Few people are involved in as many different aspects of MotoGP as Razlan Razali.
The Malaysian is not only Principal of the Petronas-backed MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 teams, but CEO of the Sepang Circuit and helps with management duties for the likes of local star Hafizh Syahrin.
The following interview, conducted at Catalunya, was equally wide-ranging - Razali giving his views on the success of the newly-formed satellite Yamaha MotoGP team, the race-winning Moto3 project, rider replacements and future plans for Moto2, Syahrin's 2020 options, Sepang's future on the MotoGP calendar and more…
Q: What are your personal highlights of the season so far?
Razlan Razali: My personal highlight would be the 1-2 in qualifying at Jerez [This interview was done before Fabio Quartararo's poles and podiums at Barcelona and Assen - DE]. That was something quite unbelievable. So in some ways we are now starting to get used to the fact that we are there for qualifying, but now the next step is to capitalize on the qualifying position for good race results. That is something also we discussed internally and with Yamaha as well.
But, we want to give our riders time because racing is all about experience and improving every race. Of course, the Yamaha is a bit weak when it comes to racing. But I’m confident in the plans, about what Yamaha is going to do for the rest of the year. It will give time for our riders to gain that experience and hopefully then we can do better when it comes to racing.
Q: In general, what is it that is missing in the race that is there in qualifying?
The 2018 season sees the start of airbags being made compulsory for all three MotoGP classes. All riders with a permanent entry in MotoGP, Moto2, or Moto3 will have to use an airbag in their leathers from the coming season onwards.
This is part of a long-term push by Dorna, the FIM, and IRTA to improve safety for riders in racing. While the three MotoGP partners continue their work on improving the safety of circuits, the next frontier is improving the protection provided by the gear riders use. Airbags are just one facet of this safety drive: the FIM is becoming increasingly involved in all aspects of rider safety. Their most recent focus has been on improving the safety of helmets, including doing work on so-called oblique impacts, or how helmets absorb impacts when struck at an angle.
Will we have a 2017 MotoGP champion by Sunday night? The odds are on the side of Marc Márquez. Second place would be good enough to wrap it up for the Repsol Honda rider wherever Andrea Dovizioso finishes. If Dovizioso doesn't win, then Márquez has to finish within eight points of the Italian. If Dovizioso is second, then fourth is good enough. If he's third, then eighth is good enough. So far this season, Marc Márquez has always finished sixth place or better. Except when he doesn't finish, of course...
Márquez has two obstacles to overcome. The first is the weather. The forecast for Sunday at Sepang is heavy rain, from around the time warm up for MotoGP tends until early evening. On Friday, it was Andrea Dovizioso who was strongest in the rain, while Márquez was a little slower, and had a fleet of Ducatis to contend with.
The second obstacle is the big group of very fast riders at Sepang. Going by the timesheets in FP3 and FP4, there are a bunch of people who are capable of a podium, and maybe even a win. "I think there are five, six, seven riders who have similar pace, there is not a clear favorite," was Jorge Lorenzo's assessment. "It's very, very open the fight for the victory, the fight for the podium," Valentino Rossi concurred, "because have a lot, a lot of different riders that for sure have the pace for the podium but also for the victory."
Coming into the weekend of Jerez, we knew several things to be absolute certainties. 1. Jerez is a Yamaha track. 2. Ducati always does terribly at Jerez. And 3. The Hondas will struggle against the might of the Yamaha. After qualifying, a swift dose of reality has flushed those preconceptions out of our systems, showing them up for the fallacies that they are.
After qualifying at Jerez, we have an all Honda front row. Two Yamahas start from the second row, but their performance during both qualifying and free practice was far from convincing. The first Ducati sits on the third row, but during practice, Jorge Lorenzo made the Desmosedici GP17 fly, finishing second in FP3 and fourth in FP4.
Where did this shake up come from? The issue is mainly one of grip. After the rain on Friday, there is very little rubber on the track, and the warmer track temperatures has made Jerez its normal, greasy self. The Yamahas perform well when grip is high, whether that be in warmer or cooler temperatures. Extra grip merely helps the RC213V want to wheelie, something for which it needs little encouragement anyway. Robbed of its winglets, the Ducati needs extra rear grip to get good drive out of corners, and exploit its strongest point.
If the two MotoGP races so far this year have had the kind of internal logic more commonly associated with a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Moto2 and Moto3 classes have been rational seas of serenity. Which, come to think of it, also makes them more than a little like the more pious parts of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. These are topsy turvy times indeed.
When Moto2 first started, it brought the most harrowing and raucous parts of Bosch' work to mind, voracious insanity unleashed on two wheels, which sensible people feared to look at. (Fortunately, motorcycle racing fans are anything but sensible. It is one of their better traits.) But those days are now long gone, and the intermediate class has become processional, races decided almost before they are begun.
A nostalgia for the madness of the past keeps us watching, hoping to see a revival of the old ways. From time to time, the series livens up again, and we start to dream that our prayers have been answered, though such thoughts are usually dashed as soon as they arise. The Moto2 race in Argentina was very much a case in point. It started out processional, then grew tense, then the tension frayed, then renewed, only to end with bang. Literally, in the case of Alex Márquez, who ended a long way up in the air before coming down to earth with a solid thump.
The news that Michele Pirro is to serve as a track analyst to Jorge Lorenzo during his time at Ducati was greeted with interest at Sepang. It was unexpected, but looking back at it, a logical and highly sensible decision.
With a total of five Grand Prix titles to his name, why would Jorge Lorenzo want or need a track analyst? Come to mention it, why would Valentino Rossi, with nine Grand Prix titles and 114 victories to his name, employ a rider coach in Luca Cadalora?
MotoGP's weird and wonderful Argentina trip continues to confuse, with qualifying turning out as topsy turvy as ever. Or perhaps not quite as topsy turvy as yesterday: though the front of the MotoGP grid still contains more than a couple of surprise names (more on that later), there are the first signs that some semblance of normality is starting to creep back. That doesn't mean it's going to be 2009 again any time soon, when the grid basically predicted the finishing order, bar accidents, but bookies everywhere are worrying less about the chance of a rank outsider staging an upset. On Friday, all bets were off. On Saturday, they were hedging their bets again.
Oddly enough, part of that was down to the weather. It was a peculiar day in terms of weather, the morning starting cool and dry, but rain starting to fall at the end of MotoGP FP3. It dried out again after that, allowing Moto3 to start their qualifying session on a dry track, before the rain returned with a few minutes to go. MotoGP FP4 took place on a wet track, but the rain lifted and the track started to dry during qualifying. Q1 was wetter than Q2, and tire choice became crucial. Vacillating between the soft and the hard tires cost more than one rider passage through to Q2.
By the time Moto2 took to the track, a dry line was starting to form. Andrea Iannone had gambled on going out on slicks during Q2 but came straight back into the pits when it turned out to be impossible. The Moto2 riders went out on wet tires at first, but were quickly able to switch to slicks. With the track improving with every lap the riders put in, pole position was changing hands just about every time a rider crossed the line. In the last 22 minutes of qualifying, the pole time was slashed by eight and a half seconds.
We need to talk about Johann Zarco. For a rookie to lead his very first race on a MotoGP bike is not just unusual, it has never been done before. To do so for six laps is beyond remarkable, and a sign that something rather special is happening.
To put this into perspective, it is worth noting that not only did Zarco lead the race, but he also set the fastest lap in his first race. The last rookie to set the fastest lap during their first race? Marc Márquez, Qatar 2013. Before that? Valentino Rossi, Welkom 2000. And before that, Max Biaggi, Suzuka 1998.
Zarco's downfall came at Turn 2 on lap 7. Quite literally: he got a little off line, hit a dirtier part of the track, and down he went. There is no shame in crashing out of your first MotoGP race. Valentino Rossi crashed out of his first premier class Grand Prix too. On the other hand, Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa all finished on the podium in their MotoGP debut race. Max Biaggi actually won his first 500cc race at Suzuka.