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Motul Grand Prix of Japan MotoGP PBM Aprilia Wrap Up

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My journey to the Motul Grand Prix of Japan MotoGP race was the beginning of a journey of epic proportions: three weeks on the road, half-way around the world in Asia and Australia, a trip of a lifetime for a Florida by who began his career as a club racer with CCS! I left Luxembourg and flew to Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam, where I then caught a nonstop flight to Narita airport in Tokyo. I arrived early Wednesday  motning and from there, it was a 3 hour drive to Twin Ring Motegi, in Haga district, Tochigi prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. Once I got there, we only had a few minutes to check into our hotel, drop our bags, change into our team uniforms before rushing to the track and set up the pit box. Fortunately, we only pack the essentials for flyaway rounds and within 4 hours, we had the entire Paul Bird Motorsports Aprilia garage sorted, with the bikes on the stands, ready to be serviced on Thursday morning. By the time i made it back to the hotel, though, I was so tired that I could barely move: I’d been up for over 32 hours straight- my seat-neighbor on the flight to Tokyo must have gotten up a dozen times to go to the bathroom, which meant that I didn’t catch even a wink during the 13 hour flight there. I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to eat a lite dinner before I passed out from exhaustion. Since we’d replaced the motor at Motorland Aragon, Thursday went very smoothly, just the usual disassembly and thorough cleaning of the bike and chassis components and we were out at a reasonable hour, with time to take in the Honda Museum, which was really incredible.

entrancetohndamuseum

On Friday, FP1 got off to a rough start, ML2, which is now Michael Laverty’s main bike started leaking oil by the spark plugs while he was out during the session. Fortunately, it didn’t get on the tires, but he got enough on his leathers and the side of the bike to take notice and come in. Michael went back ut on ML1, but wasn’t able to improve on his lap times, ending the session with a best lap of 1:49.923, good for just 23rd on the time sheets, one up from Avinta Racing’s Mike DiMeglio. Between sessions, Victor and I worked up a solution using Aprilia parts 477-1 & 477-4, essentially sponges placed around the coils on ML2 to try and soak up the oil. It worked somewhat, but we spent the session trying to find more grip for Michael, the bike was having trouble initiating turns and edge grip while leaned over was also elusive. We ended up putting on 3 different shocks, as well as changing the fork springs twice during MotoGP FP2. We made modest improvement, even if our results didn’t show it, as Michael Laverty finished the session in 24th, with a 1:49.321, over half a second faster, but nowhere near where we wanted to be. At the same time, the oil leak wasn’t getting any better. The sponges were at best, a temporary fix- the leak was coming from a crack in the head, meaning that we were down to our last good motor for the rest of the season and that had to go in friday night in order to be ready for Saturday qualifying.

Saturday morning was pretty warm, with the air 22ºc and the track at 31ºc (72ºf & 81ºf ,respectively) giving us better conditions to improve our times. FP3 brought improvements, with a 1:48.917, but we needed more. For FP4, we mounted 340mm carbon brake rotors, which were required by the MotoGP officials for racing at Motegi due to the high speeds combined with tight turns in a  majority of the corners. At 340mm in diameter, the rotors were HUGE! Ordinary wheel/tire changes were out of the question due to their size and unconventional mounting: the calipers got mounted to the discs first, then the disc was mounted to the wheel, the wheel installed and the brake lines hooked up via quick-disconnect links. We improved a bit more in FP4, with Michael pulling off a 1:48.31, good for 22nd and faster than his teammate, Broc. Still, we needed more and it was frustrating to see IODA’S Danillo Petrucci so much further up the charts than us; they’d had Aprillia factory techs helping them at Aragon, with improved electronics and strategies and that paid off for them. Even though Michael was still faster than them going into the traps, they were killing us on corner speed and overall lap times, where it really mattered. Q1 brought slight improvement, with Laverty dropping another half second at 1:48.144, ahead of Broc and Mike DiMeglio, but leaving us starting from the last row of the grid.

Michael Laverty Qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi for the Motul Japanese Grand Prix

Michael Laverty Qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi for the Motul Japanese Grand Prix. Photo by Gold & Goose

Come race time, we were ready. Michael Laverty got an excellent start and by the end of the first lap, he was running in 18th, ahead of Avinta’s Mike DiMeglio & NGM Forward Yamaha’s Alex DeAngelis, however during the 2nd lap, he got shuffled back a few spots and by the time the race was over, we’d finished in P18, beating DiMeglio and our PBM teammate, Broc Parkes, but not anywhere near where we had been hoping.

After the race, we packed up fast and headed back to Tokyo to check out of our airport and grab a flight to Melbourne. We were in a bit of a rush, as there was a typhoon bearing down in the South China Sea and we hoped we could beat it. As luck would have it, the storm had disrupted flights coming into Narita, even though we had clear skies over Tokyo, our flight had gotten cancelled. Phil spent the next 4 hours calling everywhere trying to book a flight to Melbourne. We were able to get a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and got in at 3:00 AM. Once there, we couldn’t find a hotel that would admit us until 6 in the morning, so we spent a few more hours waiting. Phil finally got a place for what seemed like triple the going rate, so at 6:30 in the morning, I was able to get a shower and grab a few hours in the rack until I woke up around noon. Jet lag from flying halfway around the globe is a serious pain and me, Victor and Ryan all were milling around the hotel, so we decided to go into Kuala Lumpur to do a little sightseeing and get some recon in before we came back in another week. We explored downtown and the Chinese section, which was really neat, but I’ll go into more detail in the Malaysian GP report.

Waiting on a cancelled flight...

Waiting on a cancelled flight…

While we were in Japan, we had a few funny moments. On our way to the track, we stopped at a 7-Eleven to get 4 liters of water to make coffee and tea with. Apparently, we weren’t paying very close attention and instead of getting water, we got 4 liters of sake. Putting boiling hot sake in coffee made for a decidedly unpleasant surprise, it’s not something that i recommend trying at home. The fans in Japan are like nothing else i’ve ever seen, they’re REALLY into the sort and the riders. One fan, a 16 year old Japanese girl stopped by our pit box, and gave Michael a very thoughtful gift, including some Japanese sweets, a handmade key fob with Michaels initials and an Irish clover leaf and a manga-style cartoon drawing that she’d made of Michael and his fiancee, Jodi. It was touchingly sweet, if not a little creepy, too.  I’ve mentioned previously that Phil, Michael’s crew chief, LOVES McDonalds, which to me, coming from America, seems a little odd, but conversely, my partner Victor HATES it. Much to Victor’s dismay, we ended up having it no less than 3 times in 24 hours in Japan, first, right when we got off the plane, we had breakfast, then after we’d set up we had it again. We were driving back to the hotel in the dark after leaving the track and Phil goes “Oh, look!” pointing down the road. I couldn’t see anything, but all of a sudden, Victor started flipping out, “No, no, no, oh shit, nooooooooooo!” and sure enough, looming in the distance was the Golden Arches…

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