Sometimes, winning a championship requires a little bit of help from your team. Especially when championships are tight. A little help from your teammate, perhaps persuaded by a quiet word in their ear from the team boss. Who knows, maybe even a little financial sweetener to help swallow a bitter pill, a cut of a win bonus. It helps if you and your teammate don't actively despise each other, of course.
Team orders are something of a taboo subject in motorcycle racing. Journalists, riders, teams all pussyfoot around the issue, while fans speculate like mad about which results were down to riders doing what they were told by team bosses, rather than putting it all out on the track. With no ship-to-shore radio communication, the only methods of communication are via the pit board, and since last year, via a list of permitted messages on the dashboard.
In a way, not having radio communication has led to more speculation about team orders, rather than less. Because pit boards are visible to other teams, and space is necessarily limited, the messages tend to be both terse and obscure. Valentino Rossi is forever being asked to explain what the letters BRK on his pit board mean. Dani Pedrosa is in a league of his own in this regard: at one point during a race, the word DOGMA appeared on his pit board. At another, the letters ZZTT were shown at the start of the last lap.
Security through obscurity?
What do these messages mean? Teams are loath to explain. With their only means of communication so public, they are always looking for an advantage. Even relatively banal and obvious messages can provide an advantage to a rider's rivals. Last Sunday, Marc Márquez admitted that for the first two thirds of the race, he only reads the pit boards of his rivals, rather than his own, trying to figure out what they are doing. So when teams have something important to communicate, they try to camouflage it.
All this obscurity provides a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Fans and journalists pore over messages trying to ascertain the underlying meaning, trying to link up actions on track with messages appearing on pit boards, in a giant game of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they are grasping wildly at straws. But sometimes, on very rare occasions, their speculation turns out to be founded on fact.
And so to the seemingly mundane message which appeared on Jorge Lorenzo's dashboard, with six laps to go to the end of the race. The Factory Ducati rider was leading the race, and had a lead of his teammate Andrea Dovizioso which had been hovering at just under a second for a few laps. With Marc Márquez in fourth at that moment, and 26 points ahead of Dovizioso, the Repsol Honda rider would have wrapped up the title in Sepang had the two Ducati riders finished in their current order. If Dovizioso were to finish ahead of Lorenzo, then he would trail Márquez by 21 points, and the championship fight would go down to Valencia.
Tinfoil shields to maximum
The message which appeared on Lorenzo's dashboard (and thanks to demands by Dorna, live on TV screens around the world) read "SUGGESTED MAPPING: MAPPING 8". Was it Lorenzo's cue to move over and make way for Dovizioso? Or was it literally just a suggestion to switch to an engine mapping more suited to the latter stages of a soaking wet Sepang race? Perhaps the best way to figure that out is to go back over the events of the race, and what the protagonists said afterwards.
Andrea Dovizioso came into the Sepang race trailing Marc Márquez by 33 points after a disastrous race at Phillip Island. His hopes of lifting his first MotoGP title had faded, having lost control of his own destiny. The Factory Ducati rider needed to win at Sepang, and see Márquez have a poor result, if he was to get back in the game. Then he could take the fight to Valencia, and hope to do the same thing again. Improbable? Certainly. But the championship isn't over until it's over.
The Italian had been superb all weekend. Fast in the wet on Friday, fast in the dry on Saturday, qualifying on the front row of the grid. Luck swung his way a little, when Márquez crashed during Q2 and ended up just seventh on the grid. Between himself and Marquez, Dovizioso had his teammate Jorge Lorenzo who he has consistently beaten this year, and with whom he has a good understanding. He could at least rely on Lorenzo to ride cautiously around him, not try anything reckless that might take him down. At best? Well, maybe Lorenzo would help.
The Spaniard had already shared his willingness to help on the many occasions he was asked about it by the media. Most of the time, though, he added the caveat that he would be willing to help Dovizioso if the title came down to Valencia. He glossed over the need for help at other tracks.
As an aside, it is curious that the media spent so much time grilling Jorge Lorenzo on his willingness to help Dovizioso. Valentino Rossi was rarely asked if he would be willing to lend a hand to Maverick Viñales, to help his Movistar Yamaha teammate's shot at the championship. (And indeed, at Phillip Island, it was Rossi himself who killed off any chance which Viñales had of staying in the title race, by finishing ahead of him and leaving Viñales 50 points behind Márquez, and therefore out of contention for the championship). Nor was Dani Pedrosa peppered with questions about what he was willing to do for his teammate Marc Márquez, should he be in a situation to help Márquez out.
The rain which started falling between the end of the Moto2 race and the start of the MotoGP race swung the balance in Dovizioso's favor. The Ducati GP17 was fast in the wet, that much was obvious from FP2. And not just the GP17: four of the top ten bikes in the wet were Ducatis, and Márquez was the only Honda rider. The Movistar Yamaha riders were quick in FP2, the progress found at Phillip Island paying dividends in Malaysia as well. Even the Suzukis were in contention. If the pattern established in FP2 continued during the race, there was every reason for Dovizioso to hope that he could make a serious dent in Márquez' championship lead.
A similar thought process must have been running through Marc Márquez' mind. The Repsol Honda rider got a flying start off the line, threading his way through the field to position himself to get the holeshot into Turn 1. That required being brave on the brakes, and gambling on getting the bike turned and ready for Turn 2. But Márquez got in a fraction hot, running a little wide and pushing Jorge Lorenzo out toward the edge of the track. Márquez' lead lasted for approximately 50 meters, before Johann Zarco swung through underneath and into first.
While Márquez had left the line like a rocket, Andrea Dovizioso got off to a dismal start. Slow off the line, he was seventh as they approached the braking zone for the first corner. Perhaps nerves had gotten the better of him, as they probably had for Marc Márquez. But where Márquez' paid the price for being nervous by losing places in Turn 1, Dovizioso's slow entry into the corner put him tight on the inside of the turn, not far behind Zarco. When they swung back left for Turn 2, Dovizioso was right behind Jorge Lorenzo, who was in turn chasing the two Repsol Hondas.
Johann Zarco sped off into the distance, and behind him, Jorge Lorenzo set sights on Márquez and Pedrosa. The combination of Ducati horsepower and a willingness to brake late allowed Lorenzo to whip past the two Hondas and into second. While one Ducati took off ahead of them, the two Hondas were coming under attack from the rear. Dani Pedrosa put up a stiff resistance for a lap, swapping places with Dovizioso three or four times. But when they exited Turn 14 onto the back straight, it was obvious that the Ducati had the better drive. Dovizioso swept past Pedrosa into fourth, and started running down Márquez.
Take what you can
It took him just over three laps to finally get past Márquez, and take over third place. He slid through at Turn 14, holding his advantage down the back straight, but made a mistake into Turn 15 and and ran a little wide, allowing Márquez to come back underneath him. Dovizioso almost wiped the pair of them out when he tried to cut back to the inside of the corner, right where Márquez was riding, but he corrected and stayed upright. He got a second chance at Turn 4, this time using better drive and strong braking to slip past and into third place.
Márquez had expected to lose out to the Ducatis on acceleration, but it wasn't there where he was really losing out. Instead it was on corner entry, normally the strong point of the Honda RC213V, no matter what the weather. "Today they were strong in the acceleration like always," Márquez explained after the race. "But the problem is that one of my strongest points – the brake point and the entry of the corner – I was not strong like the other races. The feeling was not so good. They are always very good in the acceleration side but we are very good on entry. The problem today was the entry."
Being third would not be good enough for Dovizioso to keep his title hopes alive. Especially not if Márquez were to finish fourth. That looked increasingly likely, as the front four were quicker than the rest of the field, the gap to Dani Pedrosa in fifth having opened up already. With Márquez in fourth, Dovizioso was going to have to try to win.
One down, two to go
The Italian had two problems to deal with: his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Johann Zarco, who had taken off like a scalded cat on the first lap. Zarco was helped by his choice of the soft rear tire, giving him extra grip at the start of the race. The question was how long the soft rear would last, and if Zarco would be able to build enough of a gap to manage it when it did.
The soft rear lasted longer than expected. The Frenchman never really slowed up, his pace holding steady, and fast enough to hold on to the lead. Zarco's problem was that the Ducatis were both a lot quicker, getting better drive and quickly closing him down. They caught him on lap 9, Lorenzo passing at Turn 9, then Dovizioso following at Turn 14, and the race was down to just the two of them.
At the halfway mark, with Lorenzo leading and Dovizioso in second, and Marc Márquez starting to close on Johann Zarco, the championship was still in Márquez' hands. If the flag had dropped at that moment, Márquez would have led by 26 points, enough to tie up the title. The Repsol Honda rider saw that he was closing on Zarco, and started to think about taking 3 more points to consolidate his position.
Time to settle
Márquez pushed to try to catch the Tech 3 Yamaha bike, but Zarco was settling in to his rhythm. The Repsol Honda rider inched closer, but getting close enough to pass meant taking a little bit too much risk. With so much on the line, Márquez backed off a fraction, and let Zarco go. Fourth would have to be good enough.
"I felt really good after the race because it was like the worst conditions I could have today," Márquez said afterwards. "It was wet, so slippery the track and so difficult to find the limit because it was so easy to make a mistake. But anyway I tried. I started the race quite aggressive on the start. But I realized both Ducatis were faster than me and when I was catching Zarco I was taking some risks. Then I was thinking on the bike that it is more or less the same to arrive at Valencia with 24 points of advantage or 21 points. So I decided to stay in fourth. Something that was so important in this race was to try and be calm all of the laps and not to be in a rush."
Márquez was disarmingly honest about the pressure he had felt during the race. "Honestly speaking, in the end I’m human and when you’re fighting for the championship, you have a small movement and already you feel like you are about to have a big crash. It’s something normal and natural and today, OK, maybe if I took more risks I could be champion here. But maybe if I crashed now would only be like eight or seven points ahead. So it’s better to do it step by step." Better to start at Valencia with a big advantage than go all out a handful of extra points and throw it all away.
With Zarco safely in third and out of the equation as far as the lead was concerned, it all came down to the two Ducatis at the front. If Andrea Dovizioso wanted to keep his championship hopes alive, he would have to pass Jorge Lorenzo. But Lorenzo was tantalizingly close to his first win on the Ducati, something he had been denied by circumstances a couple of times previously this season. Would Lorenzo yield?
Mapping the territory
That is when the message came up on Lorenzo's dashboard. Suggested Mapping: Mapping 8. Was it code, a sign telling Lorenzo that he must move aside? Or was it exactly what it said on the tin: a suggestion that it might be about the right time to switch to a different TC and engine braking map?
The truth is, we will never know – or rather, we won't know until after both Dovizioso and Lorenzo have retired and are willing to talk openly – but we can walk through what we know about racing, about team orders, and about riders. By a process of deduction, we can get some feeling for what might be the right answer.
First, could this have been exactly what it appears: a suggestion to swap mapping? That is entirely plausible. Firstly, we know that riders switch mappings during the race: for an in-depth explanation of what the electronics do, how they are set up, and how and when riders decide to switch maps, read our two-part interview with Bradley Smith from last year, where he lays it all out.
Secondly, we know that teams tell riders when to swap maps. Before the introduction of dashboard messages (and even now they are available) teams put messages on the pit board advising riders to switch. Pit boards will say MODE and a number, or a letter, or both, and riders will know what to do. We also know that riders sometimes disregard such messages. When Andrea Iannone first joined the factory Ducati team, he had a couple of races where he simply forgot to switch the mapping during the race, despite a reminder.
So yes, it could have been just a suggestion to switch engine mappings. Could it also have been a coded message on team orders? To answer that question, we need to break it down into its constituent components. Do team orders exist in MotoGP? If they did, how would Ducati communicate them? Would Ducati (or any factory, for that matter) be open and honest about team orders, or would they try to hide it? And would a rider follow orders, if he was given them?
Team orders: truth or fantasy?
First things first. Do team orders exist in MotoGP? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, though the words "team orders" require a certain amount of explanation. Because of the lack of ship-to-shore radio, any team orders would have to be discussed beforehand. After the race, Ducati team bosses were in great demand among journalists. Davide Tardozzi told Crash.net that they had spoken to the riders about this situation. "We talked with the riders about what can happen," Tardozzi said. "In this situation, it is good to have the opportunity to have the championship open. I think that it would be stupid to give a present to Marc. We know it’s very difficult. Why not keep it open until Valencia?"
Speaking to the Spanish press, Ducati Corse MotoGP boss Paolo Ciabatti admitted that it was a situation the factory had discussed. It was what the factory had to do if they had a chance to win the championship, Ciabatti said. More importantly, Ducati have previous experience with this, Andrea Iannone having taken out Andrea Dovizioso in the penultimate corner in Argentina in 2016, a move which ultimately cost Iannone his seat at Ducati. Ducati had warned both Lorenzo and Dovizioso about battling too aggressively with each other. Asked directly if the message meant that Lorenzo had to let Dovizioso past, Ciabatti had smiled and said, "If that's what you want to think..."
Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna told Italian media something similar. Of course they had had discussions with the riders. "It's obvious that you have to think about the team, about the people who are working at the factory," he said. "And certain choices have to be made, even if they are painful."
We also know that Ducati have handed out team orders before, and sent them via dashboard messages. At Phillip Island, Scott Redding received a message telling him to let Dovizioso pass early in the race. At previous races, people from Ducati had discussed the need to give up places to Dovizioso, though not at Phillip Island. "Honestly, beforehand no," Redding had told the press in Australia. "In Japan and other places yes, but here no. But I did have a message on the dashboard during the race to say let Dovi through, which I did and let him go."
But it was a decision which Redding later reversed, when he found himself catching Dovizioso, and battling with the Italian and with Dani Pedrosa. "When you're catching someone and you're a lot stronger, what are you supposed to do?" Redding asked. "I have to think about my career as well. I have a championship. If it was for a top five position, then you have a bigger point difference, then you think, OK. Maybe I would have thought different. But for 1 point? It's not something I'm going to lose any sleep over. I've been struggling week in, week out, and to be honest, they're not really helping me right now. I'm going, leaving. That's fine, I also know that. I'll help them if I can help them, but for one point, and after the situation I've been in, I have to sometimes think of myself."
Knowing the stakes
What is clear is that the factory spoke to the riders about this possibility, that it might be necessary for Lorenzo to give up a place to Dovizioso if it it was important for the championship. Whether this was a discussion which needed to take very long is another matter. Dovizioso needed all his attention and energy for the race, and would only have needed to know that if he got close to Lorenzo, Lorenzo would not put up too much of a fight.
Lorenzo probably did not need much persuading. He is paid handsomely by the factory – the figure of €12.5 million a year is constantly being bandied about – and understands that he has to ride in the interest of the factory. "I didn’t need any people to tell me what to do in any situation," Lorenzo said in the press conference. "I knew that the world title was important in case of Marquez have crash or something like that. I knew he was maybe fourth or fifth position. So obviously I wanted to win the race. I wanted to keep pushing until the end, but as I told you, the front was very at the limit. And to stay with Dovi until the end I needed to be too much at the limit on the braking."
Beating Dovizioso would have meant taking a major risk, and there was too much on the line for that. Yes, he said, he was keen to get a first win for Ducati, but not at any price. "I've won 44 races in MotoGP, and I know that it's just a question of time until I do it with the Ducati," he told Italian media. He could perhaps have forced the issue, but it would have meant a 90% chance of them both ending up in the gravel, Lorenzo said.
With such frank confessions after the race, would Ducati have tried to hide the message during the race by using a code with a double meaning? Possibly. But that would not make a great deal of sense if they are going to confess afterwards anyway. There is nothing in the rules forbidding team orders, so there is no reason for Ducati to hide it.
Would Lorenzo have had a reason to disobey team orders if they were sent? Not really. The Spaniard has had a good rapport with this Italian teammate since he joined Ducati. Dovizioso explained the situation. "I said this from last year in Valencia. I feel immediately good with him," the Italian said of Lorenzo. "Like what happened in the past, he didn’t think to try to make something bad to me or try to create a strange situation inside of the box. He is so concentrated in himself and his work with the team, and looks like I don’t feel him about teammate because for sure every time everybody look on the TV the lap times. You make a comparison. His riding style is different. Everybody can learn from everybody. But I didn’t have any problem about that. He has his character and didn’t create to me any problems."
Of course, first, Lorenzo would have had to have been aware of the team orders. After the race, he insisted he hadn't seen the message on his dashboard. "Honestly, I didn’t see anything," Lorenzo said. "I just was very focused on the line, on the next corner, because on the rain you cannot lose the concentration. I just lose the concentration at Misano and you know what happened. So just see the board, just see the RPM to change every gear." At Misano, in the wet, Lorenzo had tried to change maps and become distracted, crashing as a result. In worse conditions than Italy, Lorenzo didn't want to make the same mistake again.
In the end, team orders weren't even needed. Dovizioso had been bouncing back and forth behind Lorenzo as if he were attached by an elastic band. One lap, he would close up, then he would lose ground, then close up again. On lap 16, with Dovizioso once again right on his tail, Lorenzo had a massive moment in the final corner, losing the front and only saving the bike on his knee, leaving a long red mark on the asphalt in the process. That cost him just enough time that Dovizioso was able to get a run on Lorenzo out of the corner and take over the lead.
Once past, Dovizioso soon built enough of a cushion to ride home safely to victory. Only on the last lap, when it started raining again, would Lorenzo have had a chance, but the risks were too high. Aware of the risks, Lorenzo rode cautiously and settled for second.
Given or earned?
So, was Andrea Dovizioso's victory at Sepang the result of team orders, of Jorge Lorenzo letting his teammate through after receiving a message to do so? While you can never know for certain, the fact is that Dovizioso was faster than Lorenzo, and Lorenzo made a mistake. It was Lorenzo's big moment in the final corner which caused him to lose the position, and that big moment was a result of having to push at the limit to stay ahead.
The verdict? Unless "Suggested Mapping: Mapping 8" means "Have massive front-end slide at Turn 15, then save it on your knee," it seems unlikely this was a direct instruction. Even if it was, Andrea Dovizioso won this race on merit: whatever Ducati may have told Jorge Lorenzo, there was no way he was going to be faster than Dovizioso anyway. On this day, Dovizioso was not going to be beaten by anyone, even his teammate.
If anything, Andrea Dovizioso's win at Sepang is a testament to the ice that runs through his veins, even when he is racing under incredible pressure. Dovizioso had to win, but he also had to make sure he wasn't panicked into throwing it all away by pushing too had. To an extent, it is a little easier for Dovizioso than it is for Márquez: the Italian came from a very difficult position, and so had less to lose. But the manner of his victory here is emblematic of just how good Dovizioso has been this season.
All still to play for
It was an important win for another reason. Dovizioso now draws level with Márquez with six wins apiece this year. If he wins the race at Valencia, he will have seven wins, meaning that Márquez will have to outscore him, as in the event of a draw, the number of wins will be the deciding factor. In practice, this means that Márquez will have to finish eleventh or better at Valencia, and score at least 5 points.
It is still a massive ask for Dovizioso to actually win the title. Dovizioso has to win at Valencia, because second place only scores 20 points, and Márquez' lead is 21 points. But not only does Dovizioso have to win, but Márquez has to have his worst result of the season, at a track which is one of his best. A track which also suits the Honda far better than the Ducati.
But when a title comes down to the final race of the year, anything can happen. This is the fourth time in the four-stroke era that the title will be decided in Valencia. In 2015, Valentino Rossi started off from the back of the grid, and could never have gotten close enough to Jorge Lorenzo to take the title. In 2013, Marc Márquez rode a conservative but shaky race to take sufficient points to prevent the winner, Jorge Lorenzo, from taking the title.
But in 2006, Valentino Rossi threw away a championship lead by crashing out of the race, then remounting, handing the title to the late lamented Nicky Hayden. It was fitting that the 2006 season should end that way for Hayden, who repeated to anyone who would listen, "that's why we line up on Sunday. Because you never know what's gonna happen."
Andrea Dovizioso is going to need a miracle at Valencia to become champion. Miracles are rare, but they do happen. But whatever happens, both Dovizioso and Márquez have deserved to win the title this year. Márquez has been dazzling, his talent far outperforming the bike he is on, and matching consistency to a series of wins. Márquez rarely finishes outside the top four, and has not finished outside the top six this season. His early weakness was a tendency to fall off, but a new front tire and improvements to the Honda helped fix that.
For his part, Dovizioso has been outstanding. He has grown as a rider, and his calm and quiet focus has allowed him to far exceed expectations. He is consistent, but he has also used the strengths of the Ducati perfectly, while coping well with its weak points. His only weakness has been that when he has a bad day, it can sometimes be pretty awful. But whoever takes the title, MotoGP is the winner this season.
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