The riders may have been complaining that the new surface of the Sepang circuit takes too long to dry out, but about one thing, they are all agreed. It has fantastic grip. "We have this problem of the track drying up, it's very difficult," Jorge Lorenzo told the press conference, agreeing with his teammate. "But the grip is perfect, it's amazing the grip."
That was obvious in the afternoon, when the MotoGP riders took to a track still soaking after the tropical downpour which had caused the preceding Moto3 qualifying session to be red flagged. The lean angle the riders were still getting despite standing water was remarkable. That was even true after the Moto3 downpour had ended, and the track was awash. The top Moto3 riders were still improving their times on a track which was wetter than at the start of the session.
The same grip had helped in the morning, when there were still a few wet patches on the track. As the sun started to burn the water off, Maverick Viñales dipped under the two minute mark, posting two laps of 1'59.9. That was on a track which was still not completely dry, the riders able to power through almost as if it had never rained.
The usual suspects?
The morning session revealed that four riders are genuine contenders during the race on Sunday, at least if it stays dry. The names should be familiar, the three remaining Aliens Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi joining Alien-elect Viñales as candidates for the podium. Both in terms of a single lap and overall race pace, the four had a few tenths of advantage on the rest.
The pattern was mostly repeated during a very wet FP4. Marc Márquez led the way this time, ahead of Cal Crutchlow, Viñales and Lorenzo. Rossi was a little slower in the final free practice session, switching between set ups on two different bikes to find the right direction. Qualifying in second behind Andrea Dovizioso proved that he and his team had found it.
The biggest surprise for many was that Jorge Lorenzo should be so fast in the wet. The Spaniard has struggled this year in wet conditions, often finishing well down the order. When asked about his problems during the press conference, he was clearly irritated that people thought he could not be fast in the wet.
"I don't think it's true that I've never been competitive on the rain," Lorenzo told the press conference. "Probably with the Michelin, I struggle a lot, especially the first two races in the rain to find good confidence in the front. But in the past with the Bridgestone, I won races in the rain, I made pole positions, and I made podiums."
He took the opportunity to take a swipe at those who had criticized him. "It looks like in this sport, your value is just in the last race," he said. Some people made a hobby of waiting for him to perform poorly, and then criticize him loudly. "When I win or when I have good results, these people don't speak too much. They always do when things are wrong."
Why is Lorenzo fast all of a sudden? Quite simply, the phenomenal grip of Sepang has given him the confidence he needs to go fast. "When you don't have confidence, it's very complicated to be fast, as we saw from so many examples in the past." With exceptional grip, and a smooth track, Lorenzo is competitive again, rain or shine.
Wet or dry?
That raises an intriguing prospect. With Márquez, Lorenzo and Rossi all quick in all weathers, the three should make quite a race of it on Sunday. Maverick Viñales has made life a little more complicated for himself by qualifying in eighth, but Sepang is wide enough to offer plenty of passing opportunities. He will need to get the kind of start he had in Phillip Island, however.
While Marc Márquez is fast, there is a question mark over his endurance. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest in FP1 and FP4, and second quickest in FP3. But he was forced to skip FP2 due to gastroenteritis, and though he was much improved on Saturday, he is still far from fit. "Physically I don't feel 100 percent, of course, but much better," he said.
Márquez had been drinking lots of water to stave off dehydration, and surviving mainly on fruit, eating only very lightly. In the punishing climate of Sepang, it will be hard to hang on for 20 laps. If he can manage that, he will be a hard man to beat on Sunday. Could Marc Márquez become the first fruitarian (albeit an involuntary one) to win a MotoGP race?
Strategy and pushing beyond the call of duty
What of the polesitter? Andrea Dovizioso was sublime in the wet, and smart to choose almost the perfect strategy. The factory Ducati rider went out on soft tires in the early part of the session, and set a quick lap. The soft was not quite up to giving the performance needed, but was good enough to take provisional pole. Dovizioso then missed the shortcut back into the pits when he came in to swap to the harder wet tire. That left him just short of time to make one last lap, which he believed could have been even faster. It did not matter, as he was quick enough on his final lap to improve his time and eke out a bigger margin over second place man Rossi.
But perhaps the best final lap belonged to Cal Crutchlow. The LCR Honda rider had fallen in the morning, dislocating his right thumb and banging up his left arm. The injuries were caused by the raised kerb on the outside of Turn 7, which had been left as it was when the track was resurfaced. During qualifying, when he pushed for a quick time, he crashed with three minutes to go. That knocked the handlebar out of place, and left the brake binding. It did not stop Crutchlow from posting a time good enough to take fifth, putting him alongside Marc Márquez.
Crutchlow explained his motivation for pushing so hard for a quick time. "I didn't want to be anywhere near Baz or Barbera," he joked. "I think they are on the last row." Getting stuck behind Ducatis is the bane of the other rider's lives, especially at a track where top speed is so important.
What makes success?
In the press conference, Valentino Rossi was asked about how MotoGP had changed. In the past, Rossi had said that the rider could make 80% of the difference, while the bike made up 20% of the results. How had that changed, a local journalist asked. "If you see in MotoGP, I think now it's 50/50," Rossi said. "For sure, if you have a factory bike with a manufacturer behind that helps you to improve the bike and adapt the bike to your style, it's very important."
But Rossi also mentioned something which is often overlooked. "It's very important the motorcycle, it's very important the team," he said. It is easy to forget just how important a part of the equation the team is. Yet the evidence that how the team works can make a difference is all around. Rossi himself is an example, with his team always finding 'something' on Saturday night and Sunday morning to give him the tenth of a second or so he needs to be competitive.
What that 'something' is, is never obvious, but it inevitably involves scanning the data for clues, and picking up on details which matter. The difference a team makes is more obvious when you look at Moto2: there are 24 virtually identical Kalexes on the Moto2 grid, and yet the difference between the fastest and the slowest is often three seconds or more. Some of that is down to the rider, for sure, but a good part of it is also down to the team. (Even more, perhaps, in the interaction between rider and team). You see it when riders move from one team to another, and their results change drastically.
Full tanks and new tires
The fastest of the Moto2 bikes on Saturday was once again Johann Zarco. The Frenchman is back in the groove in Malaysia, and has the first opportunity to wrap up the title there, becoming the first Moto2 rider to win back-to-back championships in the class. He should have had it clinched much earlier, after dominating the middle part of the championship, but in recent races, he has struggled.
In the press conference, Zarco explained what his problem had been. "In the last races, the beginning of the races are difficult for me," the Frenchman said. "Maybe because I feel more the full tank, and my opponents feel more the tires. So they can use the new tires, and when the tires get used, then they have problems. And for me it's more the tank. When the bike is heavy, I have more problems than when the bike is light with used tires. That's maybe my best feeling."
If Zarco is struggling with this in Moto2, things will not get better in MotoGP next year. The feeling of a full fuel tank on new tires has caused many new entrants to the class a lot of problems, including some very big name riders. Maverick Viñales took most of his first season to get a handle on the problem, and even experienced riders like Cal Crutchlow have complained. Zarco will have to concentrate on that, and try to learn fast.
Brad Binder is another rider who will have a lot to learn next year. The Red Bull KTM rider once again demonstrated he is a cut above the rest of the Moto3 grid, taking pole with a last gasp lap on a soaking track. Given that Moto2 is littered with former Moto3 champions who struggled adapt - Sandro Cortese, Danny Kent, and up until recently, even Alex Márquez – he will have to concentrate on forgetting all he learned in Moto3, and start from a blank slate.
What can we expect on Sunday? The weather will have a major role to play, with rain expected throughout the day, though when it will fall and how much is still uncertain. It won't be properly dry, but it might not be very wet. We have four MotoGP riders who are equally fast in the dry, and a couple more who are fast in the wet as well. This could be quite the race.
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