This year's Malaysian round of the MotoGP series has offered a glimpse of the future, for those with an interest in seeing it. While the series is locked in a series of arguments over the future of the technical regulations, the massive economic problems in its key television markets, and the Spanish domination of the sport in all classes, Sepang pointed the way forward, and that way is definitely east.
It starts with the crowds. Where crowd numbers have been falling almost everywhere at the European rounds, Sepang is seeing record attendances this weekend. Grandstand tickets are selling out fast, and despite the rain, fans are turning up in large numbers. How much those numbers are being inflated by Australians flocking to the circuits they can fly to affordably to see Casey Stoner ride the last few races of his career is uncertain, but that they should be packing the grandstands in Malaysia seems unlikely. There are also plenty of local fans, coming to see riders from the region threaten the top of the timesheets for the first time in history, and not just make up the numbers at the rear.
They have had a treat this weekend. On Friday, local wildcard Hafizh Syahrin topped an admittedly wet session of Moto2 free practice by getting out early when it was relatively dry, but he had sufficient competition for his result to have been noteworthy. On Saturday morning, Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami topped Moto2 FP3, once again by judging the conditions correctly. And on Saturday afternoon, the fans were in for a massive treat, when Zulfahmi Khairuddin bagged his first ever pole position in front of his home crowd, becoming the first ever Malaysian to start from pole in a Grand Prix. And on his 21st birthday too.
Khairuddin's success has been coming for a long time. The young Malaysian has shown a great deal of progress this season, regularly running at the front. His problem so far has been his tendency to be fast in the early part of the race, but drop down the order as the race goes on. That is something that can be learned, and nothing quite motivates a young man to learn than racing in front of his home crowd. Khairuddin will be on the podium one day soon; whether he can do it on Sunday, though, is debatable.
The front couple of rows for Moto3 suggest that the era of Spanish domination in Grand Prix motorcycle racing is coming to an end. Besides the Malaysian Khairuddin sit two Germans, Jonas Folger, who has shone since leaving the IODA team and switching to the Kalex KTM in the Aspar team, and Sandro Cortese, who looks set to wrap up his first Moto3 title at Sepang on Sunday. There is the Frenchman Louis Rossi in 4th, the Portuguese rider Miguel Oliveira in 5th and the South African Brad Binder in 7th. Efren Vazquez is the first Spaniard on the grid, starting from 6th on the FTR Honda, with Alex Rins the next Spanish rider in 8th. There are naturally some mitigating circumstances: if Maverick Viñales had not split with his team, there would have been every chance of him starting from the front two rows at Sepang. And Luis Salom actually set the 5th fastest time, but has been forced to start from 10th because of the grid penalty imposed after his last-lap crash at Motegi. The odds of the Spanish stranglehold on the sport being broken are looking better and better, though.
The Moto3 is not the only title that could be wrapped up at Sepang. Cortese's odds of taking the inaugural Moto3 title look excellent, especially with Salom starting from 10th on the grid. A 3rd place would be enough if Salom should pull off a miracle and win, otherwise a top 6 finish will be enough. In Moto2, the only way that Pol Espargaro can delay Marc Marquez' inevitable ascent to the title is by winning the race, something which in the dry, he looks eminently capable of doing, having had the Moto2 class firmly in hand throughout. Espargaro was particularly impressive during qualifying, controlling the session with ease, demoting an outstanding Scott Redding into 2nd. Redding could well end up helping Espargaro at Sepang, the young Englishman showing a good turn of pace in both free practice and qualifying. If Redding can insert himself between Marquez and Espargaro, it will increase Espargaro's chances even further.
If it's wet, however, then all that could change. Marquez was stunningly quick in the wet on Friday, and with rain forecast to fall on Sunday afternoon, Marquez could just wrap this up after all. The race is scheduled for 2:20pm local time, the rain is forecast to start falling at the end of the morning. Whether the rain obeys the rules laid out by the weather experts is open to question.
The MotoGP title could be settled in Sepang as well, but that is much more of a long shot. It would require Jorge Lorenzo to win, while Dani Pedrosa ended the race outside the top 12. The former is a realistic possibility; the latter requires another disaster for the Repsol Honda man.
In the dry, the odds are stacked against Lorenzo wrapping up his second MotoGP title at Sepang. Though Lorenzo has secured pole for Sunday's race, his race pace is fractionally behind that of Pedrosa's. Both men are in a league of their own - though it looks like Andrea Dovizioso will be able to stick with them, at least in the early stages of the race - but the race looks likely to settle into the same pattern we have seen since the summer break. Lorenzo and Pedrosa will probably get away early, but Pedrosa could settle the race at the halfway point.
The irony of the situation is while that Lorenzo is reasonably content with his Yamaha - the bike lacks a little pace, he says, but he believes he has a chance of winning on Sunday - Pedrosa is having massive problems with chatter. The Honda continues to suffer with chatter, a result of the new, less stiff tires which Bridgestone introduced at the Jerez test at the start of the year. Pedrosa is not alone: Casey Stoner, Stefan Bradl, Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden all have the same problem, the nature of the track possibly making things worse. All of the riders have been complaining that the track is bumpy and lacks grip, and this could possibly be a contributory cause.
But it is worst for the Hondas. Was there anywhere in particular they were suffering from it, both Stoner and Pedrosa were asked? "Every corner," the Australian replied. It is all down to the tire, Stoner explained, saying that the RC213V was probably the best bike he had ever ridden when he first tested it at Brno on the old spec tires. Now, it was one of the worst, because the chatter. Honda have tried new chassis, new swingarms, and a host of smaller parts to try to fix the issue, but it will not go away.
Pedrosa may complain of chatter, but it does not look like it will slow him up. Jorge Lorenzo will have his hands full on Sunday, as he has had throughout the end of the season.
The wildcard is the rain. The race is set to be run at 4pm local time, to better suit European TV schedules - 4pm is 10am in Spain and Italy, a time at which TV audiences might be expected to be larger than at the ungodly hours the Japanese and Australian races are held. But 4pm is also the time the tropical rains usually arrive, even on dry days, increasing the odds of having to run the race in the wet. The forecast is for heavy rain for the late afternoon, and with nobody having any proper track time in the wet, it could turn into a bit of a gamble. In that case, all bets are off, and we could well see a race. That would definitely get people out of their beds and in front of their TVs.