It may have been the home race for MotoGP's Japanense manufacturers -- Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Bridgestone -- but the Ducati Marlboro Team painted the Motegi circuit red, with Loris Capirossi taking the victory in the Japanese Grand ...
It may have been the home race for MotoGP's Japanense manufacturers -- Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Bridgestone -- but the Ducati Marlboro Team painted the Motegi circuit red, with Loris Capirossi taking the victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, and, more importantly, his teammate Casey Stoner clinching the Riders' Championship title.
It was a different Twin Ring Motegi, with the oppressive heat and sunshine gone, and replaced by steady rain. Marco Melandri had set the quickest time in the wet morning warm-up session, with polesitter Dani Pedrosa and second-placed Valentino Rossi well back in the field.
As the lights went out for the start, the field was all on wet tires, and there was little choice about that. Pedrosa held on to first place through the first corner and the first lap, though hounded by Anthony West's Kawasaki.
The young Australian, always in his element on a wet track, looked stellar, and made his way past Pedrosa with relative ease on the second lap, but his joy was short-lived as he was judged to have jumped the start and given a ride-through penalty, dropping back to 14th place.
By this time, Stoner, too, had caught up and passed Pedrosa, so the Ducati rider now inherited the lead. He was quickly passed by Melandri -- also very comfortable in the wet conditions -- who had made his way up from the 10th grid position.
Stoner kept pace with Melandri's Gresini Honda, though, and the duo stayed at the front until mid-race. By them though, Rossi had recovered from his poor start, and was looking strong on the drying track. "Il Dottore" passed Stoner -- critical for keeping his championship hopes alive -- on lap 12, and Melandri two laps later.
With the dry line getting wider and wider by this time, both Melandri and Stoner dove into the pits for a bike change, with Rossi waiting yet another lap.
But other riders had made more aggressive choices, switching to dry-weather bikes a few laps earlier in the hopes of making progress up the field, and the front-runners found that they had lost ground in staying out as long as they had.
The winner in the pit stop timing was Capirossi, who came in early as he had been unhappy with his wet-weather setup.
"We didn't know which would be the best tyres to use, so we started with medium rain tyres," he explained. "At first it was really difficult, so I decided to pit early, and for sure my tactic was the best!"
Randy de Puniet, who had qualified a strong fourth, made two agricultural excursion early in the race on his Kawasaki, dropping well back in the field. However, an early bike change on lap seven paid off for the Frenchman, and by the time the stops were completed, he was in second behind Capirossi.
"I changed to the bike with the slicks and, when I exited the pits, I thought my race was over but I continued to push," he recalled. "When I saw on my pit board I was in second I was really surprised!"
Rossi had rejoined in second, behind Capirossi, but that position was short-lived, but his dry-weather bike was handling badly, and he quickly dove back into the pits. The team was unable to find a fault, and Rossi rejoined, but by now well back.
"After I passed Melandri I came into the box to change and maybe this was one lap too late, but our strategy was more or less okay because I was able to come back into the race with only Loris in front of me," Il Dottore recounted the drama. "We had an intermediate front tyre, a slick cut which is normal in these situations, but the bike was almost impossible for me to ride and turn and it felt like there was something seriously wrong. I came back in but my mechanics could see there was nothing wrong so I went straight out again, and by then it was too late; the race was over for me and the championship was gone. After four or five laps the tyre began to work better and I was able to keep going to the end."
Rossi would eventually finish the race in 13th place, over a minute off Capirossi's pace.
So behind Capirossi and de Puniet were Toni Elias (Gresini Honda) and Sylvain Guintoli (Tech 3 Yamaha), followed by Stoner and Melandri.
With the drying track, Capirossi cruised to a 10.9-second victory, his third consecutive one at Suzuka, but his first one on the new 800cc MotoGP bikes. With his five-year tenure at Ducati coming to an end at the end of the season, the Italian veteran was happy and relieved to get his first victory in what has been a difficult season for him.
"We struggled a lot this weekend and only yesterday did we find a better set-up solution," Capirossi reflected. "When I woke this morning and saw the rain I said 'wow, for sure this is going to be a difficult day'. For sure my tactic was the best because I won my third consecutive race here, it's a great moment for me. It's also a great day for Casey, for Ducati and for the team. I congratulate Casey, he's a really strong rider, I'm very happy for him."
de Puniet, meanwhile, followed up his career-best grid position with his first MotoGP podium after a very strong recovery from the early-race mistakes. de Puniet, too, is changing teams for 2008, moving to LCR Honda after two seasons with the works Kawasaki team.
"I'm very happy because that was a really hard race," he smiled. "To be on the podium in Japan for Kawasaki and Bridgestone is perfect. And I'm really grateful to my crew because they've worked so hard to help me get here."
de Puniet had to work hard at the end to hold of Elias and fourth-placed Guintoli, the privateer Yamaha rider pressuring de Puniet and Elias to the final turn. At the chequered flag, only 1.339 seconds separated the three riders.
"This has got to be one of the best days of my life," said Guintoli. "To finish fourth in a MotoGP is something I could only dream about at the beginning of the year but I will always think how close I was to a podium. I tried very hard on the last lap to pass Toni but I didn't want to try too hard and end up in the gravel."
Stoner, meanwhile, had decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and conceded fifth place to Melandri. With Rossi far behind him, the important part for the Australian was to keep his bike on track and finish the race. And that he did, bringing the Ducati home 2.6 seconds behind Melandri. That brought his total up to 297 championship points, 83 ahead of Rossi, and untouchable for the 2007 title.
"At the moment it all feels a little bit unrealistic," Stoner said at the finish. "I'm struggling for words, I don't think there's any feeling that can compare to this, but I think it's really going to sink in as the day goes on and heads into tomorrow."
"After I changed bikes there was something up with the steering damper," he explained the second half of the race. "The bike wasn't allowing me to tip into corners, so I had to slow down to unwind it. Then I started to find more of a rhythm, and towards the end everything was creeping into my head, so I just tried to stay focused on the job in hand, I wanted to bring it home for my team."
After a three-week break, the series now moves to Australia for the 16th round of the 2007 season.