How close is MotoGP at the moment? If you just looked at the championship standings, you might reply, not particularly close. Marc Márquez wrapped up the MotoGP championship after just 16 of the 19 races, with a lead of 102 points. He had won 8 of those 16 races, a strike rate of 50%, and been on the podium another five times as well. On paper, it looks like the kind of blowout which has fans turning off in droves, and races held in front of half-empty grandstands.
But that's not what's happening. The series is as popular as ever, TV ratings are high, crowds are larger than ever before, and social media lights up on every race weekend. Rightly so: the show has been spectacular in 2018. Marc Márquez' championship blowout belies just how close the racing actually is. How? Because there are eight or nine riders who can compete for the podium on any given weekend.
The five races leading up to Sepang bear this out. There have been four different manufacturers and six different riders on the podium, and that is with Jorge Lorenzo missing four of those five races. The podiums are fairly evenly distributed as well: Honda have 6 of the 15 podium places, Ducati have had 4, Suzuki 3 podiums, Yamaha 2 podiums. Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha have all won races.
The technical regulations are what has made this possible, of course. The introduction of spec electronics, and swapping to Michelin as single tire supplier, while simultaneously ensuring that Michelin bring a selection of tires to each event, all of which are viable race options. That has both opened up the window of opportunity, and simultaneously made the window of mechanical advantage much smaller.
When all of the bikes are much closer in performance, any advantage found is both smaller, and much more sensitive to the conditions. You might spend all four sessions of free practice working on what you think will be the perfect setup, but in Sunday comes, and the track is a few degrees hotter or colder, or the wind is coming from another direction, then you're back at square one.
No single manufacturer is immune from this effect. But it feels like some manufacturers suffer more than others. Yamaha, in particular, has been extremely sensitive to conditions. If the combination of temperature, track layout, grip level, and tire construction is not just so, then the M1 is not competitive. If it falls inside the Yamaha's Goldilocks zone, then all of a sudden, the bike is a weapon again.
From rebellion to glory
Conditions had been good in Thailand, where the Movistar Yamaha riders finished third and fourth, Maverick Viñales getting on the podium. They had been even better at Phillip Island, where Viñales had finally called an end to Yamaha's longest ever losing streak, winning a race after 25 races in a row without a victory. On the other hand, Motegi had been entirely mediocre, the Yamahas nowhere, and both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales on the verge of threatening open rebellion.
Where Yamaha struggled, Honda, and Ducati were much better placed. Honda had been on the podium in each of the last five races bar Phillip Island, while Ducati had only missed out at Motegi, but that had been a result of crashes, rather than a lack of competitiveness. Suzuki had been pretty close most races, usually within a couple of seconds of the winner when they weren't on the podium.
Ducati, Honda, and Suzuki all appear to have wider operating windows, but Yamaha looks more competitive in conditions which are a little outside where the other three are most comfortable. And given the big differences between the tracks and conditions where the Yamaha had done well, it was hard to put your finger exactly on what it was that helped make them competitive at any particular track.
Throw away the form book
Which made it that much more fascinating going into Sepang. It should have been a bad track for Yamaha on paper, yet both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales had been quick in practice, and both Rossi and Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha bike had qualified on the front row. Maverick Viñales had looked most dangerous of all, but a wet qualifying left him languishing on the fourth row.
Marc Márquez had qualified on pole, but would not start from there. He had unwittingly gotten in the way of Andrea Iannone during Q2, and been handed a six-place grid penalty. He would start from seventh, a significant handicap. Márquez had never won a MotoGP race before starting from the third row. Márquez' penalty did lift Iannone up onto the front row, which the Suzuki rider viewed as justice, as he believed he had been fast enough to get onto the front row of his own accord had he not found Márquez in his way.
Going by race pace from free practice, it looked like Marc Márquez versus Maverick Viñales, with strong chance of Andrea Dovizioso making his customary appearance at the front. The factory Ducati rider had won the last two outings at Sepang, after all, and the two long straights should favor the horsepower of the GP18. Dovizioso led the flotilla of Ducatis which filled the second row of the grid.
The weather had thrown a bit of a spanner into the works. On Saturday, a torrential downpour had caused qualifying to be delayed, and with a similar storm forecast for Sunday around race time, the start was moved a couple of hours earlier, from 3pm to 1pm local time. That meant the riders went to the grid in the searing tropical heat, with the asphalt temperature higher than at any time during the weekend. And not just the weekend, but the hottest track temperature of the year, at 53°C. The track was 12°C hotter than it had been all weekend. The setup window had shifted, and there was nothing much anyone could do about it.
Making a break
When the lights went out, it was Valentino Rossi who shot off the line, opening up a lead as he headed into Turn 1. Johann Zarco followed, closing on the tail of the Movistar Yamaha out of Turn 2. Jack Miller was the first of the Ducatis, from Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki Ecstar, while Dani Pedrosa had gotten a lightning start from the fourth row, to jump up to 5th in Turn 1, but alongside Andrea Dovizioso. Pedrosa looked to be positioned right for Turn 2, but the Ducati got the drive out of Turn 2 to enter Turn 3 ahead of the Repsol Honda rider.
The exit of Turn 3 put Pedrosa right in the line of his teammate, Marc Márquez having gotten a middling start and not having made up much ground. Márquez pushed Pedrosa aside and went in pursuit of Dovizioso ahead of him.
Pedrosa may have made a rocket start from the fourth row but that could not be said for Maverick Viñales. The Movistar Yamaha rider exited Turn 4 where he had left the line, in eleventh place. All that pace in practice would mean nothing if he could not pick his way through the field quickly.
Meanwhile at the front, his teammate was pushing to open a gap. With clear track ahead of him, Valentino Rossi set about pounding out a pace others might struggle to follow. That it was fast was clear from the way the field strung out behind him, everyone clinging on for dear life as they tried to chase.
Save and sacrifice
The one rider who was making progress was Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider was on a mission, and slid cleanly through on Andrea Dovizioso to take fifth at Turn 9, before outbraking Andrea Iannone into the final corner. That pass was not easy, and left Márquez pushing a little harder into the hairpin than he might otherwise have wanted to. As they rounded the left hander, the front end closed a fraction, and the rear started to slide out from underneath him.
For most riders, this would mean the end of the race. But Márquez had already racked up an impressive collection of front-end saves at Sepang, and this was just another to add to the collection. He jammed his knee and his elbow into the tarmac, and lifted the bike just enough to keep it up until he had control of it again.
The man Márquez had passed into Turn 15 was not quite so lucky. Seeing the Repsol Honda rider nearly wipe out in front of him, Andrea Iannone squeezed the front brake a little harder and felt the front end go. It let go quicker than he could save it, and the Suzuki rider slid off his bike and out of the race.
"Marc lost the front and then the rear," Iannone lamented after the race. "I didn’t want to touch him so I braked and I crashed. If I didn’t brake maybe I would have touched him and we would have both crashed. It was an instinctive reaction and it was like this. I didn’t have another chance."
It was doubly frustrating, because he believed a podium was possible. "My target today was the podium and we had the possibility," Iannone said. "The team did really good work and that’s the positive thing. I think as always I want to look at the positives, which was that we had really good speed, we changed little things on the settings with the bike so the bike reacted really well so the feeling was good and the speed was good."
The incident did not discombobulate Marc Márquez. On the next lap, Márquez passed Jack Miller to take third in the same corner, pulling the bike tight to run inside the Pramac Ducati rider at the final corner. Márquez was through and into third, and could set his sights on Johann Zarco, and plan how to make him his next victim.
At the front, Rossi's pace was punishingly metronomic. Taking a leaf out of his former teammate Jorge Lorenzo's book, Rossi ground out lap after lap within a few hundredths of a second. Five laps of 2'01.0, with a variation up or down of two hundredths of a second. A lap a tenth slower, and then he upped the pace again, slipping under the 2'01s in the high 2'00s. Anyone with designs on Rossi's lead faced a grueling challenge. First, they would have to try to lap faster. Second, if they managed to close the gap, they would then have to try to get past.
Johann Zarco hung on grimly behind the Movistar Yamaha rider, able to follow, but little more. The aim had been to pass Valentino Rossi, but Zarco soon realized that was not an option at that stage of the race. So the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider clung on to Rossi's coattails, and allowed himself to be swept along as the gap to the chasing pack started to open.
Unfortunately for Zarco, he had company. Marc Márquez sat behind him, looking for a way past, but the effort of following meant even the Repsol Honda rider was stretched to the limit. He bided his time, waiting for the right time to strike, when opportunity fell into his lap. On lap 5, Zarco got into Turn 14 a little bit hot, running his Yamaha out very wide, and opening the door to Marc Márquez. Márquez did not need a second invitation, and immediately slid up the inside of Zarco and was off to chase Valentino Rossi.
That was easier said than done, however. The effort to stay catch Rossi and Zarco had required taking a lot of risk, and his tires were starting to overheat in the punishing conditions. "I start to see that Valentino was pushing really hard from the beginning," Márquez said. "Then I pushed too. I was riding like qualifying practice, but I overheated my tires. When I had just overtaken Johann, I started to struggle a lot. It looked like Valentino was very close, but then I started to struggle, I started to feel uncomfortable."
He was still pushing hard, so hard that he nearly lost the front again in the final corner. Márquez realized his best hope lay back off a little, trying to let his tires cool before launching another attack. "I just lost the front in the last turn," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I saved it with the elbow. Then I said, okay, cool down. Try to be smart. Try to understand what is the situation with the tires." Márquez relented a fraction, lapping a couple of tenths slower, and allowing Rossi to extend his advantage again.
Behind the leaders, there were two different directions of travel. The Ducatis of Jack Miller, Andrea Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci who had all started so well were starting to slide back through the field. On their way back, they were being passed by Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales, who were matching the pace at the front. But getting past Ducatis is not easy, as they used their speed advantage to get back past along the two long straights.
Such resistance would prove ultimately futile, however. The changing conditions had worked against the Ducatis, where the Yamahas and Suzukis had benefited. Andrea Dovizioso summed up the frustration. "The difference from practice was too big," the factory Ducati rider said. "So I don’t want to say something clear on what happened because for me something was wrong, but I don’t know, maybe not but it is too early to know so we have to study it."
There was no clear explanation for their issues, Dovizioso said. "We have to analyze, study and understand if there was something wrong or if it was our limit at this track in these conditions. In the race I couldn’t brake as the front didn’t work in the right way and it effected all different parts of the track with my riding style so we lost too much." The front wheel was locking up under braking, he said, but it was worse for him. "I think it was for everybody, but the difference we did from practice was bigger than all the other riders."
Turning up the pressure
At the front of the race, Valentino Rossi was continuing to hammer out the same, relentless pace, a string of low 2'01s mixed in with some high 2'00s. The gap to Marc Márquez had settled at around 1.2 seconds, as the Repsol Honda rider nursed his tires back into working temperature, but Johann Zarco had been unable to match the fierce speed of the two leaders.
As the laps clicked off, Márquez started to feel more and more comfortable, and with eight laps to go, he started to up the pace. The gap to Rossi dropped to less than a second, and it was the turn of the Movistar Yamaha rider to respond. Though there was still clear air between them, the first shots had been fired, though it was long-range artillery, rather than handguns at close quarters.
Both men were riding on the absolute limit, though that was far more visible with Márquez' ragged style than with Rossi's smooth hurry. Two, three times Márquez' foot slipped from the peg, as he save the front, surfing the edge of grip, and his ability.
Would we get another showdown at Sepang, though this time, a straight fight with only victory, and above all pride at stake? The intensity each man poured into their riding exposed the fierceness of their rivalry, and just how much they wanted to win. It was obvious that if Márquez were to catch Rossi, he would pull out every trick in his book to try to get past Rossi. It was equally obvious that Rossi was in no mood just to roll over for Márquez. He would make Márquez pay for every inch of ground gained, every attempt at getting past.
The tension grew as Márquez inched closer to Rossi. But it would not come to a confrontation. As Rossi touched the throttle ready for the exit of Turn 1, at the start of lap 17, the rear of his Yamaha M1 just let go and he slid out of the lead, his hopes of victory shattered.
He had no real explanation for what happened. "I don’t know. We have to check," Rossi said. "I pushed for sure. But I pushed for 15 laps the same and when I touched the throttle the rear slid and I didn’t expect it, sincerely. I was more worried about the front and I was more on the edge. The rear slid a bit too much and the bike went down."
It was an atypical crash for Valentino Rossi. The last time he crashed out while battling for the lead was last year, at Le Mans, when he attempted a last-gasp dive in the final few corners in an attempt to beat Maverick Viñales, his teammate. The last time he crashed out of the lead was much further in the past, at Mugello way back in 2000, his rookie season in the premier class. But then, he was engaged in a close quarters battle with Loris Capirossi and Max Biaggi, and slid off at Correntaio on the penultimate lap.
That Rossi should crash out of battles at the front of a race twice in the past two years, while not having done since his rookie season, tells you just how hard the Italian is having to ride now. A sign, once again, of how close the bikes are, and how high the level of talent is. Rossi is anything but a crasher – his total of 6 so far this year is among the lowest in MotoGP, and in start contrast to Marc Márquez, who already has 21 crashes. For Rossi to fall while leading means he is being pushed and tested to the limit.
Good news, bad news
For him to lead for 16 laps at a track where Yamaha had expected to struggle is just as significant. That left even Valentino Rossi torn between two emotions. "It’s a mixed feeling, no?" he said after the race. "From one side I’m very happy for the race because it’s the best race of the season for me, and also it was coming in difficult conditions at a difficult track for us. This is very important. On the other side it’s a great, great shame. I’m very disappointed for the mistake. To make a race like this and go home with zero points is frustrating, yes. I’m devastated for the crash but from the other side I’m also happy because anyway we lived the dream for 15 laps."
The difference at Sepang had been a change to the setup of the M1, Rossi said. "We modified a lot the bike, the setting to try and make everything help the rear tire. At the end it worked. Already from Friday morning I felt good. We worked well with the team. We just made a small adjustment. We can be competitive for all the race. Also Maverick was not so bad, and also Zarco. Because Maverick started from very behind, no? This time the three Yamahas were quite competitive."
They had gone from working on the electronics to seeing mechanical grip, Rossi explained. "It was more mechanical. In the last races we improved the electronics, like three or four races ago that helped a bit. But now it’s more mechanical."
His teammate had seen how quick Rossi had been from the start of the race, and believed that the Italian was in with a chance of the win. "I only saw Valentino at the start and I think we were riding really good," Maverick Viñales told reporters. "I was thinking today he could win the race because he always nearly had the same pace as me, he is not as close in practice, but always in the race he is even quicker."
For Viñales, there had been a drop off in the rear tire, and that could have been the cause of Rossi's crash. "When I saw him in the lead I said okay he can go but I think it was four or five laps to go, maybe when I felt the drop on my tire, I saw him go down. But I don’t know, I don’t know how he crashed as I didn’t see it."
Rossi acknowledged that the tires had started to go off a little towards the end. "Looks like in the last laps we were struggling a little bit more compared with the Honda and also compared to Ducati," the Italian said. "Also Maverick in Phillip Island won, but in the last three or four laps he slowed down quite a lot. But he was alone so he won." But the situation was definitely better, he said. "For me in the last part of the race we still suffer, yeah. But one story is if you speak about the last four laps, or five laps, and one story is if you start to have a problem in the half of the race."
A low-risk gamble
With Rossi out, Márquez could relax. His pace dropped by eight tenths, and knowing that Johann Zarco was 4 seconds behind, he could cruise home without taking any more risks. "When I saw Valentino crash, of course the body just relaxes," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "I was riding in another way. Both of us, we were pushing a lot. It was a similar race like Motegi with me and Andrea. We were fighting, fighting, fighting. Not many overtakes, but we were riding on the limit. I saved two or three crashes with the elbow, so then I was struggling and I was fighting against my bike. It was nice to just finish the race in a good way."
He may have been handed victory on a plate, but Márquez was more than happy to take it, however it came to him. "Of course I’m happy because I won," he said. "The way that you won doesn't matter. You want to win. Of course, if you win on the last corner, the last lap, the feeling is different, but today was extremely hard race because I felt like we did a very great job during all weekend, but we didn’t have the perfect bike on the race. So I was just riding by instinct, not by using the head. I was just trying to race, try to push."
It helped that he had already wrapped up the title, and could afford to take more risk, Márquez said. "Of course, if you are already champion then you don’t have that extra pressure, so I was pushing on the limit in the brake points. I had Valentino there, and also Johann was pushing from behind, but the motivation was try to win in a difficult circuit for us, and we achieved it."
"If I was fighting for the championship against Dovizioso, today my position was third or even fourth, maybe second. But I would not be fighting for the victory," Márquez said. But it was obvious just how much risk he had been willing to take. "You saw. During all the season I saved one time, one crash. But this race I saved, like, three or four times. Like I say, there was some extra motivation. That is the reason I kept pushing all the race."
What was the extra motivation? Having started from seventh, and never won from there. And then having his arch rival ahead of him. Beating Valentino Rossi in a straight fight is not a challenge Márquez would ever shy away from.
Different kind of domination
Victory at Sepang brought his total to 9 wins this season, putting him on course for at least a 50% win record. Yet Márquez was adamant this season hasn't been anywhere near as dominant, or as easy, as 2014, the year he just cleaned up. "2014 was another way to dominate," Márquez said. "I remember here in 2014 I just was behind, I don’t know who was the rider, but I just was behind, waiting, waiting. Then I overtook him and go when I won. So it was another kind of racing and the level was different."
Things were much more difficult in 2018, Márquez said. His success this year was just down to simple consistency. "This year, of course I dominated, but I struggled. I dominated, I was on the podium all the races that I finished, but this was the main target for me. In Valencia in two weeks I will just try to keep that level. But I didn’t dominate… Of course, the points are big, but I didn’t dominate with that distance. We were very, very close, but I was always there. This is the main difference."
Another Hamamatsu podium
Behind Márquez, the podium was not as settled as it looked. Johann Zarco's safe margin started to fray, as Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales closed on him. Rins closed quickly in the final laps, then on the last lap, put a clean pass on Zarco going into Turn 4. The Frenchman had done all he could to hold off Rins, but the Suzuki rider was just too fast for him to contend with.
It was Suzuki's eighth podium, and Alex Rins' fourth. He was delighted, but exhausted, the race having been tough in the opening laps. "I'm very happy," Rins said after the race. "As you know, the race was very difficult. I think today was the hottest day during all the weekend. For sure, we struggled a lot on the first laps. We lost a lot of time with the Ducatis. On the straight they have a lot of speed and then they are braking really hard."
He lost more time trying to pass Dani Pedrosa, which put Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez out of reach. "Valentino and Marc, they went and it was impossible to catch them," Rins said. "Then lap by lap when I was trying to catch Pedrosa, I was very concentrated and I was pushing to the limit. When I was behind Pedrosa also I lost maybe one, two laps - I don’t remember very well, but we lost a little bit of time. But in the end we arrived also to Johann."
More engine, more speed
This was the fourth podium for Suzuki in five races. That had been made possible by the new engine Suzuki had brought at Assen, Rins told the press conference. "I think since Assen when Suzuki gave me a new engine with a little bit more power on the top, since this point we improved a lot," the Spaniard said. "So we were able to hold the slipstream or to fight with Yamaha, with Honda on the straight. Then I think the experience, trying to control more the tires, trying to control more the electronics, a little bit both."
Dani Pedrosa, who had been passed by Rins earlier in the race, had gotten a good look at the Suzuki GSX-RR. "Towards the end, the Suzuki was very good," Pedrosa said. "Looking at it in the corner, especially edge grip, and traction, and turning, a lot more. Yamaha was struggling more from my point of view, but also fast. But the Suzuki, I could see it was really on rails today."
Intensity pays off
Unable to hold off Alex Rins, Johann Zarco crossed the line in third, his first podium since Jerez, after a mid season slump. The start of the race had been all important, he said. "The strong beginning of the race was the key for the podium. I had a great start from pole, and it helped me to go away in the first two corners. Valentino then was pushing a lot and going so fast. I wanted to overtake him but I was not able, and finally following him was good enough to go away and save that podium."
Zarco felt he had been helped by racing for three weekends in a row, which had helped him and the team concentrate on dialing in the bike. "It's true that the bike is exactly the same from the beginning of the year until now, and what I feel, it’s the three weeks in a row, almost five, but it’s like the three weeks in a row with the team, my feeling is always more and more precise on the bike."
That had allowed him to extract the last possible gram of performance from the Yamaha M1, Zarco said. "Finally we adapted very quick to have our bike," the Frenchman explained. "Then we know that our bike has a limit, but the limit today was fighting for podium or maybe fourth position. So we did the 100%. This helped me to feel myself strong, at least to give a good result to the team, to myself, to Yamaha, and feel confident for the next challenge."
Yamaha making progress at last?
Maverick Viñales crossed the line in fourth, too far away from Zarco to have a shot at the podium. He had been fast, but starting from eleventh had pretty much ruled him out of contention. The Movistar Yamaha rider had still believed a victory was possible when he lined up on the grid, though. "When I started the race, I thought if I could hit the low 2'00s then maybe I am able to win the race," Viñales said. "But today it was impossible as the track was so slippery. I was even struggling to make high 2'00s.
Despite that, Viñales had come away feeling confident. "I was on the rhythm to win the race, but I am just happy," he said. "At three different tracks I felt we can have the chance to win the race like at Buriram, Phillip Island and now here with the same setup so I am really pleased that things are working better. There are things to improve like the engine because I didn’t have enough engine braking so today I was demanding a lot from the front tire. With four laps to go I didn’t have grip on the tires. I destroyed the tires."
Like Rossi, Viñales believed the Yamaha M1 is not that far off being competitive. "Actually, on the bike we only have to change one item, which is the engine," Viñales said. "I have said many times the chassis is really good and I haven’t lost the front at any track and I am pushing the front a lot all the time. At some tracks I even tried to close the front, because being P11 for me is a disaster so I tried to close the front."
The issue with the Yamaha's engine is in braking, Viñales said. "Our bike is really good, we just need to get more grip from the rear, especially on braking, and then engine braking. Sometimes I feel I can lead the race but as soon as I lead I cannot and I go wide as I don’t have enough engine braking at the end. I think for them this is easy to solve so let’s try it."
Doing testing right
The Spaniard was already looking forward to Valencia, and testing the 2019 machine. "I can’t wait to be in Valencia on Tuesday to get the engine and ride and ride and ride to get the rhythm," Viñales said. He was confident that the new engine would fix his problems, because he had described to Yamaha exactly what he needed. "I am really confident because I know what the problem is, so they just need to increase the engine braking when I am off gas when I’m in the last part. Already Johann’s engine has more engine braking in that areas so there is not a lot of difficulties for them to do it because they already have done it."
Valencia would be crucial, Viñales said, and he was focused on making sure the test goes well. "I think in Valencia I am going to do my best, and in the test I am going to be very smart, because last year I think we didn’t work so good in Valencia test," the Spaniard admitted. "The first day was really good but the second day was really bad because we started to play a lot with setup and all these things. This year I will spend two days only on the engine. Two days, trying, trying, trying. More power, less power. Without setup, because the setup works at Thailand, Phillip Island and here."
Marc Márquez had certainly seen the good points of the Yamaha, when he had been chasing Valentino Rossi. "Looks like Yamaha improve a lot in… I don’t know if it’s electronics or acceleration, but now they are able to brake hard, but especially to have a very good acceleration on the pickup area, so that makes the difference," Márquez explained. "I was pumping and I was struggling with the grip. Even when I was behind Johann they had a very good drive on the acceleration."
There is more to it than just the bike, however. Both the Yamaha and Suzuki have improved in recent races, as have their riders. But Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins both have very specific problems of their own. The two of them have excellent speed once they are underway, but neither man is very strong in the opening laps. That leaves them with too much work to do once they are up to speed: Viñales complained of his tires overheating as he came through the field, and both riders were held up passing slower riders who had started ahead of them.
Viñales has proved he can win when he has a bike which he has confidence in, but Rins still has to show he is a winner. Both men could make their lives a good deal easier, and win a lot more races, if they can work on this one glaring weakness. If they had gotten a better start, especially if they had qualified better, who knows where they could have ended?
Fast start gives a late start
The start, and having to fight his way through the field was something which Dani Pedrosa has had problems with all year, but a change to the bike helped him to a strong result, the Repsol Honda rider crossing the line in fifth. "We changed the setting, so obviously it was better, more fitted to start well, and then at the end a little less," he said.
It was a different direction than they have been following throughout the season. "The setting was different, but it helped at the beginning to stay strong and make passes, and take a good pace," Pedrosa said. "Unfortunately then at the end, I struggled a bit more with the tires, and was not able to keep the same pace. Normally it was always the opposite, so I cannot pass and I cannot go fast at the beginning, but then I recover, but it's too late. So we changed a little bit the strategy here. I think it could work out a little better if I didn't lose time with Andrea [Dovizioso]".
Given that this was Pedrosa's penultimate race in MotoGP, it makes you wonder if his final season might have worked out differently if they had taken this approach from the start of the season. The conventional wisdom in the paddock is that the tires need to be treated with kid gloves at the start of the race, to ensure they last until the end. That conventional wisdom may not work for the smallest and lightest rider on the grid.
Pedrosa's big problem has been getting heat into and feedback from the tires. He rarely had problems with tire performance dropping off, because he struggled to get the tires to perform in the first place. A more aggressive approach to bike setup might have been worth a gamble for Pedrosa, give him a chance to fight in the early stages of the race, and leave him to manage in the second half.
It is also possible that the exceptionally warm conditions also played into Pedrosa's hand. Getting heat into tires has been an issue for the Spaniard, and it is notable that his strongest recent races were at Thailand and at Sepang, to tracks where the temperatures have been monumentally high. There are so many factors which go into figuring out why a particular setup works or doesn't work for a particular rider at a particular track. But heat could well be one of those factors which brought Pedrosa back into the Goldilocks zone.
Ducati's downward trend
That is not where any of the Ducatis found themselves. Four Ducatis finished in places six to nine, but only Alvaro Bautista had managed to improve on his starting position. That, too, may have something to do with the heat, Bautista being the second lightest and smallest rider on the MotoGP grid. But it is also to do with confidence, the Spaniard finishing his last season in MotoGP (for the moment at least) in very strong shape, especially his outing to replace the injured Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
The men who started ahead of him all fared much worse. Andrea Dovizioso crossed the line in sixth, a few seconds ahead of Bautista, after starting from fourth on the grid, while Jack Miller finished eighth and his Pramac Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci finished ninth.
Dovizioso had no simple answers to why they had not been as competitive as practice had promised. "Normally this is a good track for us," the factory Ducati rider said, "but we never did a good race in the dry. Everybody forgets that we did the two victories in the wet. It is true in the practice, and in the winter test, but during the Friday and Saturday our pace was really good so we don’t really know what happened in the race. We never did, Ducati never did a special result for a long time in the dry here, so I think there is a technical reason. I don’t know if there was some problem or it is a real limit of our bike in these conditions when you have to make 20 laps with this heat. I don’t know, we have to study."
Home is where the heart is
Crossing the line in tenth, his second best result in MotoGP after the bizarre race in Argentina, was an emotional Hafizh Syahrin. The whole day had been emotional for him, the Malaysian rider said. He had watched his friend and fellow countryman Adam Norrodin start from pit lane, then fight his way through the field to fight with the front group, before crashing out of the Moto3 race. And being on the grid at his home race, in front of an immense crowd willing him on, he was overcome with emotion.
"On the starting grid, I felt a little bit emotional, because my friend Adam Norrodin made the best race from pit lane to the faster group, trying to fight for the points," Syahrin said. That had filled him with emotion. "I was crying in the pit lane alone, and then I was on the pit wall, pushing him on. And when he crashed, he made me feel down."
Syahrin had taken this as inspiration, he said. "I said to myself, I can do this or not, and in the end, when I arrived on the grid, I saw my father behind the gate, and I tried to go to my father, but it's difficult, and I just want to say thank you to the security here, because they let my father go to me on the grid. I was crying on the grid, and after crying, I just want to do my best, I want to give all my potential that I have, and at the end, we made a good race. So this I just want to say thank you to all the team, the fans who came here because they believe in me, and I'm really happy for that, and thank you to all the guys."
It was a remarkable result, given that the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider had started dead last on the grid. But a perfect start saw him pass a bunch of riders going into Turn 1, then on the right line to pass some more through Turn 2. By the time he reached Turn 4, he had made his way from 23rd on the grid, all the way up to 12th.
From there, he just tried to be consistent, and not make any mistakes, Syahrin told reporters. "From behind, we passed eight riders in the straight, something like that, and then when we arrived in the first corner, I tried to pass some riders," the Malaysian said. "At the end I tried to keep the pace, I saw the lap board every lap, some riders had a gap with me, so I tried to maintain that, and in the end when I saw P10, I kept consistent, I didn't want to make any disaster, or crash again. I just wanted to finish the best race for my fans and all my team." It was, he admitted, a great day for Malaysian motorsport.
The entire weekend was a huge success for motorcycle racing in Malaysia. 103,984 spectators turned up to a race which was rescheduled to start two hours before its original time. Yet everyone came, and made it on time, and sat through the hottest part of the day. They were rewarded with a surprising and tense race, a popular race leader in Valentino Rossi, and a popular race winner in Marc Marquez. And the icing on the cake? Their very own MotoGP rider scoring a top ten finish.
Next year, Malaysia will have its very own MotoGP team as well, with the Petronas squad moving up to the premier class with backing from the Sepang circuit Malaysian government. The future of MotoGP starts here.
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