Azi Farni MotoGP column: Racing coming home to Japan

By Azi FarniBBC pit-lane reporter
MotoGP riders stand for a minute of silence to honour the victims of the Japanese earthquake, 20 March 2011
MotoGP's riders stood for a minute's silence at the Qatar Grand Prix in March, to honour the memory of Japan's earthquake victims

When Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo categorically said in July that they would not go to the Japanese GP, there was the usual banter between riders and journalists.

But one Japanese journalist silenced the laughter.

All the bikes on the grid had been carrying Japanese flags and the "with you Japan" slogans but the reporter was quick to see the contradiction.

"Those messages and flags gave us lots of courage and we appreciated it," he said. "But it seems there is a contradiction between what you say and what you do."

Fast forward two months to the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix, and after months of speculation, reports and discussions, the MotoGP riders have now rescinded their decision not to go to Motegi.

Hiroshi Aoyama, the premier class's sole Japanese representative and the only rider not to have signed the petition against going, is thankful.

He said: "Life in Japan is going on, so that means that things - not everything, for sure - are at the level that you can travel to Japan. I would say please believe this and let's go to Japan and show our raceexternal-link."

While Japan might be a long way from the European homes of the majority of the paddock, its influence in the sport is overwhelming, from the bikes, engines and tyres to the engineers and technicians who have designed and built them, and of course the riders battling the machines out on track and the factory bosses who keep the championship evolving.

Three of the four factories in MotoGP are Japanese, making Motegi the home race for Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, as well as Bridgestone who supply the tyres to the whole MotoGP field.

And to them, the "with you Japan" message is clear.

HRC will be fielding two extra bikes in Motegi, giving wildcard rides to their Japanese test riders Shinichi Ito and Kousake Akiyoshiexternal-link in the HRC and LCR teams respectively, in a move that HRC hope will "bring courage and show support for the East Japan area".

Ito was directly affected by the Tsunami, having lost friends and relatives to the disaster.

When the Tsunami hit, Ito's house was fortunately spared and was one of few in his area that still had working electricity, thanks to solar panels on his roof. In the days that followed, Ito took in many of his neighbours to feed and shelter them.

Being so close to the disaster, Ito, who had been retired from full-time GP racing since 1997, wanted to do something for his friends, neighbours and compatriots and took the decision to ride again in the first race of the Japanese championship, in which he finished third.

He also ran in the Suzuka 8 hours with Akiyoshi and Ryuichi Kiyonari (currently competing in the British Superbike championship) and won.

His Motegi ride will be yet another emotional demonstration of using racing to defy the catastrophe that hit the Japanese people.

Yamaha too will line up Japanese riders on track, though not in the race. As part of their ongoing 50th anniversary of racing celebrations, Shinya Nakano, Hiroyuki Kawasaki, Tadahiko Taira, Akiyasu Motohashi and Mitsuo Abe will do parade laps on Yamahas from years past.

Mitsuo Abe, father of Norick Abeexternal-link, will be riding his late son's YZR500 from 1995.

Bikes race at Motegi
MotoGP and F1 return to Japan in the near future

Abe, along with the late Daijiro Kato and Shoya Tomizawa, is another of the names synonymous with both racing success and tragedy in Japan, having all been killed on a motorcycle.

We have seen time and time again the stoicism shown by our Japanese peers in the face of adversity. Yuki Takahashi rode to a brave Moto2 podium in Estoril this year, dedicating the result to his brother who had passed awayexternal-link only days before.

Tomo Koyama came back to Misano to commemorate the anniversary of his friend Tomizawa's death by riding for Shoya's old team. Hiroshi Aoyama made comments at the Qatar test about his desire to ride strongly for Japanese pride and to "send some good news back home" after news of the recent disaster had broken.

The race at Motegi this week, rescheduled for the second successive year, will not be just another race. With the championship nearing its close there is a lot more at stake than just championship points.

With Honda facing 30% budget cuts as a direct result of the disasterexternal-link, despite being on course to secure the triple crown of rider, manufacturer and team championships, and Suzuki still trying to secure their MotoGP future, it is an important time to remind the world of the importance of Japan to motors and motorsport.

While back-to-back MotoGP and Formula One races at Motegi and Suzuka in the next two weeks won't overturn the country's and factories' financial problems, it can only help reaffirm the racing world's commitment to the nation that has shaped and will continue to shape our sport.

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