The atmosphere hangs heavy over the Sepang International Circuit, both literally and figuratively. The thick gray haze casts a pall over the circuit, dulling the light, restricting vision, cloying at the throats of everyone at the track, and in the region. There is another oppressive weight over the proceedings, this time of expectation. There is the pressure of a MotoGP title battle going down to the wire, and a Moto3 championship that should have been wrapped up two races ago, before a new rival emerged on the scene. Then there is the electric tension created by Valentino Rossi, when he decided to use the pre-event press conference to accuse Marc Márquez of helping Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
Since then, it has been impossible to view any action by either Rossi or Márquez with an objective eye. Rossi's accusations, Márquez' defense, and Lorenzo's entry into the arena color everything that happens, on and off the track. Coincidences disappear, otherwise common behavior is highlighted, and conspiracies, real and imagined, spiral wildly out of control. All eagerly egged on by MotoGP rights holder Dorna, the TV director picking up and highlighting each and every encounter between the protagonists. There have never been so many clips from practice, interviews and specials up on the MotoGP.com website, and TV broadcasters – especially in Spain and Italy – leap onto the bandwagon with their own speculation, interviews, stories and angles. And before anyone points an accusing finger at me, mea maxima culpa.
So when Marc Márquez came up on the back of Valentino Rossi as the Repsol Honda rider prepared to start his time attack in FP3 on new tires, to ensure passage to Q2, he slowed up, unwilling to give him a tow. Rossi, looking back and preparing for his own attack, saw Márquez behind him and slowed to let him down. The pair got slower and slower through the third sector of the track, going through it in over a minute, instead of the normal 38 seconds or so. It looked like a sur place, a standoff in track cycling where two cyclists come to a standstill with a couple of hundred meters to go, each waiting for the other to lead off the sprint. Mind games?
There was a similar encounter in FP4, though much shorter, stoking the fires even further. Then, just to pour a little liquid oxygen onto the already blazing fires, Jorge Lorenzo lined up behind Marc Márquez at the start of Q2, and followed him round to set Lorenzo's fastest lap. Surely all this was proof that Marc Márquez was siding with Jorge Lorenzo and doing all he could to help the Spaniard beat Rossi?
Making a mountain out of a molehill
In the press conference, Márquez had a much more mundane explanation for it all. The tow for Lorenzo had been far from deliberate. Márquez and his crew had planned a two-stop strategy, but at a track the length of Sepang, that leaves you no time to hang around, even with the shortcut back to the pits after Turn 6. Márquez had to leave the pit lane first, and he found he had not just Lorenzo, but an entire retinue in tow. "When I go out, the problem is that it is not only Jorge, it was Iannone, Aleix, Crutchlow. I don't remember them all, but many riders. I slow down at Turn 5 and 6 after I go out of the pits but everybody was behind me. Then I say ‘OK I will push the first lap, not 100%, to try to avoid the slipstream and then on the next tires I will push more’. Of course I did not agree to give the slipstream to all these riders, but was the only way to use three tires. It was push, or lose one tire."
As for the dropping behind Rossi when he came across him in the two sessions of free practice, Márquez put it down to defensive riding. He was pushing for a hot lap, and did not want to help Rossi set a time. It was a common occurrence, Rossi agreed, that you would come across another rider waiting on the line, and would not want to help them. Márquez explained to the Spanish media that Rossi would often wait at tracks like Sepang, not so much to get a tow for a full lap, but to get a little help with the slipstream down long straights. Rossi, in turn, told Italian media that it was quite normal, that he had never seen Márquez giving anyone else a tow in the three years the Spaniard had been in the class.
Though both men brushed the practice incidents off, there was perhaps a little more tension over the FP4 incident than normal, and it certainly lasted much longer than you would usually expect. Given the circumstances, that is perhaps understandable, but the dismissal of the affair by both men speaks of an unwillingness to go into it further. Whether there was anything there or not, we will never know. Rossi and Márquez have put it behind them, at least for the present moment. No doubt it will come up again, when the pair clash on the circuit again.
Ironically, it was Rossi who looked like he benefited from a tow, following Andrea Iannone out of the pits during qualifying. The Italian set a solid time behind the Ducati, but he would improve on that time on his next run, one he set all on his own. The tow he had received from Iannone had been accidental – they had not spoken about this, Rossi said – and Iannone denied it outright to the Italian media. It had been entirely unintentional, Iannone explained, and anyone reading any more into it was "watching a movie," not seeing a race.
A little Spanish lightning
All of the controversy – manufactured or otherwise – detracted from what turned into a thrilling practice session. It detracted especially from the lap set by Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider destroying the existing lap record held by his teammate in 2014, a record which had in turn been broken by Jorge Lorenzo in FP3. Pedrosa, though, took half a second off the time of Lorenzo and seven tenths off the record of Márquez, setting a lap of 1'59.053. We have seen laps of 1'58 in testing in February, usually set early in the morning of the last day, when the track is at its best. To do so at 2:30pm, in the scorching tropical heat, is an incredible achievement.
Marc Márquez got closest to his teammate, but even he was nearly half a second behind Pedrosa. Márquez' attempt on Pedrosa's time fell apart when he had a massive moment at Turn 9, losing the front completely as he hit the apex of the corner. That he did not crash was down the freakish acrobatic abilities and lightning reflexes of the Spaniard. It did make him just a little more cautious, however. Márquez improved his time on his third run, but he had been much more aware that he was near the limit.
If Rossi's outburst on Thursday and his antics in practice had been taken as the Italian starting to show signs of the pressure of trying to win a championship, the Italian proved us all wrong on Saturday. He set a fast lap behind Andrea Iannone, good enough to hang on to fourth on the grid. That would have been acceptable, and a chance to slot in behind Pedrosa is not something to be sniffed at. But on his last run – ahead of Iannone this time, not behind – the Movistar Yamaha rider showed the poise and speed that has secured him seven previous premier class championships. In the last two sectors of the track, Rossi edged ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, taking third and bumping his teammate off the front row.
Plans go awry
That led to a slightly embarrassing moment for the Spaniard. Lorenzo had taken the short cut to come back into the pits, and had not passed a screen to see where he was. He cut his engine as he cruised into Parc Fermé, only to be directed away by the IRTA staff who organize it. He had to be pushed back to the Movistar Yamaha garage.
Lorenzo had shown strong pace in the morning, both in terms of race pace and his quick lap, but he had been hampered by a crash in FP4. In the hotter afternoon, he had had a problem with the brakes, after fitting the cooling ducts to the front disks. The cooling ducts appear to have had precisely the opposite effect, channeling hot air onto the disks and allowing them to overheat. That resulted in him losing the front in the final corner, one of the two points on the track which demand the most from the brakes. That cost him time, and dogged him for the rest of FP4 and kept on into qualifying. Fourth on the grid is not ideal, but as Lorenzo has been one of the strongest starters this year, it is not a huge handicap.
Rossi on the front row, Lorenzo on the second. One of the two will finish ahead of the other, and that will create yet another twist in this rollercoaster of a MotoGP championship. Rossi leads Lorenzo by eleven points (and by 0.011 seconds on the grid), but given his modest record at Valencia, one of Lorenzo's strongest tracks, he must finish either ahead, or directly behind the Spaniard. For Lorenzo, it is simple, he has to finish ahead of Rossi, and take as many points as possible from the Italian. He cannot afford to make a mistake: if Lorenzo crashes – easily done at Sepang, with a deteriorating surface and a lot of bumps in the corners – then Rossi will only need a podium to be crowned champion. Rossi could wrap it up with a win, but even then he would need Lorenzo to finish no better than sixth. In Lorenzo's current form, that is rather improbable.
Who has the better pace of the two? They are fairly evenly matched, though Lorenzo is a little faster, as he usually is on any day that is not race day. Just as it has been for most of the season, there is very little to choose between the two of them. The chances of this championship being wrapped up before Valencia are vanishingly slim.
Help from unexpected quarters
Ironically, it could be the Repsol Hondas which help decide the championship in Rossi's favor. Dani Pedrosa has consistently been quick, and is always strong around Sepang. Marc Márquez has also shown a lot of pace, and repeated his only objective for 2015 once again on Saturday: to win as many races as possible, and finish as high as possible. If the Hondas get away, then Rossi and Lorenzo will be left to scrap for points in third. Either way that finishes, Rossi comes off best, as he either loses three points to Lorenzo, leading by eight points going to Valencia, or he beats him, and extends his lead to fourteen points. Eight points should be enough for Rossi to bag the title at Valencia. But that was exactly the lead which he had going into the final round in 2006 as well.
If Rossi did almost everything right in pursuit of the MotoGP title, the same cannot be said for Danny Kent in Moto3. The British rider leads Miguel Oliveira by 40 points, and just needs a fifth place finish to put the title out of reach of the Portuguese rider, no matter what happens. But Kent's problem at Sepang is one he has had at so many tracks, and especially at circuits with fast long straights. Leaving the pits in the last ten minutes of qualifying, as he prepared to put in his fast run and lift himself out of fourteenth spot, he had a veritable squadron of riders trailing in his wake, hoping for a tow. Kent rode slowly for a lap hoping to shake them off, then rode back through the pits in another try to get rid of them. With the clock ticking down, he had no choice but to push for a fast lap, riding at the front of a group to take sixth. Unfortunately for him, Niccolo Antonelli was in the group behind him, and used the slipstream from the group to take pole.
Worse news was to come for Kent, the Englishman one of six riders punished for riding slowly over three quarters of a lap. He was docked three grid places, and pushed back down to ninth. Making things worse is the fact that Miguel Oliveira will start from the front row, all three riders from the Red Bull KTM Ajo team having worked together earlier in the session to get Oliveira a strong time. This is a tactic the team have used for several years, and it works very well. Why the Leopard Racing team did not use it at Sepang is a mystery.
An unfair punishment?
Is it fair that Kent should be punished? After all, it was not him seeking a tow. Quite the opposite, he was trying to prevent others from getting a tow from him. The trouble is, the supplementary rule brought in to counter the scourge of riders dawdling on the racing line says nothing about tows. What is illegal is going 10% slower in three sectors than your fastest lap so far. Whether you are doing so to obtain or prevent a tow is irrelevant; it is your duty to ride at a good pace around the circuit, and not go slowly.
The punishment is harsh, but Race Direction have to apply the letter of the law, and apply it without fear or favor. That means punishing fast riders trying to prevent a tow as well as slow riders hoping to benefit from a tow. Were Race Direction to make a decision based on who they thought were fast riders and who were slow, they would be opening themselves up to charges of bias and favoritism. This is not an ideal system, but it is better than any of the others. It seems that it is the punishment which is not yet sufficient to deal with the problem.
What Kent and others have yet to figure out is the correct strategy for dealing with riders waiting for a tow. The problem with slowing down and trying to get riders to pass is that if they don't, you are risking a penalty yourself. Better to ride briskly back to the pits, taking shortcuts through pit lane if necessary, before trying again. Riding within 5% of race pace may make it more difficult to take a look back and see who is there, but if it means you don't end up being bumped down the grid, it has much to recommend it.
A champion at last?
Can Kent finally get the job done, and win the world championship which British fans have been waiting for since Barry Sheene? He has the odds in his favor: he can afford to give away fourteen points to Oliveira, and still be champion. To do that, he will have to make his way quickly to the front six or seven from the start, before the group starts to splinter. If he gets caught behind the break, it will be hard to make the journey across empty space to catch the leaders. The start will be crucial, and Oliveira has a very simple task: to try to win the race.
Two challenges stand between Kent and success – and the same is true for Valentino Rossi. First, they must negotiate the first two corners safely, the tight hairpin of Turn 1 followed by another tight loop of Turn 2, before the whole thing opens up into Turn 3. A mistake, a bump from another rider, and they can find themselves being pushed out wide, or even onto the floor. That would truly be disastrous for everyone involved in the title fight.
Then there's the weather. Rain is predicted to start at 11am local time – an hour before Moto3 starts – and continue all afternoon, including through the MotoGP race. If rain falls, all bets are off, and it becomes a case of surviving the conditions and seizing opportunities as they present themselves. Whether it will rain is another question: heavy rain had been predicted for Saturday, and apart from a few rolls of thunder and a brief smattering of heavy drops, the rain never really came. Most weather forecasts put the chance of rain at 50%. Fitting, given that it is pretty much how the MotoGP championship feels like at the moment.
Obviously, you do not want to miss this race, but given its location, and the fact that European wintertime officially starts tonight, trying to figure out when the race starts can be hard. Fortunately, the excellent Time And Date website makes it easy to create a timetable showing the start time of the MotoGP race in every timezone. The Moto3 race will start three hours before this.
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