If there is one thing clear from Friday at Sepang, it is that neither Andrea Dovizioso nor Marc Márquez believe the 2017 championship is done. The two men left in the title fight came out punching, chasing fast times just that little bit harder than the rest. Dovizioso topped both morning and afternoon sessions, blatant about his intentions to make a final bid for the championship. Márquez was a little slower in the mixed-but-drying conditions of FP1, but only half a second behind Dovizioso in a wet FP2. Márquez will give as hard as he gets.
The headline times are deceptive, though, as were the conditions. The morning session started with a track that would not dry fast enough – a persistent problem since the track was resurfaced, and an issue with drainage in certain sections of the track – and riders choosing to sit out the first third or so of FP1. Even once the riders took to the track in earnest, times were variable. It was only towards the end where track was dry enough to start to post quick times.
In the dry, Márquez focused on pace, putting in a single long run, while Andrea Dovizioso got on with setup work, ending FP1 at the top of the timesheets, just ahead of Alvaro Bautista. "I’m really happy about the lap time I did this morning," Dovizioso said. "It was quite fast but the conditions were strange. There was not a lot of rubber on the ground so it wasn’t normal. Anyway, this was the condition for the other riders. We did a good lap time. I was first."
Wet and dry
Márquez was less confident about his time in the dry. "We start in dry conditions with the base that we had in the preseason, because we believe in that, but we already saw that it was not a perfect base and then we started to think - and the second bike was ready with the base set-up that we used this year. So tomorrow there is something that we need to try there," he said.
In the afternoon, the difference was more clear cut. Dovizioso led Márquez by half a second, the rest of the grid a further half a second behind the Repsol Honda rider. Once again, it was Dovizioso who had outright speed, while Márquez focused on consistency.
The bad news for Márquez was how positive Dovizioso was after practice. "There was a good feeling from the beginning, especially in the wet. In the wet we confirm good things from last year and it was even better. I’m really happy about that." The Ducati rider won the race last year, and if he is to be believed, he is even faster this year.
Márquez, on the other hand, was playing down his day. "In wet conditions I was okay, but still missing some feeling. So at the moment we need to work hard because this race track is one of the race tracks more difficult for me, for Honda. But anyway we are there in the top three, that is the most important."
War of words
Unlike Dovizioso, Márquez felt the Honda had gone backwards in the wet this year, a point made several times during the season by Cal Crutchlow as well. "Honestly in the wet, it was more difficult, this year and this racetrack," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Last year I was riding fast but a little bit easier. Today for some reason was quite difficult. When I go out the feeling was quite good, but I already feel a difference. Anyway I'm a rider that if I don’t have the feeling, I push. Because this is the way."
It all feels just a little bit too convenient, two riders sticking to a narrative which suits their ends. Dovizioso going fast and trying to impress and demoralize Márquez with sheer speed, so the Spaniard starts the race worried. Márquez underplaying his strength, while putting in strong and consistent runs, not faster outright than the Ducati man, but clearly showing the pace to compete on race day.
The truth is, both men are quick. In the wet, Dovizioso put in 3 laps which were quicker than anything Márquez was capable of, but only posted 4 laps in the 2'11 and 2'12s. Márquez did 7 laps of 2'12, four in a row on his first run, three in a row on his second. Their words are meant solely as propaganda, psychological warfare on the most important weekend of the season so far. Their actions speak far louder.
Team tactics, team troubles
Even if Márquez is capable of matching or beating Dovizioso at Sepang, Friday gave cause for concern. Andrea Dovizioso was not the only Ducati rider to be quick in the wet. Factory teammate Jorge Lorenzo was third quickest, a second behind Dovizioso and half a second slower than Márquez, while Pramac's Danilo Petrucci was fifth fastest, four tenths behind Lorenzo. The two factory-backed Ducatis will surely jump to Dovizioso's aid if they can, while Márquez has no one to turn to for help. The next fastest Honda is Jack Miller in twelfth, while Márquez' teammate Dani Pedrosa is way down in eighteenth.
For Pedrosa to be so far back is something of a surprise. The Repsol Honda rider has struggled in the wet, but mainly when it has been cold. In the heat of Sepang, he should not have been struggling to get the wet Michelin tires up to working temperature. But that did not prove to be the case: you could hear his engine note suddenly rise as the rear tire of his Honda span helplessly. Pedrosa was just as puzzled as the rest. "Again in the wet, no grip on the rear tire," he said. "It's very difficult for me to explain how and explain why, because I don't understand either. In Motegi I had a problem, in Aragon I was fast, in Misano I had a problem, in Australia I was fast. Here I have a problem. I don't know."
What was noticeable was that Pedrosa's fortunes improved towards the end of the session, when the track lost some water and he fitted the soft tires. In the space of three laps, he found three seconds, a sign that there could be a direction for the Repsol Honda man to follow. If it is wet on Saturday – and the forecast is for rain in the afternoon – the soft wets could be an option to explore.
Turning a corner?
At Yamaha, things were looking up. The progress Maverick Viñales had made in Australia carried over to Malaysia, the Spanish youngster fourth fastest both morning and afternoon. "It did continue," Viñales said of the progress. "Still we need to improve in some other areas, because until now, the tires we have here are hard compounds in the wet so it’s very slippery. We needed to improve in Australia. We took third and I felt much better with the bike, especially with the front. The confidence going into the corners is much better than before so I felt good in the rain. Now we just need to make another step and try and improve."
The improvement he is seeking is with the first touch of the throttle when leaned over. Viñales is still looking to gain some drive there, but he put the problem down to the compounds Michelin have at Sepang. "I think it’s because here there are more hard compounds than in Australia," he said. "That’s the difference but I think we can solve it during the weekend."
Valentino Rossi showed tempered optimism, the day having gone better than expected. The fly in the ointment was the fact that he had not put in a quick lap in FP1 to ensure a spot in Q2. With the weather unsettled for Saturday morning, he must hope for a dry FP3. "It's very difficult to understand because in the last eight minutes a lot of riders put the soft rear and improved the lap time a lot," he said.
Hope for the future
Yet his feeling overall was positive. "We were quite lucky to ride the bike in the dry because today the forecast was very bad," Rossi said. "This morning was bad conditions, but we had 20 minutes where we could use the slicks and could push. My feeling on the dry is not so bad. We have to work, but I was quite strong. In the afternoon it was full wet and an interesting practice because we worked a lot to try to improve the bad situation that we had in Japan with this bike. And it was coming better. I was able to improve my lap time and I arrived in P6, but my feeling is not fantastic. I don’t feel comfortable with the bike. I don’t have enough rear grip and I cannot push at the maximum. So we have still to work. The situation improved a bit but we are not strong like last year still."
The Yamaha M1 was still better than at the test in January, however. The bike felt different, Rossi explained. "Very different, because we work a lot. But for me the bike that I have now, I felt more comfortable compared to the test. Like in Phillip Island. I suffered a lot of understeer before, and with this bike my riding is more natural. I feel better."
Despite the feeling of progress, Rossi was pessimistic about the M1 for next year. "I think that our current bike can be a base for next year, but I'm not sure," he said. "We need to look at our potential this weekend and also during Valencia and also in the Valencia test. But I'm sure anyway in Yamaha they are working hard and will bring something I think for next year." He was not sure that the 2017 bike would be the basis for the 2018 M1, he said, after the trouble Yamaha have had throughout the season.
Closer than you think
For a rider who finished nineteenth in both morning and afternoon sessions, Michael van der Mark was receiving an awful lot of attention. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that the Dutchman is a rider keenly followed by teams in MotoGP, with an eye to the future. The one question he was over and over was about the difference between the MotoGP and WorldSBK machines. He was phlegmatic about the differences. "At the end, it's a bike," he said. "Everything is a bit more smooth, the gearbox. One of the main things is the brakes, which are a lot stronger. The bike is really easy to ride."
The one thing all substitute riders are warned about when they first get on a MotoGP bike is the tires, but the switch from Bridgestone to Michelin seems to have made that transition a good deal easier. "I was really surprised how the tires are," Van der Mark said. "You see people struggle with the front tire and many people say that, but in my case, I felt immediately quite normal with the front tire. This is already one good step to start with, because many people told me the tire is a bit difficult. In my opinion, the tire works like normal and I get a good feedback from it."
In the end, the Dutchman grew tired of questions insinuating that WorldSBK and MotoGP were worlds apart. "No, it's not really another world, it's just everything is a little bit different, but at the end, it's all the same. We race bikes, and we want to be as fast as possible," he said. Given Van der Mark's performance on his first outing on the bike – very respectable, given no previous experience, riding against a pack with a full season of racing under their collective belts – perhaps we should take him at his word.
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