2018 Sepang MotoGP Preview: Will Ducati Dominate In The Punishing Sepang Heat?

MotoGP heads 6400km north for the final leg of the Pacific flyaways, and the penultimate race of the season. The contrasts between Phillip Island, where the paddock has just departed, and Sepang, where they have just arrived, could hardly be greater. Phillip Island famously has four seasons in one day, though all too often, those seasons are winter, spring, winter, and winter. Sepang has two seasons in one day: hot and humid, and hot and pouring with rain.

The rain can come as a blessed relief, though, in what is undoubtedly the toughest race of the year. "I think this will be the toughest race of the year," Danilo Petrucci said. "Yesterday I went out for a run, and I was lucky that in the middle of the second lap when I was running that a thunderstorm has arrived, and I asked to the rain if it can come on the second lap of the race! Joking apart, it helped me a lot yesterday. The last two years it has been wet, and it's tough anyway, because in the wet, the problem is not the temperature, but the humidity, and it's very difficult to breathe. You don't breathe oxygen, you breathe oxygen and water. Last time we rode here in the dry was 2015, and the race was very, very tough." So there's your choice: breathe oxygen and water, or struggle to breathe at all.

The track is very different to Phillip Island as well. Phillip Island has very few corners where you are braking or accelerating in a straight line, the key being to carry corner speed everywhere. Sepang has some flowing sections: Turn 3 is one of the most spectacular corners of the season, the drop down and through Turns 5 and 6 is reminiscent of Mugello, and the way Turn 13 closes up into Turn 14 is a test of a bike's ability to perform on the edge of the tire. But Sepang is defined by it's long back straight leading onto the hairpin at Turn 15, then onto the front straight towards the tight turn at Turn 1.

Attack zone

That makes those two corners two of the prime passing spots at the circuit. Turn 1 is tricky, as the track quickly folds back on itself into Turn 2, and you stand losing out there if you try to pass at the first corner. Between Turn 1 and Turn 15, there is Turn 4, a hard right hander, but again, passing there leaves space for your rival to come back underneath at Turn 5 or 6. Turn 9 is another perennial favorite, and one of the corners where you actually stand a chance of holding your position when you pass.

There's another chance at Turn 14, but passing there can leave you slow out and onto the back straight. The final chance at getting in front of anyone still ahead of you comes at the last corner, Turn 15, a long, slow hairpin. It was always a tricky corner, but when the track was resurfaced in 2016, circuit designer Jarno Zaffelli also reprofiled the turn, putting an adverse camber on it to make it even slower. According to the riders, he ruined it. But he also took over 5km/h off the top speed at the end of the straight, making Turn 1 a little safer, and removing the necessity to try to find more runoff where there is no space.

What this means is that if you try to pass into Turn 15, you had best be careful, especially in the wet. Too much lean angle was always a risk. On the reprofiled last corner, it's positively disastrous. What you can do is either pass on the brakes on entry, or try to take the long way round the outside of the corner, and carry more speed. Or if you get passed on the brakes going into the final corner, take the long way round the outside and then cut back inside again, to get your position back. The last corner is still a tricky turn, but it's also pretty interesting.

Ducati track?

Long straights plus hard braking equals a Ducati victory, right? That has been true of the last two seasons, with Andrea Dovizioso winning the last two races here. Both of those races were won in the wet, and with the weather looking fairly atrocious for the weekend, this could be another good weekend for the Italian, and a chance to cement second in the championship.

Though Dovizioso's 2016 victory was all down to him, and proof that the Ducati Desmosedici has made enormous steps since Gigi Dall'Igna took over the helm, his 2017 win was a little more contentious. Locked in battle with his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati started sending mysterious dashboard messages, the now infamous "Mapping 8" message, asking Lorenzo to allow Dovizioso to pass and keep his hopes of a title alive until Valencia. Whether Lorenzo complied with those messages is debatable – the Spaniard made a mistake in the final corner, which allowed Dovizioso past, and Dovizioso was clearly faster than Lorenzo – but it did make for a more entertaining season finale at Valencia last year.

This year, there probably won't be any need to send a message to Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard is back from surgery to fix a tendon in his left wrist, suffered in a crash in Thailand. He will test his strength and flexibility in practice, but at a track with several seriously hard braking zones, it will be tough for him to be competitive.

Last chance saloon

Dark horse at Sepang is surely Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard has a very strong record at the Malaysian circuit, having won here three times, most recently in 2015. In a disastrous final year, where he has only been able to be competitive at hot tracks where getting heat into the tires is not an issue, Sepang could be one of his best shots at a last win before he retires at the end of this year. He finished second at the test back in February, behind Jorge Lorenzo, a sign of how strong Pedrosa can be here.

"We'll try to benefit from knowing the track, that I like the track and that the weather should be warm," Pedrosa said on Thursday. "We have a reference from the test and that should help us. The warmer conditions could help us here. The setup of the bike has changed from to January to make the tires work and compared to the test here it has changed a lot because in the warm conditions you don't need to change the bike to make the tire work whereas at some other tracks you need to change the settings to create the load in the tire to create the temperature in the tire. How we approach this is important because we don't have the hardest tire from Michelin."

Having a softer tire should ease Pedrosa's issues, but he will still have to survive the opening laps. "I know the reasons for my problems this year, and I've had problems in other years in MotoGP, but I want to perform," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I want to be at the front and I know why I can't set fast times in the opening three laps of the race. I know why I lose positions at the start but I've had to deal with these problems throughout my MotoGP career."

Bad luck track

Under normal circumstances, Marc Márquez should be competitive at just about any race track he arrives at, but Sepang might be a little different. Like all truly successful riders, Márquez rarely suffers bad luck – when you're winning, you make your own luck. But Sepang is the exception. He has won here twice, in 2010 aboard a 125, and in 2014, the only time he has won in MotoGP.

Most other years have been tough, however. In 2008, he crashed in FP1, and injured his right leg when his legs got caught up in his rear wheel. In 2009, he crashed in the race. In 2011, he crashed over a stream of water running across the track in practice, and banged his head so hard he suffered eye damage, an injury which almost ended his career. He crashed out of the race in 2012 again, and crashed in 2016, though he got back on and finished the race. And then there was 2015, where he was forced off track by Valentino Rossi and crashed, the culmination of a feud which had been building all season.

Last year, Márquez finished a very sensible fourth, scoring points towards securing his fourth MotoGP title. He arrives in Malaysia with his fifth title already wrapped up, and little to lose. However, he also arrives after a freak accident at Phillip Island, in which Johann Zarco hit the back of his Honda RC213V at over 300km/h, and ended his race. Whether that will make Márquez more circumspect, or more hungry for another win, we will have to wait and see on Sunday.

Normal service resumed

The winner of Phillip Island ended an ignominious streak of 25 races without a win for Yamaha. But Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi are likely to struggle at Sepang. Once, the Malaysian track was a good circuit for Yamaha, but since the switch to Michelin tires, their results have suffered.

"I like this track a lot with the layout, as it is technical and very fast and you enjoy it a lot with MotoGP," Valentino Rossi said. "The demand on the rear tire is very high because it is very hot so it will be hard as always. It looks like our bike is good but we need to pay attention to saving the tire over the second half of the race as in the last two years it is the most important thing in MotoGP."

Maverick Viñales is realistic, despite coming off a win in Australia. "I come here with my feet on the ground," the Spaniard said. "I'm trying to not to make any false expectations. I will try to be competitive, try to be in the front and it will be important to get a good feeling try to finish the season on a good point of understanding. It’s very important not to lose the motivation now and build for a good 2019."

The track has too many corners where the bikes are accelerating hard, something which has been Yamaha's Achilles heel this year. Efforts to find a setup to fix the issue have so far not met with much success, though some progress has been made. Sepang could be a track where the Yamaha riders have to grit their teeth and hope for the best.

Fire in the hole

What about Suzuki? The Hamamatsu factory has had a strong run in the last few races, including a podium for Andrea Iannone at Phillip Island that had the potential to be a win. The Suzuki's biggest weakness is still a lack of top speed in the higher gears, which can make it hard at the end of the two long straights at Sepang, but the bike's agility is enough to compensate elsewhere. A little more stability on the brakes would help in Malaysia as well, an issue Iannone suffered with in Australia. A totally different setup should help at Sepang.

But Suzuki got their weekend off to a bad start. One of Alex Rins' Suzuki GSX-RRs caught fire in pit lane on Thursday, as it was being warmed up and tested ahead of the weekend. Fuel from an overflow tank landed on a hot exhaust, and the bike went up in flames. Fortunately, the damage was only material, with no team staff hurt. Whether this will cost Rins an engine from his allocation is not clear, but even if it does, it will not make much difference to his season. Rins had just taken his eighth engine of the year at Phillip Island, and as Suzuki have nine engines per season under the concession rules, he has plenty of room to spare. Next year, Suzuki lose concessions, and will have only seven engines for the season. They won't be able to afford costly mistakes next year.

What will happen at Sepang? We head into a weekend which looks like being dominated by the weather, with heavy rain and thunderstorms hitting the track. That might just play into the hands of Andrea Dovizioso once again, the Ducati being the best bike in the wet, and probably the best in the dry as well. But, as Dovizioso likes to say, the race in Sunday. Until then, everything is mere speculation.

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 Jorge Lorenzo has been out of the box  & back in three times or more & hasn't recorded a time in fp1. Lorenzo's left hand and wrist is held together with tape, they seem to be trying to make the bike more comfortable for 99 but he is finding it challenging.