MOTEGI, Japan: A thrilling MotoGP season moves to Japan this weekend after world champion Fabio Quartararo crashed in Aragon to blow the title race wide open with five grands prix to go.
The Frenchman still heads the standings but his lead has been slashed to 10 points by hard-charging Italian Francesco Bagnaia and Spain’s Aleix Espargaro is also firmly in the title hunt.
Ducati rider Bagnaia had ramped up the pressure on Yamaha’s Quartararo by winning four races in a row going into last weekend at Aragon, Spain, where Quartararo made a spectacular and painful first-lap exit after clipping the Honda of six-time world champion Marc Marquez.
Bagnaia was denied a fifth straight win by Enea Bastianini on the last lap after a nerve-jangling duel, but second place was good enough to tighten the squeeze on the shaken Quartararo and the Italian now has all the momentum.
“I gave my best and I would like to have another fight in Japan,” said the 25-year-old Bagnaia, who is chasing a first MotoGP world title.
The Italian said he was happy to settle for the 20 points that came with finishing second rather than risk going for broke in the pursuit of 25 points for the win.
Just 17 points divide the top three in the title race heading to Motegi for the first MotoGP in Japan since the pandemic.
Bastianini is not out of the championship fight in fourth, 48 points behind Quartararo.
Bagnaia, though, is uneasy about any title talk.
“For sure now we are more close and now we can speak more about the championship, but I don’t want to,” he said.
“I want to do more weekends in Japan like we are doing this second part of the championship and see what happens.
“I know that our potential is so high but it’s three years since we went there so it will be tough at the start.”
While Bagnaia was being circumspect, Aprilia Racing’s Espargaro is relishing being in the mix for his first MotoGP world title.
“The championship is getting super hot,” the 33-year-old said after coming third in Aragon behind Ducati duo Bastianini and Bagnaia.
He believes that Bagnaia is the man to beat and “now riding better than us”.
“He has the best bike and is riding at a really, really high level so it’s not going to be easy for Fabio and me,” said Espargaro.
“But this is MotoGP, you never know what can happen.
“Now we are going to very strange circuits, far from Europe with different temperatures, with different (tyre) grip so anything can happen.”
After Sunday’s race in Japan, the campaign moves to Thailand, Australia and Malaysia, before the final race in Valencia, Spain.
Quartararo must reignite his world-title defence at Motegi, having been left “sore” after his crash and suffering friction burns having slithered across the Aragon track.
The 23-year-old was pictured with several large bandages covering his torso, but he was not badly hurt and was still smiling.
“Japan is a track I love,” he told reporters.
“I feel Japan can be a good track for us because even if there is a lot of acceleration, there is also a lot of braking.
“That is our strong point.”