2017 Sepang MotoGP Preview: In The Championship Pressure Cooker

So just like 2015, the MotoGP paddock packed up after a breathtaking race in Phillip Island and headed to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang. And once again, two riders fly to Malaysia with a clean shot at the title. Fortunately, though, this time there was no one to drip poison into the ears of the protagonists and sour the atmosphere at the penultimate race of the season. We can look back at an astounding race and savor it, without it leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.

The lack of added stress is welcome. The Sepang round of MotoGP is the toughest of the season, for a lot of reasons. "I think this race is the most demanding of all the season because it is very hot," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. It is not uncommon for riders to come close to passing out at the end of a 45 minute race in sweltering temperatures and steam room humidity levels. Conditions are oppressive.

Making things worse is the fact that Sepang is the last of the three Pacific flyaway races. Sepang is the third weekend in a row where riders have faced a 9-hour flight, followed by promotional activities in the MotoGP manufacturers' most important markets, followed by a full race weekend. They have gone from a chilly and soaking Japan to a chilly and mixed Phillip Island to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia, jumping in and out of air-conditioned vehicles, hotels, and aircraft to face the elements on a racing motorcycle. Coughs, cold sweats, and hot fevers are the order of the day.

If their schedule was already draining, things are about to get very tough indeed. The heat in Malaysia drains energy from the riders, yet they face 20 laps racing flat out on Sunday. Pressure from the teams is rising too: there are only two races left at which to make a mark and score a result. The opportunity for bonuses – for some riders, a significant part of their income – is slipping away. Now is the time to step up to the place.

Pressure up

For the riders still chasing a title, the pressure can become almost unbearable. Many a rider has buckled once Sepang turned up the heat on them. Titles that should have been comfortably clinched in Malaysia got carried forward to Valencia, ramping up the pressure at the final race of the year. Good for ticket sales at the Ricardo Tormo circuit, not so good for the riders chasing glory in Sepang.

A comfortable lead can act as a relief valve for championship pressure. Ironically, both for the rider with the comfortable lead, and for the riders chasing them, as they have little to lose. For anyone with a 25+ point lead, they can afford to be conservative and ensure they just score points. For those 25+ points behind, they can aim for glory or the gravel trap: if they succeed, the championship can open up again. If they fail, they are praised for trying.

Odds are that with a 33-point lead, Marc Márquez will leave Sepang with his fourth MotoGP title and sixth title overall either already in the bag, or as good as. In the very worst case, if he doesn't finish the race and Andrea Dovizioso wins, he will still have a lead of 8 points in the championship, and heading to a track where he has consistently performed well.

Nothing to lose

Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, has nothing left to lose. He is at the track where his current run of success originated, the place he won his first MotoGP race since 2009. Senior figures in Ducati will tell you privately that this is where they believe the new Dovizioso was born. The confidence he gained from victory at Sepang, after two years of consistent podiums and coming up just short in Austria behind then teammate Andrea Iannone, was the final drop that helped burst the dam. It was a different Andrea Dovizioso who lined up at Qatar this year, and he has gone from strength to strength, racking up a total of five wins so far this season.

Dovizioso comes to Sepang as one of the favorites to win, especially if it rains (and given that it hasn't seemed to stop raining at every place MotoGP visits in 2017, there is a very good chance it will rain here on Sunday). "This is a track I really enjoy riding with every bike, but especially MotoGP," Dovizioso told the press conference. "In the past on the dry we were never so competitive but I expect to be better this year."

There is good reason for optimism. In the preseason test here at the end of January, Dovizioso was consistently fast, ending the test as fourth quickest. More importantly, he was always within a few hundredths of Marc Márquez, a promising starting point approaching the weekend. In the rain last year, he was superb: calm, collected, judging the conditions perfectly and never pushing to risk too much. Dovizioso stayed on board while others crashed around him.

The factory Ducati rider used his preparation for Sepang wisely. Just as he does every year, he spent three days on Langkawi, a beautiful island archipelago off the coast of Malaysia, and famed beach paradise. Rested and relaxed, he should be ready for his best shot at getting back in the title chase in Sepang. "We approached last weekend to try to win the race," Dovizioso said, "and we'll not change that. We know how important it is to work in the right way during the practice."

Mr Conservative

Marc Márquez' objective is just as straightforward as Andrea Dovizioso's. But where the Ducati rider has to win, the Honda man merely has to ensure that he finishes the race, and finishes well inside the points. In theory, that should not be too much of a problem for Márquez: he has won six races so far this year, and finished on the podium in five more. Indeed, this is arguably where Márquez has made the difference this season: when he hasn't finished on the podium, he has still finished inside the top six, where Dovizioso has had an eighth, a seventh, and last weekend, a thirteenth-place finish.

On the other hand, Márquez also has three DNFs this season, though only two of them were his own fault. He crashed out in Argentina, pushing the Honda RC213V too hard over the bumps and losing the front while leading. At Le Mans, he crashed out of fourth, losing the front over the bumps once again.

What are the odds of a DNF for the Spaniard at Sepang? Márquez' early-season crashes came before Michelin reverted to a slightly stiffer front tire, and before Honda fixed the worst of the issues with the rear of the bike. With nearly a full season under their belts, HRC have had time to address many of the weaknesses of the RC213V, and the bike is just about as good as it is going to get this season.

Cal Crutchlow explained: "I think by this time of the year, our packages are pretty much at the best of their capabilities, and we're riding as well as we can ride, most of us at this point in the year. We're maxed out with it now, or we're at the best it can be. We'll always change stuff over the weekend here, but there's no part that's going to come which will suddenly help us for the last two races."

All about that pace

Márquez may not have been the fastest overall during the test over a single lap, but his pace was positively stunning. His long runs were considerably faster than anyone else's. So while much of the attention after the first Sepang test went on Maverick Viñales, it was Marc Márquez who showed true pace.

The Sepang test was nearly ten months ago now, though. Much has changed. The Honda is a better package overall, and Márquez is in a commanding position. Andrea Dovizioso has been transformed into a genuine championship contender, and the Ducati Desmosedici GP17 is outstanding at Sepang. Maverick Viñales no longer looks like the rider we all thought would sweep the championship this season, and the Yamaha has gone backwards in terms of development.

Obviously, while much of the attention is on the title fight in Sepang, the rider with the best chance of actually winning is being overlooked. Dani Pedrosa is outstanding at the Malaysian circuit, having won here three times in MotoGP. This was also the circuit where he finally nailed the noble art of riding in the rain, winning his first wet race in 2012.

At other circuits, Pedrosa has struggled in the wet. His problem has always been getting heat into the Michelin rain tires with water on the circuit, but that should not be an issue in the tropical Malaysian heat. Wet or dry, Dani Pedrosa will be a threat in Sepang.

Team blue

What of the Yamahas? Maverick Viñales finally figured out how to ride in the wet during warm up on Sunday morning at Phillip Island. "We were struggling all year in the wet, and then in 20 minutes we found the key!" the Spaniard joked in the press conference. That may help him if it rains at Sepang, but Viñales faces a familiar problem if it is dry. The 2017 Yamaha M1 still uses up the rear tire too quickly, and fades late in the race.

That was not much of an issue in Phillip Island, of course, but the Australian track is a very different proposition to almost every other circuit in the world. At Sepang, there are fewer long, flowing corners and more hard acceleration, which will help chew up the tire.

Viñales' aim is to secure second place in the championship, but he too faces an uphill task. He trails Andrea Dovizioso by 17 points, at a track where the Ducati is strong. His gap could have been smaller had he not been beaten by his teammate at Phillip Island, but in a hectic madhouse race in Australia, there was no room for team orders.

While Viñales was happy to have found a solution to his problems in the wet, Valentino Rossi is far less confident. "In the wet this year I am not very strong like last year," he told the press conference. Yet he was very competitive in Sepang last year, and battled for much of the race. Like Viñales, Rossi was relatively quick during the test in January. How much of that speed he still retains for this weekend remains a question mark.

Going Dutch

There is another Yamaha rider at Phillip Island this weekend, though he will not be facing anything near the pressure that the Movistar Yamaha riders will be doing. After missing out on a ride at Aragon, when he was nominated as a substitute for Valentino Rossi, but the Italian braved the pain to ride anyway, Michael van der Mark will be filling in for Jonas Folger in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. The German is still struck low with a mystery illness, and undergoing tests.

What can Van der Mark expect to achieve? He comes in to Sepang with no experience on a MotoGP bike, and fresh off a plane from Jerez, where he was racing in the penultimate round of the WorldSBK championship. The one advantage he has is that this is yet another bike he has ridden this season, in addition to the WorldSBK spec R1 for Pata Yamaha, the Suzuka 8 Hour spec R1 at the classic endurance race, and the All Japan Superbike spec R1 the Pata Yamaha team tested in search of improvements for the WorldSBK machine.

He has also had advice from his Pata Yamaha teammate Alex Lowes, who filled in for the injured Bradley Smith in Tech 3 last year, and from Wilco Zeelenberg, currently rider coach to Maverick Viñales. His goal? "For me the main thing is to improve every session," the Dutchman said. "It's going to be really difficult, but I will be happy if I improve every session and that we've made a lot of progress by Sunday after the race."

Though the battle for MotoGP is drawing the headlines, the Moto2 title fight could also be settled in Sepang this weekend. Franco Morbidelli has a comfortable cushion of 29 points over Tom Luthi, and though he is clearly nervous, that should be enough to wrap up the title this weekend. Luthi is still suffering the after effects of a massive crash during warm up in Phillip Island, and coming to Malaysia will be a real test of fitness. All Morbidelli needs to do is to keep his head and follow Luthi around. Despite the pressure, he should be capable of doing that.

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