It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast in climate than the chilly, blustery spring conditions of Phillip Island, which the MotoGP circus has just left, and the slow broil of Sepang, set slap bang in the middle of the tropics, where they head to this weekend. You would think that two tracks, set thousands of miles apart, one probably the closest race track to the equator on the planet, the other one of the most southerly, located on the edge of the southern hemisphere's temperate zone, would be worlds apart when it comes to motorcycle racing. And yet, as distant as they are from each other, there are some unusual parallels between the two tracks, and the parallels are as unexpected as they are strange.
For a start, Sepang and Phillip Island are two of the toughest tracks on tires that MotoGP visits. At Phillip Island, the fast and furious, never-ending corners mean that the bikes spend an awful long time going very, very fast on the edge of the tire. Sepang, on the other hand, has blistering track temperatures combined with two long, fast straights that heat the carcass of the tire to its very limit. Adding to the problem is Sepang's new surface: The track recently received a new coat of asphalt in places, and is therefore likely to be even harder on tires than usual.
Then, there's the weather. As different as the tracks may be in terms of temperature, the one thing they both share is a climate as unpredictable as a 125 cc race. Last weekend, practice for the Australian Grand Prix saw conditions go from sunshine to rain to sunshine again, all within the space of a 60 minute session. And, though conditions generally don't change quite as quickly at Sepang, the official qualifying practice session for last year's Malaysian MotoGP round had to be canceled after a torrential downpour flooded the track. The rain can come fast at Sepang, and when it does, it can be very intense.
Something Old, Something New
These surprising parallels aside, the nature of the tracks is very different indeed. Phillip Island is truly an old-fashioned road course, the sweeping turns following the lay of the land and laid out to be pleasing to ride, rather than as an exercise in design. Sepang, on the other hand, is a hyper-modern facility designed by Herman Tilke, who was also responsible for the tracks at Shanghai and Istanbul, and is obviously the product of computer-aided design. In terms of character, Sepang falls squarely between the sterile, tedious layout of Shanghai and the thrilling, majestic sweep of Istanbul.
The track starts off badly, with a tight, interminable right hander which loops back over 180 degrees, before flicking back left again in a near hairpin to fire off round the North Track. Things improve rapidly from here, as the riders head out along the long, fast right hander of Turn 3, before hitting the tight right of Turn 4. The track then sweeps round the rear section of the circuit to hit the South Track, before rolling through the right handers of Turns 7 and 8, and taking off to hit probably the best part of the circuit, and the section the race is so often decided.
The first opportunity to pass comes at Turn 9, where you can attempt to outbrake your rival for the hairpin. The problem is, if you pass them here, they have a chance to chase you down through the flowing section of Turns 10 through 12, lining you up through the decreasing radius sweeper of Turn 13, before braking hard once again for the next hairpin, Turn 14. But all is not lost if they manage to get past you there, as the hairpin leads onto the long back straight, and down to the final turn, another wide left-hand hairpin. If you can't get back past on the brakes going into the turn, there's always the hope that your opponent will run wide as a result of trying to hold you off coming out of the corner, allowing you to slip back underneath him, and head off down the front straight towards the finish line, and victory.
Hope Springs Eternal
Last year's race was a shining example of the kind of racing which the track makes possible. Almost from the very start, Valentino Rossi, Loris Capirossi and Dani Pedrosa slugged it out for lap after lap, passing and repassing each other all the way to the flag. The Spaniard, badly injured in a fall during free practice, was the first to relent, settling for 3rd at two-thirds distance. But the battle between the two Italians came down almost to the final corner, The Doctor snatching the race from Capirossi through the section leading on to the back straight. Capirex tried to come back again at the end of straight, but he was too far back, and ran wide, a spectacular climax to a thrilling race.
Whether this year's race will be exciting is another question. The combination of the Ducati and the Bridgestone tires has always gone well here, and add Casey Stoner to that history would hint at another walkover by the Australian champion. Stoner has already won at Sepang in both the 125 and 250 classes, and will be looking to equal the score of 11 wins in a single season achieved by both Valentino Rossi and Giacomo Agostini, second only to Mick Doohan's record of 12 wins in a season. To do that, he needs to win both the remaining races, starting at Sepang.
One man standing in his way is team mate Loris Capirossi. Capirex has gone well here for the past two seasons, winning once and taking 2nd to Valentino Rossi last year. His season started badly, as he struggled to come to terms with the new 800 cc Ducati whilst having to watch his team mate have a near-perfect season. Now, the Italian veteran is starting to find his feet, with a victory at Motegi and a 2nd place at Phillip Island, and has a few scores to settle with Ducati before he leaves. Capirossi will be hell-bent on winning as much as possible before he goes, to demonstrate to Ducati his displeasure at the way he feels he's been treated.
Lessons From History
But the Ducatis shouldn't have it all their own way. When the MotoGP teams tested here back in January, the sessions were dominated by the Yamahas and the Suzukis, with John Hopkins setting the fastest time on race tires, only to be topped by Valentino Rossi on the final day using qualifiers. After their disastrous outing at Phillip Island, the Suzukis will be determined to get back to racing at the front of the pack, where they've been for most of the rest of the year. With both John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen setting very fast times during the testing in January, they should both be able to mix it with the front runners, and perhaps get back on to the podium.
Valentino Rossi is one man who will definitely want to be on the podium. Rossi can become the first rider to clinch 100 premier class podiums at Sepang, and knowing The Doctor's sense of history, it will be a serious motivation. Despite that, his mind will be on more than just achieving a podium. Rossi has been extremely vocal about the reasons for his poor 2007 season over the past couple of weeks or so, expressing his displeasure at both Michelin and Yamaha for not providing him with what he regards as competitive machinery.
First, he and Dani Pedrosa were implicated in putting pressure on Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta to introduce a single tire rule, a proposal which caused outrage in the paddock, press room and grandstands alike. Then, Rossi hinted that he could switch to Bridgestone tires for 2008, leaving the rest of the Yamaha riders on Michelins. And finally, The Doctor has stated outright that unless Yamaha do a better job in 2008, and find a lot more power for the M1 over the winter, he will jump ship for another manufacturer when his contract expires at the end of the year. This has stoked up already feverish speculation that Rossi could join Ducati for the 2009 season, despite statements made in his autobiography that Ducati Corse reminded him too much of HRC.
The only thing likely to placate Rossi will be a win, or at the very least, a battle for victory until the last lap. Rossi has been disheartened by having to abandon his fight for the win due to badly fading tires towards the end of races, so if Michelin want to keep supplying tires to Rossi for next year, they need to start in Malaysia.
What Difference Does It Make?
Rossi's alleged partner in crime is just as strident in his criticism of Michelin. Dani Pedrosa is said to be engaged in a behind-the-scenes battle with HRC over which tires he will be using next year, amid rumors that Pedrosa could, like Rossi, split the garage and run Bridgestones, leaving team mate Nicky Hayden to run Michelin tires. And so both Pedrosa and Honda will want to make their mark at Sepang. Pedrosa has traditionally been strong at Sepang as well, winning in both 250 and 125 classes. And with a 3rd place last year, riding while badly hurt, he should be a contender come Sunday.
On the other side of the Repsol Honda garage, Nicky Hayden will be out to erase the bitter disappointment of Phillip Island. Last year's champion was hard on the heels of this year's champion, until the engine of his RC212V blew, taking The Kentucky Kid out of the race, and making him angrier than we have seen since his team mate took him out at Estoril last year. Hayden set out this season to defend the #1 plate with the vigor and dignity he felt it deserved. Sadly for the American, he spent the first part of the season struggling with a Honda RC212V which just wasn't up to the job, only finding his feet after a fruitful test session at Barcelona. Now, with two races left in which he will bear the #1 on the fairing of his Honda, he will want a win. That's what a champion does.
The previous race was dominated almost entirely by talk about tires. The race at Sepang could end up being no different: Parts of the track have been newly resurfaced, meaning the track is much more abrasive than it was back in January, making much of the data collected then of little use. Both Michelin and Bridgestone will be forced to guess at the best tires to use over the weekend, and usually, Bridgestone has been the better of the two at guessing. Though not always, as demonstrated by Pedrosa's runaway win at the Sachsenring, when temperatures rose and tire wear suddenly became a serious factor.
Just to complicate matters even further, the weather looks like being a mixture of thunderstorms and sunshine throughout the weekend. This is likely to leave all of the teams short of data for both wet and dry conditions, their only comfort being that temperatures are likely to remain stable, instead of changing on race day as they did in Phillip Island. Whatever the weather on race day, everyone is likely to have to gamble, making their best guess based on insufficient data. Come Sunday, we'll see whose poker face is working best.