Two down, one to go. The last of the flyaways is always the hardest, in many ways. Three races on three consecutive weekends means that riders never have time to heal from even the small injuries they receive each weekend, from minor falls, or the blisters on their hands. Spending many hours cloistered in aircraft flying long distance makes catching colds or flu or other respiratory diseases inevitable. Team members being cooped up together for nearly four weeks means relationships are at best strained, at worst verging on violent.
Then there's the contrast in climate. Even at its best, Phillip Island can be chilly, so traveling from there to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia is a physical shock. To step on a plane in the freezing cold, then step off it to be drenched in sweat is tough for people already drained from so much travel and racing. Then to race for 45 minutes in punishing heat and humidity, at a track which is physically very challenging, because of the heavy braking zones around the track. The stress, mental and physical, is enormous.
Perhaps it was that stress that caused the MotoGP series to explode at Sepang last year. Smarting from being beaten into fourth place at Phillip Island by Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, and Andrea Iannone, Valentino Rossi seized upon the theory apparently put forward by his friend and business partner Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci, that Márquez had decided to conspire against Rossi to hand Jorge Lorenzo the 2015 MotoGP title. Márquez had attempted to accomplish this by beating Lorenzo in Australia. And in the press conference at Sepang, he launched his accusations against the Repsol Honda rider.
Predictably, the weekend devolved into farce. Márquez, stung by those accusations, attempted to extract his revenge. Whenever Márquez and Rossi ran across each other on track tensions rose, neither man willing to cede the other a single millimeter. During the race, as Dani Pedrosa disappeared to take an undisputed victory, and Lorenzo passed everyone ahead of him as if they were standing still on his way to second – including the pass of the year, diving hard up the inside of the two factory Ducatis at Turn 4 – Márquez found himself going backwards, with Rossi trying to catch Lorenzo and save his championship.
What followed was inevitable. The two biggest egos in the paddock, as one insider who has worked with both men described them, were never going to capitulate. Rossi tried to pass Márquez, but Márquez put up the fight of his life, racing as if it were the last lap of a championship-deciding battle. Still smarting from Rossi's remarks in the press conference, Márquez fought Rossi tooth and nail. Rossi, not fast enough to shake Márquez, eventually snapped, forcing Márquez wide and causing him to crash. Ugly and unfounded accusations (there really was no kick) were thrown back and forth, and Rossi was handed three penalty points, forcing him to start from the back of the grid at Valencia. It effectively ended a championship that was by that point already slipping out of his hands.
That incident colors every aspect of the championship to this day. But it has also been a marketing goldmine for the series. It had everything: the two most famous riders in the championship clashing on track. The obvious visual drama of a series of thrilling overtakes followed by a direct confrontation. The chance to take sides in a polarizing debate. In short, it had the one thing both competitors and spectators desire from sport: raw, unfiltered emotion. And emotion sells: audience numbers soared, magazine sales skyrocketed, website visitor numbers went through the roof.
Naturally, with MotoGP returning to the scene of the crime (for want of a better phrase), the whole affair has been raked up again. Ironically, while the press try to rekindle the controversy, both Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez have handled the issue with remarkable dignity. When asked about it in the press conference, they both dismissed questions with simple, straightforward answers. Nobody had change their opinion, Márquez said, but at least they had a professional working relationship. "I agree with Marc," Rossi added. In answer to another question looking back to the incident, Rossi dismissed it out of hand. "Boh, I don't know." The answer Rossi gives when he does not want to answer.
Those answers provide an insight into the mind of a champion motorcycle racer. Both Rossi and Márquez could easily spend their time looking back bitterly at the events, mulling it over in their minds. But that will not achieve anything: the only thing that counts is winning the race on Sunday, and winning the championship next year. Granted, any time they meet on the track they race each other harder than they would with other riders. But the past is the past, and cannot be changed. A champion understands this, and believes in trying to change the future.
Something old, something new
There is still much to play for, and the Sepang circuit offers an intriguing prospect. The resurfacing of the track has made a serious difference, posing major challenges to the riders and to the teams. Bumps have been removed, and several corners have been slightly reshaped, to improve drainage and the lines through them. Run off has been reshaped and improved, modifying the amount of gravel to make the corners safer.
The biggest change, and the least popular, is at Turn 15, the final corner. The inside of that corner is now very steeply off camber, ensuring proper drainage. It also forces riders to take a very different line, making the corner slower, and more especially slowing corner exit. One of the main reasons for such a drastic change to Turn 15 has nothing to do with that corner, but is entirely because of the next corner, Turn 1.
The aim was to reduce top speeds along the front straight, and slow down entry speed into the first corner. Run off there is limited, and more cannot be created, as there is a road at the back of that corner. The WorldSBK round proved the change to be successful: on average, the bikes were around 10 km/h slower along the front straight, and yet Tom Sykes' Superpole lap was a whole second quicker in 2016 than he had been the year before.
Who moved my cheese?
That does not mean that the riders were happy with the change. Several riders complained, especially about the negative camber at Turn 15. Chaz Davies was vocal about it on Twitter, saying that corner felt less safe. But with lower entry speeds, crashes should happen more slowly. The corner will need a complete rethink by the riders: taking the same line as they are used to will not work. Those who adapt fastest will benefit.
Cal Crutchlow has a head start on everyone, having come to Sepang in July to test for Honda. That test exposed a few problems with parts of the new surface, with water seeping up through Turn 9 especially. That has been addressed since the summer, with improved drainage and proper sealing. It wasn't just water causing problems: with just three bikes circulating, the track never really cleaned up sufficiently.
Lorenzo's last chance?
In February, when MotoGP came here for the first test, it was Jorge Lorenzo who took charge. The Movistar Yamaha rider ended the test as fastest, and was lapping quickly and consistently. Whether he can repeat that remains to be seen: Lorenzo has struggled in recent weeks with the Michelins in cool conditions, something which should not be an issue at Sepang. Yet the forecast is for rain throughout practice and the race, and the wet has also posed challenges for the Spaniard.
This is a crucial race for Jorge Lorenzo. He needs to turn a run of poor results around, most of all to regain some confidence. Lorenzo has looked increasingly stiff on the bike, and his results have suffered because of it. He will at least come into Sepang in the knowledge he was fast here in the test, and has been fast here in the past, not least last year.
Lorenzo is embroiled in a bitter battle for second with his teammate Valentino Rossi, and now trails by 24 points. If he is to have any chance of taking second in the championship, he needs to win at Sepang, and take that confidence on to Valencia. There, another cold track awaits, and with it, the potential for failure.
Best served cold
Rossi has very much the same motivation. The Italian was also quick at the test, but unlike Lorenzo, he has been very competitive in the last few races. With the exception of Motegi, where he crashed out, Rossi has been on the podium in every single race since Brno, though painfully, never on the top step.
That is proving to be something of a problem for Yamaha. The factory has not won a race since Barcelona, and has seen four different Hondas, a Suzuki, and a Ducati all take victory. The Yamaha M1 has stood still, not making the progress of the other bikes, especially the Honda and the Suzuki. Sepang is their best shot of a win, especially with last year's winner and Sepang specialist Dani Pedrosa absent.
Rossi is in good form at Sepang, and highly motivated for a win. Victory here would help put the ghosts of 2015 to rest, in several ways. First, beating Marc Márquez would feel like justice after the events of last year. Secondly, beating Jorge Lorenzo would be some small revenge for having the 2015 title stolen from him. And thirdly, and most importantly of all, Valentino Rossi still has an insatiable thirst for victory, and really wants to win.
In theory, the Sepang circuit should favor the Yamaha over the Honda. The Yamaha can use its extra drive out of slow corners to open a gap, and its corner speed to hang on through the fast corners. But it will lose out again in braking, Sepang being one of the toughest circuits of the season for the brakes.
This is where Marc Márquez will hope to take advantage, using the strength of the Honda on the brakes to make up ground on corner entry. An electronics upgrade in mid-season helped improve acceleration, cutting the ground the RC213V lost on corner exit. Márquez already has the title wrapped up, and is willing to take more risk again, making him tougher to beat. But at Phillip Island, Márquez proved that he is perfectly capable of beating himself, pushing a little too hard to correct a mistake, and trying to turn the bike too hard into Turn 4 and crashing out of the lead.
The man who benefited from all that was Cal Crutchlow. The LCR Honda rider has outscored everyone but Marc Márquez in the last eight races, scoring two wins and two second places. He comes fresh from a convincing dry win at Phillip Island, and brimming full of confidence. The Englishman has at least some idea of the changes to the track, and will be able to leverage that, especially if the weather is changeable. Above all, though, Crutchlow is on a roll, and he and his LCR team have got a handle on his bike. The Hondas struggled badly at the test in February, but they will be looking to turn that around this weekend.
Boys in blue
The Suzukis are also on a roll. Maverick Viñales scored yet another podium, after coming through the field from thirteenth – an achievement only outdone by Valentino Rossi, who finished in second starting from fifteenth. Aleix Espargaro was battling for that last podium spot with his teammate and Andrea Dovizioso when he also crashed out at Turn 4.
Both Viñales and Espargaro struggled during the test in February, but the bike has seen a lot of changes since then. The Suzuki GSX-RR has an upgraded engine, and an improved seamless gearbox, as well as some modifications to the chassis and electronics to help with drive grip. Suzuki have struggled with acceleration in the heat, the rear tire wanting to spin up, but they have made progress since Misano. Sepang will be their first test in really warm weather, though the rain may have a major impact on that.
Horses for courses
Could Sepang see a ninth winner? The obvious candidate would be Andrea Dovizioso, and at a track like Sepang, the Ducati's horsepower and drive could be a major advantage. The Ducatis were fast during the test, though it was the GP15 in the hands of Danilo Petrucci and the GP14.2 in the hands of Hector Barbera which got closest to the top of the timesheets. But much has changed since February, and the Ducati GP16 has gained speed and drive. Whether that is enough to compensate for the softer braking of the bike remains to be seen.
Andrea Iannone also makes a return at Sepang, though in his current physical condition, he is unlikely to be challenging for the win. The crushed T3 vertebra he suffered in a crash at Misano is still bothering him, and the heat is not helping. But Iannone succumbed to pressure from Ducati, and the antsy feeling which every rider feels when they are stuck at home watching a replacement race their motorcycle. He will at least start the weekend, though whether he is fit enough to finish it remains to be seen.
The satellite Ducatis also offer an interesting prospect this weekend. Petrucci was fast during the test, and Barbera has been quick all year, though more so on his own GP14.2 rather than on the factory bike of Iannone, who he replaced for the last two races. The GP14.2 is one of the best bikes on the brakes, which is a major advantage around Sepang. If there is a surprise coming in Malaysia, that is where it will come from.
Sepang is also the first opportunity for Johann Zarco to wrap up the Moto2 title, and become the first Moto2 rider ever to win back-to-back championships in the class. Winning it is not easy, though: he is champion if he wins the race, or finishes on the podium and ahead of Tom Luthi and Alex Rins. Last year, Zarco held off Luthi to take victory, but the Frenchman has struggled in recent weeks. Luthi, meanwhile, is fresh of back-to-back wins, and is rapidly closing on Zarco in the championship. Unless Zarco can rediscover his mojo, this championship could go all the way to Valencia.
Of course, the Rossi-Marquez clash is not the only piece of history to unfold at Sepang. In 2011, Marco Simoncelli was tragically killed in the opening laps of the MotoGP race. A larger crowd than usual marked the fifth anniversary of his death, gathering out at the memorial marker where he was struck. The paddock rarely misses an opportunity to commemorate Simoncelli's death, but this anniversary was a more fitting moment than usual. For a moment, the paddock was united. The events of five years ago help to put the events of 2015 into some kind of perspective.
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