How big a deal is MotoGP in Asia, and especially in Malaysia? There were officially 81,896 spectators at the Sepang International Circuit on Sunday for the races. That is a lot. To put it in perspective, it is the seventh highest attendance of the year, more than either of the US rounds of MotoGP, more than Silverstone, more than either of the Italian rounds. There were 4,400 more spectators at Sepang than at Mugello. That is quite a turnaround: in 2000, the second year MotoGP was held at the circuit, only 32,375 people attended the race, spread over all three days. The three-day total is now close to 131,000.
It is testament to both the growing wealth of the region and the growing popularity of the sport. In the podium press conference, Valentino Rossi reflected on the change. "For a long period, we have no people on Sunday," he said. Little by little attendance had grown, until now, it is a race with an atmosphere all of its own. "Now it is full, the atmosphere on the main straight is like Barcelona or Mugello. The guys are crazy for MotoGP." It was a great victory for the sport, he said. Given that those 82,000 people are mostly sitting outside, in tropical temperatures of 36°C and humidity of over 50%, those guys (and gals) must indeed be 'crazy for MotoGP'.
Their efforts were amply rewarded on Sunday, with three superb races. They saw records equaled in MotoGP, a richly-deserved title tied up in Moto2, and an exhilarating and incident-packed battle in Moto3, which sets up a grand finale for the Moto3 title at Valencia. Reason enough to come back again in force in 2015, with the added benefit of seeing the circuit fielding its own team in Moto3 next year.
If anyone doubted Marc Marquez' desire to beat Mick Doohan's record of twelve wins in a season, they need only watch the fierce determination with which he approached the race at Sepang. Run wide by Jorge Lorenzo at Turn 1 and shuffled back to eighth in the subsequent melee, Marquez had his work cut out. While Lorenzo forced his way to the front of the race – taking a lot of risk in doing so, the Movistar Yamaha rider admitted in the press conference afterwards – Marquez worked his way steadily forward to sit on the tail of Valentino Rossi.
From that point on, Marquez played the waiting game. Dani Pedrosa had already crashed out after being passed by Jorge Lorenzo, though the Repsol Honda man had no explanation for the crash. "When Lorenzo passed me I was sat behind him. I went into the turn and boom, I lost the front," Pedrosa said afterwards. Though he remounted, the same thing happened again once he got up to speed, and again, the data showed no obvious cause for the crash. It was, Pedrosa said, a shame, as this was his best chance of winning a race, after showing such great form in practice.
The disappearance of Pedrosa left Marquez sitting behind Valentino Rossi, who was in turn engaged in chasing down Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo had set off like a scalded cat, but within three or four laps it became clear he was holding up Rossi and Marquez behind him. His pace was still strong, but he was taking odd lines, running wide at corners he wouldn't normally. After the race, it appeared that he had lost the traction pad from his tank, perhaps due to the sweltering heat and humidity at the circuit. The loss of a $25 piece of rubber may seem fairly trivial, but those pads are vital at this level of racing. With riders leaning so far off the bikes, they are controlling them using any part of the body available. That means gripping the tank with their thighs, putting pressure on the tank to control the movement of the bike, or help prevent them from sliding forward under braking.
That Lorenzo had a problem was particularly evident at Turn 1, where he kept running very wide, a natural consequence of running in too deep on the brakes and trying to force the bike through the right hander with the traction pad missing from the left side of the tank. The effort of trying to compensate for the loss of control drained Lorenzo's fitness. The Spaniard took the blame upon himself for not being fit enough. They had backed off his training program during the flyaways, and that had been a mistake, Lorenzo said. In 'the hottest conditions since he had been competing,' Lorenzo simply struggled to maintain his pace.
He was passed by Valentino Rossi on lap 10, with Marquez following Rossi through immediately. Once in the lead, Rossi tried to pull a gap on Marquez, but he pushed just a little too hard into the final hairpin, running wide and letting Marquez through. Rossi was not yet done, latching onto the tail of Marquez and hounding him for the second half of the race. It was clear he wanted to come past, running up the rear of Marquez into Turn 4, having a probe into Rossi's favorite passing place, Turn 9, and examining Marquez at the final hairpin as well. But with three laps to go, Rossi's tires began to fade, and he could no longer match the blistering pace being set by the Repsol Honda.
The Honda, too, suffers with worn tires, but the difference is that the bike will still turn, Rossi explained. The Yamaha has chatter on the front with a worn tire, making it impossible to keep up with Marquez. It was still a dramatic turnaround for the Italian, after the problems he had during practice. Rossi and his crew had found a small improvement during qualifying, then a bigger improvement during warm up. They had changed the weight distribution, he said, to "make a bike that loves the tires." To do so, they had sacrificed a bit of cornering and agility in direction changes. It had nearly come off, but the improvement fell just three laps short of perfection.
That came at the front. Marc Marquez managed the race perfectly, riding the bike home safely once Rossi dropped off the pace. Winning meant a lot, his last victory having been at Silverstone, two months previously. He celebrated by picking up a supporter's flag for his brother Alex, who uses the number 12 in Moto3. It was symbolic in many ways: it was his twelfth win of the season, finally equaling the record set by Mick Doohan. But it was also a sign of support for his brother, who had just been roughed up by Jack Miller in Moto3 (more on that later). After crashing out of three of the last four races, and having nothing for Jorge Lorenzo at Motegi, this was the boost he needed.
His tactics, he said, had been informed by the lessons he had learned in the last few races. He had been careful to spare his tires at the start of the race, knowing that tire life would be the key to this race. At the end, he knew he had something left, and could take control of the race and drop Rossi. Perhaps the most important lesson was to return to the way of working which had won him the championship. Instead of worrying about other things, he just focused on the job at hand, and worked for the Sunday. "It means that when we are concentrated for just the race, we can fight for the victory," Marquez told the press conference.
The win lifted a great weight from his shoulders. It was a visibly more relaxed and jocular Marc Marquez who appeared in the press conference, staying on after the MotoGP race conference to sit and watch his friend and training partner Tito Rabat during Rabat's Moto2 championship conference. He even asked the first question from the floor of that press conference, much to the hilarity of the assembled media. Now that he was a big-shot world champion, would Rabat still be willing to lower himself to training with the Marquez brothers? It was the kind of jest that marks the friendship that has grown between Rabat and Alex and Marc Marquez.
Will Marquez still be so relaxed once he gets to Valencia, though? The world champion made his intention clear at Sepang, now that he has matched Doohan's record of twelve wins in a season, he wants to beat it by adding a thirteenth at Valencia. If he is to succeed, he will need to focus once again just on the race, and avoid the distractions of making history. It is odd, though, that after Marquez' protestations earlier in the season that he had no interest in the record books, he should be chasing them so keenly as the year draws to a close.
The Moto2 race bore a close resemblance to the race that would follow it. Three men spent the first half of the race contesting the lead, then one dropped back to leave two, while the winner made a late break to lead in the final laps. Tito Rabat tried leading early, but as his tires started to wear, he decided that wrapping up the championship was more important than risking it all to cap it with a win. After Mika Kallio and Maverick Viñales passed Rabat, and both had a moment into Turn 5, Rabat settled for third.
Kallio pushed on, knowing he needed a win if he was going to have even the slightest chance of keeping the championship open until Valencia. He would need Rabat not to score, but he could only focus on what he could control. But Kallio was faced with a rampant Maverick Viñales, who was not about to let anyone else run off with victory. Viñales has found his feet in Moto2 now, and is disrupting the Marc VDS Racing monopoly at the front. The Spanish youngster has now won three of the last four races, and finished second in the other. He is clearly the real deal, and if he were staying on in Moto2, would be a real threat for the championship. But he is not. Instead, he is off to join Suzuki in MotoGP. Just how wise that move is remains to be seen, given the disappointing test results of the GSX-RR.
Cruising home in third was enough for Tito Rabat to clinch the Moto2 title, to his joy and relief. Unlike either the MotoGP or future Moto3 champions, Rabat has taken a long and circuitous road to success. From struggling to fit on a 125cc, and starving himself into unhealthy emaciation to try stay competitive, to paying his way through his Moto2 career, Rabat has slowly grown in competitiveness, getting faster most of all through hard work and effort, rather than relying on his raw talent. All three MotoGP podium riders sang the praises of Rabat, saying that he was an example for young riders. He was not a 'phenomenon' when he arrived, Rossi said, but he worked hard to get where he was. Most of all, Rabat was passionate about motorcycle racing. "I like Tito a lot," said Rossi, "because he is f*****g crazy for motorbikes!"
This passion, and his commitment to following that passion is what got Rabat where he is today, with a Moto2 championship under his belt. Up until this season, Rabat was a paying rider, forced to bring money wherever he raced. It did not help that his father owns a chain of high-end jewelers in Spain, and was seen as an easy touch for money to help his son's career. That changed when Rabat signed with the Marc VDS Racing team (much to the chagrin of the HP Pons team, where Rabat had raced for the past two season), paying him a salary and treating him as a normal, paid rider, expected to perform rather than just bring money into the team. It liberated Rabat, gave him the sense of self-worth, self-confidence needed to fight for championships.
But beyond that, Rabat's title is a reward for unrelenting, tireless hard work. Rabat lives and breathes motorcycle racing, living in his motorhome most days, parked up at the Almeria circuit, where he passes the time trying to shave yet another few hundredths off the track record he holds. He is out as soon as the track opens, and will be on track record pace by his second or third lap, despite the fact that the track is cold and he is the only rider out cutting laps. At the end of each day, he texts Marc VDS team boss Michael Bartholemy with his lap times. Rabat taught himself to weld, to allow him to repair his Moto2 practice bike when it gets damaged in crashes. After showing the team one particularly ugly attempt at a weld, they took him aside and taught him properly, mostly to save him from himself.
When Rabat isn't lapping alone at Almeria, he is with the Marquez brothers at the Rufea dirt track oval, practicing his skills on the dirt, and getting some lessons in close quarters racing. That had made a big difference, not just in the lessons learned riding dirt track, but also from the camaraderie with the Marquez brothers. That camaraderie extends beyond the Rufea track, all the way to the Marquez home in Cervera. The affection between Marquez and Rabat was clear at the press conference, Marquez genuinely delighted for Rabat, and proud of his friend.
The mark of Rabat came in his answers to questions about not moving up to MotoGP. Of course he would like to go, he told the press conference, but he wanted to go when he was ready. He was in a great team, he said, and he had an opportunity to learn the skills he would need when he did move up. His list of his own defects was disarmingly honest: he needed to improve in the early laps of the race, he needed to improve in the rain, he needed to improve in fighting aggressively for positions, he needed to improve in windy conditions. Once he had improved in those areas, he would be ready to make the move. "If you don't go up to MotoGP and do well, you have to leave," Rabat said. "I want to go there and stay."
The race of the weekend, however, was once again Moto3. The smallest class always has the best racing, but the closeness of the championship gave this race a real edge. Jack Miller came into the race trailing Alex Marquez by 20 points, and knowing he had to cut the gap as much as possible if he was to stand a chance of taking the championship at Valencia. Marquez, on the other hand, was all too aware of just how close he is to the title, and was perhaps a little too cautious at times around the track.
It was Miller who came best prepared to the race. He had spent the time leading up to the weekend studying old races, figuring out that the best chance of winning was to lead into the final corner. He practiced the move over and over again during the race, crossing the line in the lead seven times, and just behind the lead another seven times.
Miller also knew he needed to ensure that Alex Marquez did not try to run away with the race. To do that, he had to break the Spaniard's concentration and shake his confidence. He had to impose his will on Marquez, not just at Sepang, but to ensure that he was on Marquez' mind in the run up to Valencia. This race, Miller needed to try to score two victories, and follow up on the momentum he gained at his home race.
What unfolded was an electrifying spectacle, reminiscent of Valentino Rossi's victory over Casey Stoner at Laguna Seca in 2008. Watching the race, you knew this was not just about the result at this circuit, but about changing the course of the future. Miller controlled the race throughout, ensuring he was always at or near the front, passing straight back whenever he was passed. He also spent a lot of time ensuring that Alex Marquez knew he was there, trying to get into the head of the Spaniard. When passed by others, Miller passed quickly and easily. When passed by Marquez, Miller made sure his presence was known. The two engaged at least six times, and each time Miller emerged victorious.
The moves he made were hard, but all precisely within the letter of the law. He dived up the inside of Marquez three or four times, and when he did, he put his bike exactly where Marquez had intended to put his. He didn't ride his bike into Marquez, Miller said, he had just made it difficult for Marquez to turn into the corner. Miller's behavior was intimidating, and intended as such, but it was all just this side of legal.
Marquez' team, led by Emilio Alzamora, did not see it that way. After the race, Alzamora complained to Race Direction, who held hearings with Miller, Alex Marquez, and Danny Kent, who had got in Marquez' way on the final lap. After reviewing the incidents, Race Direction rejected Alazamora's complaints. Of the six incidents they looked at, four were disregarded immediately, Race Director Mike Webb told Crash.net. Two more involved contact, but after close study, they found that no rules were broken. Miller had been told that he was "very, very close to the limit of hard racing," Webb said, and both riders warned not to continue the feud at Valencia.
Key to the decisions of Race Direction was intent. The fact that Miller made the corner every time he tried the pass proved his intention was to get ahead of Marquez, rather than try to cause an actual danger to his opponent. Miller could back up his intent with ability, rather than making a wild and dangerous lunge in the vain hope that it might come off. It is a subtle, but important difference. To get a fuller picture of Race Direction's thinking, I highly recommend you read the piece over on Crash.net.
Both Miller and Marquez got some help from their teammates (in the case of Miller, Danny Kent may be on a Husqvarna, but he is racing for the same manufacturer and within the same team structure). Alex Rins dived up the inside of Miller at the final corner on the last lap, forcing Miller to settle for second behind Efren Vazquez. Danny Kent got ahead of Alex Marquez, and when Kent made a mistake coming out of Turn 6, forced to close the throttle, the pair lost the tow to the front. With Miller second and Marquez fifth, that allowed the Australian to cut the gap to just 11 points ahead of Valencia. The title is now well and truly open at the final round of the season.
Was Miller's behavior fair and sporting? Absolutely not. Was it legal? Completely. Miller's riding had the mark of a desperate man, one who knew what was at stake and was prepared to do whatever it took. He deflected any criticism of his riding with a reference to what Marquez had done to him. "As you know, with the Marquez' brothers, they touch a lot," Miller said, "so this for me is racing their way." Alex Marquez responded to the Spanish press that Miller had given a masterclass in the art of touching at Sepang. He had learned a few things, and was prepared for Valencia. His brother Marc Marquez was confident that Alex would hold his own at Valencia. "I think my brother has enough potential and enough body to do it too."
The previous Race Director Paul Butler told veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes that motorcycle racing was a contact sport. Current Race Director Mike Webb told me last year that it was a little more nuanced than that, that contact was permissible as an unintended consequence, but not as an aim in itself. At no point did Jack Miller seek to hit Alex Marquez, but what Miller did do is give Marquez the choice to either change his line or hit Miller.
It was not pretty, but it was perfectly legal. But then again, contrary to popular opinion, professional sports at the highest level are not pretty, not concerned with fairness or the Olympic ideal. Athletes at this level do not sacrifice what they do just so they can say they took part. They do not spend their days training, punishing their bodies, not eating, ignoring their friends, families and loved ones just for the honor of competing. The ugly truth of professional sports is that elite athletes are driven by an almost sociopathic desire to win, to beat other people. Even the happy, smiley, friendly ones.
Two quotes best sum up the attitude of elite athletes, and people who have dedicated their lives to winning. The first is from Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." As an outside observer, George Orwell captured perfectly the spirit of professional sports, in his acerbic essay "The Sporting Spirit." "You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win," Orwell wrote. "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."
That war continues for the Moto3 boys at Valencia. Whether he realizes it or not, Alex Marquez goes into the race with the stronger hand. All Marquez has to do is sit on the wheel of Jack Miller and finish either one or two positions behind him. No need to take risks trying to beat Miller, no matter what honor demands. Better instead to let Miller expend his energy trying to shake him off, trying to put riders between himself and Marquez. Sitting on Miller's wheel would not be a particularly pretty way to win a title, but they when they write the record books, they leave out the part about how you did it. Alex Marquez will have to do whatever it takes to be champion. Jack Miller set an example for him at Sepang.