Countdown to a championship begins in Hondaland

MotoGP 2014 Motegi Preview, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

pedrosa-marquezThe Motul Grand Prix of Japan marks the beginning of the annual late season three-races-in-three-weeks “Pacific flyaway” during which the MotoGP world championship is usually clinched. Last year, for only the second time in 21 years, the grid traveled to Valencia with the title, eventually won by then rookie Marc Marquez, up for grabs. This year appears certain to revert to form, as Marquez stands on the cusp of his second premier class title.

Before one of our more devoted readers blasts us for ignoring the fact that there are still 100 points “on offer” for the 2014 season, let me clarify a point raised last time out, when we asserted that Marquez’ magic number was/is one (1). We were expressing Marquez’ objective relative to his closest rival, teammate Dani Pedrosa, who trails him today by exactly 75 points. Should Pedrosa maintain his grip on second place this weekend—he leads Yamaha icon Valentino Rossi by a scant three points—and sees his deficit to Marquez increase by a single point, Marquez clinches. THAT is the one point we were discussing. We are ignoring the possibility that Marquez could go 0-for-October and November, just as we ignore the possibility that the same reader could, in theory, jump over the Empire State Building.empire_state_building1

Clearly, the question is not “if.” The question is “when.”

In our reader’s defense, the young Spaniard has looked remarkably ordinary in three of his last four outings. Sure, he won at Silverstone, beating Yamaha double champion Jorge Lorenzo by 7/10ths in a riveting battle that raged all day. But he gave us the curious 4th place finish at Brno the previous round, and followed his triumph in Britain with the mystifying lowside at Misano and the ill-conceived crash in the rain at Aragon. The fact remains that Marquez has a virtually insurmountable lead with four rounds left. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if our crack research staff were to comb the archives and determine that no rider in the history of MotoGP has failed to clinch the title when leading by 75 points with four rounds left.

(I take that last one back. In that we don’t actually have a crack research staff, it would surprise me immensely if “they” were to discover anything at all about MotoGP, bird-watching, or the price of beer.)

Recent History at Motegi

twin ring motegi

From the air, Motegi resembles a heavy-duty stapler.

The fabled Twin Ring Motegi Circuit is the home track of Honda Racing Corporation, where HRC does the testing that produces arguably the fastest grand prix prototypes on the planet. Ducati fans will, at this point, protest, citing the Italian bike’s higher top end speed, which is relevant in places like the Bonneville Salt Flats but less so on the road courses that comprise grand prix racing. Suffice it to say that Honda has won more constructor championships in the premier class than any other manufacturer, including the last three. If your bum is planted on a factory spec Honda, you have no viable excuse for finishing outside the top six every week.

It is, therefore, surprising that Honda has enjoyed so little recent success at its home crib. Since the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix returned to Motegi from Suzuka in 2004, Honda has won here exactly three times, in 2004, 2011 and 2012, the last two courtesy of Dani Pedrosa. One fears that a number of ritual suicides may have occurred at HRC headquarters in the intervening years, as a string of executives lost serious face to Yamaha and even Ducati during the period. In hindsight, the three consecutive years in which Loris Capirossi rode his Ducati to victory (2005-2007) must have been particularly chilling.

Back in 2011, Pedrosa comfortably outpaced Lorenzo’s Yamaha and teammate Casey Stoner after Stoner ran himself out of contention and into the gravel early on. The young, charismatic Marco Simoncelli rode his San Carlo Gresini Honda to an impressive fourth place finish, and would surpass that result the next time out when he podiumed in second place at Phillip Island. Sic would start the final race of his career the following week at Sepang.Dani-dani-pedrosa-9702356-435-380

In 2012, Pedrosa would repeat at his employer’s home track, followed again by Lorenzo, with the unpredictable Alvaro Bautista claiming thirdplace on what I think of as Simoncelli’s satellite Honda. Dani was in the process of winning six of the last eight races of the year in a futile attempt to overtake Lorenzo. He would win again the following week at Sepang, only to see his season come to a grinding halt at Phillip Island in a slow-motion lowside eerily evocative of Simoncelli’s own tragic lowside the previous year in Malaysia. Pedrosa, thankfully, would live to race again.

Last year, on top of to two typhoons and a 7.1 earthquake on Friday night, rookie Marquez put his title chances in deep peril with a violent high side in the Sunday morning warm-up that left him with a sore shoulder and neck rather than the broken collarbone he probably deserved. Demonstrating unexpected toughness, he stayed close enough to the leaders to claim third place and hold Lorenzo at bay. Lorenzo, in an effective impression of Pedrosa the preceding year, won five of the last seven races to finish the year, allowing Marquez to claim the title by a scant four points.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Part of the mystique attached to Marc Marquez derives from the way the two previous seasons ended. Leaving Valencia in 2012, one couldn’t help believing that 2013 could be Dani Pedrosa’s year, that he had finally found the formula for winning a title. Along comes rookie Marquez, who puts that theory to rest with a sensational rookie campaign, having made a lot of hay while Pedrosa was injured in the middle of the season. Fast forward to the end of 2013, when Lorenzo sets expectations for his 2014 season—both of his titles came in even-numbered years—sky high. Instead, Lorenzo finds himself down 80 points to Marquez after five rounds, gasping for air, his season in ruins. So much for expectations.

Young man has the world by the balls.

Young man has the world by the balls.

 

It was French humanist and scientist René Dubos who first observed that “trend is not destiny.” Marquez graduates from Moto2 and wins his rookie premier class campaign by four points. He returns the following year and wins by, let’s say, 50 points. (Should he break Mick Doohan’s record of 12 wins in a season it’ll be more like 100.) Does this suggest that he’ll take the 2015 title by 150 points? Hardly. Does it suggest that he could be winning championships for most of the next decade? Unequivocally. He will have to deal with Lorenzo and Pedrosa, Vinales and hermano pequeño Alex, perhaps an Espargaro or a Redding. But he will ultimately find himself in a place where guys like Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Michael Schumacher end up. In a league of their own, competing with themselves. And whether you’re a fan of #93 or not, it is a privilege to watch him do his job.

 

The Japanese Grand Prix goes off at 1 am EDT on Sunday. We’ll catch the video later in the morning and have results right here Sunday afternoon. Konichiwa.

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