Ahead of the Motul Grand Prix of Japan, action first got underway on Thursday with a Minimoto showdown in Mobi Park in Motegi, with Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Alvaro Bautista (Pull&Bear Aspar Team), Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Racing), Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), Tito Rabat (EG 0,0 Marc VDS), Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) teaming up with some local children and swapping their usual steeds for electric mini bikes.
In stints of two laps per rider and then two per child, the grid was decided with a lottery system. Rabat started from pole as the thrills and spills began – with all riders too big for the bikes but battling shoulder to shoulder nevertheless. Sadly for Redding and Iannone, they suffered some mechanical issues that hampered progress, and nothing could stop Rabat at the front.
By the end, it was the EG 0,0 Marc VDS rider who took the flag first, closely followed by Zarco. Alvaro Bautista took third to round out the ‘podium’, and the race was then followed by some photos of the riders, bikes and the kids.
Then the next stop for some was the Press Conference. Championship leader Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) was joined by key title rivals Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) and Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), as well as Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), home hero Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) and Moto3™ title leader Joan Mir (Leopard Racing), who stands on the brink of the crown this weekend.
First to speak was Marquez, who comes back to Motegi with good memories after winning both the race and Championship at the venue in 2016: “My last memories here at Motegi were amazing because we won the race and the Championship, in front of our boss and Honda and it was great! But this year we arrive after a good race in Misano and Aragon, but you never know, and it looks like the weather will be unstable. It’s a track I like but for some reason I’ve struggled sometimes in the past. But last year I was strong and I’ll give everything to try and be on the podium on Sunday. This Championship all this season, we come here on Thursday and you don’t know who the opponent will be on Sunday. You never know so you need to work to find the best base, then on Sunday you’ll see where you can fight. But I’m feeling good with the bike and that’s the most important. Every race is different and you need to keep the same mentality and do the same work, because there are still four races left. These three are very important races, but we’ll try and do our best like we have until now – and try to push at the maximum.”
The man closest to Marquez on points is Dovizioso, who is 16 in arrears – but who thinks it’s most definitely still everything to play for: “It will be a nice three races, with a race every Sunday! It will be important for everyone. I still think the Championship is quite tight. Not like the race before but enough. I think all three of us have a big chance to fight for the title and it’s so easy for the situation to change race by race. Everybody will attack, but there are still a lot of points left and anything can happen. I’m so happy to be in this position, and I’m confident about where I am now and my positives and negatives. I feel quite calm, I know very well what we’ve done this year, we’ve done a great job and we’ve done almost everything perfectly. We’re at the end of the Championship and fighting with Honda and Yamaha and these two special riders, so that means we did a great job. Motegi is a good track for us and for me because there is a lot of hard braking, I think we’re quite competitive in the braking and with the fairing I think we can be on acceleration too.”
A further handful of points behind is Maverick Viñales, who was also on the podium last year at the track alongside his two title rivals. He is gunning for the top – and feels good about the flyaways: “We are trying, giving our best and trying to improve the bike. In Aragon we made the wrong choice in the tyre, last minute we changed…but I think we’re quite strong. We have to still work a lot on the bike for the race. I like this track a lot, and last year I felt strong here, especially in the race, and I’m eager to start. I’ll push at 100%. I prefer three races in a row, I’ve always been strong. I’ve had more positives in Australia and Malaysia but I think our bike can work well over these races.”
Another heading into Japan optimistic is Aleix Espargaro, who thinks Motegi will be another good one: “Aragon was a fantastic race for me and I enjoyed the race a lot. Lap by lap I felt better and better. Being able to fight with Dovi and the Yamahas is fantastic for Aprilia. I can’t wait for here because it’s a track that suits my riding style and Aprilia. I think I’m a good rider on the brakes, last year I had a good fight for the podium with Maverick, and the Aprilia is good on the brakes. I hope we have some dry sessions! But we’ll see and try to adapt.”
Then it was time to hear from home hero Takaaki Nakagami, who moves up to MotoGP™ next year: “Every year I’m also very happy to come to Motegi and race in Japan, and I’m really looking forward to the weekend. Some races this year have been good, but so far I only won at Silverstone. Some good races but I couldn’t win. But this makes me motivated and I want to beat them, especially since I will move up to MotoGP. I’ll try my best in the last four races and especially here. I hope next year I can learn a lot from Crutchlow because I don’t know MotoGP or the bike. I just want to understand the bike and try to learn. Now there are some young Japanese riders coming and growing up, with Moto3, the Rookies Cup and Asia Talent Cup…I’m very happy to see that, because these few years have been difficult for Japanese riders. And I think me being in MotoGP is good news for Japan, and it’s good to see the young riders coming through.”
Finally, the man who could be king of Moto3™ this weekend: Joan Mir. “First of all I’m really happy to be at this point. 80 points is a lot but we can lose! I will try to do my race as always, find my way and we’ll see what happens. I’m really motivated for this race but we’ll see. I’m really proud, but if I don’t win the Championship this season won’t be a good one, so we have to stay focused.”
Focus on the race was advice from Marquez – who recommended gunning for glory with such a big margin of points: “After speaking with him, he knows what he has to do. Just stay focused and keep the same mentality. He has to go out and try to win the race, because he has the margin to go out and make a mistake but still have a lot of points.”
Now it’s time to take to the track from 9:00 (GMT +9) on Friday, before Mir faces his first match point at 11:00 on Sunday, Nakagami fights for home glory at 12:20 and the MotoGP™ title contenders get ready for another tightrope walk for 25 points at 14:00.