Newly crowned Moto3 champion Joan Mir grabbed the top time in the first practice Friday at the Sepang curcuit in Malaysia with a 2'13.129 lap with two minutes left in the session. Adam Norrodin, in his home race, set the second-best time at the session's end. The Malaysian bumped Livio Loi to third. Loi, who remains without a contract for 2018, briefly led the dry session. Romano Fenati, who won in Motegi three weeks ago, took fourth, just in front of Enea Bastinini (5th), completing a Honda sweep of the top five slots.
So just like 2015, the MotoGP paddock packed up after a breathtaking race in Phillip Island and headed to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang. And once again, two riders fly to Malaysia with a clean shot at the title. Fortunately, though, this time there was no one to drip poison into the ears of the protagonists and sour the atmosphere at the penultimate race of the season. We can look back at an astounding race and savor it, without it leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.
The lack of added stress is welcome. The Sepang round of MotoGP is the toughest of the season, for a lot of reasons. "I think this race is the most demanding of all the season because it is very hot," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. It is not uncommon for riders to come close to passing out at the end of a 45 minute race in sweltering temperatures and steam room humidity levels. Conditions are oppressive.
Making things worse is the fact that Sepang is the last of the three Pacific flyaway races. Sepang is the third weekend in a row where riders have faced a 9-hour flight, followed by promotional activities in the MotoGP manufacturers' most important markets, followed by a full race weekend. They have gone from a chilly and soaking Japan to a chilly and mixed Phillip Island to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia, jumping in and out of air-conditioned vehicles, hotels, and aircraft to face the elements on a racing motorcycle. Coughs, cold sweats, and hot fevers are the order of the day.
Preview press releases from some of the MotoGP teams and Michelin ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix:
Repsol Honda Team head to Malaysia for the last stint of the triple-header
Fresh from Marc Marquez’s brilliant victory in Australia, the Repsol Honda Team have rushed to Malaysia for the penultimate round of the season leading the Rider, Constructor and Team Championships.
With a margin of 33 points over second-place Andrea Dovizioso and a maximum of 50 points still available, Marc will have his first chance to secure the 2017 MotoGP Title next Sunday.
Press releases from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams ahead of this weekend's Sepang round:
Morbidelli ready for Malaysian Moto2 showdown
This weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix is the first opportunity for Team Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS rider Franco Morbidelli to wrap up the championship he's led since the first race in Qatar.
Aleix Espargaro will not be racing at Sepang. The Spaniard broke a bone in his left hand when he crashed out of the MotoGP race in Phillip Island, and is to fly back to Barcelona for surgery. Aprilia will not replace Espargaro, his absence coming at too short notice to find a replacement rider in time.
Michael van der Mark is to get his MotoGP chance after all. After missing out at Aragon, when he was called up to replace Valentino Rossi, but Rossi raced to a stunning 5th place, Van der Mark has been drafted in to replace Jonas Folger in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. Van der Mark will take Folger's place at the Sepang MotoGP race next weekend.
The provisional calendar for the 2018 MotoGP season has been released, and as expected, there are few surprises. The schedule has been expanded to 19 races with the inclusion of the Chang International Circuit in Thailand, which has a contract to host a race through 2020.
The addition of Thailand hasn't altered the schedule much. The 2018 schedule is almost identical to this year's calendar, with just a few minor variations. The season kicks off a week early in Qatar, and to accommodate that earlier start, the time of the race is to be changed to 7pm local time. Starting earlier will mean that MotoGP avoids the evening dew that can render the track so treacherous.
Two men have emerged from the 2017 preseason as favorites. In many ways, Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales are alike. Both are young, handsome Spaniards with an aura about them. Both grew up racing, and were immediately fast on every new bike they swung a leg over. Both have a keen intelligence, especially about racing, and what matters.
But above all, both Márquez and Viñales are driven by their ambition. They enter each championship with the fixed intention of winning. They have talent to spare, but more than that, they both have a deep understanding of what it takes to win a world championship, and are prepared to put in the work, to make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. They are single minded, obsessed with winning.
They are two very different characters. Márquez is cheerful, gregarious, outgoing. Whenever you see him, he is always laughing or smiling, joking with the people around him. He loves company, and spends almost every waking minute of each race weekend in the garage with his crew. When he joined the Repsol Honda team, he was allowed to take most of his Moto2 team, and crew chief Santi Hernandez worked under the tutelage of Cristian Gabarrini. At the end of his first year, Márquez demanded that HRC brought the last two members of his former Moto2 team into the Repsol Honda garage, and Gabarrini was moved on to other duties, despite being regarded as perhaps the best crew chief in the business.
Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are to head to Jerez for a private, two-day test on 24th and 25th of February, or Friday and Saturday of this week. The Repsol Honda team announced the test on Twitter, confirming earlier news stories which had broken after the official MotoGP test at Phillip Island last week.
This two-day test is a sign that Márquez and Pedrosa are getting close to making a decision on which version of the engine they will be racing in 2017. They need one final test comparing the various possibilities before heading to Qatar.
The fact that they are now heading to Jerez is emblematic of just how important this choice is. This Jerez test replaces HRC's original plan, which was to retest the big bang engine rolled out at Valencia, verifying results from its original roll out at Valencia, then refine it for Sepang. But Repsol Honda called off that test at the request of the riders, giving the engine to Jack Miller to test in November of last year.
That change of plans was an indication that all was not well with the new engine. Both Márquez and Pedrosa were downbeat about the new engine at Valencia, Márquez emphasizing just how much work Honda still had to do with the new motor. "We must work much more," he said. "Honda needs to work much more this winter to give me something more in Malaysia."
What conclusions can we draw from the first MotoGP test of 2017 at Sepang? Well, it's the first test of 2017, and the factories still have the best part of two months to refine their bikes before the season starts in earnest in Qatar. Any conclusions we draw are at risk of crashing headlong into reality at the end of March. But with all that data from the test available, it is hard to resist the temptation to dive into it and read the tea leaves.
To make some sense of the timesheets from Sepang, I examined the lap times of the fastest thirteen riders at the end of Wednesday. The reason for selecting Wednesday was simple: as it was the last day of the test, the riders were all fully up to speed, and the teams were putting together the lessons they had learned on the first two days, selecting the most promising parts to develop going forward.
It was also the day when most of the riders did long runs, especially as conditions allowed it, the weather staying almost completely dry all day. That meant that the riders had a chance to do some long runs, though only Jorge Lorenzo actually ran full race distance in one go.
The reason for selecting the top thirteen riders, rather than doing it for the entire grid, was simple. The top thirteen riders included all of the favorites for the 2017 season (and eight of the top ten from 2016), bikes from five of the six manufacturers now in MotoGP, and two of the four rookies for 2017. It also includes Casey Stoner, Ducati test rider and still one of the fastest men on two wheels.