Motegi, Japan - Coming as it does at a pivotal point of the season, the Japanese MotoGP at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit has many times been where titles are won or lost.
This is where Honda’s Marc Marquez clinched the championship last year with a superb victory, and he arrives there this week holding a 16-point advantage, thanks to a magic ride at another venue that demands hard braking and acceleration - Austria’s Red Bull ring. But 2017 was also his first premier-class win at this circuit; bluntly put, Marquez does not have form at Motegi.
The other protagonist in that showdown at Spielberg was Ducati Team rider Andrea Dovizioso, second in the standings and riding a machine that, on paper, is very well suited to Motegi. The Japanese GP will be crucial in terms of closing the gap to Marquez before the final countdown begins, and Dovizioso already has two podiums at this circuit under his belt - one in 2010 and one last year - to boost his confidence.
Behind these two, however, there’s a double threat: their team-mates. Marquez’s partner at Honda, Dani Pedrosa, and Jorge Lorenzo on the second factory Ducati, have each scored three premier-class wins at Motegi. Pedrosa has been more on the podium than off this season and still has a shot at the title; he’ll be giving it everything he’s got this weekend.
Lorenzo took his second podium in red last time out at Aragon, and he was optimistic about Motegi when asked about it in Spain. He cannot take the title, but he can shuffle the pack by taking crucial points away from the leaders at the worst possible time.
The only other contenders are the two Yamaha factory riders. Maverick Vinales will be under even more pressure than Marquez; he’s third in the standings with a realistic shot at the title, but the winning will have to start in Japan if it’s going to happen at all. Last year at Motegi he was on the podium; he’ll need that short walk to glory again this year if he is keep his title hopes alive.
Valentino Rossi is a distant fifth in the points log after finishing fifth at Aragon; that in itself was a huge victory, coming only 24 days after he broke his leg in a training crash. There is still a major question mark over his fitness and how well his battered leg will stand up to three races in three weeks, but if there is one thing we have learned about ‘The Doctor’ in his 22 seasons of Grand Prix racing, it is never to underestimate the sheer determination that drives him.