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2016 Sepang MotoGP Preview - A Year Is A Long Time In Motorcycle Racing

Two down, one to go. The last of the flyaways is always the hardest, in many ways. Three races on three consecutive weekends means that riders never have time to heal from even the small injuries they receive each weekend, from minor falls, or the blisters on their hands. Spending many hours cloistered in aircraft flying long distance makes catching colds or flu or other respiratory diseases inevitable. Team members being cooped up together for nearly four weeks means relationships are at best strained, at worst verging on violent.

Then there's the contrast in climate. Even at its best, Phillip Island can be chilly, so traveling from there to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia is a physical shock. To step on a plane in the freezing cold, then step off it to be drenched in sweat is tough for people already drained from so much travel and racing. Then to race for 45 minutes in punishing heat and humidity, at a track which is physically very challenging, because of the heavy braking zones around the track. The stress, mental and physical, is enormous.

Perhaps it was that stress that caused the MotoGP series to explode at Sepang last year. Smarting from being beaten into fourth place at Phillip Island by Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, and Andrea Iannone, Valentino Rossi seized upon the theory apparently put forward by his friend and business partner Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci, that Márquez had decided to conspire against Rossi to hand Jorge Lorenzo the 2015 MotoGP title. Márquez had attempted to accomplish this by beating Lorenzo in Australia. And in the press conference at Sepang, he launched his accusations against the Repsol Honda rider.

Iannone Back, Aoyama In At Sepang

After missing the last four races due to injury, Andrea Iannone is to make a return to the Factory Ducati team. Iannone had fractured his T3 vertebra in a practice crash at Misano, and was ruled out of the race. Since then, Iannone has been forced to miss the MotoGP rounds at Aragon, Motegi and Phillip Island. 

At Aragon, Iannone was replaced by official test rider Michele Pirro, but Pirro was unable to race at the overseas circuits as he had important test work to do for Ducati, getting the Desmosedici GP17 ready for Jorge Lorenzo, who will get his first chance to test the bike at Valencia, after the last race of the season. After Casey Stoner turned down the opportunity, Hector Barbera was promoted from the Avintia squad to take over Iannone's bike, while Australian Mike Jones stepped in to replace Barbera at Avintia.

2016 Phillip Island Sunday Round Up: What is an Alien, Anyway? And Who Is One?

Is there such a thing as an Alien? The provenance of the term is uncertain, though most people believe that it was coined by Colin Edwards in 2009, after he kept finishing in fifth place behind Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa. Whatever he tried, he could not stay with them. "They are riding out of this world," he said.

The term has stuck. Since then, the term Alien has been applied to the top four riders, the only difference being that Marc Márquez has been swapped for Casey Stoner now that the Australian has retired. The reality is that since Jorge Lorenzo entered the class until the start of the 2016 season, the five MotoGP Aliens had accounted for all but two of the 143 MotoGP races held. The two non-Alien wins were by Andrea Dovizioso (Donington 2009) and Ben Spies (Assen 2011). Both of those races came in unusual conditions. The five Aliens dominated the podiums throughout that period as well.

2016 looks like becoming the year the Alien died. Or perhaps more realistically (and less dramatically) the year we had to readjust the concept of a MotoGP Alien. The season was going very much to plan up until Assen, when Jack Miller won an interrupted race in the driving rain. Then in Austria, Andrea Iannone finally did what everyone has been waiting for, won a race with a Ducati. Cal Crutchlow used a drying surface to his advantage to win at Brno, and then Maverick Viñales won at a dry but cold Silverstone. Questions were asked whether Maverick Viñales was the next Alien.

2016 Phillip Island MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Why Hondas Thrive and Yamahas Struggle in the Cold

There are plenty of ways of explaining the results of qualifying at Phillip Island. Lack of set up time in consistent conditions make the qualifying order a bit of a lottery. Rain and wind coming in off the Bass Strait and the weather changing every minute or so meant getting your timing and strategy right was crucial. Changing track conditions and unpredictable weather meant that some teams gambled right on whether to have their bikes in a wet set up, on intermediates, or on slicks. Or even on the correct mixture of tires front and rear.

In reality, though, the main factor in determining the qualifying order was this: the temperature in the front tire. Riders who could generate it had confidence in the front and could push hard in the sketchy and cold conditions. Riders who couldn't, languished well down the order, unable to feel the front and unable to lap with any confidence or feedback from the tires.

That explains why Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow are on the front row of the grid at Phillip Island, while the factory Yamahas languish back in twelfth and fifteenth place (or "on the fourth and fifth row of the grid" as it is known in press release speak). The Hondas have a tendency to overheat the tires due to the way they brake and their geometry. The Yamahas lean heavily on the front tire to generate corner speed, and on the edge of the rear tire to maintain it. At Phillip Island, it was too cold and too windy to do either.

2016 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up - Rossi's Tire Troubles, Lorenzo's Woes in the Rain

Though I am not one to blow my own trumpet, my Phillip Island preview turned out to be prophetic. (Of course, it helped that my prediction was written just a few hours before the start of practice in Australia.) The Southern Ocean imposed its will on the Australian Grand Prix, and heavy rain and strong winds hampered morning practice, then caused the afternoon practice to be called off.

All three classes used their sessions in the morning, and the Moto3 class set off boldly for FP2, despite worsening conditions. They battled through to an increasingly damp finish, but the rain intensified, postponing MotoGP FP2 for some 40 minutes. Eventually, the session was given the green light, but only a few riders went out to attempt a few laps. After thirteen minutes, Race Direction decided it was too dangerous. FP2 was red-flagged, and all action canceled for the rest of the day.

The poor weather made most of the day's action meaningless, but it also had an upside. Hector Barbera finished the red-flagged FP2 session as fastest, while Mike Jones, his replacement in the Avintia team ending in second. Whatever the circumstances of the session, that goes down in the record books forever. Just as Josh Hayes timed his fast lap in morning warm up at Valencia in 2011 to perfection, and ended up quickest, Mike Jones can say he was second fastest in a MotoGP practice.

2016 Phillip Island MotoGP Preview: A Wild Weekend at the Greatest Track in the World

If you needed to find a time and place to organize a MotoGP race, then Phillip Island in October is among the worst combinations in the world. A track located on the edge of the freezing Southern Ocean, with nothing between it and the South Pole but the brief blip of Tasmania. Held while the southern winter still has a firm grip on the track, wracking it with blasts of icy wind and soaking it in freezing rain. And yet it is the best race on the calendar.

The answer is simple. Phillip Island is arguably the purest motorcycle racing circuit in the world. Like all great circuits, it follows the lines dictated to it by the landscape. The track ebbs and flows, dips and rises its way around the rolling hills which sit atop the cliffs overlooking the Bass Strait. It is fast, the second fastest track on the calendar, but unlike the Red Bull Ring, which knocked it off top spot, its speed is all in the corners, brutally fast turns which require courage, balance, and bike feel in equal measure. It is above all a test of the rider, rather than machinery.

That makes Phillip Island beloved of every rider on the grid. The love of the place is nigh on unanimous, up there with Mugello, and the uncastrated part of Assen. It encapsulates the reason motorcycle racers ride: a chance to surf the wave of inner terror, face it down, and overcome it. The flood of adrenaline that engulfs the senses, knowing that you are teetering on the brink of disaster, and if you step over, it is going to hurt. Controlling the bike, sensing its movement, riding the edge of the tires and the limits of adhesion. This is what it means to feel alive.

MotoGP Rules Update - More Restrictions on Aerodynamics, Airbags Compulsory

The FIM is taking further steps to contain the cost of aerodynamics. The banning of winglets decided earlier this year was made on two grounds: removing the danger of being struck by a protruding wing, and reducing the potentially astronomical cost of an aerodynamic war beginning. Banning winglets would prevent the first issue from being a problem, but would do nothing to address the second point. Indeed, with the aerodynamics cat well and truly out of the bag, the factories have already hinted that their focus would switch to fairing design.

2017 MotoGP Rider Line Up Complete: Aspar Signs Karel Abraham

The final piece in the 2017 MotoGP rider puzzle has been slotted into place. Today, the Pull & Bear Aspar team announced that they have signed Karel Abraham to ride for them for 2017.Abraham will replace Yonny Hernandez, and will race a Ducati Desmosedici GP15.

Hernandez had initially been expected to keep his ride for 2017, but rumors that Aspar was unhappy with the performance of Hernandez had been swirling since mid-season, becoming more concrete at Aragon. Hernandez is currently 22nd in the MotoGP standings, and last of the regular MotoGP riders. He has scored just 17 points in 15 races, while teammate Eugene Laverty has racked up 71 points and is 12th in the championship, and second satellite Ducati.

2016 Motegi MotoGP Round Up: The Path of the Sensei

Chasing down a championship lead can be both liberating and extremely stressful. On the one hand, your objective is simple: beat the rider who is leading the championship, and try to outscore them by as much as possible. On the other hand, you have to take more risk, as riding conservatively means you risk not scoring enough points to close the gap to the leader. Finding the balance between the two is always difficult.

Defending a championship lead is just stressful. The best way to defend it is to keep trying to win races, and make it as hard as possible for your rivals to catch you. But winning races means taking risks, and a crash can mean throwing away a big chunk of your lead in a single race. Riding conservatively is not necessarily an easier option: it is paradoxically harder to ride just off the pace than right on the pace, requiring more focus and concentration to manage the race. Giving away points every race can be like Chinese water torture, your rivals closing the gap with each drip. Tension rises every race, and containing it without bursting is extremely stressful.

The Motegi MotoGP race provided a perfect example of both of these situations. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo came into the Japanese Grand Prix knowing that they had to win the race if they were to retain any hope of keeping the 2016 MotoGP title out of Marc Márquez' hands. The job was significantly easier for Rossi than for Lorenzo. Outscoring an opponent by 52 points in four races is easier than trying to make up a deficit of 66 points. Conversely, that put more pressure on Rossi: keeping an achievable target within reach makes winning paramount.

2016 Motegi MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Return of the Highside

If anyone was nostalgic for the days of 500cc two strokes, they got a glimpse of what the dark side of that era was like this weekend at Motegi. Rider after rider has been flung from his bike, spat into the air as a rear tire slipped then bit again, snapping the bike around, suspension compressing and then explosively decompressing, catapulting the rider into the sky. It has kept the medical helicopter busy: Eugene Laverty and Jorge Lorenzo have been flown to and fro for medical examination, with the second helicopter kept on standby having to take its place.

On Friday, the victims had been Eugene Laverty and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa had paid the heaviest price, snapping his right collarbone and flying home to Spain for another operation – his fourteenth, by all counts. Laverty had escaped relatively lightly, but was still forced to sit out the morning session on Saturday as a precaution. Jorge Lorenzo was even more fortunate. He was launched at Turn 3 at the end of FP3, and had to be flown to hospital for checks, before being allowed to return and take part in FP4. He feared he had damaged his left ankle, but checks revealed it was just bruising.

2016 Motegi MotoGP Friday Notes: Highsides, Tires, and the Speed of Marquez

What is the biggest downside of the flyaways? The three back-to-back races are crucial on the way to the end of the championship. This is the time you need to perform, where you can make the difference by pushing that little bit harder. The downside, of course, is that if you push too far you can lose everything. "Three races in a row is always complicated," Valentino Rossi told the press conference on Thursday. "You can have a small problem in the first race and pay a lot."