MotoGP hasn’t been to Japan since before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but a welcome return to Motegi on Friday morning was.
Friday’s only practice session was a 75-minute extended affair after the day’s schedule was changed due to logistical difficulties in moving the circuit from Aragon last Sunday to Japan.
With the longer session, much of the first 50 minutes or so was devoted to race preparation, with the lead switching between Marc Marquez, Miller and championship leader Fabio Quartararo.
The latter led the session with 1m45.807s when the rain flags were raised with 45 minutes remaining.
Fortunately, rain averaged only a few points – although a stormy forecast for Saturday means the second half of FP1 will be crucial to qualifying for the qualifying group.
Suzuki’s Alex Rins—who debuted a set of new rear wings on his GSX-RR in FP1—was the first rider to perform a light attack in the frame time with just over half an hour left.
The Spaniard rose to the top by scoring 1m45.738s, before Pramac Ducati’s Johan Zarco made a clear move on his first lap on soft tyres with 1m45.309s.
Aprilia’s Alex Espargaro – who came to Japan just 17 points from championship leader Quartararo – led with half an hour remaining by 1 minute 45.233 seconds, before Zarco achieved a small advantage by clocking 1 minute 45.210 seconds.
Quartararo, Bastianini and Rins would trade the lead for the next 20 minutes, before Miller on the factory Ducati team began lighting up the timing screens with just over seven minutes remaining.
The Australian made a clear streak with 1m44.660s – capturing Rins’ 1m44.913s – and was on his way to blowing his effort away in the follow-up round.
But Miller ran into slow traffic in Joan Mir’s replacement Takuya Tsuda, which cost him about three-tenths – although he still scored 1m44.509s to finish the fastest FP1 ever.
His teammate Francesco Bagnaia was just 0.028secs off that time in second, with Quartararo – who is just 10 points behind the Aragon GP – 0.021secs behind in third.
The trio of title contenders ran back in the timesheets as Espargaro jumped to fourth, trailing 1min 44.577secs ahead of Ducati VR46 rider Luca Marini and Marc Marquez.
Paul Espargaro overshadowed his Honda teammate Marquez in seventh, ahead of both Factory KTMs by Brad Bender and Miguel Oliveira, and second April by Maverick Vinales.
The late crashes of Sarco and Bastianini aboard Zarco proved costly to both as they look set to face the first quarter if the expected rain falls on Saturday morning in FP2.
Zarco finishes Friday 11, 0.001 seconds outside the top ten, with Bastianini 14 behind Rins and well ahead of Pramac’s Jorge Martin. Injured Takaaki Nakagami – whose continued participation in his home race will be determined after FP1 – was 12th in his LCR Honda.
Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli looked like he was on course for a solid FP1 finish after being a consistent factor in the top ten in all sessions.
But the Italian faded to 16th on the checkered flag ahead of RNF Racing’s Cal Crutchlow, who has recent Motegi experience after participating in several testing for Yamaha on the field this year.
Teammate Darren Bender also struggled in the late fall and was 18th as a result, with Marco Besicci (VR46) led by Alex Marquez (LCR), Raul Fernandez (Tech 3), HRC wildcard Tetsuta Nagashima, Gresini’s Fabio Di Giannantonio and Tsuda.