Nico Hulkenberg may have experienced a “lonely” Japanese Grand Prix, but had no complaints about the end result as he battled through the field to finish sixth on Sunday.
Hulkenberg struggled for pace in qualifying, resulting in a Q2 knockout which combined with a grid penalty left him 13th on the grid for the start of the race.
However, a good getaway from the line plus incidents for drivers ahead allowed the Force India driver to run eighth by the end of the first lap.
After exercising the undercut at the end of his first stint, Hulkenberg got the jump on the Lotus pair of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado to rise to sixth where he remained until the end of the race.
“A great result today and realistically sixth was the maximum we could achieve when you remember that I started from P13,” Hulkenberg said.
“I made a really good start and jumped a couple of cars away from the line, and then stayed on the inside going into turn one, which turned out to be a good decision.
“By turn two I was up in eighth, close up behind the Lotuses and actually they were holding me up during the first stint. The team pitted me early to undercut them and we then out-raced them with our stronger pace.
“It was a lonely race for me, but effective and the result is very welcome. The team did a great job today and I think we deserved these eight points.”
In the sister Force India car, Sergio Perez was unable to recover from a first lap spin, finishing 12th at the end of the race.
“12th place is a very disappointing outcome for a weekend that had started really well,” Perez said. “Unfortunately, my race was an uphill battle from the first corner. I saw [Felipe] Massa going slowly in the centre of the track and had to avoid him, and that’s when I got the hit.
“We tried to recover and I did all I could to get back into the points, but even our best was not enough. It’s a shame as our pace was really good, but with no safety car or any other incidents, the points were too far away.
“It was still a good result for the team with Nico scoring points, something that will help us with our championship battle.”
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”