MotoGP hasn’t been to Japan since before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but made a welcome return to Motegi on Friday morning.
The sole practice session on Friday was an extended 75-minute affair after the day’s schedule had to be altered owing to the logistical difficulties in getting the paddock from Aragon last Sunday to Japan.
With the longer session, much of the first 50 minutes or so were dedicated to race set-up, with top spot changing hands between Marc Marquez, Miller and championship leader Fabio Quartararo.
The latter led the session with a 1m45.807s when rain flags were flown with 45 minutes remaining.
Mercifully, the rainfall amounted to just a few spots – though stormy forecasts for Saturday meant the second half of FP1 would be crucial for the qualifying group order.
Suzuki’s Alex Rins – who debuted a set of new rear wings on his GSX-RR in FP1 – was the first rider to put in a soft tyre time attack with just over half an hour to go.
The Spaniard went top with a 1m45.738s, before Pramac Ducati’s Johann Zarco moved clear on his first soft tyre lap with a 1m45.309s.
Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia – who comes to Japan just 17 points from championship leader Quartararo – edged ahead with half an hour remaining with a 1m45.233s, before Zarco eked out a small advantage with a 1m45.210s.
Quartararo, Bastianini and Rins would all trade top spot over the next 20 minutes, before Miller on the factory team Ducati began to light up the timing screens with just over seven minutes remaining.
The Australian streaked clear with a 1m44.660s – taking over from Rins’ 1m44.913s – and was on course to blast his own effort away on his follow-up tour.
But Miller encountered slow traffic in Joan Mir’s Suzuki replacement Takuya Tsuda, costing him around three tenths – though he still posted a 1m44.509s to end FP1 fastest of all.
Teammate Francesco Bagnaia was just 0.028s outside of that time in second, with Quartararo – whom he trails by just 10 points after the Aragon GP – a further 0.021s behind in third.
The trio of title contenders ran line astern on the timesheets as Espargaro leaped up to fourth late on with a 1m44.577s ahead of VR46 Ducati rider Luca Marini and Marc Marquez.
Pol Espargaro shadowed Honda teammate Marquez in seventh ahead of both factory KTMs of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, and the second Aprilia of Maverick Vinales.
Late crashes for Zarco and Gresini’s Bastianini proved costly for both as they look set to face Q1 should the expected rain arrive on Saturday morning in FP2.
Zarco ends Friday 11th, 0.001s outside of the top 10, with Bastianini 14th behind Rins and ahead of Pramac’s Jorge Martin. The injured Takaaki Nakagami – whose continued participation in his home race will be decided after FP1 – was 12th on his LCR Honda.
Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli looked like he was on course for a strong finish to FP1 having been a consistent factor in the top 10 all session.
But the Italian faded to 16th at the chequered flag ahead of RNF Racing’s Cal Crutchlow, who has recent experience of Motegi having taken part in several tests for Yamaha at the venue this year.
His teammate Darryn Binder also suffered a late fall and was 18th as a result, with Marco Bezzecchi (VR46) heading Alex Marquez (LCR), Raul Fernandez (Tech 3), HRC wildcard Tetsuta Nagashima, Gresini’s Fabio Di Giannantonio and Tsuda.