2014 Sepang MotoGP Preview: The End Of MotoGP's Asian Peregrinations Beckon In The Sweltering Sepang Heat

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.

Total votes: 112
Total votes: 57

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Comments

What a joy to see Cal riding the snot out of the Ducati and putting it near the pointy end! Folks on here seemed mostly in a camp that he was too mouthy relative to his performance, "insecure," and predicted him doing poorly on LCR's bike next season. Some of us did not. Some of us are looking a bit wiser right about now. And now there are some mentions that Cal left Ducati right before the bike comes into its own and is making a mistake I disagree there too. Why? Next yr the bike will be new and each track will be quite the sorting and development chore. Next year the LCR Honda is a known quantity, and strong bike. Better pick. Furthermore, when 2016 rolls around and everyone is on the same tires and 22 litres of fuel, same engine alotment et al, how will Ducati fare relative to the Honda without its Open advantages? Which bike would you bet on to make the jump to Michelins best? Jeez, I keep wishing Cal could pull into the pits in a white flag race and swap onto Bradl's bike NOW. I see it being a great fit for everyone involved. Especially us fans with his generous use of throttle with his mouth. Edwards was funny, but Cal isn't bothering with the charm. Love it! Looking fwd to battles between he and Dovi next yr. Go go go Cal!

I am looking fwd to a time when the "is this a Honda track, or more of a Yamaha track?" discussion includes "this one is a Ducati track."

A few races ago I think you made a mild mention of a track playing into the Duc's strengths David but can't remember off hand. The ponderances have already begun...Gigi showed up with his seamless eyebrow and off they went. Great season!

Have to disagree that the race for 2nd isn't important. There is more energy there than anywhere else this yr in my view. Marquez vs records from yrs gone by doesn'tbhold a candle to it. Too bad for Pedrosa and his Italian rear wheel modifications, and all of us for losing a 3 way fight. Yamaha has done engineering BRILLIANCE this yr though, and I am wholeheartedly happy to say I was mistaken saying that 2015 was a wash because of the loss of another L of fuel. Development Aliens! Hats off to you! Go Yamaha! Bang up some fairings Vale and Jorge. Glued to the telly.
:)

Total votes: 125

Cal Crutchlow insecure? To the best of my recollection, Herve Poncharal called him the most insecure rider he had ever known, but Herve rated him very highly nevertheless. You have to be very special to be a MotoGP rider, and it's amazing how each rider is special in his own particular way. Vive la difference, I say.

I think the move to a Honda will be good for him.

Total votes: 92

Can’t believe the amount of f!cking whining about 3 flyaway rounds. FFS they get paid shitloads to ride bikes really fast for a living while the rest of us have to settle for real jobs. A month of travel is hardly something to complain about, and yes I know what it’s like to travel regularly; I know it’s not as glamorous as a lot of people think, I know you get sick of waiting in airports, I know you can get sick of spending all your time with the same people, I know you can get sick of staying in hotels (even 5 star ones). You have the job that a lot of us can only dream of, f!cking suck it up princesses.

Total votes: 131

It is tough on the riders (even staying in 4 and 5 star hotels), but remember, the riders are only a tiny part of the staff involved. All of the mechanics and other team staff travel too. Staff in cash-strapped Moto2 and Moto3 teams. They aren't in 4 star hotels, they are often in 1 and 2 star hotels. Travel becomes a lot less attractive when you are doing that. And it is a lot more stressful for them too.

Total votes: 108

Yeah I understand that David. Still, the mechanics and the rest are not exactly doing it tough like the mechs at the local car dealer. The others are chasing their dreams so should be more motivated to put up with it - how else will they land a factory ride? Plus these guys are young and should be hungry, a month of inconvenient travel is the least of their worries.

Let all of these people get real jobs and see how much they miss their old one ;)

Total votes: 115

...but I will wager that just as we all get sick of our jobs and say to ourselves why can't I be X, X says to themselves, sometimes I wish I could just be a poor old boring Y, things would be so much easier...

Perspectives.

Total votes: 105

A terrifyingly large number of mechanics are paid next to nothing. They will spend the winter working extra jobs to try to cut down on their debts. A lot of them will stay in worse hotels than the local car dealer would send his own mechanics to. They will work between 12 and 18 hours, sometimes more, to get everything ready. Even the ones which are supposed to be paid will find that the team 'forgets' to pay them at the end. One crew chief I know of was owed €125,000 by the team he was working for. This is very, very common.

There is a real aura of glamor surrounding life in MotoGP. With a very few exceptions (usually, those in the factory teams), that aura is a complete sham. This is why there is so much complaining about money in the paddock. This is why riders are told they have to bring in money to the team. When the riders don't pay what they promised, the team doesn't get paid, which means mechanics. It is a very ugly business.

Working at a local garage is a lot less glamorous. But your chances of actually making a living are much, much better. Why do the mechanics and everyone else do it? Passion for the sport. Unfortunately, a lot of people (teams, organizers, factories, publishers) regard that as an excuse to pay an awful lot less money.

Total votes: 115

David, there is a pithy undercurrent here. As I read this awareness arises that YOU are "that person working in MotoGP" on a shoestring budget. And that our perception of your 'highlight reel" is quite different than your experience of your "blooper reel." That I am here with your work seen and unseen DAILY. That this is the core of my connection to MotoGP equally partnered with actually viewing the races with my "physically present" racing community.

That there ISBsuch a thing as having a prime spot as a journo or website developer with Dorna or BBC etc, much like being in a factory team. That you are ESSENTIAL in that those journos are not filling a role function that you can and do. That you are more like a Ioda or Illmore team, and have goten your journalism into consistent podiums

Yep - ladies and gentlemen, David Emmett is an ALIEN.

[ Help plz - I am smartphone only right now and went to find a click to plunk down my $40 contribution for the year and don't see how. Paypal for a smaller one, yes, but not the main one. Thanks! ]

Total votes: 107

Got it! That feels good, glad to be on board with you David. Brief recommendation respectfully submitted:

On mobile device - looked for where to be a site supporter from the main front page - how about putting a click at bottom?

When I first saw your 'become a site supporter' page I slid down and past the small 'add to cart' button because I thought itbwas part of the 'this is an example of what an upgraded viewing experience would look like' and again was perusing the bottom saying to myself "I like it but where can I click to do so?"

Lastly, used Payoal but would have preferred to have a Visa pmnt option avail to me there. Had to go update my Paypal account billing to do so, and if I were lazier/grumpier/less patient it might have been put off for another time.

Looking fwd to posting this and seeing the "Site Supporter" addition to my comment livery.

THANKS DAVID FOR ALL YOU DO! Especially the ton of unglamorous, tedious, and tiresome stuff we don't see. Alien I tell you,
ALIEN!
;)

Total votes: 117

Thanks for the feedback. I will look into fixing the mobile site before Valencia, figure out how best to do that. As for a Visa payment option, that would involve more complexity and more cost. It's something I'm looking at, but it will take me some time over the winter to get it sorted out.

Most of all, thanks for signing up. Massively appreciated. The Site Supporters are the difference between continuing, and having to give up and get a real job. Any of my previous employers can tell you what a bad idea that is. 

Total votes: 89

I had a job like that once upon a time, I spent around 10 years going from country to country, staying in quite good hotels, and even being paid reasonably well. You know, after a few years the novelty wears off and it's just your job, there are trips that you simply don't want to be on, where you just want to be back home from the get-go. While you love the job it's mostly fine, but once you start wanting a home, a family, or to go to that school play that's only on while you're away, it sucks. And often, people in those jobs can't just walk away, that good-idea-at-the-time has become their career.

I have a lot of sympathy for all of the people working the motor-racing circus. I imagine for most it's much the same as being in any other travelling circus, all sequins and shine while on display, all squalor and hard graft behind the scenes, until one day you're just too old to still be up to it, and then what? Those that whinge probably have plenty to whinge about.

Total votes: 96

I'd call them the stupid media. When the season began Valentino Rossi had 80 wins in MotoGP and 106 across all classes. I think it's just a case of stupidity really. Along with Giacomo Agostini, the best rider in history and gets met with cynicism from the media. At the same time, really good to see some well deserved folks get some humble pie, or pie in the face really. The comments over the previous seasons have been priceless. Just goes to show that many, who are paid to do a job, don't even know what they are doing.

Total votes: 103

We're both, obviously, big VR fans, but IMHO it was pretty reasonable to doubt that Rossi would do even half as well as he actually has done this year. Every rider, no matter how good they've been previously, is going to drop away at some point and apart from the somewhat gifted win at Assen, he was way off the pace last year. Like many, I sadly wondered whether this was what we were seeing. Even he himself was saying he'd decide on his longer term future after 5 or 6 races this year. In the event we've all been pleasurably surprised.

Total votes: 102

I'll wager that the guys 'whinning' about these guys 'whinning' have never traveled for extended periods of time AND had to compete/perform at this level. Try it sometime.....it ain't easy!!! Yes, some get paid lots of $$$, but like David said, the vast majority do not!

BTW...I have traveled/competed at the world level (not racing) and it wears you out mentally. You otta try it sometime.

Total votes: 93

Yes, I have done plenty of travel, yes I have competed at a high level, and no I did not get paid for it. I did it for the love of the sport.

Total votes: 102

So stupid to put the MotoGP race at 4:00PM. I never can watch these races anymore because of that silly timeslot and the weather always gets involved.

Just run the damn races at 2 local time.

Total votes: 108

And can we also have all races run Moto3-11:00, Moto2-12:20, MotoGP-14:00 local time. I hate those races that change the order. I'd quite happily have Qatar give up the floodlights and run at these times as well at an appropriate time of year.

Total votes: 91

I think the triple header is the best part of the championship. look at SBK, it's like a race per month, no way to stay engaged. This is awesome

Total votes: 116

Long breaks, like over a month from the first race weekend to the second make it much harder to engage with WSB in comparison with MotoGP. Often I am completely lost as to whether a race is televised on any given weekend. I'd like to think Dorna may address this situation in time.

Total votes: 103