I blame the incredible performance of Dani Pedrosa in Misano and Jerez for bringing back memories of Japanese wildcards. I loved going to Japan but often dreaded commentating. Pronunciation of names was one aspect of the job I never found easy and that is putting it mildly! Going into that crucial Grand Prix at Motegi on Sunday Cal Crutchlow as the wildcard for Yamaha would not have caused a problem but it was not always the case. Not only were their Japanese wildcards to get my head round but they often won the races. Some of these riders went on to become World Champions and Championship contenders. Others just disappeared, while one career ended in tragedy.
On my very first visit to Japan in 1987 at Suzuka I got a clear indication of what lay ahead. Masaru Kobayashi won the 250cc race at the Japanese Grand Prix for Honda and then almost disappeared from sight. He finished third at Suzuka a year later. They were the only World Championship points he ever scored. Fifteen years later Osamu Miyazaki won the 250cc race at Suzuka as a wildcard entry riding a Yamaha. Second place went to the Honda of Daisaku Sakai scoring his only ever World Championship points
Other Japanese wildcard entries went onto greater things. Daijiro Kato won the 250cc race at Suzuka in 1997 and 1998 before embarking on a Championship winning career. He won the 2001 250cc World Championship for the Gresini Honda team before tragically losing his life when he crashed in the 2003 MotoGP™ race at Suzuka. The lovable Nobby Ueda won the 1991 125cc race at Suzuka on his Grand Prix debut. He raced for the next 11 years and finished second in the 125cc World Championship on two occasions.
Takumi Ito finished third in the first ever Premier class Japanese Grand Prix riding the V4 Suzuki in 1987. Eight years later Takumi Aoki was third on his Premier class debut. In 2002, the first-ever, history-making four-stroke MotoGP™ race was won by Valentino Rossi, Akira Ryo brought Suzuki second place on a historic afternoon.
The only wildcard or rider replacement winner in the modern MotoGP™ era came in 2006, but it almost went unnoticed. While the world focused on the Nicky Hayden/Valentino Rossi fight for the Championship at a dramatic final round in Valencia, history was made. The World Superbike Champion Australian Troy Bayliss returned to MotoGP™ replacing the injured Sete Gibernau at Ducati. He won the race from Loris Capirossi giving Ducati their first Grand Prix one two. Can history be repeated in Malaysia next month?
World Superbike Champion Alvaro Bautista returns to MotoGP™ to ride for the Ducati Lenovo team as a wildcard. Bautista has won both 125 and 250cc Grands Prix at the Sepang circuit and will be up for the fight.
Great to see Cal Crutchlow and a British rider back in Grand Prix action at Motegi on Sunday. He finished second there in 2018 riding the LCR Honda. It’s been a tough year for Yamaha, but a little bit of rain could make a big difference – ask Olivier Jacque. In 2005, a year before Bayliss’s historic win, out of the blue he came close to beating Valentino Rossi in China. Replacing the injured Alex Hoffman in the Kawasaki team, the former 250cc World Champion eventually finished second 1.7 s behind World Champion Rossi in the rain.
It can rain at Motegi and I would have no problem pronouncing the winner’s name.