Seven days ago, we were talking about how the 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, with the Australian Grand Prix as its glittering highlight. A week later, we saw its low point. There were some truly remarkable and admirable performances in all three classes. Dani Pedrosa confirmed his return to form with a formidable victory, his second of the season. The arm pump surgery has been a huge success, and if Honda can resist the temptation to build an unrideably powerful engine, Pedrosa will be back in title contention again next year. Johann Zarco proved once again he is the class of the Moto2 field, stalking Tom Luthi all race and riding to the very limit of physical endurance to snatch victory from what seemed like a foregone conclusion. And Miguel Oliveira demonstrated that he is capable of dominating the second half of the Moto3 season the way that Danny Kent dominated the first half, denying the Englishman the title and taking the championship to Valencia.
The trouble is, those stunning performances were overshadowed by one of the ugliest weekends of racing we have seen in a very long time. The tragedy may not have been physical this time, but it was tragic nonetheless. Three great champions let their masks slip at Sepang, revealing the egotism, spitefulness and petty rivalries that underly their success. And the fans added insult to injury, booing at a result they did not like.
So we shall skip past the victory by Dani Pedrosa, failing to shower him with the praise which he deserves. We shall overlook the stunning ride by Jorge Lorenzo, passing riders at will and subduing everyone but Dani Pedrosa. Instead, we must focus on the battle for third, the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. On the breathtaking battle that went sour, after Rossi finally lost his cool at Márquez' provocation and unwillingness to surrender, and precipitated Márquez' crash.
2015 Sepang MotoGP Saturday Round Up: The Mundane Reality Behind Mind Games, The Tow That Wasn't, And Some Title Mathematics
The atmosphere hangs heavy over the Sepang International Circuit, both literally and figuratively. The thick gray haze casts a pall over the circuit, dulling the light, restricting vision, cloying at the throats of everyone at the track, and in the region. There is another oppressive weight over the proceedings, this time of expectation. There is the pressure of a MotoGP title battle going down to the wire, and a Moto3 championship that should have been wrapped up two races ago, before a new rival emerged on the scene. Then there is the electric tension created by Valentino Rossi, when he decided to use the pre-event press conference to accuse Marc Márquez of helping Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
Since then, it has been impossible to view any action by either Rossi or Márquez with an objective eye. Rossi's accusations, Márquez' defense, and Lorenzo's entry into the arena color everything that happens, on and off the track. Coincidences disappear, otherwise common behavior is highlighted, and conspiracies, real and imagined, spiral wildly out of control. All eagerly egged on by MotoGP rights holder Dorna, the TV director picking up and highlighting each and every encounter between the protagonists. There have never been so many clips from practice, interviews and specials up on the MotoGP.com website, and TV broadcasters – especially in Spain and Italy – leap onto the bandwagon with their own speculation, interviews, stories and angles. And before anyone points an accusing finger at me, mea maxima culpa.
So when Marc Márquez came up on the back of Valentino Rossi as the Repsol Honda rider prepared to start his time attack in FP3 on new tires, to ensure passage to Q2, he slowed up, unwilling to give him a tow. Rossi, looking back and preparing for his own attack, saw Márquez behind him and slowed to let him down. The pair got slower and slower through the third sector of the track, going through it in over a minute, instead of the normal 38 seconds or so. It looked like a sur place, a standoff in track cycling where two cyclists come to a standstill with a couple of hundred meters to go, each waiting for the other to lead off the sprint. Mind games?
2015 Sepang MotoGP Friday Round Up: Marquez And Lorenzo's Right To Reply, And There Was Practice Too
After the raft of accusations he had made on Thursday, Valentino Rossi decided to keep his council on Friday. When asked by the English speaking press about the responses of Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo to his charges, Rossi cut them short. "I said everything yesterday, and I don't have anything else to say." To the Italian press, he was a little more expansive, but still insisted that he had had his say. When told that Márquez had said he had been surprised by the accusations Rossi had laid against him, Rossi rejected the suggestion. "Marc said he was surprised? I don't think that's true. And now, I have said everything, I have nothing left to say."
As it turned out, he did have a little more to say, but it was short. When told that Márquez has said that all Rossi needs to do is finish ahead of or directly behind Lorenzo at the next two races, Rossi had a cutting response. "Tell him I already know that." Did he think that he would be safer on track with Márquez, now that he had had his say? "I don't know. I took a risk, but I could not remain quiet. Maybe my words will have a positive effect, maybe negative, but at least I can sleep well at night now."
The accusations made by Rossi on Thursday had left the paddock mystified, struggling to work out exactly what he had hoped to achieve. "After some hours, I'm still surprised, like everybody," Marc Márquez said. "I respect Valentino and I will always respect him, but I understand also his situation. That he is fighting for the title, he is really close to getting his tenth title, but he knows Jorge is really strong." Márquez said he had no desire to be involved. "In the end, he needs to beat Jorge on the racetrack. I prefer to be out of this battle."
The pre-event press conferences held on the Thursday ahead of each MotoGP round can vary a good deal in interest. For the most part, they are full of pleasantries and platitudes, both riders and journalists doing their best to look interested and not start playing with their phones. After the utterly entrancing race at Phillip Island four days ago, we expected this to be one of the less interesting ones, the only mild interest being the dismal air quality in Malaysia.
How very wrong we were. Yes, there was the discussion of the obvious, of how the championship chances of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and of Danny Kent in Moto3 would play out. But there was also an explosion of interest once Rossi made accusations that Marc Márquez was trying to help Lorenzo win the championship, accusations he pressed home further once the press conference finished.
It first livened up once Andrea Iannone and Valentino Rossi were asked what they thought of the abuse which had been plastered all over the Facebook and Instagram feeds of Iannone after the race at Phillip Island, where Iannone finished ahead of Rossi and took valuable points in the championship. Iannone shook it off, saying that 90% were positive, and the rest were "just an opinion."
Rossi was much stronger in his condemnation of the behavior of people calling themselves his fans. "I think that in reality they are not my real supporters," he said. "Is a great shame, because these people are very stupid. Unfortunately, this is the time of the social network where everybody can say his idea, even if it's a very stupid idea. The people like to speak bad about other guys that are more lucky than them, with more talent, and more happy, because they do with their life what they want." Rossi pointed out that he held no grudge against Iannone for beating him. "He just did his race, and is normal that he try to beat me."
2015 Phillip Island Moto3 And Moto2 Round Up - How The Championship Went Undecided, And Who Caused The Crash
If you thought the MotoGP race at Phillip Island was thrilling, you should have seen Moto3. Phillip Island is a track where it is almost impossible to escape on a Moto3 bike, the long fast straight, usually with a headwind, allowing a chasing group to draft each other forward and catch anyone trying to get away. The only hope is for something to happen, to split the group and force a break.
Boy, did something happen. There was only one crash all weekend in the MotoGP class; there was the grand total of seventeen crashes in Moto3, with just nineteen of the thirty five starters actually making it across the line to finish the race. The reason? The heady mixture of close racing and youthful exuberance inevitably leads to people taking too much risk, and taking either themselves or someone else out. Add in some tension over the 2015 Moto3 title, and you have an incendiary mix indeed.
And tension there was. Danny Kent started the race in Australia with a simple goal: finish ahead of Enea Bastianini if possible, and within five positions of Miguel Oliveira. That would see him finally wrap up the Moto3 title he could have had his hands on already, if he hadn't made a silly mistake at Aragon and crashed. Beating Bastianini should be easy: the Italian had a nightmare weekend at Phillip Island, unhappy with the bike from the very beginning, qualifying 28th and starting from 25th due to penalties for other riders.
It was the race we had been waiting for. We knew it had to be coming, but each time we thought, "this will be the race!" the magic dissolved into thin air after a few laps, and the race settled into a rhythm. Not this time. From start to finish, four of the best motorcycle racers in the world – three of the best the world has ever seen, and one candidate to be elevated to that elect club – fought a close quarters battle for victory, spiced up with a dash of very serious consequences for the championship. No more runaway victories, no more cat and mouse, no more stalking until the final lap. It was all-out war, from the moment the lights went out all the way to the checkered flag.
There was a rather keen irony that this race should be such a thriller. At Brno, at Misano, at Motegi, so often, the barnstorming race we had expected based on practice and qualifying failed to materialize once the flag dropped. At Phillip Island, the question on everyone's minds after Saturday night was more like how large Marc Márquez' margin of victory would be, and whether the battle for second would last longer than a few laps. How very wrong we were, and how very happy would we be to have been proven so.
Jorge Lorenzo's worst fears were confirmed from the start. On Saturday, he had been furious about Andrea Iannone's using him as a target during qualifying, and stealing second place on the grid. Iannone got the drag to the line and took off like a scalded cat. Lorenzo followed, and before the first lap was halfway done, we got a taste of what was to come. Lorenzo cut underneath Iannone at the Hayshed in a brilliantly audacious move at an unusual place to pass. It would not be the last brave move. It would not even be the best. We were in for a treat.
2015 Phillip Island Saturday Round Up: Lorenzo's Tactics, Iannone's Smarts, Marquez' Speed, And Kent's Pole That Wasn't
Will championships be decided tomorrow? The Moto3 title could well be settled after the race, a lot of bleary-eyed British fans clinging to their cappuccinos in a desperate attempt to stay awake. It won't take much: Danny Kent just has to finish ahead of Enea Bastianini and higher than seventh to be sure. The MotoGP title is still too close to be settled at Phillip Island, but tomorrow's race could well turn out to be pivotal. If Valentino Rossi finishes ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, the Italian will have one hand on the MotoGP crown. If Lorenzo finishes ahead of Rossi, and especially if he can put some bodies between himself and his Movistar Yamaha teammate, then the pendulum might finally start to swing back Lorenzo's way.
Lorenzo put himself in a good position to try to achieve that, ably assisted by Valentino Rossi, and hindered by Andrea Iannone. Once again, Lorenzo and his crew showed themselves to be masters of tactics in the 15-minute qualifying sessions, and not afraid of a little sleight of hand. As the clock counted down towards the start of Q2, Lorenzo's mechanics pushed his bike up onto the starting rollers, and prepared it for him to leave the pits. Lorenzo walked out towards the bike, stood beside it, and looked around to see that the rest of the twelve riders in Q2 were all making their way onto their bikes and into pit lane.
Once certain they were all on their way out, he turned around, marched back inside the Movistar Yamaha garage and sat down for a minute. Pit lane now cleared, and an empty track both ahead and behind, Lorenzo went out for his first flying lap, and attempt at pole. He came up a little short, managing only the third-fastest time, and came in after just one lap. The shortness of Phillip Island, combined with a relatively short and straightforward pit lane, meant he still had plenty of time for a two-stop strategy. His crew put in a new tire ready for another attack at pole, and out Lorenzo went, just behind Andrea Iannone.
2015 Phillip Island Friday Round Up: On Declining Grip, New Tires, Local Heroes And The Coming Of A New Alien
Blame it on the Bass Strait. The weather, or perhaps more accurately, the weather, the climate and the environment, has a huge effect on the Phillip Island circuit. The weather, because the strong winds which blow in off the Strait brings regular dowsings of rain. The climate, because the hot summers, cool winters and wet weather places a severe strain on the asphalt. And the environment, because the sea breeze brings in salt, and the Antarctic ozone hole means UV levels are high, both of which have a corrosive effect on the circuit surface. Perched on top of cliffs overlooking the Bass Strait is a stunning setting for a race track, but the Phillip Island circuit pays a heavy price for the privilege.
All of those factors have combined this year to throw the Australian round of MotoGP a curveball, or to make it more colloquially accurate, bowled MotoGP a googly. The weather at Phillip Island was at its most deceptive, relatively warm and sunny, but with clouds bearing quick showers blowing in at regular intervals. No class would escape the tricky conditions, though some were more badly affected than others, Moto3 losing the first half of FP2 to the wet.
For the MotoGP class, the climate, and the effects it has had on the track, was of greater significance. Everyone complained of a lack of grip, the track having lost a lot of its natural grip in the past two years since it was resurfaced. The rear kept spinning up, said riders on bikes from every different manufacturer. "The problem is the rear on this tarmac, that two years later is much less grippy," said Jorge Lorenzo. "Maybe this rear tire was good two years ago but now it's a little bit too hard and it spins a little bit."
2015 Phillip Island MotoGP Thursday Notes: On The Yamaha Rivalry, Bridgestone's Brilliant Asymmetric Solution, And Bastianini's Future
Is the strain of the championship starting to take its toll on the relationship between the two Movistar Yamaha riders? It was all Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo could do to roll their eyes when they were asked this question during the press conference. They get asked it a lot: in just about every press conference at which they are together, in their media debriefs after every day of practice, and presumably, in just about every TV and media interview.
Valentino Rossi had armed himself with a quip to deflect the question. "We are very happy about your interest," he joked. "We have a diary about our relationship, which we will keep secret until the last race." It is a shame he was only joking. There is no doubt that a diary, especially a video diary, following Rossi and Lorenzo behind the scenes through this season would have made compelling reading or viewing.
Once he was done with gently mocking the questioner, Rossi acknowledged that both he and Lorenzo are "hard rivals" and that fighting for a championship was always difficult. But they were used to it. When two riders are in the same team, they get used to seeing each other in the box and out. Lorenzo agreed, adding "We are two world champions who both want the same thing. It's normal that the relationship gets a little bit more tense." He also pointed out that it would be the same with whoever he was fighting with for the title.
Phillip Island, like Mugello, is one of the tracks which any motorcycle racer worth their salt puts at the very top of their list of favorite tracks. And rightly so: swooping over gently undulating ground sitting atop cliffs overlooking a bay on the Bass Strait, it is perhaps the greatest of the natural race tracks. It has everything a race track should have: a collection of fast, sweeping corners which richly reward bravery; a couple of hard braking corners fast and slow at which to overtake; a superb and treacherous combination of turns in Lukey Heights and MG at which to make a last ditch passing attempt, and a long enough run to the finish line to make drafting a possibility. Add in arguably the most breathtaking setting on the calendar, and you have just about everything.
Of course, the glory of Phillip Island also has its downsides. The flowing nature of the track and limited number of turns means that the bikes spend a lot of time on the left-hand side of the tire, often at very high speed. With very high loads on the left-hand side, and very low loads on the right, both producing and managing tires is difficult. Add in the fact that in October, the start of the Australian spring, it can be still be very chilly indeed, especially with the strong winds blowing off the Bass Strait, with next to nothing between them and the Antarctic, and it is a potential recipe for disaster. Tires cool quickly, and each right hander has to be approached with respect. Get it wrong, and your race is over very quickly.
Tires have always been an issue at Phillip Island, providing just the sort of challenge which tire manufacturers relish. That they are not always up to the challenge was demonstrated in 2013, when Bridgestone drastically underestimated the effect of the newly resurfaced circuit. Massive problems with overheating forced Race Direction to shorten the race and introduce compulsory pit stops, a workaround which produced a fascinating race, with the added spice of a disqualification, Marc Márquez being black-flagged for not making his pit stop in time.