The final leg of an exhausting Grand Prix triple-header takes place in Japan this weekend as the chase for the MotoGP World Championship heads north from Australia with Camel Yamaha Team rider Valentino Rossi now the closest he has been to the series lead since the third round of the season in Turkey. Third place for the Italian at Phillip Island on Sunday moved him to within 21 points of Nicky Hayden (Honda), with this weekend's event at the Motegi circuit in the Tochigi prefecture providing another opportunity to cut that gap even further before the series returns to Europe for two final races in Portugal and Spain.
As well as lifting him up to second place in the championship, Rossi's 89th top-three career finish in the premier class also moved him ahead of Giacomo Agostini in the all-time podiums list, with just Mick Doohan above him on 95. The 27-year-old's goal is to add to that tally with his 59th victory at a circuit where he has already celebrated on the top step in 2001.
The statistics don't make such good reading for Rossi's Camel Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards, whose impressive run of point-scoring finishes ended on 34 in Australia - just three short of another of Doohan's records. Edwards has a best finish of sixth at Motegi but he is doubly determined to improve on that in front of Yamaha's army of Japanese fans, who last saw him retiring from the Suzuka 8 Hour race with a mechanical problem in July.
Valentino Rossi: Nothing is impossible;
Valentino Rossi admits that Motegi is not high on his list of favourite destinations although that opinion could easily be changed by another top result on Sunday. The Italian has bounced back from a series of early-season setbacks to hit top form in recent weeks and with three rounds remaining he still has a realistic chance of wrestling the title from Hayden's grasp.
"Honestly it's not a track I like very much and I haven't had such a good time there in the past, but we're going to have to do our best at Motegi," says Rossi, who didn't finish last year's race after a collision with Marco Melandri. "Three races in a row like this is very hard, especially with this one as the third! We need to make the most of the practice time there because it is not a great track for us. Last year especially it was not a good weekend; we had a lot of problems during the practices and then the race result was very bad!"
"A gap of 21 points is still a lot but it's not impossible so we can still try. Motegi is going to be a very important race for us, firstly because we know it's going to be difficult and secondly because we have to try to get more points from Hayden in order to stay in the fight. My M1 has been pretty good recently and I think we're going there in good shape, so hopefully we can make the most of the weekend and go back to Europe with an even better shot at the title."
Colin Edwards: Positive thinking;
After enjoying the support of family and friends in Australia, Colin Edwards will again benefit from huge backing this weekend thanks to his army of Japanese fans. Twice a winner of the Suzuka 8 Hour race, one of those alongside Rossi, Edwards enjoyed plenty of success in Japan during his Superbike career and he hopes to revive the glory days by building on a good weekend of set-up work with the YZR-M1 machine in Australia."
"I actually don't mind Motegi too much as a track, although I wouldn't say it's one of my favourites," says Edwards. "It's a pretty interesting track and I really like the four corners after the tunnel exit. We were sixth last year, which was okay, but we did have a few problems through the weekend to deal with which hopefully won't resurface this year. I've always enjoyed racing in Japan and I have loads of fans there, plus there's always a great atmosphere so it's generally a fun weekend."
"Phillip island was obviously really disappointing, especially since we made such massive strides forward over the weekend and I was finally feeling like I was back where I should be in the way I could ride the bike. Basically I just have to forget what happened and think about the positives from the weekend and with any luck what worked there will work next week and we'll be able to get on it from the start on Friday morning. It's good in this way that we've got another race straight away - no time to sit around dwelling on the past!"
Davide Brivio: Desperate for points;
Camel Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio is expecting a tough weekend for his riders at a circuit that has traditionally not favoured Yamaha machinery. However, the Italian insists that the team's focus will not waver as they target another victory points haul in the quest to lift the MotoGP World Championship crown for the third successive season.
"Now we go to Motegi, which was very difficult for us last year and is never an easy track," admits Brivio. "We had a lot of set-up problems and then unfortunately Valentino crashed in the race and we came away with zero points! This year of course we are desperate for points so we need a very different weekend."
"Over the last few races the situation with our bike has been pretty good, so with any luck this will be the case even in Motegi. We know it will be difficult of course, but we go there in good shape and ready to fight. Colin was in great shape at Phillip Island but sadly the rain stopped him from getting the result he deserved. We hope he won't have any pain remaining from his fall and that he can keep working in the good way he was in Australia, as we all want to see him back on top again."
Technically speaking: Motegi according to Andrea Zugna;
Designed in 1997 as a test venue, Motegi has ultra-modern facilities although the outstanding paddock is not quite matched by the intricacies and character of a somewhat geometric circuit layout. A bump-free surface offers good levels of grip without being particularly abrasive, but the proliferation of second gear turns, linked for the most part by mini-drag strips, means braking and acceleration are the main prerequisite to a fast lap time, and consistency the key to a good race.
"Motegi is a stop and go track so it's very important to be very strong and stable on the brakes," explains Andrea Zugna, Colin Edwards' Data Technician. "You need a good front fork setting and then the engine braking setting is also very important. You also need to be strong on the acceleration in order to be able to get away quickly, otherwise you're going to be passed at the next braking point. It is quite stressful on the front tyre because of the long braking sections, so you need the right front setting to cope with this."
"It wasn't a very easy weekend for Colin last year; we didn't really find a way for him to have enough confidence in the front tyre for the race, so this is something we really need to work on from Friday morning this year. The Yamaha's strongest point is agility so it doesn't necessarily play to our strengths, but the M1 worked okay in Malaysia so we can start from this setting and hopefully make improvements from there."