Another week, another 8 hour flight, another race track. Sepang comes as the last of three grueling weekends chasing around the Pacific Ocean to race in Japan, Australia, and now Malaysia. Even from the comfort of my European home (I lack the funds and, to a lesser extent, the inclination to pursue the paddock halfway around the world), it has been a tough schedule, and the riders and team members I have spoken to about it are all just about ready to come home. Nearly a month away from home, sharing flights, hire cars and hotel rooms can be grating even for the best of friends. Add in the stresses and tensions of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and a lot of people are gritting their teeth and doing their best not to punch the people they work with. Some will even make it home without doing so.
The final leg of MotoGP's odyssey sees the circus travel from Phillip Island, nearly halfway to the South Pole, to Sepang, not far north of the equator. Yet though they are a quarter of a world away, the two have one thing in common: weather. The actual conditions may be different, the cold, changeable climate of Phillip Island a far cry from the sweltering heat of Malaysia, but at both tracks, the weather plays a much greater role in the proceedings than at other tracks. Judging conditions, and preparing for them, is crucial.
If anything, putting Sepang at the end of the trio of flyaways is a difficult decision. The heat and intense humidity at the track makes it the most physically demanding of the three races. Severe dehydration lies waiting for the unwary or the out of shape, if they do not drink enough to recover the fluids lost through sweat and exertion. This is a race which richly deserves its reputation as the most punishing of the year.
Sepang has one, well, two saving graces. It has two very long straights, the final straight before the last corner, then the front straight where the race starts and finishes. They provide a brief pause with which to catch your breath, before embarking on another lap of the sweeping, intense layout. Though designed by Hermann Tilke, the man motorcycle racing fans love to hate, this is one of his best works, with the breathtakingly fast Turn 3 as its highlight. The section after Turn 4 flows nicely, before the track heads into the back section. The tight left hander of Turn 9 makes for a perfect passing spot, before sweeping round left and right handers to Turns 13 and 14, a long turn which tightens into almost a hairpin. That leads onto the back straight, and the final, do or die hairpin, fortunately plenty wide enough for any antics.
Last year, Sepang was the place where Jorge Lorenzo's attitude changed. Still stuck in the era of 'polite' racing which arose when the Yamaha man's main competition was Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, the arrival of the much more physical and challenging style of Marc Marquez caught Lorenzo off guard. At Sepang, Lorenzo's attitude changed, returning to the aggression of his former 250cc self, showing Marquez he was just as willing to hold a line and run Marquez into the dirt should the young usurper get in his way. Though Lorenzo ultimately could do nothing to stop Marquez at Sepang last year, he handed him a warning, a sign of things to come.
Yet it was neither Marquez nor Lorenzo who won at Sepang last year. Dani Pedrosa won for the second year in a row, adding a dominant win in the dry to a masterful victory in monsoon conditions a year previously. The Repsol Honda rider was fast during the race, and fast during the tests here in February. But he arrives in Malaysia after a turbulent period, with a string of mediocre results and trouble in the garage. At Phillip Island, Pedrosa learned that Mike Leitner would be leaving his position as crew chief at the end of the year, displeased with decisions taken by Pedrosa to sack two mechanics. Another mechanic resigned for the same reason, a sign of the turmoil Pedrosa has been through this season.
At Sepang, it emerged that Pedrosa has taken Mike Leitner's advice, and appointed Ramon Aurin, currently his data engineer, to be his crew chief. Aurin was previously crew chief to Andrea Dovizioso, and the best candidate for the job. Though Pedrosa still needs to find three more mechanics to work with him, the appointment of Aurin is the first step on the way to restoring some stability in his situation. On paper, Pedrosa is fast at Sepang, but he will need to surgically excise any worries about the situation if he is to be competitive this weekend. It will be more about the mental game.
The man who matched the pace of Pedrosa during testing was Valentino Rossi. The second test at the end of February was crucial for Rossi, proving to himself that he still had the speed to be competitive. Though he took a few races to persuade the cynical media, with two wins now under his belt and fresh from victory at Phillip Island, Rossi could well be a force to be reckoned with in Malaysia. He has six wins from thirteen premier class outings at the track, and another three podiums as well. Rossi will be relishing the race here, especially now that the Yamaha is on a par with the Honda.
Two men stand between Rossi and his third victory of the season. Marc Marquez may have wrapped up the 2014 title at Motegi, but his recent run of results has been positively disastrous. He has crashed out of three of the last four races and hasn't won since Silverstone, at the end of August. It has not been for want of trying: he crashed at Misano trying to keep up with an unleashed Valentino Rossi; he crashed at Aragon gambling he would make it home in the wet on slick tires; and he crashed leading the race at Phillip Island when temperatures dropped enough to cause the asymmetric front tire to lose grip. The more he crashes, the more he wants to win. And the more he denies that he is motivated by records, the more we suspect that Mick Doohan's record of 12 wins in a season is preying on his mind. With just two more opportunities left, you have to believe that Marquez will be in full win-it-or-bin-it mode.
While Marquez cares only about winning, Jorge Lorenzo's main goal is to beat his Movistar Yamaha teammate. Lorenzo and Rossi are now caught up in a fierce battle for second in the championship, and though it may be of only minor importance, the two Yamaha men are fighting almost as if it were for the title itself. Lorenzo has never won at Sepang in the premier class, though he is clearly quick enough around here. He will be keen to banish the memory of the tests here, the February outings the first sign that Lorenzo was in for a long year. It was his first time back at the track after surgery to remove some old metalwork, which left him badly out of shape physically. It was his first encounter with the new Bridgestone tires, with the heat-resistant layer which robbed the tire of edge grip. And it was the first proper outing with the Yamaha running in its 20-liter configuration, a liter less fuel than last year. The bike was snatchy, the fueling rough, making it impossible for Lorenzo to maintain his smooth style.
Since then, Yamaha have made massive steps forward with fuel management, the throttle response once again as near to as smooth as silk as you can expect with a fuel-starved bike. Lorenzo's fitness is transformed, and his adaptation to the new Bridgestones is complete. It is a very different Jorge Lorenzo who returns to Sepang after an eight month absence. His rivals have been warned.
And what of the Ducatis? At the tests, Andrea Dovizioso was fast, and since then, the bike has only got better. With long straights and hard braking points, there are plenty of places where the Desmosedici will work well. Both Dovizioso and teammate Cal Crutchlow are coming off some strong performances, and are carrying momentum in to the end of the year. Crutchlow, especially, has been transformed since Aragon. The Englishman was easily the most impressive Ducati of the lot at Phillip Island, until he crashed out on the very last lap, suffering the same tire troubles as Marc Marquez. Those inclined to gamble may be tempted to put a bit of cash on a Crutchlow podium. They will not get rich if they do: the bookmakers have already slashed Crutchlow's odds of a top-three podium to an unrewarding 2.4 to 1.
Outside of MotoGP, there are titles to be secured at Sepang. The Moto2 championship is almost done, Mika Kallio needing to win and have Tito Rabat finish outside the top 7 to retain any chance of the title. Rabat won at Sepang last year, and Kallio has been unable to recapture his form from earlier this year. The chances of Rabat walking away from Sepang with his first world championship are very strong indeed.
The Moto3 battle is far more intriguing. For a start, only 20 points separate Alex Marquez and Jack Miller, while Miller has five victories to Marquez' three. If Marquez can gain more than five points over Miller, the title is his. If Miller can win the race, he makes life an awful lot tougher on the Spaniard.
Given the way Moto3 races have tended to develop this year, the prospect of a big points shift is good. Last year, six men raced to the line, the result being decided in the final corner. This year, the group has been as large as nine or ten on the final lap, meaning it should be an even closer battle. On paper, the last two straights favor the more powerful of the bikes, which this year is the Honda. Yet Jack Miller got close to taking a podium at Sepang, matching the pace of the KTMs on the underpowered FTR Honda. This year, the KTM he is riding is much more of a match for the Honda NSF250RWs of Marquez, Alex Rins and Efren Vazquez. This looks like being a completely open contest, and if it is, any number of riders could get in between the two main title rivals, with dramatic effects on the standings.
But the decisive factor could yet be the weather. Friday looks like being a washout, while Saturday and Sunday have a better chance of remaining dry. But with the MotoGP race to be run at 4pm local time – the time when the afternoon rains usually set in – there is still a very good chance of rain. In racing, anything can happen. And usually does.