MotoGP is returning to Japan, but is this the end of the Japanese era?

Aragon MotoGP decided by epic finish | 00:48
Michael Lamonato from Fox Sports

MotoGP returns Japan this weekend for the first time since 2019, and while it’s been only three years between races, a lot’s changed since.

Let’s cast our minds back to the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix.

Marc Márquez arrived with the championship already won at the previous race in Thailand, his ninth victory in a season during which he finished off the podium only once.

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The thread of one of MotoGP’s most dominant performances ran directly through his Honda team’s home race. He took pole position and won the grand prix with the fastest lap for his 10th of ultimately 12 wins for the year, enough for a 151-point advantage over Andrea Dovizioso at the end of the campaign.

It was his and Honda fourth riders and constructors championship in a row and Márquez’s sixth in the premier class. In the off-season a new contract was agreed to extend that dominance until the end of 2024.

Of course the first race of 2020, a broken arm and a botched comeback put paid to that theory, the effects of which continue to reverberate through the sport even today.

But Márquez vacating the field hasn’t only broken his string of successes, it’s also exposed the quietly shifting balance of power in MotoGP from east to west, from Japan to Europe.

Now, arriving back in Japan after a three-year break, only one of the three realistic title contenders rides a Japanese bike, and he’s arguably the least likely among them to win it. Instead it’s a European bike that carries with it all the momentum in the final stages of the championship.

THE STATS DON’T LIE

Japan is comfortably the most dominant constructor in grand prix motorcycling history, claiming 46 of the 73 championships awarded to date, or around 63 per cent. Honda alone has won the title 25 times, with Yamaha following with 14 and Suzuki with seven.

Those numbers are reflected in the individual honours as well, where Japanese bikes have powered riders to 46 championships, albeit with Honda and Yamaha more evenly matched at 21-18.

But more than the victory total is the way it’s been tallied. A Japanese bike first powered a rider to the championship in 1975 — Giacomo Agostini on his Yamaha — and the country didn’t stop winning until Casey Stoner’s lone Ducati title in 2007. It resumed the streak thereafter.

But the constructors championship tells a different story.

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Honda claimed the first for Japan in 1966, but Yamaha started the Japanese trend in 1974, which, again, was broken by Ducati in 2007.

The streak restarted, but only 13 years later Ducati got the job done again. And it did so a third time in 2021.

Last week Ducati won its fourth constructors crown and third in a row.

The 2022 riders title is yet to be decided, but of the three riders realistically in contention, only one rides a Japanese bike, and Fabio Quartararo’s Yamaha is arguably the least fancied of the lot despite leading in the standings. The other two bikes are both from Italy.

Suddenly we’re talking less about a blip in Japan’s dominance and more about a tectonic shift in the landscape.

DO CHAMPION RIDERS MAKE CHAMPION BIKES?

It’s interesting to think that Japan’s waning power came as Marc Márquez grew in stature in the sport, and it’s doubly so to think the same appears to be happening at Yamaha with Fabio Quartararo.

Consider that in each of Márquez’s title-winning years his teammate — until 2018 Dani Pedrosa, then Jorge Lorenzo — moved progressively further down the riders championship: third, fourth, sixth, fourth, 11th and 19th.

At the time it was written off as Pedrosa and then Lorenzo being at the ends of their careers up against the supernaturally talented Márquez, but the reality’s only been laid bare since Marc broke his arm in 2020.

No-one’s been able to extract anything like the pace he can from the bike, so built around him was it over such a long period of time.

In 2020 Takaaki Nakagami on the satellite LCR bike was best placed in 10th; rookie Álex Márquez was 14th on the quickest factory machine.

In 2021 it was Marc — despite missing four races with injury and riding with an arm we now know healed with a 34-degree rotation in it — who was best placed in seventh ahead of 12th-placed teammate Pol Espargaró.

Incredibly the same is true again this year despite Marc sitting out more than half of the season to date; he’s 15th ahead of Espargaró in 17th.

The bike clearly lacks this year, ironically because the team has attempted to cure its Márquez-centric problems after the last 24 months. In doing so it’s delivered a bike that’s last in the constructors standings — at the German Grand Prix this year it came away from a race with no points for the first time since 1981.

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The same thing appears to be happening at Yamaha now. Iwata has built a bike that’s good enough for third in the constructors standings, but all but two of its 213 points have been scored by Fabio Quartararo.

Quartararo is leading the riders championship with 211 points, but there’s considerable daylight between him and the next-best Yamaha rider.

Franco Morbidelli is a miserable 19th with just 26 points, and former satellite rider Andrea Dovizioso is 21st and Darryn Binder is 22nd with 15 and 10 points respectively.

Dovizioso’s career may well have been at its end, but this is a rider who in 2019 was the closest thing to a challenger to Márquez, finishing second in the standings for the third successive year.

Franco Morbidelli came within 13 points of the championship in 2020.

These riders aren’t slouches. They just have the misfortune of (a) being compared to some of their generation’s most formidable talents and (b) riding a Japanese bike that’s been built around only one rider.

HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED?

No dynasty lasts forever, and the European manufacturers, Ducati in particularly, have been chipping away at Japan’s control for years.

Part of it has come away from race weekends rather than in the heat of the action.

The progressive move away from testing days appears to have hurt Japanese bikes more, but only in tandem with the diminution in the number of Japanese satellites and the rise of European partner teams.

It’s not surprising that Ducati won the constructors title this year given it supplies eight bikes — one of them is bound to score well on any given weekend — but that numerical advantage translates into data, which is gold in a motorsport era that features less testing.

The connection between Ducati and Pramac is well understood, with Pramac often helping to evaluate experimental parts that will ultimately benefit the factory team and the rest of the stable.

And Ducati’s development pipeline is prolific — so much so that even the factory riders have full workloads on grand prix weekends. Francesco Bagnaia even spoke out earlier this year that he wasn’t being given enough time during practice to hone himself for the race, which in part contributed to the slow start to his championship campaign.

Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFPSource: AFP

Suzuki has had no satellite teams in this chapter of its premier-class history.

Next year Yamaha will lose RNF to Aprilia and be down to just its factory team, leaving only Honda with LCR.

Without satellite teams, there are fewer riders to share the development load and fewer voices contributing to the push. In this environment there’s little wonder that progress slows and even stagnates.

There’s also the matter of team organisation. Less testing also means more onus is on work done at the factory to perfect the bikes, and if the feedback of the race team and the riders flows imperfectly back to the factory, or if factory decision-making is too slow or too conservative, or if the relationship between the team and the company board, which controls the funding, isn’t close enough, the entire project will fall behind.

To draw a comparison with Ducati again, the Italian team is increasingly unafraid to experiment with aerodynamic and mechanical developments. For example, Bologna has been at the forefront of the ride-height device that some have come to regard as controversial, but it’s brought the team obvious performance benefits.

The Japanese marques, however, have been historically less willing to trial things in the same way, with DNFs considered less acceptable in exchange for progress than it is among the European teams.

It’s the literal manifestation of the sport rushing past.

THE FUTURE

Most of this hasn’t been important in recent years. Márquez has beaten the field pretty much single-handedly, Joan Mir was the coolest head in 2020 and Fabio Quartararo is doing his best to be his generation’s dominant force with the title in 2021.

But the Márquez era is reaching its end, even if he does contend for more championships in the next few years, and Fabio Quartararo made clear earlier this season that he was prepared to walk if progress didn’t satisfy him.

Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFPSource: AFP

The short version of the story is that teams can’t be built around a single rider. Ducati has taken that to extremes with its four-team approach, but in doing so the Italian brand has accelerated the arrival of a new era in the sport and taken the opportunity to mould it around its own way of doing business.

There are already signs that Honda and Yamaha are alive to the challenge. Honda has broken with its long-held tenet of building all key components in-house and contracted Kalex to build its swingarms, though initial feelings were inconclusive in Aragon.

Yamaha, meanwhile, has redoubled its efforts on next year’s bike after Quartararo threatened to leave next year. In particular it’s pulled out all stops in engine development, and having tested the new motor in San Marino, Fabio was clearly pleased.

Whether either will be enough for these teams to take a big enough step forward in 2023 to keep up with the Europeans remains to be seen — and even then, development must be constant. To stand still is to go backwards.

It feels like a new era of MotoGP is upon us.

THE FORM GUIDE

Ducati has all the momentum arriving in Japan, and given Motegi features four long straights, the Italian brand will have every reason to feel confident it’ll be on for another good weekend.

Ducati bikes have won the last five races in a row, with four of those coming via Bagnaia, who is just 10 points off the title lead.

His biggest competition may well come from within his own stable. Enea Bastianini got the better of him last weekend in Spain and is an outside shot at the title himself. With no team orders at Ducati, another tense duel could be on the cars.

Aleix Espargaró needs a good race after an underwhelming podium finish last weekend at a track around which he expected Aprilia to be at full strength. His deficit stands at 17 points, but he has to beat Bagnaia as well as Quartararo after previously enjoying a one-on-one title battle.

But then there’s Quartararo himself, the sole bastion for Japanese manufacturers at Japan’s comeback race. His down-on-power Yamaha won’t like much of this circuit, but the Frenchman was optimistic that the big braking zones would play to his strengths and neutralise some of that deficit.

A win for Quartararo would be against the odds, against the run of form and, as of the last three years, contrary to the history of Japanese bikes in the premier class.

HOW CAN I WATCH IT?

Every practice session, qualifying and the race of the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix is live and ad-break free during racing on Kayo.

To ease the logistics of travelling from Spain to Japan, Friday features only one practice session, which starts at 4:05pm (AEST) and runs for 75 minutes.

FP2 starts at 11:50am on Saturday, FP3 begins at 15:25pm and leads into qualifying, for which the pit lane will open at 4:05pm.

The Sunday warm-up is at 11:40am followed by the grand prix at 4pm.