Is Sepang a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of the first day of practice, you would have to say it is definitely a Honda track. Or more specifically, a factory Honda track, according to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran told reporters that the factory Hondas seemed to have something extra at Sepang, even compared to the satellite RC213Vs. Having lighter riders meant they did better on the long straights, consumed less fuel and could therefore use more power, Rossi said, but there was more to it than that. They were also better on corner entry, especially in the tight corners, where HRC appears to have found something extra. The only place the Yamahas had any kind of advantage was in the longer faster corners, Rossi said. Through turns five and six, Rossi could catch Dani Pedrosa. Once they left that section, Pedrosa was gone.
If the bike is good, then Dani Pedrosa is outstanding. His lap in the afternoon was exceptional, the 2'00.554 just a couple of tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo's pole lap record from last year. Nobody else could get anywhere near him. His only rival was teammate Marc Marquez, forced to give half a second away to Pedrosa. A brace of Yamahas followed, Cal Crutchlow 3rd fastest despite suffering badly with his still damaged right arm swelling in the tropical heat, ending a tenth ahead of Valentino Rossi, the first of the factory Yamaha machines. Both Crutchlow and Rossi were clear where they were losing out: three tenths of a second on each of the two long straights at Sepang, according to the Tech 3 man. Rossi concurred, though he was less inclined to put numbers to his disadvantage. The Yamahas are having to make up through the fast corners what they are losing in the long straights.
The gap is not quite as big as it looks, however. Although Pedrosa's fastest lap was both brilliant and demoralizing for anyone behind him, it was just one lap in which he was so fast. His race pace is closer to that of Marquez, around the low 2'01 mark. This was despite Pedrosa still not being able to sit on the bike properly due to a painful hip and buttock injured in the crash at Aragon. Was his speed down to anger at the events of Aragon and the minimal penalty for Marc Marquez? 'The opposite,' Pedrosa told the press, 'I'm not angry at all, I'm totally relaxed.' After looking like the probable winner at Aragon, focusing on the track was the best he could do. His physical condition was not helping, there were corners where he was having to grit his teeth and buckle down, Pedrosa told the press. He would likely need injections on Sunday to cope with the pain, but his form on Friday proved that at least he still had the pace.
Like Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo also denied that the events of Aragon and the penalty handed to Marquez had anything to do with his performance: 6th in the afternoon, and 5th overall, over a second behind Pedrosa, and struggling with aggressive power delivery and the rear wheel spinning in the middle of the corner. 'I don't think it's affecting me at all,' Lorenzo told the press, 'but the brain is a very complicated organ, so I don't know.' Lorenzo did have one thing to add on the subject, and his outburst on Thursday during the press conference, however: 'a lot of people think I was referring to Marc, but my target was Race Direction,' Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo's problem was in the middle of the corner, where normally the bike was strongest. He had no confidence in the rear, the rear tire was spinning, and he couldn't open the gas when he wanted to. Where he was losing most was in braking, Lorenzo said, a complaint which all of the Yamaha riders have been making all year. A return to the set up used during the winter test at the Sepang track was out of the question, Lorenzo had been told, as the bike was too different from then, having a new frame, swingarm and engine. Back in February, Lorenzo had been just a few tenths of Pedrosa, rather than a complete second.
While the Hondas were expected to dominate in MotoGP, to see so many Hondas at the front in the Moto3 class was a surprise. You would expect that the superior horsepower of the KTMs would be an advantage along Sepang's two long straights, but Jack Miller and Alexis Masbou managed to put their FTR Hondas in the top three in both morning and afternoon sessions. What was even more surprising was to see that Masbou was in the first sector containing the front straight, and Miller was fastest in the final sector containing the back straight and the first half of the front straight. In horsepower territory, the KTMs were nowhere, leaving even Jack Miller looking nonplussed when he was asked about that by MotoGP.com. Whether the FTRs will still be ahead come Sunday remains to be seen. Despite the excellent showing by both the FTRs and the Mahindras, it was still Maverick Viñales who ended the day as fastest overall on the Team Calvo KTM.
In the Moto2 class, Tito Rabat is a man unchained. The Pons rider was fastest in both sessions of practice, but what impressed more than his raw speed was the race pace he was showing. In the afternoon, Rabat came out and posted a string of laps in the 2'07s and 2'08s reminiscent of the clockwork consistency of Jorge Lorenzo when the 2012 MotoGP champion is in the zone. Right now, it's hard to see anyone getting near Rabat, his advantage over the rest of the field over seven tenths of a second.
Behind Rabat, the best rivalry in motorcycle racing at the moment continues unabated. After struggling in the morning, Scott Redding used a new set of tires to put himself ahead of Pol Espargaro. Redding is sticking to his strategy of piling on the pressure on Espargaro during practice, always ensuring he is ahead when the flag drops. Even in terms of race pace, Redding appears to have the measure of Espargaro, though there is little to choose between them. Whoever happens to be leading the Moto2 race on Sunday, the real battle will be wherever the numbers 40 and 45 are.
The big question mark appears to be the weather, but the prospects are improving as the weekend progresses. Qualifying is likely to happen on a wet track, with rain forecast for the afternoon, but conditions for Sunday look better with every passing day. Three dry races at Sepang would be just what the series needs, and with record crowds expected on Sunday, exactly what the passionate Malaysian fans deserve. With Hafizh Syahrin, 4th in last year's race, once again inside the top fifteen, the local crowd could have plenty to cheer about.