If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat. But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
Another week, another 8 hour flight, another race track. Sepang comes as the last of three grueling weekends chasing around the Pacific Ocean to race in Japan, Australia, and now Malaysia. Even from the comfort of my European home (I lack the funds and, to a lesser extent, the inclination to pursue the paddock halfway around the world), it has been a tough schedule, and the riders and team members I have spoken to about it are all just about ready to come home.
Once again, a MotoGP race at Phillip Island is decided by tires. The tires Bridgestone brought to the Australian circuit were not up to the task, with riders crashing out all throughout the race. The front tires Bridgestone brought to the track were unable to cope with the conditions. The result was determined by tires, not by talent.
That, at least, is the narrative being heard around the internet after the bizarre yet fascinating MotoGP race at Phillip Island. It is an attractive narrative – a nice, simple explanation for what happened in Australia – but it is fundamentally flawed. The tire situation was complicated, certainly. Jorge Lorenzo's front tire showed very severe degradation, more than would normally be explained by the expected wear. Several riders crashed out on the asymmetric front tire Bridgestone brought. But to lay the blame entirely on Bridgestone is quite wrong.
The problems at Phillip Island are inherent to the track, and were exacerbated by changes made to suit European TV schedules. Phillip Island, like Assen, is a track which places peculiar demands on tires. It features a lot of very fast left-hand corners, with only a few right handers, two of which are the slowest corners on the track. It is located next to the Bass Strait, a freezing stretch of water connected to the globe-spanning Southern Ocean, which means the weather is highly changeable. Temperatures dropped during the race by as much as 9°C, probably a result of Dorna insisting on running the race at 4pm local time (the late afternoon) to hit a 7am TV slot in their main markets of Spain and Italy. That time will draw a bigger audience than the 5am slot a 2pm race start would fill. But to locals, racing at 4pm at this time of the year is madness.
The three men on pole for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races. The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.
The "Rufea Team", as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain. Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn't spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record. But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers' father Julià.
Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row. Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.
Phillip Island is a very special race track. That has an upside – it rewards courage and talent, and has provided some spectacular racing – but it is also special in the more pejoratively euphemistic sense of the word. It challenges not just the riders, but motorcycle designers and racing teams as well. Above all, it challenges tire manufacturers: with wildly varying temperatures, strong winds blowing in cool and damp air off the ocean, an abrasive surface, high-speed corners, more left handers than right handers, and the most of the lefts faster than the rights. It can rain, be bitterly cold, be bathed in glorious sunshine, or in sweltering heat. Try building a tire to cope with all that.
After last year's fiasco, both Dunlop and Bridgestone tried to do just that. They came to the track in March to test tires and gather data to build tires for this weekend. The only minor problem is that the test came at the end of Australia's long summer, and temperatures were much more congenial than now, as the country emerges from its Antipodean winter. The tire selections brought by Dunlop and Bridgestone are much better than last year, but they are not quite perfect. At any other track, that wouldn't be a problem. At Phillip Island, even being not quite perfect can land you in trouble.
That tires are an issue was evident from the number of riders who crashed, both in MotoGP and in Moto2. Most crashed in right handers, a lot going down at MG, which would be one of the most difficult corners of the year wherever it was located, but a fair few followed suit at Hayshed, the right hander that follows on from Siberia (the most aptly named corner on the calendar) and precedes Lukey Heights. There were crashes at the Honda hairpin as well, the other right hander, where hard braking is at a premium.
The Grand Prix Circus has barely had a chance to catch its breath after Motegi before the next round starts in Australia. With a few exceptions, perhaps, a number of teams being forced to either take a much longer route to Australia to avoid the landfall of typhoon Vongfong, or else severely delayed until the worst passed. Still, to call spending even more hours on a plane or at an airport for what is already a very long flight can hardly be regarded as a spot of rest and relaxation.
Marc Marquez had come to Motegi to give Honda the world championship at their home circuit for the first time ever. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to Japan to score a win in front of their home fans, and factory bosses. In the end, the Battle of the Bosses can be declared a draw: Jorge Lorenzo was just about unstoppable on his way to victory, winning in front of Yamaha's top brass. And Marc Marquez nudged his way past Valentino Rossi to take second, finishing ahead of the two men who could prevent him from wrapping up the 2014 MotoGP title.
Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo's ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over. There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian's results and say "but Casey won on the Ducati."
Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
Part of the Japanese round of MotoGP always seems to involve learning a new name for a natural phenomenon. In 2010, we heard of Eyjafjallajökull for the first time, the volcano which awoke from under its ice cap and halted air travel in large parts of Europe and Asia. We laughed as newsreaders and MotoGP commentators tried to pronounce the name of the Icelandic volcano and ice cap (for the inquisitive, Wikipedia has the correct pronunciation), and the race was moved from the start of the season to October.
A year later, in April 2011, it was Tōhoku which was the name on everyone's lips. The massive earthquake which shook Japan and triggered an enormous tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power station. Again the Motegi race was moved to October, by which time the incredible resilience and industriousness had the track ready to host the MotoGP circus. 2012 turned out to be a relatively quiet year, but 2013 saw the tail end of typhoon Francisco ravage the region, causing the first day and a half of practice to be lost to fog and rain.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 round of MotoGP at Motegi teaches us yet another new name. This time it is Vongfong, a category 5 super typhoon which threatens the race in Japan. The super typhoon has been described as "the most powerful storm of the year" with recorded sustained winds of 285 km/h, and gusts of up to 350 km/h. It is currently over open water southwest of Japan, but is heading northeast towards Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago.
The good news for Japan is that Vongfong is expected to weaken as it heads towards Japan, and arrives over much cooler water. Even better news for Motegi is that the typhoon looks unlikely to reach the region in time to affect the race. Vongfong is set to make landfall nearly 1200 km southwest of the Twin Ring circuit, and have weakened dramatically by the time it reaches the area by the middle of next week. 2014 looks like being another year in which Motegi was spared.
That will please Honda greatly. With Repsol Honda riders first and second in the championship, Honda within 10 points of the manufacturers' title, and the factory Repsol squad closing in on winning the team championship – though admittedly, both Movistar Yamahas would have to not score to achieve that at Motegi – Honda would really like to celebrate at home. The Motegi Twin Ring circuit is owned and operated by the Mobilityland Corporation, which is itself a 100% subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company, and so the stakes are high. Motegi is also the main test track used for developing the factory's MotoGP machines, the RC213V having racked up monster mileages around the circuit. The combination of hard braking zones, slow corners, long, fast straights and the occasional fast combo should suit HRC's Honda RC213V down to the ground.