2016 has been a weird season. Eight different winners in MotoGP, in eight consecutive races. Tire issues in Argentina causing the race to be split into two parts. A mass false start in Moto2 at the first race of the year in Qatar. Torrential rain at Assen causing the race to be abandoned. Bike swap shenanigans at the Sachsenring, and wet tire degradation at Brno. With all that happening, why would anyone expect the Sepang round of MotoGP to be any less weird?
The expectation of weirdness has also meant that everyone has half expected there to be a ninth winner in MotoGP. Fans and journalists have come to accept this as the new normal, that every race throws up a new surprise. A ninth winner would fit in perfectly with the string of surprises we have seen this year. The question is, of course, who might it be?
With six of the ten factory riders on the grid already having won a race, and the Aprilia RS-GP still too far off the pace to compete for victory, it came down to two realistic candidates: Suzuki's Aleix Espargaro, and Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso. With the Ducati being the faster bike, and already having racked up a win and several podiums, Dovizioso was the betting favorite. But both were regarded as long shots.
The right man?
Dovizioso was growing tired of being asked if he could be the ninth MotoGP winner of this season. Mainly because the question was always phrased to expose the underlying assumption: that when Ducati had signed Jorge Lorenzo and been forced to choose between the two Andreas, they had chosen the wrong one. After all, Iannone had already won a race, and had led his teammate in the first part of the season, while Dovizioso was the eternal number two. Very smart, very analytical, but lacking the killer instinct needed to go for a win.
After qualifying, Sepang looked like being Dovizioso's best chance of breaking that stereotype of him. The Italian was easily fastest on his first run out of the pits, and if he had taken the shortcut back to the pits on his in lap, he would have gone a lot faster on his second run. If it rained on Sunday, then Dovizioso was in with a chance.
The trouble was the weather was entirely unpredictable, and the track was dry – well, more or less, except for a few damp patches – just as often as it was wet. In the dry, it was the usual suspects who were quick: Marc Márquez was plainly fast, while the two Movistar Yamaha riders were both capable of winning. Maverick Viñales was using the grip of Sepang to overcome the Suzuki's lack of drive, and was on a par with the championship leaders.
Worst of all for Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone was back from injury – forced into it by Ducati, some said – and despite still being in pain with a fractured vertebra, was blisteringly fast. He was quick in FP1, and only a little slower during qualifying, starting from the second row. With the Sepang track playing to the Ducatis' strengths, all eyes were once again on Iannone for the win.
Wet weather works
Rain in the afternoon improved the chances for the Ducatis. It had rained before the Moto2 race, leaving the track wet after Johann Zarco had ridden an outstanding race to win both on the day and in the championship. It kept raining before the MotoGP race, the heavens opening before the bikes went out for their sighting lap, leaving standing water in some sections of the track. The downpour increased as the bikes sat on the grid, causing Race Direction to postpone the start of the race, first for fifteen minutes, then again for another five minutes. By this time, the rain had pretty much stopped, and the race could get underway.
Jorge Lorenzo got the holeshot, the Movistar Yamaha rider determined to capitalize on his strong showing in the wet on Saturday. But he had a determined mob on his heels, led by Marc Márquez. Valentino Rossi followed, with Andrea Dovizioso behind and Andrea Iannone on a charge. Aleix Espargaro, having chosen the soft rear tire for his Suzuki, was with the front group as well.
The riders attacked the first lap the way they meant to go on, with a fierce battle unfolding over the leading places. From the off, a few things were clear: Andrea Iannone was on blistering form, and Valentino Rossi was a demon at Turn 9, passing anyone who got in his way there. On the opening laps, disposing of three riders in a single go.
First half: total war
Lorenzo's stint at the front would be short lived, conditions being a fraction too wet for the Yamaha rider. He dropped back to sixth, with Cal Crutchlow snapping at his heels. Behind Crutchlow, a gap quickly opened, and the seven men at the front started to get away. Seven quickly became six, when Espargaro missed the corner at Turn 1, losing five seconds and rejoining the race well outside the top ten.
A tense battle began, the front six splitting into pairs, then threes, then regrouping, before splitting up again. Andrea Iannone led for the first half of the race, Valentino Rossi hot on his heels. Behind Rossi, Dovizioso was leading a steady chase, nibbling away at Rossi's advantage lap by lap. The two Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Marc Márquez duked it out for fourth, while Jorge Lorenzo slipped ever further off the back of the leaders, though his gap back to seventh was comfortable enough that he was never threatened.
After the halfway mark, Rossi mounted his attack. He dived past Iannone a couple of times at Turn 9, but Iannone kept getting Rossi back. On lap 11, Rossi seemed to have taken the lead definitively, but he lost out to the top speed of the Ducati along the front straight again, Iannone getting past into Turn 1, Rossi counterattacking at Turn 2.
The hot pace and slightly drying track was starting to take its toll. The temperature in the front tire was starting to rise, especially among the Hondas. Márquez and Crutchlow were making up on the brakes what they were losing in acceleration, and that was pushing the limits of the tires.
Márquez had even switched to carbon brakes with his rain tires, using shrouds to retain the temperature and allowing him to brake harder and more consistently than with steel brakes. Sepang is one of the toughest tracks for braking, and with high ambient temperatures and little spray from the new surface, temperatures in the steel brakes were rising quickly. Márquez went with the new low mass 320mm carbon disks, giving him more feel.
On lap 12, all that braking came back to bite both the Hondas at the front. Cal Crutchlow was the first to go down, the rear coming round on him at Turn 2 as the front failed to bite. Crutchlow was flicked off, and took a slight bang to the head, leaving him shaken up. He was disappointed to have crashed out. "We’ve had a great run," the LCR Honda rider said. "We didn’t want it to end and I definitely didn't want it to end with a headache. But I had a big face-plant. I landed completely on my face."
Marc Márquez would join Crutchlow in the gravel just nine corners later. The crash was unrelated to his brake choice, the Repsol Honda rider told the media afterwards. "I crashed without the brakes," he said. "I was just turning with the gas and then I lose the front." Choosing to run carbon disks had been the right choice, though he had struggled to get them up to temperature in the wet opening laps. But once the rain stopped and the water started to disperse, the carbon disks came into their own. "With the carbon disc I was able to gain something on the brake point," Márquez said. "With less water it got better and better and especially in the last part of the race it was very good."
Márquez remounted to finish eleventh, but the crash ruled out any hope of a podium. He felt second or third would have been possible, but he could not match the pace of the winner. He was annoyed to have crashed, but relieved that the championship was already tied up. Since winning the title at Motegi, Márquez has crashed out at both Phillip Island and Sepang. Sepang was worse than Australia, however. "I was trying to be more quiet on the bike, try to do a normal race. Like we did during this season." Having to compensate in braking what he was losing in acceleration turned out to be too much, however.
The hare nods off
The disappearance of the two Hondas had lifted Jorge Lorenzo up into fourth. A lap later, the Movistar Yamaha rider would be on the podium, despite being over eight seconds back, and a second a lap slower than the front runners. This time, it was the turn of Andrea Iannone to crash out, losing the front at Turn 9. "I arrive a little bit long, and I ask a little bit more of the front tire during the braking," Iannone lamented. "So when I try to turn, I lose the front."
Iannone put his crash down to the decision to skip FP2 on Friday, when he had sat out in sketchy conditions for fear of crashing. "This problem is because I didn't ride during FP2, and we want to try a different setting for adjust a little bit the grip on the rear." Iannone said. "Because I ask to improve the grip on the rear, but we don’t have time to try this. Dovi use a different setting, have a little bit more kilograms on the rear, and this help for sure in this condition for the grip. We wanted to try, but don’t have time and during the race I don’t want to risk with the setting."
It had been a brave race by Iannone, but an unsurprising end. This was the fourth time Iannone has crashed out of a race this season, and always out of a podium position. Ever the hare to Dovizioso's tortoise, the Italian cannot be faulted for trying, though he can be blamed for trying a little too hard.
The tortoise, unleashed
After Iannone's crash, it was time for Dovizioso to switch to turbo tortoise mode. The Italian was smooth and fast, and slowly cranking up the pace. Rossi was pushing to stay ahead of the Ducati rider, but was having ever more difficulty. As they crossed the line for the start of lap 15, Dovizioso was pushing Rossi hard. The Movistar Yamaha rider braked a little too late into Turn 1, missed his braking point and ran wide, letting Dovizioso pass him underneath.
It was obvious the race was over. Rossi had been asking too much of his front tire throughout the race, and could no longer match the pace of the Italian. By the end of the lap, Dovizioso had put two seconds into Rossi, and added another couple of seconds on the next lap. With a comfortable lead, the factory Ducati rider could switch to cruise mode, and stroll home for the win. It was a deserved, and brilliantly managed race in difficult conditions.
No sinecures in MotoGP
It was the second win of Dovizioso's MotoGP career, and another win on a damp track. His last victory had come at a very wet Donington Park back in 2009, when he had held off challenges from Colin Edwards and Randy De Puniet for victory. That race had been much stranger than Sepang: the factory Ducatis of Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden had gambled on it raining again, and gone out on wet tires. Jorge Lorenzo had crashed out early on, and Valentino Rossi crashed and rejoined with ten laps to go.
This victory was better, though. The Italian had won it in a straight fight, had simply managed his tires and his bike better. All the Aliens bar Dani Pedrosa were on track, and Dovizioso beat them all fair and square. "I didn't give up, I didn't make a mistake," Dovizioso said in the press conference. It was also an important race for Ducati, and a sign of how strong the bike had become. "I won a race when we have the base to fight for the championship," the Italian said. It was also generous recompense for the mistake he had made in Austria, when he missed out on victory by choosing the wrong tire.
Valentino Rossi crossed the line in second, a little disappointed, but able to live with it. The Italian had enjoyed a tough battle with Iannone in the early laps, trying hard to get in front of the Ducati if only to give his gloves a chance to dry, as his gloves were slipping on the throttle. Once he got past, he started to believe that a win was possible. "When I was able to overtake, I feel good, and I take a small advantage, and in that moment I was optimistic for the victory," he said.
As the track started to dry, however, Rossi's front tire started to overheat, and he could only hold off Dovizioso for so long. "With less water, I start to suffer very much with the tires, especially with the front," Rossi told the press conference. "I did a small mistake, but especially I don't have any more the pace, like Andrea. He was faster. I had two moments on the right, and I don't want to crash, and throw away 20 points another time."
His caution was all about securing second place in the championship. This year has seen an increasingly bitter battle fought out between the two Movistar Yamaha teammates, a proxy war over the outcome of the 2015 championship. It was made all the more piquant because Jorge Lorenzo is leaving for Ducati at the end of the year, while Rossi is staying at Yamaha. Securing second place in the championship gives Rossi the upper hand, just: in the seven seasons Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have shared a garage at Yamaha, the pair have both finished with two world titles, but Rossi has finished ahead of Lorenzo four times, while Lorenzo has come out on top three times. It is a sensitive blow to the Spaniard.
Yes, but is he lucky?
The crashes ahead of him had gifted Jorge Lorenzo the podium, but true to form, Lorenzo was the first to acknowledge that his podium was down to luck. When asked in the press conference if he had been lucky, Lorenzo was very frank. "Yes, that's true. I stayed on the bike, even though I didn't feel very good today." Lorenzo's problem was that there was more water on the track than there had been during qualifying, robbing him of the confidence he had built up. But he was still happy with the result, as a podium in the rain was badly needed, no matter how he came about it.
Behind the podium, a thrilling battle had been fought over fourth place, between the Avintia Ducati teammates. Hector Barbera had come out on top, getting past Loris Baz in the last couple of laps and then putting a gap between himself and the Frenchman. That the Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2 should be quick in the wet comes as no surprise: the bike's ability in braking and mechanical grip gives it an advantage on tricky surfaces. Barbera's fourth place puts him just ahead of Andrea Iannone in ninth, though a long way off the two riders in front of him for independent rider of the year, Cal Crutchlow and Pol Espargaro.
Choosing Mr. Right
All in all, Sepang was an odd cap to another weekend of weirdness, though Dovizioso's win was richly deserved. The Italian's victory in Malaysia was vindication of Ducati's decision to keep him over Andrea Iannone, as Dovizioso is the calmer, more rational, more analytical rider. Jorge Lorenzo is being brought in to win championships; Dovizioso is being kept to maintain a steady line in development, and to score points when Lorenzo fails to. In 2016, Dovizioso has shown himself more than capable of that.
Dovizioso's win was widely appreciated throughout the paddock. Just about everybody loves Dovizioso, the Italian never managing to make enemies. The Italian is quiet, modest, unassuming, yet burning with ambition. He may not be the flashiest of riders, but he can compete with the best when the circumstances are right, and can take them on and beat them. The first year of the Ducati/Lorenzo relationship will be rocky from time to time, so to have Dovizioso there as the voice of reason will be a real boon. Andrea Dovizioso is MotoGP's Mr. Right.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.