If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat. But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
The downpour covered the track in several centimeters of standing water, making it impossible to ride. The session was delayed for twenty five minutes, starting after the rain had nearly eased up completely. Once the session got underway, the weather cleared up completely, the last ten minutes taking place in glorious sunshine once again.
The changes in the weather had a dramatic effect on the state of the track. It went from being fully wet, with water everywhere, to having just a thin layer of rainwater on it at the halfway mark, to being dry at most of the corners around the track once the session ended. Full wets were essential at the start of the session, but forty five minutes later, slicks were starting to become a viable option.
The fear is that the same thing happens on Sunday. If it does, it would make the race incredibly difficult. A real downpour would mean the race being delayed, but a track that dries this quickly, from standing water to close to bone dry, makes judging conditions and when to swap bikes nigh on impossible. While parts of the track were as good as dry at the end of MotoGP FP2, there were still several corners with significant water on them. Slicks are dangerous in such conditions, while the wets will only last so long, even the hard wet tires. Dani Pedrosa struggled with a lack of grip at the beginning, but the tire showing no wear after fourteen laps.
These conditions are difficult, as summed up best by the two Ducati riders. Cal Crutchlow said that rain in the race would be hardest. "When it rains, it rains hard enough to red flag the race," he told reporters. "But when it dries, it dries so quickly that the wets are no good." The changing conditions make it impossible to work on race set up, Andrea Dovizioso said. There was enough water to test a wet set up when he went out at the start of the session, but by the time he had come in, and his crew had made a setting change, the track was totally different, making it impossible to tell whether the change was better or not. Engineers always want to change one variable at a time. The weather at Sepang wants to be that variable. Dovizioso was resigned to the situation. "Here it is always like this," he told reporters. "This is the problem, if you get these conditions in the race."
The morning session had been dry, but as so often at Sepang, the track takes a while to clean up. There was not much grip, and with conditions different to those at the tests back in February, the set up data gathered then was not much use. The track was also causing chatter for a lot of riders, particularly for the Hondas, who seem to suffer it worse than the Yamahas.
With practice on the first day taking place in such differing conditions, it is hard to make any sense of who is really up to speed. Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo were fast in both the wet and the dry, Pedrosa taking 1st and Lorenzo 3rd in the morning, Lorenzo fastest with Pedrosa 3rd in the afternoon. Marc Marquez was on the pace in the wet, and only a little bit slower on a dry track in the morning, so he can't be counted out.
Marquez was called up to Race Direction in the afternoon, after he ran Andrea Iannone off the track and into the gravel. The incident was not judged to be worthy of a penalty point, but it is a sign that Race Direction are keeping close tabs on Marquez, given his reputation for seeking out the limits of the permissible. Iannone, already limping from the crash he suffered after hitting Dani Pedrosa at Phillip Island, suffered a bruised arm in the incident. He will be back on the bike on Saturday, but it was clear from his pace that the injury picked up in Australia is causing him some problems.
Jorge Lorenzo's speed at Sepang was encouraging for the Spaniard, after the disaster he had during testing here in February. He told reporters he was confident of being able to race for the win in either the wet or the dry, though he pointed out, as many others have, that it would be better for the race to be at 2pm, rather than 4pm local time, as 4pm is when the rain comes at Sepang, regular as clockwork. Lorenzo was particularly happy in the fully wet conditions, lapping two seconds quicker than anyone else. If it rains at Sepang, the Spaniard is the clear favorite at the moment.
Lorenzo's speed in the wet was not shared by the other Yamahas. His Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi was clearly concerned by his own lack of pace. The problem was not so bad in the dry, Rossi and his crew working on solutions to problems they found in the tests in February. That gave them pace in the slower corners, but at the cost of speed in the fast corners. The real problem was in the wet, however, where Rossi was struggling on corner entry. He had a lot of problems with the front wet tire, he told reports, and couldn't brake or enter the corner as he wanted.
The solution would be to see what Jorge Lorenzo was doing, and see if there were lessons to be learned there. That was what the Tech 3 riders were aiming to do as well, as neither Pol Espargaro nor Bradley Smith were anywhere near the pace. There is nothing wrong with the Yamaha, as Lorenzo's times demonstrated. But the direction Rossi, Smith and Espargaro were following is clearly not the right one.
In the Moto2 class, Tito Rabat is once again looking strong. Second fastest in the morning, and quickest in the afternoon, Rabat left his teammate for dead for most of the day. Mika Kallio got up to third in FP2, but was still nearly three quarters of a second off the pace of Rabat. The two Pons HP40 riders were up there with the Marc VDS men, Maverick Viñales taking second and Luis Salom grabbing fourth. Takaaki Nakagami underwent something of a resurrection as well, the Japanese rider ending the afternoon in fifth, eight tenths behind Rabat. Nakagami has had a miserable year, so to be back so close to the front runners must be something of a relief.
The field is too close to call in Moto3, with just 0.268 separating the top six riders. Fastest of the bunch was Niccolo Antonelli, the Gresini rider finally starting to show the pace to beat his teammate Enea Bastianini. The focus is all on the race, and whether the KTM of Jack Miller has the speed to hold off the Honda onslaught of Alex Marquez, Alex Rins and Efren Vazquez. That the KTM motor is quick enough is evident from the top speed charts. Vazquez benefits from his flyweight posture to set the fastest speed of the day, but he is only a fraction quicker than Juanfran Guevara on the Kalex KTM. Jakub Kornfeil and Hafiq Azmi are both quick on the KTM, and not too far off the Hondas. Miller struggles a little more, being heavier and taller than most Moto3 riders, but he is still clearly competitive. The Australian was fastest in the morning, and fourth overall in the afternoon, just behind Alex Marquez. In reality, the Moto3 race is going to go down to tactics, and who gets the best drive out of the final corner. We expected to see a great race before the Moto3 riders arrived at the circuit. There is no reason to temper those expectations after the first day of practice.