MotoGP: Grand Prix of Japan Preview

Will Dani Pedrosa win again on Honda’s home turf?

Dani Pedrosa

Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa

Japan’s several islands are part of a volcanic island arc, each having central mountains from which flow many rivers. These rivers, carrying erosion sediments, have formed the flat coastal plains where most of the population lives.

Motegi is situated 90 miles north of Tokyo, in foothill country, surrounded by coniferous forest. It’s a 2.98-mile clockwise course with eight right-hand turns and six lefts. Seen in plain view, the track appears almost “pleated,” combining four longer straights and two shorter ones by corners that are mostly slow and tight. Half of Motegi’s turns are taken in second gear, with two first-gear and four third-gear turns. There are five hard upright braking zones.

Last year, Bridgestone described Motegi as “hard acceleration followed by heavy braking. This places the emphasis on front-tire stability.” That’s also when Bridgestone adopted rear slicks whose left side was one stage softer than in 2010—that is, extra-soft. This was done at rider request to “improve rider safety in the early laps and in the instance of cold condition.” Engineer Hirohide Hamashima noted at the time that cool temperatures and a low-abrasion track surface make this choice durable.

"Motegi is quite a different circuit," said Casey Stoner. "It's similar in a way to Le Mans and very much stop/start—a little like a go-kart track. It has a lot of hard braking, a lot of hard accelerating and it's pretty tough on the body. If you miss your braking points, it's easy to run wide."

Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, commented, "It's a very technical course, and because of that, it's very demanding. It is quite wide and there is a series of corners where the riders have to be at their very best."

In 2011, about three-quarters of the circuit had to be repaved to repair damage from the same March earthquake that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Though most of the track is smooth, bumps remaining on the back straight caused early race leader Stoner brake-pad knock-back (headshake can push the front brake calipers’ pistons back in their bores).

“I went for the brakes, and there was nothing there, so I had to pump them up a couple of times,” he said. “When I pumped it the second time, it flicked me up over the front, and I was lucky to stay on the bike.” Stoner carried on and finished third.

Weather at Motegi has generally been dry and moderate, but in recent memory, there has also been one “blazing hot” race day, and in 2007, Sunday morning warmup was lost to rain.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
1. Capirossi Rossi Lorenzo Stoner Pedrosa
2. de Puniet Stoner Rossi Dovizioso Lorenzo
3. Elias Pedrosa Pedrosa Rossi Stoner
4. Guintoli Lorenzo Stoner Lorenzo Simoncelli
5. Melandri Hayden Dovizioso Edwards Dovizioso
Lap record 1:47.288 1:47.091 1:47.091 1:47.091 1:46.090
Top speed 174.6 182.3 185.1 180.9 181.3
Weather wet at start dry dry dry dry
Air/track temperature 70/75 66/73 72/88 73/93 66/84

What does all this add up to? Jorge Lorenzo leads Pedrosa by 33 points, and if Pedrosa and Lorenzo finish 1-2 in all four remaining races, Pedrosa will gain five points each time and Lorenzo will be champion by 13 points. If, as is expected, Stoner, injured at Indianapolis, rejoins the series at Motegi, and if Pedrosa and Stoner finish 1-2 ahead of Lorenzo every time, Pedrosa could win by three points. That's a lot of "ifs," even though Motegi suits the Hondas (a series of dragstrips joined by lower-gear corners). Would Stoner, in his last MotoGP events, want to be remembered as an obedient man who took orders? Or as a racer who won every race he possibly could? The ifs keep it interesting!