The weather forecast from Friday appeared overly dramatic by the start of FP3, the Sepang circuit welcoming the lightweight class with dry and warm conditions for their final practice outing. However, the cloud cover was there and before it started to look too menacing, riders were in a rush for some early speed to secure direct Q2 positions. The first batch of laps impacted quite seriously on the combined standings and Friday leader Kaito Toba quickly found himself slipping to the bottom of the top ten.
The point of motorcycle racing is to go faster than everyone else. And because motorcycle racing is a sport composed of many different parts, there are a lot of different parties wanting to be fastest. Riders want to be fastest to win races and championships. Factories want to be fastest to win championships, but also to have the bike with the highest top speed, and to collect lap records. Even tire suppliers want to collect lap records. That, after all, is how they measure progress.
Since coming into the class, Michelin have shattered a lot of records set by Bridgestone, the previous Official Tire Supplier to MotoGP. But not all of them, and if you speak to people from Michelin, this is something they are far from happy about. But they keep chipping away, circuit by circuit, looking for ways to improve the tires to allow the bikes to go faster. This is the way Michelin creates competition for itself, and sets goals for its R&D department to pursue.
So far, they have done pretty well, taking the race lap record at nine of the tracks which MotoGP raced at prior to 2016, when they took over from Bridgestone. Their record on outright lap records is even better. Up until Friday morning, Michelin still had five circuits where they hadn't beaten the fastest ever lap set during practice or qualifying by Bridgestone.
Moving the bar
The pretty blue skies of Friday morning got a less fetching blanket of clouds by the time FP2 came around. However, with the rain saving itself for Saturday, a hot pace was a must for the premier class. Marc Marquez resumed regular scheduling at the top of the standings until Maverick Viñales anticipated the push for Q2 positions with 13 minutes remaining.
The plotline for FP2 ended up fairly similar to the first session of the day, with Alex Marquez setting camp at the top of the timesheets and holding on until the usual time attack, although the gap was not quite as comfortable as in the morning. Regardless, the championship leader maintained prime position for a significant portion of the session and showed quietly confident pace, with his main challengers in close pursuit. With question marks around the weather on Saturday morning, the final five minutes were reserved for a push for the combined top 14.
With the script for FP1 affected by rain throughout the night and limiting the speed that lightweight class riders could find, a fully dry FP2 meant that times were quick to tumble. An unharmed Ayumu Sasaki was back to business after a painful looking crash in the morning and his determination saw him head straight to the top of the timesheets. The Japanese rider had no real competition for top spot until the mini shootout of the final five minutes, which became all the more important when looking at the possibly wet forecast for Saturday.
Despite overnight rain affecting track conditions on Friday morning, there were only faint traces of damp across the surface by the time the premier class started fire – and it was hot. Barely five minutes into the session and Marc Marquez was doing Marc Marquez things, lap one putting him over a second ahead of the rest and lap two seeing him test the limits with yet another splendid save at turn two. Adding to the drama, the world champion was exploring the service road five minutes later, after his machine refused to go any further than turn 6, hindering his usual FP1 routine.
Patches of damp track were still pretty obvious around the circuit by the time the intermediate class took its turn to prepare for battle but the dry line was nice and wide and ready to welcome slick tyres. However, it was not exactly harmless either as Luca Marini demonstrated 15 minutes into the session, when he went down at turn 15.
It was a damp start in Sepang after overnight rain covered the circuit and combined with the beautiful blue skies on Friday morning, it made for a confusing start for the lightweight class. The patchy surface was conducive to a confusing mix of slicks and rain tyres, teams trying to make sense of the manageability of the conditions on either option in case the race replicates this odd recipe.
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.
The Frenchman is on his way to Phillip Island with his brand-new Alpinestars LCR Honda leathers. So is this judgement day for Johann Zarco?
Johann Zarco expected to watch MotoGP’s final few races from the comfort of his sofa in the south of France. Now, thanks to Takaaki Nakagami’s troublesome right shoulder injury – sustained at Assen when he got sideswiped by Valentino Rossi – he will spend the last three races sat somewhat less comfortably on the Japanese rider’s 2018-spec LCR Honda.
Before we wonder how Zarco will fare on the RC213V, we should ask why this is necessary. Why is Nakagami going under the knife when the 2019 championship isn’t over?