There is a cliché about sports events having a "pressure cooker atmosphere", but in the case of the Sepang MotoGP race, it is almost literally true. A combination of withering heat, completely saturated humidity, and incredible pressure is cooking up an explosive climax to the MotoGP championship.
With a championship on the line, the pressure is plain to see. In the previous 18 races, Pecco Bagnaia had just 12 crashes. On Saturday, he added another two to that tally. Fabio Quartararo has had six crashes in the 18 races before this weekend, and added another during FP4, fracturing a finger in his left hand in the process. Likewise Aleix Espargaro, who has added another two crashes this weekend, taking his total to 13. For the record, the current crash leader is Darryn Binder, with 22.
But if you think the pressure is bad for the riders, you should take a look in the garage of the factory Ducati Lenovo Team. Even when viewed from a TV screen on the other side of the world, it is obvious how very close to the edge almost everyone in that garage is. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that they finally have a realistic chance of clinching their first MotoGP crown since Casey Stoner in 2007. And as it has been nine years since Gigi Dall'Igna was given a free hand to assemble a team around him to win a rider's title, and he has come close a couple of times with Andrea Dovizioso, the pressure must be unimaginable.
Davide Tardozzi is always an intense individual, but he currently stalks the garage like a hyperinflated red birthday balloon, ready to explode at any time. Even the normally placid Gigi Dall'Igna and Paolo Ciabatti are developing nervous tics and looking increasingly agitated.
Ironically, the coolest cucumber in the Ducati Lenovo garage is Pecco Bagnaia himself, with an honorable mention to his crew chief, Cristian Gabarrini, who has been through this before with Casey Stoner. Bagnaia is almost having to calm the rest of the garage down.
But the pressure is still getting to the championship leader. "Today, what I can say is the only good thing was the FP4," Bagnaia said on Saturday afternoon. "And the Q1 obviously. But FP4 because I was very constant, very fast with very used tires. Then I just did everything to try to ruin the day."
It had started going downhill when he got caught on a fast lap behind Franco Morbidelli at the end of FP3, as he was pushing to get through to Q2. Morbidelli was cruising on the line after leaving the pits, caught in the middle of a chasing pack while rain had started to fall. Being balked by Morbidelli had caused Bagnaia to lose his cool.
"This morning I was too upset, too nervous with what happened with Franco and Fabio, and then I was a bit angry," Bagnaia said. "But after an hour, I said, it's something that can happen to everybody. So I'm human, and I'm starting to feel a bit of pressure, but I think it's normal."
The second mistake, crashing on his second run in Q2 when pushing for a quick lap, was entirely his own fault, he admitted. "I wasn't smart enough to understand that my pace was good enough to be in the front row without forcing too much, and I forced a lot in Turn 4, and I lost the front." He had been spooked when he saw his gap at the first intermediate point, set by Jorge Martin on what would be a record-breaking lap. "I was motivated by the thing that I was one tenth and a half down in sector 1, so I said, OK, I will force, and then I lost the front. So it was the biggest mistake."
That lap by Jorge Martin was absolutely exceptional. Martin became the first and only rider to ever lap the Sepang International Circuit in under 1'58, setting a time of 1'57.790. That is a whole half a second faster than the previous lap record of 1'58.303 set by Fabio Quartararo in 2019, and a third of a second faster than the unofficial record of 1'58.131 set by Enea Bastianini at the test in February of this year.
Putting that into further context, Bastianini qualified in second behind Martin, over four tenths slower than Martin with a time of 1'58.246. That is a tenth slower than his own best time at the test in February. The Gresini Ducati rider was impressed by the fact that Martin had been able to set that record in the middle of the day, when track temperatures are at their highest. "For me, it’s a surprise because with this temperature on the asphalt it’s not simple to do something better compared to 1'58.2. But 1'57.7, it’s a half second. Congratulations to him because it’s impressive," Bastianini acknowledged.
Bagnaia may have been suffering in the pressure, but he wasn't having as bad a day as Fabio Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro. Bagnaia even felt sympathy for his rivals. "Even worse than mine," was how Bagnaia described their Saturdays. "Because with the crash in FP4 Fabio broke a finger, and I want just to say that I'm sorry for him, because I think that in this moment, the bad luck he is having is too much, he doesn't deserve it. And thinking about Aleix, I think that sincerely, he's struggling a lot from the start of the weekend. Today also when he was behind Jorge Martin, he had a crash, and maybe in that lap he was going faster than me. But all three, we didn't have a really good day."
Unlike Bagnaia, who owned up to feeling the pressure, Quartararo remained in denial, at least publicly. "To be honest, I don't really feel the pressure," the Frenchman insisted, before going on to implicitly criticize his team. "But it's really strange the way we are having these last races. I don't know if we are working in the correct way or not, but we are missing many things, and maybe we should do something different. Really strange last races."
Quartararo said the broken finger was not really an issue while riding. As it was on his left hand, it didn't affect his riding. He has the ride-height device and a thumb brake to operate with his left hand, but he wasn't concerned, he insisted. "Honestly, it will not be a problem. In the race I will have many things to think about, apart from the finger. So I think it should not be a problem and for sure I will take something for the race."
The rider with the least pressure is the rider with the least chance of winning the title. "Sincerely, I don't feel big pressure, I mean the opportunities to win the title for me are very few," Aleix Espargaro said. "So I arrived here very motivated, knowing the test that I did in February and aiming for the victory. In Australia I felt the pressure more, but here, I was far from the beginning, so not really. Not for me."
Bagnaia and Espargaro at least crashed at the end of the session, in FP3 and Q2. That is awkward, but things can be much worse. Fabio Quartararo managed to crash right in the middle of FP4, while he was working on his race pace, and comparing tires. That is normally a mere inconvenience, but at Sepang, with rain expected at any time, most of the MotoGP teams have the two bikes set up differently, one with a dry setup and one with a wet setup. Those setups can have fundamentally different geometry, as well as different suspension. Changing suspension is a quick job – less than a minute for the forks, a bit more than a minute for the rear shock – but changing geometry is a much more time-consuming process.
And so Quartararo was forced to do the second part of FP4 on a bike with a modified wet setup. "After the crash I went with the different bike, because we had one bike dry, one bike wet, so that's why I really wanted to bring the bike to the box," the Frenchman said, explaining why he had spent so much time getting his crashed bike running again and rode it back to the pits. "And then they just changed the spring. It was a different bike, but the pace was not too bad, but already starting from far, it's difficult. So let's see."
These mishaps mean that the three title contenders start from some way back. Bagnaia is best placed, but starts the race from ninth on the grid. Aleix Espargaro is in tenth, while Quartararo starts from directly behind Bagnaia in twelfth.
Ahead of Bagnaia are a host of Ducatis, as you might expect, but the grid is more mixed than you might expect. Jorge Martin starts from pole, with Enea Bastianini alongside him. Marc Marquez took third, after an astonishing lap which started behind Bagnaia, and continued after Bagnaia crashed out.
On the second row, there is Marco Bezzecchi in fourth and Luca Marini in sixth on the Mooney VR46 Ducatis, with Suzuki's Alex Rins in fifth. Franco Morbidelli had an outstanding day on the Monster Energy Yamaha – with the exception of that little contretemps with Pecco Bagnaia and Marc Marquez at the end of FP3, for which he was punished with a double Long Lap penalty in tomorrow's race – and starts from seventh. Maverick Viñales is eighth on the Aprilia, while Bagnaia is ninth, and Aleix Espargaro and Fabio Quartararo have the second Suzuki of Joan Mir between them.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the main title contenders are doing their utmost to ensure that the championship goes all the way to Valencia. Bagnaia's best hope is that there is a long run from the starting line to the first corner at Sepang, which gives the Ducati a chance to get into its stride. But Quartararo has been starting well, and could at least be close enough to stick behind Bagnaia for the first few corners.
Bagnaia faces a number of challenges on the way to outscoring Quartararo by the 11 points he needs to wrap up the title. First and foremost because of the other Ducatis ahead of him. Luca Marini does not feel he has the pace to win on Sunday, believing he lacks speed in the corners, but Jorge Martin, Enea Bastianini, and Marco Bezzecchi have both the pace and the motivation to try to win.
Starting from the third row, Bagnaia isn't expecting help from the other Ducatis this weekend. "I think that if they have the possibility, they will try to win. Like always. Like all the year," the Italian said. "So maybe tomorrow won't be the day to have some team orders, but let's see. Because it will be important to be in the front, for sure, but we have to be smart, first of all." It is a shame for Bagnaia, because in terms of race pace, he looks to be the fastest rider on used tires.
Others are fast too, not least Marco Bezzecchi. The Mooney VR46 rider is exuding quiet confidence after wrapping up the rookie of the year title in Australia. He has the pace, and starting from the second row, he has the starting position to be within reach of his debut win in the MotoGP class. "We will see tomorrow," the Italian said. "Of course we worked very well. I am competitive and fast, so the possibility is there. We have to try to take this possibility. No stress!"
Jorge Martin has other reasons not to cooperate with Ducati's master plan to make Bagnaia champion, should the need arise. After losing the factory seat alongside Bagnaia to Enea Bastianini, Martin has made it clear he does not believe he owes Ducati anything. "I don't care about the championship," Martin told the MotoGP.com website. "The championship is their problem, they need to fight, I will try for the win." Martin is not going to actively try to prevent Bagnaia from taking the title, but it is very clear he has no intention of lifting a finger to help. With just a one-year contract with Ducati for 2023, you get a strong sense he will be open to offers from other factories for 2024 and beyond, though options are limited.
With so many fast Ducatis, and Pecco Bagnaia obviously quicker than most of the rest of the field, they also made an attractive target for anyone who needed an extra turn of pace. That much was evident throughout the day. It started with FP3, where Marc Marquez missed out on Q2 in part because he was sat on Bagnaia's tail when Bagnaia got caught up behind Franco Morbidelli.
The following took on epic proportions during qualifying, however. In Q1, when Pecco Bagnaia went out for his first run, he found himself at the head of a seven-rider train. When the second runs started, Jack Miller found himself leading a group of eight. The situation repeated itself in Q2, when Bagnaia had five riders follow him on his first run.
On his second run, Bagnaia managed to shake everyone but Marc Marquez. But when Bagnaia crashed at Turn 4, it left Marquez to complete the lap on his own. To his credit, the Repsol Honda rider did just that, putting in a wild and fierce lap to take third. To see just how hard Marquez was pushing, check this clip posted on Twitter: in the transition between Turns 12 and 13, a fast and difficult change of direction, you can see the rear of the bike buck and shake, yet Marquez forces through it and stays on.
That is a sign that Marquez is back to his old self, and of great things to come for him in 2023, but it is also a demonstration that the Honda RC213V is still not capable of doing the lap time without taking enormous risk. "Happy for this front row, but I believe that tomorrow we will struggle more because I’m fighting against the bike," Marquez said in the press conference. "As you see on the image, in the video, I’m fighting against the bike all the time. This is very demanding about physical condition, about the stress, about the concentration. But in one single lap I know because I know where I need to brake, I know where I need to open the gas."
That was a reason to follow other riders. Getting a tow from a Ducati was basically being given three tenths of a second for free. "If you check a bit, all the riders are looking for a slipstream because we are losing one tenth and a half on the back straight and one tenth and a half on the main straight," Marquez explained. "So, if you have some slipstream, you gain three tenths just on the straight."
From the perspective of the tow hunters' victims, it was just something they had to accept. For Jack Miller, if someone was trying to get a tow off him, it meant he was fast. "I mean, at the end of the day, there's always going to be guys there who will want to try and follow. That means you’re doing something right," the Australian said.
He was resigned to it being part of racing. "It is what it is," Miller said. "People are always going to follow, it's motor sport and it's motor racing, so it's unavoidable. And I find if you let it bother you, then it's just going to take away from what you're doing. Or will take your mind or you focus away from what job you've got on your hands."
The one thing Miller objected to was hypocrisy. "The only thing I don't like is watching guys that have been complaining for the last ten grands prix about people following, doing exactly what they're complaining about. Riding slow down the back straight and whatnot… And basically have made a career out of doing that up until about this year," the Australian said, without naming names directly.
Nobody could accuse Marc Marquez of hypocrisy in getting a tow. The Spaniard has been very honest and open about seeking help to go fast when he needed it, nor had he complained about it when others did it to him. "From my point of view, when I was fighting for the championship, the riders didn’t care," Marquez said. "One thing is if you disturb, like Morbidelli did in FP3. Then in that case, you need to pay attention. But if you are behind, if you are not super, super close, you are not disturbing."
Marquez also pointed out that he was not alone in seeking a tow. "And I was not the only one behind. Normally when Bagnaia goes out, are many riders behind." He did feel he was being singled out for criticism, however. "But it’s true that the Repsol colors are more shiny," he said pointedly.
Besides pressure, there was another reason riders were crashing so often. The surface at Sepang was a lot bumpier than when MotoGP last raced here in 2019. "For me, a lot more bumpy, a lot less grip," was Aleix Espargaro's assessment.
The time of day also played a role, Marc Marquez believed. With FP4 and qualifying taking place in the afternoon, asphalt temperatures were near their peak. "Here the problem is in the afternoon with the very, very hot conditions and very warm asphalt," then Repsol Honda rider explained." Everything is more sensitive, and then it’s easier to make a mistake and we see a lot of crashes."
One of the worst places was between Turns 7 and 8, the two right handers at the bottom of the circuit. "Definitely where those boys were all losing the front is pretty tricky," Jack Miller explained. "I find it's right on the racing line basically, the ideal line, there's a couple bumps as you saw with Fabio’s moment, with Pecco’s crash this morning."
Anyone going through there had two choices, Miller explained: either change your line or try to absorb the bumps. "If you are able to hold it a little bit wider, it's not as fast, but you avoid those bumps," the Australian said. "Literally 6, 7, 12 inches wider. You avoid those bumps and it's a little bit safer, but it's maybe not the fastest way around."
It also required a different approach in terms of riding, Brad Binder explained. "The thing is on a fast lap you need to try and roll it out of corner speed there, and the more speed you carry and the more angle you have, the more sketchy those bumps are," the Red Bull KTM Factory rider said. "And yeah, they're not fun I'll tell you. The big thing is, if you touch the gas on the bumps. So, it's not the fastest way, but if you just roll over them, it's a little bit safer."
Will hot temperatures cause a lot of crashes in tomorrow's race, or will the rain fall and make it a flag-to-flag affair? Going by the forecast seems a bit pointless, given that we have been betrayed by it so many times over this weekend. At the moment of writing, the forecast is for rain to start falling at 3pm, just as the MotoGP race is due to start. But it was supposed to rain on Saturday as well, and the rain never came.
Will the championship be settled on Sunday? Given where the championship rivals start from, it seems unlikely. Starting from ninth, Pecco Bagnaia has a lot of work to do to get into a position where he can gain 11 points over Fabio Quartararo. But given the comedy of errors we have seen so far this weekend from the three riders vying for the championship, you simply never know.
If I were a betting man, I'd put money on the championship fight going to the final race in Valencia. But given the infamous inaccuracy of my predictions, that almost guarantees it being settled at Sepang. You pays your money and you makes your choice.
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