The 15th round of the 2017 MotoGP World Championship takes place this weekend from the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, which is about 150 kilometres north-north-east of Tokyo, and is the first of three-straight flyaway weekends (Japan, Australia, and Malaysia) that could well determine who becomes the 2017 MotoGP World Champion, and with four-races to go, the battle looks set to go down to the wire.
Marc Márquez (224 points) on his factory Honda, leads the world championship by 16 points over factory Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso (208 points) after winning the last two races, including last time out in Aragón in Spain three weeks ago. He has now equalled his win tally from last year to become the first rider since Valentino Rossi to achieve five race victories (or more) in a MotoGP season for five-successive years.
And despite a couple of scrappy qualifying sessions by his own high standards, has the bike, the speed, and the momentum in his quest to win his fourth MotoGP World Championship, and his sixth world championship overall.
Dovizioso, meanwhile had a much more difficult time in Aragón, struggling for pace during the race, coming home in seventh place, and leaving his hopes of winning his first MotoGP World Championship in a difficult position, but is having the best season of his MotoGP career, there is no doubt about that!
Maverick Viñales (196 points) is third in the world championship on his factory Yamaha, 28 points behind Márquez despite having not won a race since the French Grand Prix back in May, and the factory Yamaha team have struggled to find that extra speed and confidence, particularly in hotter conditions to challenge Honda and Ducati in the world championship battle, but you feel Viñales is riding well at the moment, with six-successive top six race finishes.
Fourth in the 2017 MotoGP World Championship is Márquez’s teammate Dani Pedrosa (170 points) after a second-place finish in Aragón, and remains in mathematical contention for the title, along with Yamaha teammate of Viñales, Valentino Rossi (168 points), who made a miraculous comeback from a broken leg in Aragón, qualifying on the front row, and then managing to finish fifth in one of the most remarkable performances that we have seen, given the circumstances, in recent years.
Johann Zarco (117 points) is sixth in the world championship, but out of contention to win it in his rookie season in MotoGP, and is ahead of factory Ducati rider Jorge Lorenzo (106 points). Lorenzo scored just his second podium of in 2017 at Aragón, and is showing some promising signs that he might be getting back towards race-winning form in his first season on the factory Ducati, although time is running out to secure a race victory, and avoid having a winless season for the first time since joining the premier class in 2008.
Completing the top 10 in the 2017 MotoGP World Championship are Danilo Petrucci (95 points), Cal Crutchlow (92 points), and Jonas Folger (84 points), riders who are all capable of achieving another podium or two before the season comes to an end.
Looking at who can challenge for a race victory at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, it is pretty hard to go against Marc Márquez, who won the race last year in securing his third MotoGP World Championship, but he has got some heavy competition for the victory at the Honda-owned circuit in 2017.
In the Bridgestone era (2009-2015) at the Japanese Grand Prix, Yamaha had won three times (all for Jorge Lorenzo), Honda had also won three times (all for Dani Pedrosa), and Ducati only won once during that time with Casey Stoner back in a difficult 2010 for the Italian manufacturer, the year which started their downward spiral, which they have recovered from.
You also sense that this circuit should suit both the Yamaha and the Ducati, perhaps even more so than the Honda, and both Viñales and Dovizioso desperately need a victory to keep their championship hopes alive, and to not allow Márquez to get a total stranglehold on proceedings.
While I would tip Márquez given his current form to win for the second year in a row at the Twin Ring Motegi, if I wasn’t going to tip him to win the race, I think Jorge Lorenzo will break his duck and claim his first race victory for Ducati, while I think Maverick Viñales will get his first podium since the British Grand Prix.
MotoGP Practice on Friday at 9:55am, and 2:05pm local time (11:55am, and 4:05pm AEDT). MotoGP FP3 on Saturday at 9:55am local time (11:55am AEDT), FP4 on Saturday at 1:30pm local time (3:30pm AEDT), Q1 and Q2 on Saturday at 2:10pm and 2:35pm local time (4:10pm and 4:35pm AEDT). MotoGP Warm Up on Sunday at 9:40am local time (11:40am AEDT), and MotoGP race on Sunday at 2:00pm local time (4:00pm AEDT).