I want to push for the top.”
Alex Rins was the next rider to take the mic, and he’ll also be pushing for the top. The Suzuki rider has been on a good run of form and now, at the Hamamatsu factory’s home race, he’s hoping to keep that rolling. “I think this is a nice track, last year we finished in the top positions so we arrive with a lot of confidence after doing a good job in the last races. But we need to push from the beginning and we need to improve qualifying to start further forward.”
There will be more Suzuki machinery lining up than the normal contingent, too – with test rider Sylvain Guintoli, 2014 WorldSBK Champion, putting in a wildcard appearance. “For sure we have more to come,” says Rins of development when quizzed on that. “Sylvain is now testing the bike for next year so we need to see what he’s trying. They’re working a lot but no, there’s nothing for these next few races.”
From a sophomore to a veteran, Dani Pedrosa spoke next. The Spaniard has three premier class wins at Motegi and was back at the sharp end in Thailand only to suffer a crash in the race. He, like Rins, wants to qualify a little better to push from the off.
“In the last race the feeling was better, from practice I would say the problem was the start of the race and the laps at the beginning weren’t good,” says Pedrosa. “But I was getting stronger and stronger and catching the front group. The feeling was better but I want to improve qualifying so we can start further forward and try and have a better start.”
With only four races remaining before retirement, Motegi would be a great place for another top result for the much-honoured number 26. And he’s already paid a few visits in Japan ahead of Honda’s home race weekend: “We’ve already been two places with Honda, the office and a factory and you can see so much support from the Japanese people, it’s a special race and it’s always a great welcome. I’ve had a 50/50 record here with sometimes very good races and sometimes not. But I hope we can have a good weekend and try and take some energy from the people here.”
Energy from the people? That’s definitely one for home favourite Takaaki Nakagami as the rookie prepares to ride in front of his home crowd for the first time in the premier class. And the weekend started off in style as he got closer to sumo than ever before on Wednesday. “It was a nice experience,” smiles LCR Honda Idemitsu rider. “I’m Japanese but I’ve only ever watched it on TV! But this time I had chance to see it close up and it was an amazing experience for me.”
Finally, there was even more good news for Nakagami as the number 30 was confirmed as staying in his team next season – something he’s excited about already: “I’m really thankful to Honda and HRC, and main sponsor Idemitsu is great support so I’m really happy to stay with this team next year. It’s like home, with great people and a great team manager in Lucio. I’m very happy to stay and I can’t wait for next year!”
First, however, it’s time to face down the Twin Ring Motegi for the first time in the premier class. Practice begins on Friday morning for all classes, and the lights go out for a pivotal Japanese GP at 14:00 local time (GMT +9) on Sunday. Will Marquez take the crown? Or can Dovizioso put his celebrations on hold?
FULL GAS! But not full size…
It’s now a Motegi classic is the Thursday showdown, and this year was no different. Once again riders swapped their MotoGP™ machines for electric minibikes with Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar), Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Racing), Hafizh Syahrin (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), Alvaro Bautista (Angel Nieto Team), Bradley Smith (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), Tom Lüthi (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) and Xavier Simeon (Reale Avintia Racing) all pairing up with a lucky child for four of the fastest laps the mini track in the fan zone has ever seen!
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