Taking a risk with slick tires on a damp track, Nakarin Atiratphuvapat topped the field by nearly two seconds to lead FP3 at the Sepang Circuit Saturday in Malaysia. Atiratphuvapat's 2'22.010 dropped Tony Arbolino into second. The Italian rider had led much of FP3 on rain tires with a 2'24.570 he set early on, eventually improving on that by a second at the end of FP3.
Given the severity of the storms which have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next. So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP were a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.
That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1'59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1'59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it. "Lap times were fast today," said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. "1'59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1'59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn't just when the track was cool. We're still a little way away from a 1'58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it's the track conditions."
There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. "Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can't put my finger on one thing or another."
Fresh from a strong fifth place last week at Philip Island, Alex Rins showed his strong form is holding firm with a top time in FP2 at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia. Rins 1'59.608 on Friday was the fastest time of the weekend and gave him the top combined times for Friday practices. Marc marquez, who held the top of the timesheet with 2 minutes left was relegated to second on Rins fast lap. Jack Miller, the first rider in FP2 to drop into the 1'59s was pushed into third.
In a reply of FP1 -- minus a couple of seconds -- Alex Marquez saved his best lap for the end of practice and grabbed the top of the timesheet at the Sepang circuit. Marquez final time of 2'06.928 on the final Friday practice left his as one of only two riders to dip into the 2'06s this year so far. The second was Fabio Quartararo three-hundredths of a second behind the leader.
Tony Arbolino set his fastest lap halfway through Friday's second free practice at Malaysia's Sepang circuit and it ended up topping the charts with a 2'14.227 as rain moved in and cut short the track time. Just one hundredth of a second back was John McPhee who also pressed for a good time early in the session as dark clouds moved across the 5.5 km (3.4 mi.) track. Aron Canet, who topped last year's FP2, set the third-fastest time as riders got 25 minutes of dry track before the downpour.
Andrea Dovizioso, winner at the Sepang circuit last year, picked up where he left off with a1'59.697 to set the fastest time of the day. The lap was and nearly a full second faster than his his best FP1 time in 2017. Valentinio Rossi made his fastest lap of the session count with a 1'59.070 to jump from 14th to runner-up in the closing minutes of the first Friday practice.
Alex Marquez blitzed his final lap after time expired in FP1 at the Sepang Circuit to take Friday morning's fastest time by two-tenths of a second. Still, Marquez's 2'08.351 was nearly two seconds off last year's FP1 as the track dried during the session and a clean racing line began to emerge.
Mattia Pasini, who is said to lack a guaranteed ride for next year, finished second after leading for much of the practice. He was closely paced by championship leader Francesco Bagnaia (3rd). Luca Marini took fourth-fastest just in front of Iker Lecuona (5th).
Nakarin Atiratphuvapat took advantage of a wet track to set the fastest time in the first practice Friday at the Sepang round of Moto3. The Thai rider’s 2:25.290 put him a tenth of a second in front of Aron Canet two-tenths clear of championship contender Marco Bezzecchi.
MotoGP heads 6400km north for the final leg of the Pacific flyaways, and the penultimate race of the season. The contrasts between Phillip Island, where the paddock has just departed, and Sepang, where they have just arrived, could hardly be greater. Phillip Island famously has four seasons in one day, though all too often, those seasons are winter, spring, winter, and winter. Sepang has two seasons in one day: hot and humid, and hot and pouring with rain.
The rain can come as a blessed relief, though, in what is undoubtedly the toughest race of the year. "I think this will be the toughest race of the year," Danilo Petrucci said. "Yesterday I went out for a run, and I was lucky that in the middle of the second lap when I was running that a thunderstorm has arrived, and I asked to the rain if it can come on the second lap of the race! Joking apart, it helped me a lot yesterday. The last two years it has been wet, and it's tough anyway, because in the wet, the problem is not the temperature, but the humidity, and it's very difficult to breathe. You don't breathe oxygen, you breathe oxygen and water. Last time we rode here in the dry was 2015, and the race was very, very tough." So there's your choice: breathe oxygen and water, or struggle to breathe at all.
Press releases from some of the MotoGP teams and factories ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang: