The battle of Motegi began on the previous evening, when Andrea Dovizioso promised to do his damnedest to prevent Marc Marquez tying up the title in Japan. As long as the Ducati finishes ahead of the Repsol Honda, he will succeed.
It continued into the first day of practice, when Dovi took to the top slot in the closing stages; and erstwhile leader Marquez was dropped to fourth, albeit only 0.14 if a second slower.
The times came in the morning, with damp in the afternoon keeping several riders – including Dovi and Marquez – waiting it out in their pits.
Team LCR Castrol rider Cal Crutchlow was the top Honda, a tenth down on Dovi; with fellow independent rider Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha) third.
The top nine riders were within a second of the leader.
The Yamaha mystery continued, with Maverick Vinales a close fifth and Movistar team-mate Valentino Rossi ninth. The signs were good after the revival at the Thai GP a fortnight ago, but race distance will be the proof.
Andrea Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki) was sixth, then Alvaro Bautista (Angel Nieto Ducati) and Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Ducati).
Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia) rounded out the top ten ahead of Dani Pedrosa, which might be crucial, with a chance of a damp start tomorrow meaning that the FP1 times will determine who goes straight into Q2.
Light rain had started soon after the end of the morning outing, and with the track and the air moist in the afternoon, Crutchlow, Aleix Espargaro and Avintia Ducati substitute rider Jordi Torres followed Dovi and Marquez by staying in the pits. Others only went out right at the end, when it was dry enough for slicks, and this was when the times came.
Pedrosa pushed through to the top at the end, ousting Scott Redding (Aprilia), Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Ducati) and Zarco; but times were some three seconds off the best of the morning.
Moto2 Free Practice
Everything was the other way round in Moto2. The morning session was damp, and the afternoon dry.
Title leader Pecco Bagnaia (SKY VR46 Kalex) didn’t even go out in the morning, and nor did Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Kalex); with title challenger Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM) only doing three laps.
The value of their prudence was underlined when Alex Marquez had a huge crash when he strayed off the asphalt onto a wet white line. He was lucky not to be hit by his bike as the EG-VDS Kalex somersaulted down the track alongside him; and though stretchered away was fit enough to set ninth-best time in the afternoon.
The top slot went to SII KTM rider Iker Lecuona, heading a group of 11 within one second … a wider spread than usual.
Bagnaia was second, just over a tenth down; Oliveira sixth.
Pons HP40 Kalex rider Augusto Fernandez was third, with Fabio Quartararo (Speed Up) next; then Brad Binder less than a tenth ahead of his team-mate.
The Kalexes of Tetsuta Nagashima, Marcel Schrotter and Alex Marquez filled the next three places, with Luca Marini (SKY VR46 Kalex) tenth, ahead of second EG-VDS rider Joan Mir.
Schrotter and Marquez had been quickest in the morning.
American Joe Roberts (NTS) was 17th in the wet, 21st in the dry, one down on Remy Gardner (Tech 3).
Moto3 Free Practice
With light rain keeping slick tyres on the racks in the afternoon, Moto3’s top times came from the morning session, with veteran Jakub Kornfeil (Redox KTM) topping the sheets, and title leader Jorge Martin (Del Conca Honda) only 16th-fastest, more than a second down.
Martin took the same position in the afternoon, when erstwhile championship rival Marco Bezzecchi (Redox KTM) took to the top, lap times eight seconds slower than in the dry.
Aron Canet (EG Honda) was second-fastest on combined times, from two more Hondas, Leopard team-mates Enea Bastianini and Lorenzo Dalla Porta; with Bezzecchi sixth in the dry.
The Italian is now disputing second overall with compatriot Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Honda); 18th in the morning but second in the dry.
By Michael Scott