How quickly things can change. At Phillip Island a week ago, Valentino Rossi was being feted for his 400th Grand Prix start against a background of concern over the nine-time champion's pace. Sitting seventh in the championship with 153 points, behind both Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales and Petronas Yamaha SRT rider Fabio Quartararo, questions were being asked whether it was time for Rossi to retire.
And yet a year ago, at Sepang, Rossi came within four laps of winning the race, or at least taking the race down to the wire with Marc Márquez. The Italian crashed out at Turn 1, washing the front out and handing victory to his arch rival. But the race was as clear a sign as you could get that Rossi was still competitive, still capable of winning races.
Jorge Lorenzo finds himself in a similar situation. At Phillip Island, he had one of the worst races of his career, finishing 66 seconds behind his teammate, the winner Marc Márquez. Lorenzo is on his way out, the media and fans said, he can't ride the Honda. Yet in November last year, at the Jerez test, Lorenzo was fifth fastest overall, a tenth of a second behind his teammate, and 0.160 slower than fastest rider Takaaki Nakagami.
It is clear that circumstances matter. Sure, riders lose their pace over time, start to slow down with age, take more time to adapt to one bike rather than another. But riders don't go from winning races one year to being mid pack or much worse the next of their own accord. There is more going on than meets the eye – in Rossi's case, a search for speed and the balance between grip and tire life, in Lorenzo's, a return from a vertebrae injury combined with a bike he still doesn't trust completely. So changing circumstances may help change their fortunes.
Which makes Sepang, the last of the Asia-Pacific triple header, such an intriguing prospect. There are few circuits which the MotoGP riders know so well. Everyone bar Jorge Lorenzo tested here back in February. And veterans of the class have been testing here for many years, in some cases twice a season. More, when Sepang used to be Yamaha's designated test track.
Of course, much has changed between now and the test back in February. Bikes have evolved, rookies have developed, riders have picked up injuries, or as in the case of Johann Zarco, even swapped, from KTM to replacing Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda. "I think the many laps I did on the KTM, they are just good so that I know the track well," the Frenchman said. "I really don't think too much about what I did in February."
For Pecco Bagnaia, the test proved to be a long-term headache, after the Pramac Ducati rider finished second fastest overall back in February. "The first test here was the problem all the year!" the Italian rookie told the media. "I was already second with incredible pace and I was very strong. Everything was very easy here at the first test because I was already in the top ten in the first days and less that a second away from first. It is a track I really like and really suitable for the Ducati."
The problem for Bagnaia was that his speed at Sepang had been illusory, a happy collection of circumstances. Once the season got underway, Bagnaia struggled. It has only been in the last few races that he has found his feet once again.
All round ability
Yet Sepang remains a good yardstick to measure a motorcycle by, and that is why the teams come to Malaysia to test. For a start, they never need fear it being too cold in the tropics, so testing can take place from morning to night. With a break, though: the heat reaches its maximum in the early afternoon, robbing the circuit of grip. Then some time around 4pm, the rain comes, as a heavy tropical downpour.
Yet despite the vast quantities of water which the heavens dump onto the track, the circuit is usually close to dry again an hour later, the tropical sun burning away any damp patches remaining. Testing at Sepang does not guarantee the full 8 hours of track time, but there is always enough time on track to make the trip worthwhile. That is not always the case at European circuits, and especially not so in February.
The layout of the track also makes it ideal for testing. Two long straights, both from slow corners, means the bikes need to be able to accelerate up through the gears, and hit a decent top speed. Turn 1 needs hard braking and a precise line to get right, the long right hander turning right again before flowing on to the tight Turn 2. The fast line through this slow right-left combination is precise, but also dangerous. Turn 1 is a favorite passing place, braking late leaves you wide as you turn, letting the rider you just passed sweep back under you, or choose a better line as the track turns back left to get the run into Turn 3.
Turn 3, one of the better corners of the calendar. If you've seen a shot from Sepang with a rider drifting their rear tire, the bets are it was taken at Turn 3. From there, the track heads out toward Turn 4, a sharp right hander and another favorite passing spot, before flowing downhill through the long left of Turn 5, and another fast right of Turn 6. A quick squirt of gas takes you down to the double right of Turns 7 and 8.
The next opportunity to pass comes at Turn 9, a tight left hander at the end of a short straight. Like Turn 1, it requires finesse and caution, the track turning right again through Turn 10 before running out toward Turn 11. After a brief detour through Turn 12, the long right of Turn 13 leads on to the tighter Turn 14, the mirror image of the last two corners at Valencia.
Turn 14 is another favorite overtaking place, but is also fraught with danger. The long right hander of Turn 13 allows you to line up a dive up the inside at 14, but if you do that, you risk losing drive onto the back straight. And on a straight this long, small losses on exit can be costly once you reach the final corner.
Turn 15 is the last chance to pass, but getting past is not easy. In an effort to reduce speed at the end of the front straight, Turn 15 was made off camber, making it a difficult proposition. The tighter you cling to the kerb, the steeper the slope, and the slower you go. The wider you go, the flatter it is, but the longer you spend trying to round the turn. And both choices leave you open to a lunge up the inside, before the run to the line. That run is not long enough to allow a quick bike to exploit higher speed, and not short enough to ensure victory if you exit the corner in the lead. All of these factors make Turn 15 the most critical corner on the track.
Something for everyone
With such a mixture of straights and corners, there are many ways to go fast around the circuit. In the 20 years in which Grand Prix racing has been going there, a Honda has won seven times, a Yamaha five times, a Ducati five times, and even a Suzuki twice, though that was Kenny Roberts Jr on a 500cc two-stroke. In recent years, Honda and Ducati have dominated the top step, but there has been at least one Yamaha on the podium at every race held since 2007, and last year, Alex Rins took second on the Suzuki GSX-RR.
So the race looks wide open. Sure, the timesheets had four Ducatis at the top at the test in February, Danilo Petrucci finishing ahead of Pecco Bagnaia, Jack Miller, and Andrea Dovizioso. But on the final day, Maverick Viñales did a race simulation on the Monster Energy Yamaha which put him 15 seconds ahead of Marc Márquez' race-winning time from 2018 after 19 laps, before pulling in at the end of the 20th lap, making it full race distance, bar the length of pit lane.
Can Viñales pull the same trick in the race? The Spaniard is coming off a strong race in Phillip Island, where he led for most of the race until crashing out on the final lap, trying to take back the lead from Marc Márquez. That was an all-or-nothing move, though. "I had the opportunity to win"" Viñales said at Sepang. "There were many races where I was third, 0.8 behind without the opportunity to win and I was very ****** off. So in that race I had the opportunity and I took it."
The fact that any shot at the championship was gone had made the decision to risk the crash easier. "Of course it depends where you are in the championship and the situation," Viñales explained. "We had nothing to lose because the championship was already done. If you are battling for a championship then you need to be smart: first is first you know! But if there is nothing to lose then for sure you have to risk everything."
If Viñales was so quick in Sepang, what does that mean for the other Yamaha riders? The test is no guideline for the pace of Fabio Quartararo. Back in February, the Frenchman was just getting to grips with the Yamaha M1. By the time the MotoGP circus rolled up for the Jerez round of MotoGP, he had gone a long way to mastering the bike, insofar as a rider ever masters riding a racing motorcycle. In the latter part of the season, Quartararo has been phenomenal, arguably the best Yamaha and the main challenger to Marc Márquez.
But Quartararo comes to Sepang smarting from two big crashes in Phillip Island: a huge smash during practice, which badly damaged his ankle, and a smaller crash during the race, after he had a moment with the hard rear tire and then got taken out by Danilo Petrucci. "I am feeling better, for sure it is still half pain but when you are on the bike you have a lot things to think about other than the foot," the Frenchman told the press conference.
The Sepang round is vital for the Petronas Yamaha Sepang Racing Team, for obvious reasons. It is the team's home Grand Prix, and Quartararo is confident that the test will mean he can get up to speed more quickly "I think all the tracks that we have tested at made it an advantage," Quartararo opined. "We checked the data from the test and the bike is totally different. Electronics and the power. So it will be helpful as I know a little bit how the bike is here in the corners and also as a reference. It will be good for us as we know in Qatar we had the test and went quite fast from FP1 and also in Misano so we hope to do the same at this track and hope the conditions will stay dry."
Things are not looking as rosy for Valentino Rossi. The Italian is in what he described to the Italian press as his "worst year on the Yamaha" in terms of points, wins, and position in the championship." It was not like his time at Ducati, however. The problems were a lack of speed on the straights and consumption of the rear tire, but apart from that, his feeling with the bike was good.
The subject of his future came up again. For next year, Rossi will change crew chiefs again, drafting in David Muñoz to replace Silvano Galbusera. He made the decision to address the fact that he was unable to solve the problems he has had for a long time. He was curious to see if changing crew chiefs would help, but it was the only option left to him. "The results on the track are the sum of the rider, the bike, and the team," Rossi said. "I had to change something." He couldn't change the rider or the bike, so the team was the only thing left, it was pointed out to him.
These changes do not mean he is on the verge of retirement, he reiterated. "As I have always said, it depends on the winter tests, and we can understand many things after the first races."
As for Sepang, the fact that Rossi came close to winning last year gave him confidence. But much has changed: the level of the competition is higher, and there is a flood of new young talent in the class. His challenge is certainly tougher than it was last year.
What of the Ducatis? There were four of them at the top of the timesheets at the end of the test in February, but that does not necessarily mean they are set fair for victory this weekend. "The test was good here, but that was the start of the season, so we're back again. We'll see how far our settings have come," Jack Miller said.
The track has changed as well, with three corners resurfaced. "I saw they resurfaced Turns 1 and 2, and then also Turn 12, so that's good, because they definitely needed it. Especially at Turn 12, it was getting unsafe. And Turn 1 had some waves around it from cars. So they definitely needed it, but we'll have to wait and see, because sometimes when they do patch jobs like this, it can create more drama than was there before. But generally they've been pretty good here, so we'll have to wait and see."
Danilo Petrucci was fastest at the test in February, and was hoping for a confidence boost from that. Petrucci has had a torrid second half of the season, and had a massive crash at Turn 2 at Phillip Island, the combination of a cold tire and dirty track.
The Factory Ducati rider is looking to bounce back in Sepang. "The test was good and hopefully we can be competitive here this weekend," Petrucci said. "The situation has changed but the good thing is that we’re not far from our setup like when we tested here. We didn’t change a lot at Phillip Island so the feeling with the bike is back. I can’t wait to get on the bike tomorrow and make sure everything is OK."
His teammate is less optimistic, despite having wrapped up second place in the championship in Phillip Island. The Ducati does not fare so well in heat of the afternoon, Andrea Dovizioso said, and has often struggled in the dry. "I think in Malaysia it is not the best situation in the afternoon when it is very hot and we’ve never done a good race in the dry so we have to be better in that situation," the Italian said. "Let’s see the conditions as every year here you can find different conditions."
The problem is that the Ducati needs a certain type of race to stand a chance, Dovizioso said. The bike does not have the same pace in the early laps, so if the race becomes a sprint from the start, the Ducatis struggle. "For sure we don’t have the same speed as last year," the Italian told the press conference. "We speak about the real speed in practice and at the beginning of the race when the tyre is new. That creates a really hard situation for us as we are not able to make a good strategy. When you push at the beginning you don’t have the speed and everything is a problem."
Last year, Dovizioso was able to control the race in the early start, then use his ability to manage the tire to come out on top at the end. That same strategy has not been as successful in 2019, as Marc Márquez has too often been able to escape at the start. "This is what happened and I was able to manage myself in the right way in a lot of races and that’s why I was able to stay calm when I didn’t have the pace at the beginning of the race. I managed to ride in the right way and at the end I was able to make the same lap times. So at the end I was able to gain seconds and positions, but it is not enough. It is not what we need, we have to be better."
The problem, of course, is Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field at the moment, almost to the embarrassment of the rest of the field, according to Dovizioso. "If we look to Marc, for sure the gap is too big, but it is too big for everybody so I think everybody can complain about that. It is difficult in this moment thinking about which way we can stop Marc, because this season he did something even better than in the past, so this is the reality. In this moment it is difficult to know what we really have to do as the gap is ridiculous, it is a bit too much."
The championship leader had to acknowledge that things are going swimmingly for him at the moment. "We are in a very good moment obviously and we are enjoying being on the bike and everything that we try is working so now it is time to keep going," Márquez said. "As I’ve said from Aragon GP the target is to finish all races on the podium and it is the same target now. We will try to work hard all weekend, fight hard for another victory and at the minimum put some pressure on our opponents because in the end it is the best way to finish the season."
The podium seems entirely realistic, Márquez said. "On paper, if we check this year’s bike, last year we won the race, so we can say it should be better. Better means from more speed as we have a better engine with these two long straights." Speed isn't everything, however. "But then if we check the papers too last year on the podium was a Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. The fastest bike on the straights was Ducati which were not on the podium."
There could not be a greater contrast with his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo. At Phillip Island, Lorenzo finished 66 seconds behind Marc Márquez, and dead last. Lorenzo was brutally honest about the situation he finds himself in. "I'm disappointed, I'm sad, I'm not happy professionally, because this situation for the results and the feeling on the bike is probably the worst I have had as a rider," Lorenzo said.
"There were a lot of expectations from Honda, from Alberto [Puig] who trusted in me to get good results, and the results weren't there. But I am trying my best, I also had some crashes that gave me a lot of problems physically, and this for sure had a big influence, especially in the second part of the championship. But the truth is that with the 2019 bike, I never had a great feeling. I never felt my best with the bike."
So bad was it at one point that he asked Honda to use the 2018 bike, Lorenzo said. "At some point of the championship, I would say it was a possibility, that we rejected." The Spaniard refused to be drawn on exactly when. "Some months ago," was as precise as he was willing to be.
Rules are rules
Lorenzo also refused to be drawn on whether the idea to switch to the 2018 bike had been rejected by him or by Honda. In fact, the switch would not have been possible even if Honda had given the idea the go ahead. There are two parts of the rules which prohibit it. Firstly, riders have to choose which engine they will use for the remainder of the season before Qatar, at which point they are stuck with that engine.
Secondly, the rules state that factory teams have to use the same engine for both riders. That has been the cause of some friction in other teams as well – Valentino Rossi was never as convinced of the value of the 2019 Yamaha engine as Maverick Viñales was during testing – and in Honda, the engine choice was always going to be made for Marc Márquez, the rider who has brought them so many championships.
The man behind the 2019 Honda RC213V, HRC Technical Director Takeo Yokoyama, admitted as much in Thailand. Speaking after Márquez had just wrapped up the 2019 MotoGP title, Yokoyama explained the decision process. "We knew that we had the best rider in the world, and so we gave him the power. Because in the middle of the straight, if you don't have the power, you can't do anything. Even the best rider in the world can't do anything. So we concentrated in the winter time to give him as much power as possible, knowing that there will be some other problems. But we decided, OK, the problems will come, but again, he's the best rider, so maybe he can manage."
Nor could Honda put Lorenzo's 2019 engines in a 2018 chassis. The entire packaging of the bike is different, with a much larger airbox, different intake routing, and components redistributed all over the bike. The new engine simply will not fit in the old frame. The nearest Honda have come is to give Lorenzo an earlier version of the chassis he used at the beginning of the year. This is an improvement on the newer chassis in terms of front end confidence, but the pay off is an increase in chatter.
It is not the first time that Lorenzo has been mistaken about the engine rules. In 2012, Alvaro Bautista took Lorenzo out in the Strubben corner in Assen. As his bike lay in the gravel, the engine kept running, pouring out a cloud of smoke. It was a new engine used for the first time during free practice in Assen, and Lorenzo was furious that he had lost an engine from his allocation through no fault of his own.
Lorenzo claimed that Dorna would allow him to add an extra engine to his allocation, to compensate for the loss of the engine destroyed as a result of a crash caused by Bautista. He was wrong, of course, but it took until the next race at the Sachsenring for this to be made clear to him.
Normally, riders are expected to have a strong knowledge of the rules. But it is no surprise that riders are not intimately acquainted with the engine rules: engines are handled entirely by the team, and the riders have no real need to be familiar with the rules. Knowing them only occupies brain space which could be put to better use, such as knowing the grid and start procedures, something which even world champions seem to be vague on from time to time.
Hope springs eternal
So Lorenzo must wait until next year, or at least the tests at Valencia and Jerez in November. Even then, nothing is certain. So far, Lorenzo told the Spanish media, the feedback he has had from both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow, both of whom have tried the early prototypes of the 2020 Honda, is that the bike is much the same as this year's model.
"I sincerely believe that the 2019 Honda has cost me a lot of my confidence with the front of the bike, as well as speed," Lorenzo said. "But Márquez has managed to win more races than in the past with this more powerful engine, but it has been worse for us. I hope that they can fix this in the new bike."
And what if Honda don't fix the problem, Lorenzo was asked? There was no point in pondering the ifs and buts, he replied. "What if the roof falls down, and kills us all?" Sepang is Lorenzo's next test. His hope is to be closer to his teammate than he was in Australia. But there is little hope in sight of things turning around for him quickly.
Moto2 to MotoGP
Things have changed quite quickly for two of MotoGP's rookies. Both Joan Mir and Pecco Bagnaia have been much stronger in recent races than they were at the start of the year, Mir beating his Suzuki teammate Alex Rins at Phillip Island, and Bagnaia finishing shortly behind his Pramac Ducati teammate Jack Miller. The two rookies talked about some of the things they have learned since they were last in Sepang back in February.
For Bagnaia, the biggest change had come at Buriram. "In Thailand we made a different type of work," the Italian explained "I tried to concentrate more on the braking and we made it because I was strong in that area in Japan. It has been good. Every time we have made a step forward in the box then it has come out and that happened in Phillip Island."
"Before Thailand, we made a meeting with the chiefs at Ducati and we analyzed the part where I was losing my time," Bagnaia explained. "We concentrated on it and it was the braking. Then in Thailand and Japan – two tracks where it is important to have good braking we concentrated a lot on this. I understand how to be better in this way, and it is not easy for me because I have a completely different riding style. For many years I have not used a lot of brake and used a lot of speed inside the corner, and with MotoGP and our bike you need to be very different. You have to stop more the bike and use your braking style."
Brakes and throttle
Joan Mir had had to learn a similar lesson, he explained. And that meant that the data from the test was of little use. "We looked a bit at the data of the test, but what I learned from the test was with a completely different riding style than I have now," Mir said. "OK, I rode here with a MotoGP, that's true, but I learned a lot since. I remember in the test I was getting a certain number of bars of pressure on the front brake lever, and now I am using much higher pressure, I am braking much harder, turning I'm much more aggressive. So nothing comparable."
The adaptation had been easier for Mir than for Bagnaia, because of the Suzuki man's riding style. "On the brakes I was quite good straight away – you always learn and you always improve – but straight away I was quite competitive on the brakes. So I need to learn in other areas, like the throttle control and everything," Mir explained.
What Mir meant by throttle control was how to manage the throttle in combination with the electronics, so that they two don't interfere. "At the end, you have the electronics, you can open the throttle in the middle of the corner, but you are not fast, so you need to control," the Suzuki rider said. "You have the electronics, but you don't have to use it. Or you have to use it as little as possible. Not a lot."
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