How close is MotoGP at the moment? If you just looked at the championship standings, you might reply, not particularly close. Marc Márquez wrapped up the MotoGP championship after just 16 of the 19 races, with a lead of 102 points. He had won 8 of those 16 races, a strike rate of 50%, and been on the podium another five times as well. On paper, it looks like the kind of blowout which has fans turning off in droves, and races held in front of half-empty grandstands.
But that's not what's happening. The series is as popular as ever, TV ratings are high, crowds are larger than ever before, and social media lights up on every race weekend. Rightly so: the show has been spectacular in 2018. Marc Márquez' championship blowout belies just how close the racing actually is. How? Because there are eight or nine riders who can compete for the podium on any given weekend.
The five races leading up to Sepang bear this out. There have been four different manufacturers and six different riders on the podium, and that is with Jorge Lorenzo missing four of those five races. The podiums are fairly evenly distributed as well: Honda have 6 of the 15 podium places, Ducati have had 4, Suzuki 3 podiums, Yamaha 2 podiums. Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha have all won races.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Michelin after the Malaysian Grand Prix:
The MotoGP flyaway races are a headache for Dorna in a lot of different ways. There is the logistics, the calendar, a host of legal and customs issues, ensuring that facilities are up to scratch, in terms of safety, medical facilities, pit garages, and more. They have most of these things pretty much nailed down – something which comes with having run the series for over 25 years – but the one hurdle they face every year is TV schedules. Sport has infinitely more value when it is shown live, because the very fact that the outcome of a contest is unknown is what provides half the thrill. Anyone who has suffered the wrath of the mob after posting spoilers on Social Media will understand that.
So when MotoGP goes east, to Thailand, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia, the series runs into a dilemma. These are key markets for the factories, and growing markets for Dorna in terms of TV audiences. But they are also a problem when it comes to Europe, whose broadcasters contribute a very hefty sum to Dorna's finances. Live audiences drop off a cliff for races which start at 6am, and so Dorna do what they can to shift the race start into a more audience-friendly window. Far more people will be willing to get up on a Sunday morning at 8am for a race than they would be for a 6am, or – heaven forfend – a 5am start.
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."
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:
Phillip Island is a glorious race track, in a glorious setting, with a history of serving up glorious racing, especially when the weather plays ball. On Sunday, it did just that, the circuit bathed in warm sunshine, almost taking the edge off the antarctic chill which can still hit the circuit in very early spring. And great weather brought fantastic racing, starting with a spectacularly insane Moto3 race, followed up with a thrilling Moto2 race, and finally topped off with an intriguing and incident-packed MotoGP race.
The MotoGP grid arrived at Phillip Island mindful of the lessons of last year. In 2017, a large group had battled for the win for 20+ laps, until their tires were shot. Marc Márquez, having been mindful of his tires for much of the race, made his move in the last five laps, opening a gap over the chasing group of a couple of seconds. Everyone Márquez had beaten last year had spent the weekend concentrating on tire preservation for the last part of the race.
Racing is always about balancing risk and reward, but sometimes, that balance is put into very stark contrast. Phillip Island is a very fast track with notoriously blustery weather, with strong winds commonly blowing in rain showers. The weather gods have not looked kindly on this year's Australian Grand Prix, though it has stayed largely dry. Gale-force winds, icy temperatures, and the occasional downpour have, shall we say, livened the proceedings up considerably.
The upside to being battered by strong winds is that the weather can blow out again as quickly as it blew in. Scattered showers are just that: scattered away towards the mainland in the blink of an eye. But they can be scattered over the circuit again in a matter of minutes.
This does not exactly make things easy for the MotoGP riders. Heading along the front straight well north of 330km/h and seeing spots on your visor, then wondering whether Doohan Corner, a 200+km/h corner is going to be completely dry or not is, shall we say, unnerving. Doing all that during qualifying, when you know you only have 15 minutes to post a quick time, doubly so. As the reward goes up, so does the tolerance for risk.
Heart in mouth
Phillip Island is a magnificent circuit. Perched on the edge of the Bass Strait, it is a visceral thrill in a spectacular setting. It is fast, flowing, the very essence of what a race track is supposed to be. But all that glory comes at a price. It is also a dangerous place. When you crash at Phillip Island, then it hurts, and more often than not, it hurts a lot.
Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes points out that in the 1990s, the FIM commissioned a study into crashes at various tracks. The track with the most crashes, Estoril, had the fewest serious injuries. The track with the fewest crashes was Phillip Island. But it was also the track with the most injuries. The difference? Estoril was the slowest track on the calendar, thanks to a couple of tight turns, while Phillip Island was the fastest. Newton's second law is immutable, and enforced 100% of the time.