The Kentucky Kid is eager to bolster his lead here. Nicky knows that he cannot afford to let his advantage get whittled away either by Rossi or the two Honda men still in the hunt for the title – Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC211V) and Marco Melandri (Fortuna Honda RC211V) who are both only 32 points behind Hayden.
With this much pressure heaped on his shoulders Nicky is holding up well and his positive attitude and refreshing ability to enjoy his racing even when there is so much at stake is a big plus when the going gets as tough as this.
The Repsol Honda rider can consider himself unlucky when his chief rival Rossi was the beneficiary of the debatable decision of the Race Direction following Rossi’s passing maneuver under a yellow flag incident that cost the Kentuckian valuable points in the last weeks Australian GP.
With Motegi as Honda’s ‘home’ track, Nicky knows this is the place where he can really perform and endeavour to take the title further away from his rivals’ grasp. With 75 points still available, all four men are still in the hunt – but Nicky knows he must extend his lead here to take the sting out of his pursuers claims.
His record here is not outstanding: a seventh place last year, a first lap fall in 2004 and a third in his rookie year do not suggest that Motegi is by any means a happy hunting ground for the American. But his 2006 form indicates he is due another high score – and if he can just keep finishing ahead of his challengers, then he will complete the task of securing that World title.
Dani knows his Phillip Island result was inadequate in terms of putting pressure on his team-mate, but the young Spaniard has tasted success at Motegi before on a 250cc machine, winning in 2004 and finishing second last year. He also won here on a 125 in 2002. Now that his Sepang injuries have had another week to mend, he will be a danger man here.
And then there’s the combative Melandri, fresh from a win in Australia and with an undeniable end-of-season momentum that might prove hard to stop in Japan. Factor in Rossi and there seems little doubt that this race will again provide the same sort of intensity that was witnessed in Australia last weekend.
The ‘Twin Ring’ Motegi track, built in 1998, lies 150km north of Tokyo. It is owned by Honda and features an outer ‘Indy” style oval with a regular track in the infield. This features a relatively short 762m main straight, eight right turns, six lefts, with a grippy, smooth and predictable surface.
The largely constant-radius, second and third gear turns are linked by medium-length straights. Set-up requires a bike that’s stable both under fierce acceleration and equally severe braking. Front/rear balance and suspension settings are key, and the RC211V’s smooth and predictable power delivery is a real bonus here.
The track also features gradient and a spectacular tunnel, although nothing in the way of camber. The back straight is downhill into a tight right-hand bend. And although the main straight is only 0.762km long, the tunnel between turn five and the 130R turn more than makes up for a long main chute in terms of spectacle – and rarity value. No other MotoGP track boasts subway sections.
After the gripping race in wet conditions in Australia, more unsettled weather is predicted this weekend. And if rain prevails then Pedrosa, who admits to being uncomfortable in the wet, will be at a disadvantage.
Nicky said, “I look forward to moving on to Motegi. I got third place here in my rookie year, though I’ve had some weaker results since and struggled a bit, so I’m planning to do better for my Japanese fans this year. I always get lots of support in Japan and I’m going to be really trying to make my fans proud, and the guys in my team because they’ve been working really hard. It’s Honda’s home race too so it would be nice to give the Honda fans something to shout about too.”
“I’m looking forward to this race very much,” said Dani. “Motegi is a circuit I really like and I’ve had some good results here in the past. I haven’t ridden a MotoGP bike here before so I’m hoping to adapt to it quickly. This race is the last of three in a row and they’ve been quite difficult for me because of the injuries I picked up in Malaysia. But each time I ride the bike it’s a little easier and I’m hoping to make a good result here. Of course we’ll have to see what the weather’s going to do in Motegi because it’s possible it will rain here too.”
“I’m very happy,” said Melandri. “After the incredible race at Phillip Island, that came just at the right time for me, I look forward to racing in Japan with the same enthusiasm. Thanks to the win, the third of the season, I jumped to third position in the World Championship. I’m confident for the three races to go, and this year the series is very close and I think it will remain open to the end.”
His team-mate Toni Elias (Fortuna Honda RC211V) said, “I like Motegi and I’ve had good results here with two wins in the 250cc class. I hope we can finally get some good results and turn this complicated season around. The team is doing a great job and my feeling with the bike is improving. At Motegi it’s very important to find a good set-up early on. Because of the strong braking, it’s important to have a really good balance on the bike. The secret is to find that compromise in behaviour between braking and acceleration.”
Casey Stoner (LCR Honda RC211V), who was third here on a 250 last year, said, “I really want to finish this season strongly and Japan’s another chance to show what we can do with the RC211V. After all the excitement in Australia I could do with a regular race and a podium finish, so we’ll see how we go.”
Makoto Tamada (Konica Minolta Honda RC211V) is eager to try and finish this season on a high after a troubled 2006 so far. He won here in 2004, having qualified on pole and he also finished third here last season. He said, ‘Motegi’ is my ‘home ’ race and I have won a race here before and stood on the podium and I will be racing in front of my Japanese friends and fans. I am sure that I will have a good race on Sunday. I hope I’ve paid my dues and can now make the best use of the potential I have here at my home race at Motegi.”
Kenny Roberts (Roberts KR211V), a winner here in 1999, has shown the undoubted potential of the RC211V-engined Roberts machine this year and he is anxious to keep the steep development curve on the up here. He said, “This is a great opportunity to give Honda some reward for the support they’ve given us in this project and we’ll be going hard at it from Friday.”
In the 250cc class Andrea Dovizioso (Humangest Racing Honda RS250RW) trails series points leader Jorge Lorenzo (Aprilia) by 24 points and knows Motegi represents one of the last opportunities to close the gap.
He said, “I like Motegi and I’ve always been fast here. In 2004 I won the race in front of Lai and Corsi. In 2005, though, I was third until I made a small mistake and went wide losing almost one second from the leading group and I eventually finished sixth. Now, I look forward to racing, but it depends also on the weather because I’ve never ridden here in wet conditions and it seems that the forecast is for rain.”
Dovi’s team-mate Yuki Takahashi (Humangest Racing Honda RS250RW), who will race against his younger brother Koiki on Sunday, said, “Well, Motegi is my 'home' GP, so it’s a special event because there will be my family and all the guys of the fan club there to watch the race and to support me. I know this track very well and my expectations are very high, also because of last Sunday’s retirement in Australia. In 2005, I crossed the line fourth and this was my best result of the season. Next Sunday I will do my best to achieve a better result.”
Shuhei Aoyama (Repsol Honda RS250RW) said, “I’m really looking forward to the race in Japan, because it’s a circuit I obviously know very well. I want at least to get on the podium, but my real target is to win the race. I like the circuit a lot and I’m sure that with this bike I will be able to make a very good race here. I’m also looking forward to meeting my fans and friends there and I hope to be able to make a good race for them.”
David de Gea, standing in for the injured Martin Cardenas (Repsol Honda RS250RW), said, “I’m very happy to have a chance like this, it will possibly be the best I ever had in my sports career. The first thing I want to do is to thank Honda, Repsol and Alberto Puig for the chance they’ve given me; I only hope to do a good job in return for the confidence that have put in me. I know the Motegi circuit because I’ve raced a couple of times there, once on a 250cc and once on a 500cc machine, so it won’t be a problem to remember the layout after a couple of laps.”
The 125cc title has already gone to Alvaro Bautista (Aprilia), but Honda men will be fighting hard to put their factory machines among the podium places here. Among them, 2005 World Champion Thomas Luthi (Elit Grand Prix Honda RS125R).
He said, “I like Motegi, it’s an OK track for me, even though I had a very bad crash there last year. It's a track of two parts and I like all of it, the fast corner and the places where you can make up places with hard braking. We have a really good bike now and I am confident we will have a good race there.”
Rookie Bradley Smith (Repsol Honda RS125R) is stronger after his return to action in Australia after an arm injury. He said, “I’ve seen the track on Play Station and it looks more like a stop/start circuit rather than a fast like Australia. I don’t know whether that will suit me or not but after the last weekend with the positive things we need to carry on doing the same and trying to improve here. It’s Honda’s track as well so there is extra incentive to do well there.”