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MotoGP Japanese GP

10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix

A second clean sweep in the past three MotoGP rounds for Jorge Martin at Motegi has left the world championship finely poised with six rounds remaining, with Francesco Bagnaia's once comfortable advantage now a distant memory. As Marc Marquez joined the title protagonists on the podium to give Honda a boost, here's what we learned from the Japanese GP

Jorge Martin, Pramac Racing

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The MotoGP title battle has intensified after Jorge Martin romped to a double victory at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix. Having already dealt significant damage to Francesco Bagnaia's championship lead in India after the factory Ducati rider crashed out of the grand prix, Martin twisted the knife in Japan.

Storming (quite literally on Sunday) to his second brace of wins in three rounds, Martin is now just three points behind Bagnaia in the title chase. But it was not all lost for Bagnaia, as he cured the braking problems that had been plaguing him in recent rounds.

Behind them on Sunday, Marc Marquez scored his first grand prix podium since last year's Australian round. Whether it's enough to keep him in place at Honda, he says it won't make a difference to his decision. Of that, he is "quite sure", even if no announcement arrived in Japan.

Elsewhere, KTM made gains with its new carbon fibre chassis, while Cal Crutchlow's one-off return as a wildcard offered some insight into Yamaha's current situation.

Read about all of this and more as we dive into the 10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix.

1. Martin currently the "stronger" of the title protagonists, but...

Martin's recent form has helped him mount a serious challenge for the championship

Martin's recent form has helped him mount a serious challenge for the championship

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Jorge Martin is on a bit of a hot streak at the moment, scoring his second sprint/grand prix double in three rounds last weekend at Motegi. Since the Catalan GP, he has gone from trailing Francesco Bagnaia by 66 points to sitting just three behind heading to the next round of the season in Indonesia.

Both are on identical machinery, and the balance has clearly shifted from Bagnaia being the master of the GP23 to Martin taking the reins. Bagnaia offered up over the weekend that Martin is the "stronger" of the pair right now, noting how the Spaniard is "better" at finding set-up solutions with his Pramac team than he is at present.

While Martin felt in the flag-to-flag grand prix that his braking wasn't at its peak, the drive he had out of the corners ensured his small mistake on lap two - having just swapped bikes - didn't punish him as he effortlessly moved into the lead on the sixth tour. That kept him 1.4s out of range when the red flag was shown at the end of the 13th lap, with a result declared after an aborted restart.

Martin noted that he "wouldn't have won" the grand prix had he been thinking about the championship. But the progress he has made, capitalising on Bagnaia's recent misfortunes, means he is now currently the favourite whether he likes it or not. LD

2. ...Bagnaia will have his "time"

Bagnaia lost ground to Martin in the title race, but  isn't panicking about it

Bagnaia lost ground to Martin in the title race, but isn't panicking about it

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bagnaia bounced back from his India disappointment with a brace of seconds to limit the damage Martin inflicted in the best way he could. Crucially, he began the weekend having cured the braking woes which plagued him in recent rounds.

His sprint race was hindered by a lack of rear grip, while he was somewhat unlucky that the grand prix was halted and never resumed as he was starting to creep closer to Martin.

While, as mentioned, Bagnaia believes Pramac and Martin are getting more out of their bike a bit quicker, the reigning champion is confident "we will have our time".

Prior to the weekend, Bagnaia noted that the stress he is feeling now is nowhere near what he experienced in 2022 when he was bidding to end Ducati's 15-year title drought. It is perhaps this pressure which may start to weigh on Martin, who has never been in this position in MotoGP and is also looking to make history by becoming the first independent team champion in the modern era.

Martin is riding high and using that to fuel him, but Bagnaia's experience will come to the fore soon enough. LD

3. KTM starting to look like Ducati-beater with new chassis

Binder shone on KTM's carbon fibre chassis to challenge Martin in the sprint

Binder shone on KTM's carbon fibre chassis to challenge Martin in the sprint

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

KTM is unfortunate that the Motegi weather gods decided to play havoc with Sunday's main race because Brad Binder emerged as Jorge Martin's closest rival in dry conditions during the Saturday sprint aboard armed with the carbon fibre chassis that test rider Dani Pedrosa had used to such good effect at Misano.

The weekend started in auspicious fashion as Binder broke the eight-year-old lap record held by Jorge Lorenzo in Friday practice (although Martin would lower the bar further in qualifying the next day), and the South African came through from fifth on the grid to finish a strong second in the sprint, his best result since August's Austrian GP.

For a first proper stab at a race simulation on the new chassis, it was an encouraging performance. Binder was relishing the prospect of the main race, confident in what he needed to do to take the fight to Martin.

But those hard preparations were rendered moot by the weather on Sunday, and Binder lost ground during the bike swaps after the rain arrived as he couldn't get his second bike into gear. Pushing too hard to recover from that setback, he crashed out at Turn 3. "I would say we had a positive weekend except for that," was his summary.

The other works KTM of Jack Miller, whose fourth place in the sprint was his best result since the German GP back in June, briefly led the opening lap of the main race when most of the field piled into the pits to change to their wet bikes. The Australian was shuffled down the order amid the chaos and had to be content with sixth when the race was called. JK

4. Honda engineering changes begin as Marquez "quite sure" of future decision

Marquez made a long-awaited return to the podium, but says it won't make any difference to his future

Marquez made a long-awaited return to the podium, but says it won't make any difference to his future

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

During the Japanese GP weekend, Honda announced a fairly major shake-up to its engineering team in replacing Shinichi Kokubu with Shin Sato as general technical director.

Kokubu has been a mainstay at Honda for decades and was an integral part of the development of its four-stroke modern-era bike. But the sword is being presented by management and big names will have to be thrown to it in order for HRC to find its way back to the front.

Whether this is a change that will yield results, "time will tell" was Marc Marquez's response. If this was a move to try to convince him to stay, replacing one Japanese engineer with another isn't likely to tick that box for the eight-time world champion. Ahead of the weekend, Marquez – who scored his first Sunday podium since Australia last year in Japan – said he was "quite sure" of his future plans.

No announcement was brought forth at Motegi, but Ducati stirred the pot when general manager Gigi Dall'Igna said "he decided to leave Honda to get an unofficial Ducati". He rolled this back somewhat, but nothing is suggesting at this stage that Marquez is anything but Gresini-bound. LD

5. Crutchlow insight offers new perspective on Yamaha engine dramas

Yamaha test rider Crutchlow returned to racing in Japan, opining that its engines need less - not more - power

Yamaha test rider Crutchlow returned to racing in Japan, opining that its engines need less - not more - power

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Cal Crutchlow made a welcome return to racing in Japan as a wildcard for Yamaha, marking his first appearance since last year's Valencia GP. He was at Motegi to test parts he had largely discarded as viable options for the M1's development path, but data was needed on them regardless.

While 13th in the grand prix was a solid enough end to the weekend, Crutchlow brought with him some interesting insight into Yamaha's current situation. A few weeks after Fabio Quartararo had stated he "expected much better" from Yamaha's 2024 engine prototype, Crutchlow felt the riders' demands were incorrect.

"We have the riders asking more power and we don't need more power, we need a smoother engine," Crutchlow said, explaining that better power delivery will offer more top speed at the end of the straights.

Crutchlow expressed confidence in Yamaha being able to get things right but did note some unhappiness at the marque's current testing plans. With Yamaha looking to secure Crutchlow in the role for another three years, he says that will hinge on the brand improving its testing process. LD

6. Quartararo's India podium looks like a fluke

Motegi won't be a weekend that Quartararo remembers fondly

Motegi won't be a weekend that Quartararo remembers fondly

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

While Honda grabbed a surprise podium in the wet conditions to give itself something to celebrate at its home race, the same could not be said for fellow Japanese marque Yamaha. In fact, the Motegi weekend was little more than an embarrassment for the Iwata brand, which has slipped behind its arch-rival back into fifth and last place in the constructors' standings.

Yamaha was probably always going to struggle at Motegi given the stop-start track layout, but even then it was a shock to see Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli finishing 15th and 16th in the sprint, only ahead of LCR Honda man Takaaki Nakagami of the regular riders. Quartararo was understandably downcast after such an insipid showing.

"This is our potential now," he conceded. "We have no turning, no power, no downforce, nothing."

The main race was a marginal improvement, with the M1's deficiencies masked by the weather. Quartararo, along with Morbidelli and Crutchlow, all chose to stay out for an additional lap before making their pitstops, which proved to be the wrong move, but Quartararo was still able to battle his way up to finish 10th. Post-race he said he felt it was worth a gamble by doing the opposite of the majority of riders, who stopped at the end of lap one, as "at the end finishing P10 or P14 is not a big change".

After Quartararo's podium in the previous round in India, this was very much a regression to the mean for a factory that was leading the riders' championship as recently as 12 months ago but now looks utterly at sea. JK

7. Aprilia's reliability misery continues in Japan

Espargaro was decidedly unimpressed by Aprilia's continued reliability glitches

Espargaro was decidedly unimpressed by Aprilia's continued reliability glitches

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

After an Indian GP weekend ruined by technical issues, Aleix Espargaro pointed to the intense heat at the Buddh International Circuit as the culprit and admitted that the final swing of flyaway races was a concern given the likelihood of searing temperatures at venues like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

He probably wasn't worried about a repeat occurrence in Motegi, where temperatures hovered around the 26 degrees Celsius mark for most of the weekend. And yet, in the sprint, Espargaro lost the chance of a top-five finish when one bank of cylinders on his Aprilia V4 simply stopped. And afterwards, he was fuming.

"I don't understand what's going on; the problems of the past are coming back," he said. "I can't do any more, and this would take away the enthusiasm and the desire from anyone. Right now I would choose to go home."

At least in the wet main race, Espargaro managed to bag the top-five result he had been denied in the sprint, having led for a couple of laps before being passed by eventual winner Martin. But the result didn't seem to lift his spirits much.

"It's been a difficult two weekends for many reasons," he said. "Many, many things happened over these two weeks. Now I need to go back home and recharge the batteries with my family."

While earlier in the weekend Espargaro - now the elder statesman of the MotoGP grid - claimed to still be motivated as a decision looms on his post-2024 future, weekends like the last two are likely to sow doubts in the 34-year-old's mind as to whether Aprilia is truly capable of converting its occasional flashes of promise into consistent, title-winning form. JK

8. Bezzecchi's title hopes fading after fraught weekend

An eventful weekend for Bezzecchi means the VR46 rider is now a title outsider

An eventful weekend for Bezzecchi means the VR46 rider is now a title outsider

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

While Martin closed up on points leader Bagnaia with his wins in the sprint and main race, Marco Bezzecchi lost the momentum he had gained with his victory in India over the course of a fraught weekend on his year-old VR46 Ducati and now looks very much like the outsider in the title race.

Bezzecchi was lucky to get away with a crash in qualifying that left him scrambling to get back to the pits, qualifying fourth on his second bike. But, after a poor start, he lost any chance of fighting his fellow Ducati title contenders in the sprint when he ran wide at the Turn 11 right-hander trying to deprive Marquez of fifth, which condemned him to an eventual sixth-place finish.

Come the main race, Bezzecchi appeared to misjudge his braking completely at Turn 1 and had to check up to avoid hitting Bagnaia. That meant he made contact with the Aprilia of Maverick Vinales instead, with Vinales in turn going into Johann Zarco's Pramac Ducati.

"I almost grazed Pecco. If I had caught him we would have gone flying! So I bounced off someone else [Vinales]," was Bezzecchi's assessment of the first corner chaos. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't do anything differently."

At one stage Bezzecchi was on course to make it an all-Ducati podium, but he had to be content with fourth after being passed by Marquez on what proved to be the final lap before the race was curtailed in the worsening rain.

The upshot is that Bezzecchi now trails Bagnaia by 54 points with six weekends left. Bezzecchi's verdict on the title situation was that "I'm not definitely out of it" but the reality is that, with Martin looking so strong now and Bagnaia seemingly over his troubles, he is probably relying on further misfortune striking one of, if not both, his adversaries. JK

9. There's more than one way to earn a long-lap penalty

Fernandez didn't pull any punches in sharing his dissatisfaction with his long lap penalty

Fernandez didn't pull any punches in sharing his dissatisfaction with his long lap penalty

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

There was confusion when two riders were issued a long-lap penalty during the main race on Sunday for a 'wrong bike change'. The two offenders were Yamaha wildcard Crutchlow and RNF Aprilia man Raul Fernandez, both of whom it turned out, went the wrong side of the small number board that divides each pit box and indicates where the rider should turn in to perform a bike change.

Crutchlow was sanguine about his penalty, having copped the same punishment for abusing track limits in the sprint.

"I've done two races and two long laps, which must be a first!" he quipped with his trademark cheeky grin. "I had no idea why I got the long lap, I thought they had made a mistake or that I had knocked somebody off without realising it…"

But the contrast between the Briton's demeanour and that of fiery young Spaniard Fernandez could not have been starker. In his post-race debrief, Fernandez dropped the f-bomb as he made his feelings clear: "I am very angry - we are in the best championship and the rules that we have are a joke, honestly. We need to improve the f***ing penalties."

Fernandez questioned why riders so often get off scot-free for triggering contact - much as Bezzecchi did at Turn 1 - while something so innocuous was punished so harshly.

"You kill another rider and you get a warning, but if you close [tighten] the line and cross the pit box before yours, you get a long lap penalty," he complained. "For me it's a stupid thing. It was my first time doing a flag-to-flag, it shouldn't be worth a long lap. Sometimes it looks like we are children."

Certainly, Bezzecchi going unpunished for ruining two riders' races while Crutchlow and Fernandez had the book thrown at them for a minor infringement in the first flag-to-flag race in two years feels out of whack. But now everyone knows the rules, you can be sure everyone will be extra careful not to cross into their pit box too early next time. JK

10. Record-breaking calendar reveal brings with it concerns

A record-breaking calendar for 2024 will bring strain on team personnel

A record-breaking calendar for 2024 will bring strain on team personnel

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Prior to the Japanese GP, MotoGP revealed a record 22-round calendar for 2024. It will attempt to stage the Kazakhstan GP again, but has Hungary's new Balaton Park lined up as a reserve (subject to homologation), and sees the return of all four Spanish events.

Ridiculously, there are 11 calendar clashes with Formula 1 events in 2024 – highlighting the problem with swelling calendars in that there are only so many opportunities to expose yourself to fans without their attention being drawn by something else.

The human cost of the bigger calendar will be talked about over the next months as the burden of it all falls on the hard-working mechanics and engineers who have to travel to every race. But some riders also expressed concerns. Fabio Quartararo feels 22 rounds is "the limit" and noted that, for the riders, the format now with sprints is even more demanding than it has ever been.

Marc Marquez also highlighted the amount of injuries seen this year (no race has been started with the full 2023 grid in place) relative to previous seasons, and that the more pressure riders are under, the more chances for serious mistakes there are. LD

Fans will have plenty of opportunities to watch their heroes in action next season

Fans will have plenty of opportunities to watch their heroes in action next season

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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