Will we have a 2017 MotoGP champion by Sunday night? The odds are on the side of Marc Márquez. Second place would be good enough to wrap it up for the Repsol Honda rider wherever Andrea Dovizioso finishes. If Dovizioso doesn't win, then Márquez has to finish within eight points of the Italian. If Dovizioso is second, then fourth is good enough. If he's third, then eighth is good enough. So far this season, Marc Márquez has always finished sixth place or better. Except when he doesn't finish, of course...
Márquez has two obstacles to overcome. The first is the weather. The forecast for Sunday at Sepang is heavy rain, from around the time warm up for MotoGP tends until early evening. On Friday, it was Andrea Dovizioso who was strongest in the rain, while Márquez was a little slower, and had a fleet of Ducatis to contend with.
The second obstacle is the big group of very fast riders at Sepang. Going by the timesheets in FP3 and FP4, there are a bunch of people who are capable of a podium, and maybe even a win. "I think there are five, six, seven riders who have similar pace, there is not a clear favorite," was Jorge Lorenzo's assessment. "It's very, very open the fight for the victory, the fight for the podium," Valentino Rossi concurred, "because have a lot, a lot of different riders that for sure have the pace for the podium but also for the victory."
Rossi and Lorenzo are just two of the fast group, the former teammates starting from the second row along with Maverick Viñales, the man who replaced Lorenzo at Movistar Yamaha. Ahead of them start Dani Pedrosa, Johann Zarco, and Andrea Dovizioso, all three of whom also showed very strong pace in FP4. Behind them, Marc Márquez starts from seventh, having given himself something of a hill to climb by crashing during qualifying.
Coping with crashing
Despite the crash, Márquez was confident. His second run in FP4 – more on his first run in a moment – showed he had excellent pace. He put in a run of 6 laps of 2'00, 5 of which were faster than Andrea Dovizioso's best lap in the same session. "For that reason I have this smile," Márquez said afterwards. "You might say, ‘Why are you smiling when you are seventh?’ I’m smiling because the rhythm is not so bad."
His rhythm was good, but not as good as Dovizioso's, however. "We don’t have the best rhythm, even in FP4, because Dovi did a 2'00.6 with many laps on the soft rear tire. For me it was a new one, so it was easy to have that. But if we forget Dovi and Dani, who also has a very good rhythm, we are there. There are three or four riders that can fight for the podium." If it's wet, then all bets are off, Márquez added. "Maybe tomorrow at 2pm there will be some rain and it changes everything. We need to see everything how we can manage."
Márquez' problem is that Sepang is one of his worst tracks. "What makes it difficult? Maybe the hot conditions," he explained. "Maybe it’s because you need to ride very smooth and I’m an aggressive rider. I try to concentrate, to be smoother but it’s quite difficult. Also the speed of our bike on the straight is not the best one. This means you want to be smooth but you are losing too much on the two straights."
Making it worse was the fact that they took a wrong turn in setup during FP4. "Today it was not one of the best tracks but it’s true also that today everything was wrong. I mean, we went right and it was not in the correct direction. Then we go left but it was too late. Everything was difficult, going in the opposite way. But OK, the last run of FP4 I start to get the feeling again with the bike."
His day got worse when he crashed in Q2 on the bike which had the better of the two setups, and he was forced to jump on his second machine. A different feeling, an indifferent lap, and he was back in seventh on the grid. "Honestly speaking, we don’t have the rhythm to win the race at the moment. But we have the rhythm to fight for the podium."
… and not crashing
Márquez should have crashed in FP4 as well. On his third flying lap, he hit 322.5 km/h going through the speed traps on his way towards Turn 1, caught in the wind shadow of Alvaro Bautista's Ducati. He was too hot into the first corner, the rear sliding and out to the left as he got ready to pitch the bike to the right. But he was carrying just a little too much speed into the turn, and as he tried to force the bike into the corner, the front folded full lock right, leaving a thick black stripe out towards the apex.
It was a crash. The front was gone completely, the bike sliding towards the edge of the track independent of the direction of the wheels. But Márquez was not going to give up. He forced his right knee out and down, he right leg being forced backwards and almost out of his hip socket. It was just enough to lever the bike back onto both wheels, the sliding front ironically helping to slow the bike to the point it would flip up just enough for Márquez to regain control. And so it wasn't a crash after all.
Dorna were fortunate it happened at Turn 1. As they had their super slowmotion camera on the outside of the corner there, they were able to capture the crash-that-wasn't in all its glory at 2000 frames per second. Márquez has saved other crashes – the crash during a test at Brno, only captured by a photographer, was probably faster and bigger – but few have been caught in such intense detail. The video is up on the MotoGP website, and was also posted on Twitter. It is fascinating.
Márquez laughed it off afterwards. "When I got back to the box, I asked, 'did you see that on the camera?' because I was excited. But in the end, that means we are riding on the limit."
He will not be on the limit on Sunday. At a track where he is not comfortable, and with a title in the balance, caution is the watchword. "Every weekend is different," Márquez said. "Sometimes you feel like you can attack, like in Australia. Some weekends you feel like you need to defend and it looks like at the moment this is the way. It’s what I say. Tomorrow we will see during the warm-up where we are."
Tight times at the top
While Márquez struggles, Dani Pedrosa has once again showed just why Sepang is one of his favorite tracks. In Q2, Andrea Dovizioso posted what he believed was a pretty good lap. "I was able to push a lot in the qualifying and make a really good time, so I am happy about that," he told the press conference. He posted a time of 1'59.236 just as the checkered flag fell. That was good, but not quite good enough: a minute later, Johann Zarco bettered it by seven thousandths of a second.
But even Zarco would be denied: a few seconds later, Dani Pedrosa crossed the line with a time a couple of hundredths faster than the Frenchman. The Repsol Honda rider took the 49th pole of his career, and his fourth at Sepang. It was a near-perfect lap in searingly hot conditions, when track temperatures were closing on 50°C and grip was starting to disappear. But the track had been improving during the day, Pedrosa said, and he had found himself some empty track to lap without traffic.
How tight is the front row? The gap between Pedrosa in first and Dovizioso in third is 0.024 seconds, or a quarter of a blink of an eye. The gap to the second row is large, over a quarter of a second, but fourth to seventh are also pretty tight, just a couple of tenths between the four of them. This bodes well for the race tomorrow, though, as long as it is dry. "I think the track conditions are going to also be important tomorrow, and for sure it is one of the toughest tracks," Pedrosa explained. "But also the bike set-up can make a difference and also the feeling with the tires: if you are more smooth, you can save the tires, but in this class, in this GP, looking at the lap times it looks like everybody is going fast, so it is difficult to predict the race for tomorrow. "
Hard, medium, or soft?
Saving tires is exactly what Andrea Dovizioso had been working on, as Marc Márquez had so astutely observed. "We were a little bit worried about the dry conditions like today, and the bike was quite good from the beginning," Dovizioso said. "But set-up by set-up, it worked better and gave me a better feeling. In practice four, I confirmed a really good speed for the race on the used tire. I ride the bike in a good way for the characteristic of the track – the grip, temperature – and we are very competitive."
Tire management, and finding the ideal tire, was a task everyone was struggling with. All three options Michelin has brought are race worthy. Dovizioso and Zarco clearly favor the soft, and were both working on making it last. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa both worked on the hard rear, but Márquez went quicker with the medium. Maverick Viñales is caught between the hard and the soft rear, getting better grip from the soft but uncertain whether it will last. Valentino Rossi prefers the hard rear, but is still caught between the hard and the medium front tire. And Jorge Lorenzo, like his teammate, looks set to favor the soft.
Viñales was particularly happy after qualifying, mainly because he had been struggling so badly in the morning. "In the morning it was very difficult, because I didn't feel good with the bike, it was always running wide, and not able to do good lines," he said. But his team found an improvement after FP3, and that made a massive difference.
Improvements at last
"I'm pleased today because we did a really good improvement from FP3 to FP4," the Movistar Yamaha rider explained. "It's been a long time since we made an improvement like this during the weekend. So I'm really happy that we closed up the lap times a lot. Especially with used tires in FP4 I felt really good in the end, I could improve a lot the lap time and be close to the rest of the top."
The lack of direction in the morning ended up costing him a little during qualifying. A lack of grip in the morning meant the electronics were cutting too much power in an attempt to get the rear to hook up. With more grip in the afternoon, that left Viñales a little short on power. "Finally, in the qualifying I felt without power in some places," the Spaniard explained. "It was because in the morning, I didn't have the same grip in the afternoon because of the setup . So I felt I could go faster in the qualifying."
His teammate was pretty happy too, though Valentino Rossi had been fast all day. "It was a good day, because I was always quite competitive from this morning to this afternoon," he said. Could he be fast enough to win on Sunday? "I think Pedrosa is always very strong at this race track," Rossi opined. "But Zarco is very fast and also Dovi have a great pace. So I think the first row start for the victory, for sure. But in the second row me, Maverick, Lorenzo and also for sure Marquez can fight anyway. So have a lot of riders in front that are very strong."
Best served cold?
With Valentino Rossi on the second row, and Marc Márquez behind him, speculation has been rising among the more suspicious type of race fan and journalist that Rossi might want to get involved in the championship fight. After all, it was at Sepang in 2015 that Rossi first accused Márquez of interfering in his championship battle with Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island, a situation which then led to the infamous clash at Turn 14, in which Rossi forced Márquez off track.
A Spanish journalist asked – perhaps scurrilously, perhaps not – if Rossi would seek to get revenge on Márquez, by interfering with the Spaniard's championship battle with Andrea Dovizioso. Rossi responded with some irony. "What did Márquez do two years ago? And at Phillip Island?" He said cuttingly. "He always said he never did anything, so I will do the same," he smiled.
He then set the journalist straight: "Joking part, my objective is to fight for the podium, make my own race. This is always how I raced for all my career." When British TV asked the same question about these comments, Rossi cast it aside, and answered the question he wanted to answer, rather than the question asked. "For me sincerely, I want to try to make the best race possible and try to arrive on the podium. I know it will be very difficult but we are there and I think that we have to fight very strong, like Phillip Island."
Outside of the top seven, Alex Rins was once again impressive, ending up in eighth on the grid, eight tenths behind Pedrosa. But the Suzuki rider isn't just quick over one lap: Rins was third quickest in FP4, though his pace was not as consistent as Márquez and Dovizioso ahead of him. Now recovered from the injuries which plagued him in the early part of the season, Rins is starting to show some of the potential which many believed he had before he entered the class.
No luck for Luthi
While the MotoGP championship doesn't look like being settled this weekend, the Moto2 title could very well be over. Tom Luthi has had no luck whatsoever during the flyaways, and qualifying at Sepang was no different. The Swiss rider, who trails Franco Morbidelli by 29 points, had one of the ugliest highside crashes seen in a while, flicking himself off his bike at Turn 2 and tumbling very nastily. His visor was knocked off, usually a sign of taking a bang to the head, and though he stumbled off the track, he quickly had to lie down and was stretchered away.
Luthi was transported to hospital, and though nothing serious was found, he will still have to be passed fit by the circuit doctors in the morning. If he doesn't race, Morbidelli is automatically champion. If he does race, he will not be in particularly good shape, while Morbidelli starts the race from pole position. What Luthi needs is a miracle, but there has been absolutely no sign of that these last three weekends.
Miracles are what Joan Mir is made of, his last name giving headline writers a serendipitous spot of alliteration. After wrapping up the title at Phillip Island, he took pole at Sepang, remarkably his first of the year, and only the second of his career. Mir may have racked up nine victories this season – and there is every reason to believe that won't be the final total once the season is over – but qualifying was never his thing. A record lap during Moto3 qualifying proved that he can do it, when he puts his mind to it.
Mir starts alongside Jorge Martin and John McPhee, a return of the three JMs who dominated the early races of the season. Martin's title challenge faltered when he broke his leg at the Sachsenring at the end of June. McPhee lost his way after his early form, a shadow of his earlier self for the middle part of the season. McPhee is still clearly capable of being fast, but what he has lacked is consistency.
Though the second day of practice at Sepang made for fascinating viewing, in the end, it may not mean much. The forecast is set for rain, heavy at points during the day, and temperatures nearly 10°C lower than in the sweltering Saturday sunshine. That may end up killing any chance Dani Pedrosa has of being competitive, boosting Dovizioso's chance of victory, upsetting the Yamaha apple cart, and adding a Ducati wildcard or two. Jorge Lorenzo may find himself involved at the front, and facing a choice of whether to help out his teammate or try to win it himself. Rain or shine, this is going to be good.
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