This Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix marks an important moment in MotoGP history. It is the first event to be staged in Asia since the start of the global pandemic, which caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Japanese, Thai, Malaysian and Australian rounds of motorcycling’s World Championships.
The 2022 Japanese GP at Mobility Resort Motegi, formerly known as Twin Ring Motegi, will therefore be a very special weekend for Honda and for the many thousands of Japanese fans who last saw a MotoGP race on home soil three long years ago, in October 2019, and have sorely missed the sight and sound of the world’s fastest motorcycles ridden by the world’s fastest motorcycle racers.
No doubt the wait will be worth it as Honda’s four MotoGP riders go to work at Motegi. Most of all, the quartet of RC213V riders will be hoping for a well-deserved change of fortune after a challenging season so far and a bitterly disappointing race at MotorLand Aragon last Sunday.
The highlight for Honda at Aragon was the return of its six-times MotoGP World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC213V), who had last raced at May’s Italian Grand Prix before undergoing further surgery on the right arm he fractured during the 2020 Spanish Grand Prix.
Marquez was immediately up to speed at Aragon, only three tenths of a second off the fastest times on Friday, although a minor tumble spoiled his progress on Saturday. Starting from 13th on the grid the 29-year-old Spaniard was up to sixth by the first corner. Two corners later, while he was saving a rear-end slide, he was hit from behind by reigning World Champion Fabio Quartararo, who fell. Unbeknown to Marquez the impact had damaged his RCV213’s ride-height device. When he next engaged the device, exiting Turn Seven, his machine became difficult to control and he collided with Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IDEMITSU Honda RC213V), who also fell.
Marquez is still in recovery mode from his latest surgery, working to build strength in the arm and communicate his feedback to his Repsol Honda crew and Honda engineers, as they work to build the 2023 RC213V. Obviously he wants good results, but the prime focus at the moment is continuing to get back up to full fitness and work towards regaining his crown in 2023.
Last time Marquez was at Motegi in 2019 he scored a famous win that secured that year’s MotoGP Constructors World Championship for Honda, its eighth in nine years, two weeks after he had won his sixth MotoGP Riders World Championship in seven years. Marquez’s 2019 season – 12 victories and six second places from 19 races – is arguably the greatest premier-class campaign of all time, during an era when the motorcycles have never been more closely matched and the racing never closer.
Marquez has a great record at Motegi. He also won the Japanese MotoGP round in 2018, when he beat fellow RC213V rider Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda CASTROL RC213V) by 1.5 seconds, and also in 2016. In 2012 he took Moto2 victory at Motegi aboard a Honda CBR600-powered Suter and in 2010 he took the 125cc win.
This will be a particularly important weekend for Nakagami, who gets to race in his home country for the first time in three years. However, the 30-year-old from Chiba won’t have an easy time at Motegi, because he is nursing injuries to his right hand, sustained during that tumble in last Sunday’s race. On Monday he underwent surgery in Barcelona to fix tendon damage to the fourth and fifth fingers, so he will need to undergo a medical check at Motegi on Thursday, prior to starting practice.
Nakagami had a tough weekend last time he raced at Motegi, due to a shoulder injury received when another rider had knocked him down at an earlier race. He fought his way through the pain barrier to finish 16th, just one place outside the World Championship points, before undergoing surgery on the shoulder.
Nakagami took his best home-race result in 2016, when he was fourth in the Honda-powered Moto2 race, 0.227 seconds off the podium. He also scored World Championship points at Motegi during his rookie GP season, when he finished 13th in the 2008 125cc race.
Marquez’s team-mate Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC213V) has high hopes of bettering his result at Aragon, where he was caught up in the first-lap mayhem, which forced him off track, losing many valuable positions. The 31-year-old Spaniard finished the race in 15th. He has already scored one podium position this year – at the season-opening Qatar GP – and will be aiming to get back inside the top ten on Sunday.
Espargaro has stood on the top step of the Motegi once, when he won the 2013 Japanese Moto2 race. The year before he finished second in the same class and in 2009 he was third in the 125cc race. His best MotoGP result at the track so far is a sixth place in 2016.
Alex Marquez (LCR Honda CASTROL Honda RC213V) has won three races at Motegi, the first two when he guided his Honda NSF250RW to victory in the 2013 and 2014 Moto3 races at the circuit. In 2014 he won the Moto3 crown for Honda and took his second World Championship in 2019, in the Moto2 category. He claimed his third win at the track in 2017, riding a Honda-powered Kalex in the Moto2 race.
Last time Marquez raced at Motegi he was on his way to his Moto2 title, so this weekend he will ride a MotoGP bike around the circuit for the first time. He will therefore have lots to learn as he works on his cornering lines and machine set-up. He also has a left-hand injury, the legacy of a warm-up crash at Aragon, to contend with.
Marquez and the rest of the MotoGP grid will have one less practice session than usual this weekend. First practice will take place on Friday afternoon, instead of Friday morning, due to the huge logistical issues of getting motorcycles and freight from Aragon, Spain, last Sunday afternoon, to Motegi, a two-hour drive north of Tokyo.
Motegi was constructed by Honda and opened in 1998 to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. The venue joined the MotoGP World Championship in 2000, when it hosted the Pacific Grand Prix, which continued for four years, before Motegi took over from Suzuka, which had hosted Japan’s first World-Championship events in the 1960s. Motegi has been home to the Japanese GP since 2004.
Motegi twists and turns across wooded hillsides and uniquely features two tunnel sections, where riders ride beneath the oval course that shares this unique and comprehensive automotive facility. There are plenty of hard-acceleration and hard-braking zones, making this one of most demanding MotoGP venue for brakes, although engineers must also consider the layout’s more sweeping turns when they are working on machine set-up.
Honda riders that have won premier-class races at the track include Valentino Rossi (2001, NSR500), Alex Barros (2002, RC211V), Max Biaggi (2003, RC211V), Makoto Tamada (2004, RC211V), Dani Pedrosa (2011, RC212V; 2012 and 2015, RC213V) and Marquez (2016, 2018 and 2019, RC213V).
The Japanese GP is the middle event of three MotoGP rounds on consecutive Sundays, between Aragon and next weekend’s Thai GP. The paddock gets one weekend off before back-to-back races in Australia and Malaysia and then another weekend off before the season finale at Valencia, Spain, on 6 November.