The Sepang round of MotoGP could see all three championships clinched this weekend, with Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Sandro Cortese all closing in on their respective world championships. The job is easiest for Cortese, all the German has to do to become the inaugural Moto3 champion is finish one place behind Maverick Vinales and the title is his. After getting a little too excited at Motegi, Cortese will doubtless be heading to Sepang in a much calmer frame of mind.
Marquez also faces a relatively manageable task, but unlike Cortese, he does not have his fate entirely in his own hands. If Pol Espargaro wins at Sepang, then the earliest Marquez could be crowned champion would be at Phillip Island. If Espargaro does not win, the Marquez is in with a very good chance: should Espargaro finish the race in third or worse, then Marquez only has to finish directly behind him; if Espargaro finishes second, then Marquez has to win. On current form, it would be hard to bet against Marquez, but Sepang was the circuit where the Spaniard was badly injured last year, suffering damage to his eyes which limited his vision and threatened to end his career. It will be interesting to see whether the memory has spooked Marquez, but judging by his performance this year, that seems faintly ridiculous.
Jorge Lorenzo faces the biggest challenge, with only a 28-point lead over Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo will not only have to win at Sepang, he will also need Pedrosa to finish no better than thirteenth. Given that the only time that either man has finished outside the top four has been due to mishap, the chances are the title chase will go down to Phillip Island, at the very earliest.
Beating Pedrosa at Sepang could be very difficult indeed for Lorenzo, as Pedrosa has been on a roll since the summer break. The Repsol Honda man has won four of the last five races, the only blot on his copybook being a DNF at Misano, the direct result of the chaos on the grid there. Lorenzo has been incapable of stopping Pedrosa in recent races, and he and his Yamaha team will have to step up a gear if they are to stop Pedrosa from clawing back valuable points. Working in Lorenzo's favor is the fact that the Sepang circuit suits the Yamaha much more than the stop-and-go layout of Motegi did.
The results of testing, as well as practice ahead of last year's canceled race, speak against Lorenzo's chances, however. Testing was dominated by the Hondas, with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa topping the timesheets comfortable, while it was Pedrosa who controlled much of practice for the 2011 race. Lorenzo must be hoping that the tide of history will lend him a helping hand: Honda have not won at Sepang since Valentino Rossi took victory here aboard a Repsol Honda RC211V in 2003. Pedrosa would very much like to break that streak.
The wildcard here is the weather, with heavy rain forecast for both days of practice and for race day as well. Current forecasts suggest that the mornings could be dry, with heavy rain in the afternoon, throwing a curve ball in both qualifying and the race. Given Sepang's location at the equator, heavy rain could be more than just a minor inconvenience: the tropical downpours that hit the region can dump massive amounts of water on the track in a very short period, making riding almost impossible. Sunday's race is scheduled to take place at 4pm local time, to fit in with European TV schedules; that is exactly the time that the heaviest of the daily rains tend to fall. Anyone setting their video recorder had better add in a safe margin.
The loss of track time will at least not be such a problem for the MotoGP teams as it is normally. Sepang has featured on the test schedule since it was added to the calendar, and the teams have amassed a veritable Everest of data at the track. In the press conference, Valentino Rossi estimated that he had put in around 25,000 kilometers at the track in the 10 years that he has been coming here. That really is an astonishing amount of mileage: almost as much as a return trip from Rossi's home town of Tavullia to the Sepang circuit by road.
Of course, the Sepang weekend started off with tributes to Marco Simoncelli, the Italian rider who died in a tragic accident here on the second lap of the race. Almost the entire paddock assembled in pit lane before heading out to Turn 11, the corner where Simoncelli was fatally struck by a following bike, sustaining injuries which would soon prove fatal. Fausto Gresini, boss of the San Carlo Gresini team Simoncelli rode for at the time of his death, unveiled a plaque to his memory at the corner. The official MotoGP.com website has a free video of the event.
With the unveiling of the plaque and the tributes to Simoncelli, a dark chapter in the history of MotoGP is now closed. Marco Simoncelli willl live on in the memories of race fans as a fast, fearless, and exciting rider, but now they can look back with fondness at the memories of his life, rather than sadness at his loss.