From the blustery shores of Phillip Island, the MotoGP paddock have headed north into the tropics, swapping Australia's chilly spring for Malaysia's hot and humid northeast monsoon, packing away their quilted jackets and retrieving their lightest cotton shirts once again.
The contrast is not just in the climate, however. The two tracks could hardly be more different, in just about every way imaginable. The Phillip Island circuit sits well away from civilization, at the edge of an island looking out over the great Southern Ocean. Sepang, on the other hand, lies just a handful of miles from Kuala Lumpur, one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
Matching its isolated location, the facilities at Phillip Island are rather basic, to put it kindly. Not so at Sepang, which boasts ultramodern paddock facilities, large, well-furnished pit garages and an air-conditioned media center, as well as two striking grandstands lining the back and the front straight.
The track layouts are also perfect examples of the difference between the old and the new. While Phillip Island is still based loosely on the public roads which once hosted the racing, Sepang is a purpose-built Tilke-designed CAD masterpiece, with each corner carefully calculated by computer. In this aspect, though, the new simply cannot rival the old, the Malaysian track's complex layout no match for the glorious flowing ribbon of asphalt the rolls up and down Phillip Island's landscape.
Been There, Done That
Complex as it may be, the Sepang circuit holds no secrets for the MotoGP riders. Before the season even started, the riders spent long days putting in lap after lap of testing here, taking advantage of Malaysia's favorable climate to adapt themselves to their MotoGP steeds and find ever-greater refinements to their bikes. Before they even arrive at Sepang, they are intimately familiar with its layout.
That familiarity is extremely useful, for the Tilke-designed circuit, clearly drawn up on a computer, has a couple of idiosyncrasies that can catch out the unwary. It starts at the very first corner: Turn 1 is an incredibly tight hairpin, looping back over 180 degrees before flipping back right into Turn 2. The tightness of that first corner is a magnet for trouble at the start of a race, and coming at the end of a 300 km/h straight, requires a complete recalibration of the rider's brain as they barrel into Turn 1.
The track then flows a little, Turn 2 opening out into Turn 3, before the next real passing opportunity at Turn 4, a sharp right hander. The very long and extended Esses of Turns 5 and 6 follow, before the track heads down towards the second half of the track, and the best places for passing.
Turns 7 and 8 are the first chance riders get to over take, the double right handers offering the brave a gap if they are willing to take it. But more often than not, those corners are used to line up the next chance, the dive into Turn 9, with extra corner speed through Turn 8 rewarded by the chance to outbrake your opponent into Turn 9.
Dive, Dive, Dive!
Two more chances remain, along the long right hander of Turn 13, which tightens up into Turn 14, offering a rider a chance to dive up the inside. But being past at Turn 14 is not sufficient, for that tight right hander leads onto the back straight, and the long run into the final hairpin.
Turn 15 is your very last chance, but like the last corner at Jerez, the wideness of the turn creates a double apex. Here you have a choice, to dive up the inside on the way in, or enter wide and cut back inside on the exit. The problem is that whatever you choose, you leave yourself open to attack, by the opposite strategy to the one you have just selected.
The greatest obstacle at Sepang is the weather, however. Though racing in the tropics means that the track is usually dry during the proceedings, the same can't be said of the riders and pit crews. The sweltering heat sucks the energy out of your body, and that's without the physical exertion of racing a MotoGP bike. Actually racing can leave you exhausted and incapacitated, as Mattia Pasini found out last year. The Italian came in with just over half of the 250cc race gone, and had to be helped off his bike.
That heat will be what worries Casey Stoner most. Since his return from illness, Stoner has gone from strength to strength, finishing 2nd at Estoril then winning his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island just last weekend. But at both races he had the weather conditions on his side. The temperature at Estoril was very pleasant, while in Australia, it was positively chilly. Prior to his break from racing, Stoner's mystery illness manifested itself most intensely in the heat of the summer at Barcelona and the Sachsenring.
After Estoril, and especially after Phillip Island, the Australian said he had never felt better after a race. Sepang will be the ultimate test for Stoner, though. If he walks away from the race in Malaysia feeling as tired as, say Rossi or Lorenzo, then his recovery will be complete.
With the championship gone, Casey Stoner has only one goal: To win the remaining races this season. That may prove to be a problem, however, as both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa have pronounced that this, too, is their objective. Lorenzo has now finally given up on winning the 2009 crown, despite the fact that mathematically, he is still in with a chance. But the math requires Valentino Rossi to help by either crashing out or finishing way down the field, neither of which looks like being a realistic prospect.
And so Lorenzo has switched his focus to winning, and he intends to start at Sepang. But along with Casey Stoner, Lorenzo will have to beat Dani Pedrosa, as the Repsol Honda rider has declared that he must at least match his previous years' haul of two victories this season. Pedrosa needs another win to go alongside his victory at Laguna Seca, and Sepang is his first shot. The Spaniard has always performed well here, and so whatever the state of the factory RC212V, he is a factor to be taken into account.
Come In Number Seven
Then of course there's Valentino Rossi. The Italian is close to clinching his 7th MotoGP title, and his 9th championship in total. A 4th place finish would be sufficient, but Rossi wants to do it in style. It's hard to celebrate a championship by finishing 4th, Rossi told the press before the event, and expressed his determination to be on the podium, preferably on the top step.
So Sepang looks like being a showdown, with each of the Fantastic Four determined to win for their own reasons. Who wins is anybody's guess, but in the end, it will come down to who is willing to risk the most. Dani Pedrosa has the least to lose, as the 4th man in the championship, but he will face a still-angry Stoner. The 2007 World Champion isn't finished making his point that he was right to skip three races in the middle of the season, and wants a couple more wins to make his message perfectly clear.
With Lorenzo wanting wins to wash away the taste of defeat in the championship, and Rossi wanting to take his title with dignity, it seems unlikely that all four of the Aliens will finish the race in one piece. Someone will be tempted to take a risk, and the rider who dares to be cautious could eventually emerge the victor.
Behind the Fantastic Four, battle resumes for the title of Best of the Rest. But the engine regulations are starting to be a factor in that fight, as the teams are left to select the best of the five engines they have been allowed to use since the race at Brno.
Loris Capirossi may have made the wise decision here. The Italian took a penalty at Phillip Island and was put back to the back of the grid, but it allowed him to take an extra engine. Paddock speculation - all we have, for the teams are being more secretive about their engine allocation than even the subject of rider salaries - suggests that Capirossi only took the engine for a single lap or two, and that the Suzuki rider now has a brand new and fresh engine for the race. Sepang is a track where Suzuki has tested extensively, and they may well go better than at Valencia. The Italian veteran could well relegate the regulars in 5th and 6th place to a little further down the order on Sunday.
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards could be the main victim of Capirossi's strategy. Both Edwards and James Toseland have been complaining that their engines are starting to get very tired and are down on power. Edwards has already slipped from 5th to 6th in the championship, losing a lot of points when Alex de Angelis took the Texan out in a first-corner incident at Misano. He won't want to be giving up any more points to 5th place man Andrea Dovizioso.
Alex de Angelis will need another result like Phillip Island in Malaysia. The man from San Marino is within striking distance of a deal to stay in MotoGP next season aboard the Scot Honda, but that deal requires funds from the government of the city state that De Angelis calls home. The deal keeps being pushed back day by day, and a poor result at Sepang will not help de Angelis' case.
For Aleix Espargaro, the race at Sepang is unexpected extra testing time. The Spaniard is due to join the Pramac Ducati team next season, but Niccolo Canepa, the man Espargaro is due to replace, is not sufficiently recovered from a skin graft to his right arm to take part. So Espargaro has been flown in to Sepang to ride in Canepa's place, and will face the weight of expectation. Espargaro will be expected to build on his impressive performance at both Indianapolis and Misano, despite this being only the Spaniard's third outing on the Ducati.
Nothing To Lose
The race at Sepang could truly turn into a war of attrition, with riders and engines failing to deal with the heat and the pressure. Valentino Rossi can seal the title here, but will want to do it in style. Ranged against him, the other three members of the Fantastic Four all have little to lose by pushing for the win. With three men going for victory, and the fourth intent on finishing on the podium, something will have to give.
Whether it be through man or machine, the unexpected is likely to happen at Sepang. With the final round of World Superbikes at Portimao to follow, Sunday is sure to be a day filled with excitement for motorcycle racing fans. Things at Sepang may well get off with a bang in the morning, perhaps even literally.