Sunday at Sepang provided a fascinating mix for motorcycle racing fans. A blistering Moto3 race, an impressive, if shortened, Moto2 race, and some breathtaking action in MotoGP. History was made several times over, and best of all, the races took place in front of a sellout crowd. Over 80,000 fans packed the stands in Malaysia, proof, if any were needed, of the slow, eastward drift of motorcycle racing's center of gravity.
In the MotoGP race, Dani Pedrosa did what he had set out to do two weeks earlier at Aragon, before he was so rudely ejected from his bike. Pedrosa had a look of grim determination on his face from the moment he rolled up at Sepang, and it barely left him all weekend. He had come to do a job, the pain in his hips merely spurring him on to get what he had been robbed of by an overeager teammate and an exposed sensor. He ruled proceedings in free practice, got caught out by conditions in qualifying, but leapt off the line at the start, as he has all year, and slotted in behind Jorge Lorenzo. After four laps, he worked his way past a valiantly defending Lorenzo, put the hammer down and went on to win.
This was what Pedrosa had intended to do at Aragon, and he took the win in Malaysia as clear vindication of his form. He made an extra effort to thank his team, and his family, but especially the fans who had supported him, posting a message on Twitter thanking the people who had continued to believe in him. Pedrosa may be unloved in some quarters - especially among those who cannot get over an insignificant piece of ancient history - but his ability is beyond question. Now that the pendulum has swung back towards Honda, as it does the second half of every season, Pedrosa is reaping the rewards he believes he is owed. His win at Sepang was flawless.
The same could be said of Jorge Lorenzo's third place. Lorenzo, too, came to Sepang with just one goal in mind, finishing ahead of Marc Marquez, and keeping his title hopes alive. After a difficult first day, Lorenzo found some pace on Saturday, then gave it everything he had on Sunday. Never was the expression 'leaving it all out on the track' truer than of Lorenzo at Sepang. He powered off the line to take the lead, boldly holding Pedrosa off around the outside of Turn 1 to grab the inside line of Turn 2. He offered a sterling defense of the lead for 4 laps, then put up an even braver, harder defense of second from Marc Marquez.
He knew the Yamaha was outclassed in braking and acceleration - the additional heat on Sunday meant that due to the lack of rear grip, he had to push the front tire harder, something which the current generation of Bridgestone tires does not allow, though the next generation due to be introduced at the Valencia test should provide more stability - and that if he gave Marquez even a thousandth of an inch, Marquez would take a country mile. His sole hope lay in a strategy of intimidation, in pushing Marquez into an error. 'The only thing we could do is try to fight with him, try to make him make some mistakes,' Lorenzo said. The pair swapped places multiple times in a tense and thrilling battle, Marquez squeezing through when he saw the opportunity, Lorenzo bludgeoning his way back when he could.
In the end, Marquez got the best of the Yamaha man on the run out of Turn 14, sliding underneath the Yamaha man into the penultimate turn and powering away out of the corner. He left Lorenzo little room on the exit, to the displeasure of the reigning world champion. 'Until then, the fight was really clean with no touching,' Lorenzo said. 'There was no touching in this corner, but he did not leave me so much space, so I had to close the throttle to avoid going into the grass.' Lorenzo's resistance was broken, and Marc Marquez went on to extend his lead in the championship to a comfortable 43 points. Lorenzo's attempt to force Marquez into a mistake had failed. 'He was so strong,' A resigned Lorenzo said at the press conference. 'He didn't lose concentration. He deserved the second place.'
If anyone had any doubts about Marquez' mental strength before Sepang, the race in Malaysia removed them altogether. Though he had looked nervous for the first time on Thursday, a legacy of the controversy surrounding the incident at Aragon, and the penalty point he had received for that, in the race he showed no trace of either nerves or doubt. Suitably chastised by Race Direction, Marquez' moves were fractionally more cautious than in previous races, especially when he was nipping at the heels of his teammate. He took the barge handed out by Lorenzo in good humor, and if the pass on Lorenzo left the Yamaha man little room on the exit, it was a very long way from being unfair. The difference in attitude between Lorenzo and Marquez was made evident at the press conference. While Lorenzo had made it clear that he was unimpressed with Marquez' pass on him, Marquez had no quarrel with the pass by Lorenzo. 'In one overtake, I felt some contact,' Marquez said in the press conference, 'but this is OK, this is racing. He overtook me on the inside, I didn't expect it, and we had some contact. But you know, in that moment it was so exciting!'
Marquez is now just seven points away from his first MotoGP title, and becoming the second rider in history to win the premier class championship at the first attempt. Taking seven points from Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island will be difficult. The colder conditions and the fast, flowing layout will suit the Yamaha, playing to the bike's strengths while disguising its weaknesses. Lorenzo knows that Phillip Island is his last chance of taking the title fight to the wire at Valencia, Motegi favoring the Hondas in every way. And in one sense, Honda might prefer to take the title at Motegi: what better place to have their young prodigy crowned champion than at the circuit they own, in front of their entire board? If HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto wants to prove to the board that the vast amounts of money Honda is still spending on racing is worth it, celebrating a MotoGP championship at home will make a big impression.
What of Valentino Rossi? The former world champion is inching ever closer to the front of the pack, yet the distance to the trio of Spaniards dominating the series remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Rossi spoke positively of the steps forward he and his team had made, of improvements in braking, of his feeling with the bike. He had even secured a front row start during qualifying, his best grid position since 2010. But it was still not enough. 'Starting from second place, I hoped to arrive on the podium, but I know the top three guys are very strong,' Rossi said. That may well be his problem: the top three riders have moved the game on, and though Rossi is handicapped by the weakness of the Yamaha in braking, his teammate is still capable of winning races and of getting on the podium almost every time out. Whether Rossi's powers are starting to wane, or whether he could be fighting for podiums and wins if the bike was better in braking is still open for conjecture, but the days of Rossi's dominance are clearly past. Once, Valentino Rossi was the best rider in the world. Right now, he looks to be fourth best.
How much of that is in the bike? All of the Yamaha riders are complaining of the braking performance of the bike, while only Jorge Lorenzo is able to truly ride around it, his style suiting the early braking, high corner speed requirements of the M1. Yamaha have a lot of work to do over the winter, improving braking stability without sacrificing too much of the turning ability which is the bike's strongest point. Without better braking - and improved fuel consumption, the reduction from 21 to 20 liters likely to be hardest on Yamaha - taking the fight to the Hondas will be impossible. And if the Yamaha is no match for the Honda in 2014, then Jorge Lorenzo is likely to defect at the end of next season. He knows he has his hands full with Marc Marquez, and being on competitive machinery is crucial if he is to beat the youngster. Without a better bike, Yamaha loses Lorenzo, and without Lorenzo, Yamaha have no hope against Honda.
The less said of the Ducatis the better. Nicky Hayden blew up his newest engine, and will struggle to last the year without starting from pit lane. Andrea Dovizioso fought the Desmosedici, running off track as he struggled to get the bike to turn around Sepang's sweeping turns. The only ray of light is the news that Gigi Dall'Igna is to take over as boss of Ducati Corse from November this year. His new broom will have to be wielded very firmly, if he is to clean out the Augean stables which Ducati's racing department has become.
If the MotoGP title fight took a step closer to being finished, the Moto2 championship was blown wide open. It was also a demonstration of the role of luck in any title chase. After a dismal qualifying, Scott Redding was to start the Moto2 race down in 10th. His start was as strong as his qualifying had been poor, Redding up into 4th, and right on the tail of his main rival Pol Espargaro. But a horrific crash involving Axel Pons - a man who seems to be involved in incidents almost every race, though he is not always to blame - left bikes laying on the track and riders limping off the circuit, luckily without serious injury. The race was red-flagged before the first lap had even finished, and Redding was forced to attempt his miraculous start all over again.
Second time around, Redding still got away well, but not quite as well as at the first attempt. This time, his luck run out, as Dominique Aegerter, Alex De Angelis and Xavier Simeon all came together, the Swiss rider forcing De Angelis and Simeon to crash. Redding had to run wide to avoid the carnage, losing touch with the group in front. It would be very costly indeed, the championship leader coming home in 7th, where Espargaro took an impressive 2nd place finish. Espargaro has now closed the gap to just 9 points, with three races still to go. Phillip Island favors Redding, while Espargaro is stronger at Motegi, meaning the title is likely to come down to the final race at Valencia, a tempting prospect indeed.
The real star of the Moto2 race was Tito Rabat, however. The pale, gaunt Spaniard dominated the Moto2 class at Sepang, topping every practice session, starting from pole, and leading from the off. Rabat has taken a step forward this season, and is looking like the favorite for the 2014 Moto2 title. Now just 28 points down on Redding, and 19 behind his teammate Espargaro, he is even in with a shot at the 2013 championship.
Highlight of the day, however, was the Moto3 race, which has consistently produced some outstanding racing throughout the season. Six men battled tooth and nail to the line, the lead swapping multiple times, often even on the same lap. Experience won out in the end, Luis Salom taking victory in a classic Sepang move. Alex Rins dived underneath Salom into the final corner, but that left him running wide on the exit. Salom saw Rins coming, let him past, then held the tighter line to force Rins wide on the exit, taking his seventh victory of the season. Rins had given it everything, but Salom had outfoxed him, as he has outfoxed all of the youngsters who challenge him this season.
The battle showed the depth of talent in the Moto3 class, with Salom and Rins battling Alex Marquez, Maverick Viñales, Jack Miller and Miguel Oliveira. There is truly a wealth of fast young riders in Moto3, with more on the way. Despite the departure of Viñales and Salom next year, this will remain the toughest class in racing for another season at least.
The biggest loser of the day was Maverick Viñales, the Spaniard finishing in 5th and losing a fistful of points to Salom and Rins. He was lucky it was not more: the fiery Spaniard was issued a penalty point for elbowing Jack Miller aside on the run to the line, and was fortunate not to have been moved back a position by Race Direction. Viñales' talent is beyond question; his temperament, though, could prove his downfall.
The same cannot be said of Jack Miller. Though the young Australian can be extremely excitable, the maturity he is showing in being able to put the miserably underpowered Honda among the KTMs is exceptional. It was all too evident at Sepang, Miller being left for dead along the straights, but using his talent and the vastly superior handling of the FTR chassis to get back in among the KTMs around the corners. His corner speed was terrifying, passing the KTMs around the outside and sticking his bike wherever he found a gap.
The Moto3 race was also where history was made at Sepang. The sellout 80,000 crowd was a sign of the growing popularity of motorcycle racing in Asia, and the importance of the Asian market. Miguel Oliveira putting the Mahindra on the podium was another symbol of the rise of the East. Though the Mahindra is built by Suter in Switzerland, and the team is run out of Italy, the Indian industrial giant has a lot of input into the project. Indian engineers work on engine and chassis at Suter's Swiss base, and Indian fans take a huge interest in what they see as their Moto3 team. The first ever podium for an Indian manufacturer met with a rapturous reception on social media, indicating the support and interest which exists in the Indian subcontinent. Racing is moving eastwards, at a glacially slow pace, perhaps, but as the average age of racing enthusiasts in Europe and the US continues to go up, the factories and Dorna are chasing younger, bigger, growing markets in Asia. Motorcycle racing could look very different indeed in 15 years' time.
It could also look a fair bit more emancipated. Ana Carrasco came home in 15th place at Sepang, finally scoring the championship points she has been chasing all season. Carrasco became the first woman to score points since Katja Poensgen in 2001. She also became the first Spanish woman every to score points in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Her achievement underlines that gender is no real barrier to racing: scoring points after battling all race long in a tough group which included Livio Loi, John McPhee, Francesco Bagnaia and Isaac Viñales. The battle was fought in the punishing tropical heat and humidity of Malaysia, and Carrasco held her own. Ana Carrasco proved at Sepang that she has earned her place on the grid, regardless of whether she is a potential champion or not. She is as strong or stronger than all but the top few riders in the class, and has potential to grow. Championship points help pave the way for more young women to race in Moto3. There is no reason why they can't be just as competitive as any young man choosing to race. It is unrealistic to expect there to be a female MotoGP champion in the next couple of years, but there is a real chance that it will happen one day.