We are nearing the climax of the 2022 MotoGP season. At Phillip Island, Pecco Bagnaia took over the championship lead from Fabio Quartararo, Bagnaia scoring a podium, Quartararo first making a mistake and the crashing out. The factory Ducati rider now leads the reigning champion by 14 points, and Aleix Espargaro by 27 points.
So what has to happen for Bagnaia to be crowned champion at Sepang? The MotoGP press office provided this handy list of calculations. Bagnaia will win the 2022 MotoGP title at Sepang if the following things happen:
- Bagnaia wins and Quartararo doesn’t finish on the podium,
- Bagnaia finishes P2, Quartararo doesn’t finish better than P7 and Espargaro doesn’t win,
- Bagnaia finishes P3, Quartararo doesn’t finish better than P11 and Espargaro doesn’t finish on the podium,
- Bagnaia finishes P4, Quartararo doesn’t finish better than P14 and Espargaro doesn’t finish on the podium,
- Bagnaia finishes P5, Quartararo fails to score any points and Espargaro doesn’t finish on the podium.
Basically, Bagnaia has to finish in the top five and score 11 more points than Quartararo. Bagnaia needs Aleix Espargaro to finish off the podium, or not win if Bagnaia is second. And whatever happens, Bagnaia has to finish in the top five. If he doesn't, the championship goes to Valencia.
In theory, Enea Bastianini is still in the race, trailing Bagnaia by 42 points. In practice, however, that would require multiple failures by his rivals: Pecco Bagnaia to not score more than 7 points in the last two races; AND Fabio Quartararo to not score than 22 points; AND Aleix Espargaro to not score more than 35 points; AND Bastianini would have to win both the last two races. Bastianini could become champion with a win and a second, but that would make his path to the title even more difficult. This scenario is not impossible, but exceptionally unlikely.
Finally, Quartararo, Espargaro, and Bastianini all need to score more points than Bagnaia. In the event of a draw, Bagnaia takes the title because he has more wins than Quartararo and Espargaro. If Bastianini wins the last two races, he would be tied with Bagnaia on the number of wins, but he has fewer podiums, so Bagnaia would still be champ.
That's enough mental arithmetic for the moment, but what are the chances of any of the above actually happening? On current form, you would have to say pretty good. Since Assen, the only time Bagnaia hasn't been on the podium was Motegi, when he crashed out of ninth behind Quartararo.
For his part, Quartararo has been on the podium only once in all that time, has crashed out three times, and finished outside the points once. Since Assen, he has scored a measly 47 points to Bagnaia's 152. And he has looked increasingly despondent. The advantage the Frenchman had at the start of the season, having a well set-up bike and the ability to get the maximum out of it on most Sundays has withered away. Ducati and Bagnaia caught up, and the 2022 Yamaha M1 is simply no match for the Desmosedici GP22. Nor the GP21, for that matter.
As for Aleix Espargaro, the Aprilia rider has not fared much better. Espargaro has scored 68 points to Bagnaia's 152, and has a single no score to Quartararo's three. But he has not shown any sign of mounting a final assault on the title, of finding that extra turn of speed he needs to beat Bagnaia and Quartararo. "I think that in the last three races we proved that we are not together as a team. We are not at the level to fight for this title," was Espargaro's assessment after a disappointing performance at Phillip Island. And it's hard to argue with that.
How did Pecco Bagnaia turn this around? First of all, by crashing out at the Sachsenring. There, he said afterward, was where he learned that he needed to focus more on the moment than worrying about what might be. Take one step at a time, and learn to be patient. At the next race, Assen, Bagnaia just concentrated on himself, rather than on anyone else, and took his third victory of the season, and the first of a run of four in a row. The only race he briefly deviated from his plan was Motegi, where he crashed out chasing Fabio Quartararo, and thinking about what he would do once he got past.
It's the last lap that matters
For Bagnaia, however, his biggest lesson came at the next race at Silverstone. The factory Ducati rider struggled all weekend, yet still ended up winning the race, despite his best lap of the race being much slower than other riders.
"Sincerely, a race that gave me a lot of motivation was Silverstone," Bagnaia explained on Thursday. "Because I was really struggling all weekend, I wasn't the most competitive. In the race I did the 13th best lap, but all the weekend I just tried to be as competitive as possible, also knowing that I wasn't able to win. Then I think we made the correct choice of tires and I started to learn from the others what to do better in the race, and finally I won."
It was there that Bagnaia understood that the race was won on the last lap, not in the middle of the race. "It's not a matter of being the fastest," the Ducati rider said. "For sure having the fastest lap is something that can sometimes help, but in the situation of racing, where you have to be constant with a lot of consumption of the tire, to be very smart and understanding what to do."
What Bagnaia has to do this weekend is stay focused, and just act like it's any other weekend. That is hard, however, when all eyes are on the Italian, and all the talk is of Bagnaia winning the championship here. The fact that in the press conference, he brought up, unprompted, this being a chance to win Ducati's first championship since 2007, and to be the first Italian to win a title since Valentino Rossi in 2009, is a sign that the pressure is inescapable. "It would be my first title in MotoGP, so for sure the pressure is there," he said.
To an extent, the burden of the pressure has passed from Fabio Quartararo to Pecco Bagnaia along with the lead. The title is now Bagnaia's to lose, and so the Italian must go on the defensive. Quartararo has only one option to make up 14 points in two races: to go all out on the attack.
That came with a change of attitude, first of all, Quartararo explained. "The last races I didn’t enjoy so much but you know right now I’m in a position where I don’t really need to think about anything, just push myself to the limit. I have the feeling I have nothing to lose in this moment, so of course I will approach the race putting myself on the limit from the beginning of the weekend," the Frenchman said.
It was also time to take a different approach to bike setup. "Trying to make some changes on the bike, I think this is something – every time we go to a track we feel super good and never touch anything. I think it’s a good moment to try to make an improvement in some areas, even if we have a good feeling. I think it’s a different situation than the previous ones," Quartararo said.
The general sentiment among most of the rest of the pack is that Bagnaia will win the title, but the sympathy is with Quartararo. Mostly, because the reigning champion is completely outgunned on his Yamaha M1 by the armada of Ducatis on the grid.
"I already said many times that what Fabio did was amazing," Marc Marquez said. "He has a competitive bike, but for the practice. I mean, to fight in the race without engine is more difficult." Quartararo's only hope was to escape from the start, Marquez said. "As he did in the first part of the season, when he led the race, he will escape. If he doesn't lead the race and you are in the middle of the group, especially against Ducatis, then you are stuck there and you cannot do anything, because they have good riders, plus good brake point plus good acceleration."
Marquez' Repsol Honda teammate agrees. At Sepang, a place with two very, very long straights, Quartararo has his work cut out against the raw top speed of the Ducatis. "This is a place where Ducati have a big chance to be the world title," Pol Espargaro said. "First of all because we all know it's a top speed place, and it seems that in the last races, Ducati have finally worked in a way to get the title. Not just to win races, but also to get the title."
Teamwork makes the dream work
Espargaro put Ducati's advantage in part down to Bagnaia having so many other Ducatis to support him, if only passively at the moment. "With that general thing of having Pecco in front and not breaking his balls so much. Which is normal, and I understand, and if I was the owner of a manufacturer, I would do exactly the same. So knowing that, Saturday is going to be very important here. I know that many Ducatis are going to be with Pecco, surrounding Pecco, and that it's a good way to protect him. So it's a nice place to do it."
Unsurprisingly, Bagnaia's teammate gives the Italian the advantage as well. "The ball’s well and truly in Pecco’s court now," Jack Miller said. "He's just got to finish it out. But I think he can. Let's say momentum is a big thing and when you can get it to turn in your direction it helps a lot. And he's definitely well and truly got the momentum in his court now, so I think he can do a good job." If Bagnaia can't win the title here, he has another shot, Miller pointed out. "If it doesn't happen here we’ll see. Valencia’s always better - I prefer championship’s decided there."
Between the ears
Can Fabio Quartararo do anything to stop Bagnaia? "Ah, I don't know," Miller replied. "Like I said, momentum is a big thing. I think that's a big part of it. When you see a rider punching the fuel tank several times throughout a session, shaking their head and carrying on whenever the bikes not doing well, you generally can see that there's something under that rider’s visor let's say that's on his mind.
And when you're riding like that, it's generally not the best for performance, speaking from myself personally. So I think unless they've had a dramatic change this weekend, I think one guy’s in a really good headspace and the other guy’s not."
For Miguel Oliveira, everything was pointing to Bagnaia wrapping up the title this weekend. "I cannot say for sure he has it under control. But the odds, the probabilities, aim at him more than they aim at Fabio, also because of the history he had on the previous seasons in the last races," the Red Bull KTM rider said.
But he was hoping that Quartararo could pull it off. "Who I'm rooting for? Personally, I would say Fabio," Oliveira admitted. "He has done an outstanding job this season. You could clearly see some races, he just didn't have the package and he still managed to do it. So from a rider championship perspective, that's who I'm rooting for. But anything can happen!"
One of the biggest obstacles Quartararo faces is the relative lack of grip at Sepang. Give the Yamaha a grippy surface, and the bike has drive. Without it, they are in trouble. "One of our biggest problems is that we cannot accelerate," Cal Crutchlow explained. "We spin a lot, which never used to be the case. Rear tire wear is not so bad but the bikes spins a lot and the top speed thing here is obviously more of a problem."
Quartararo was fast at the test back in February, but track conditions were totally different. "In the test Fabio was very fast," Marco Bezzecchi pointed out. "But the condition of the test we know is always a little bit better because we clean the track for five days – it was black! A really nice track."
Can we draw any conclusions from the test back in February? The Sepang test gave us the first signs that the Aprilia was now competitive, with Aleix Espargaro fastest and Maverick Viñales second on the first day. Enea Bastianini being fastest after the two-day test was another sign of things to come. The Gresini Ducati rider ended the test 0.026 faster than Espargaro, with Jorge Martin third, Alex Rins fourth, then Jorge Martin, Maverick Viñales, Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, Marc Marquez, Johann Zarco, and Pol Espargaro making up the top ten. Luca Marini was eleventh fastest, and the top eleven were covered by less than three tenths of a second. That, too, was an omen for 2022.
But we shouldn't read too much into the test times. A massive amount changes each year between the test in February and the race in late October. The bikes have all undergone a massive amount of development throughout the year, with aero updates, chassis and swingarm changes, and a huge amount of data going in to refining setup. They are not quite completely different bikes at the race, but the data collected at the test tends to be of limited use.
"We have some data from the test but it was the beginning of the season so now we are in a completely different shape," Luca Marini explained. "Also the setting of the bike is completely different. There was a lot of grip because when we do the test, the track changed a lot. So yeah, we have some data, but not so important in my opinion. So let's see how we can start the from FP1."
The real advantage to the test is that everyone turns up to Sepang having ridden here already. The rookies had 3 days of shakedown test in addition to the two days of the official test, and riders like Enea Bastianini and Brad Binder, who joined MotoGP after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, have had at least one test at the track. In Binder's case, he has tested at Sepang twice – once in 2020, and once in 2022 – but never actually raced at the track.
There is another factor which could come into play at Sepang. Because the season was originally scheduled to be 21 races long, riders were allowed an extra engine in their allocation, eight instead of seven. However, the rules state that the eighth engine can only be used at the 19th race, which is Sepang.
The engine allocation is set at the start of the season, and based on the calendar at that time. So the fact that Finland was canceled, reducing the total number of races from 21 to 20, does not matter. And it is worth pointing out that although they get a fresh engine, it has to be of the design homologated at the start of the season.
That will allow everyone to break open a fresh engine. This will be welcome at a circuit like Sepang, where engines take a hammering in the heat and with two straights nearly a kilometer long. But this doesn't mean that Fabio Quartararo will be breathing a sigh of relief: the Ducatis will be getting fresh engines too.
What might help Quartararo is the weather. It looks like rain is on the cards for the weekend, though mainly on Saturday. Race time is an hour later than normal too, at 3pm Malaysian time instead of 2pm, to fit in with European time (audience numbers are likely much larger at 9am than at 8am Central European Time). And in Malaysia's monsoon season, the afternoon rains tend to start at 3pm. So anything can happen.
One concern for the Sepang circuit is the number of spectators. MotoGP had been exempt from a local entertainment tax, but this has been imposed for this year. That has bumped ticket prices: the price for the cheapest tickets for the hill stands was 50 Malaysian Ringgit, or about USD 10.50 in previous years, now it is MYR 88, or USD 18.60, an increase of 76%. The legally mandated minimum wage in Malaysia is MYR 1200. For a lot of ordinary Malaysians, taking a family to MotoGP has become an expensive proposition.
The effect so far has been poor presales of tickets. Sepang has traditionally been well attended in the last decade. Sunday crowds have risen from a very respectable 77,000 in 2012 to over 100,000 for the last two editions in 2018 and 2019. At the moment, it looks like the attendance is going to take a big hit. Organizers will have to hope that last week's scintillating race at Phillip Island will pull in fans who were on the fence about coming.
Finally, to more serious and concerning matters. During the Moto2 race at Phillip Island, Jorge Navarro lost the rear between Turns 4 and 5 and was run over by Simone Corsi, who was following directly behind him. Navarro suffered a broken leg in the incident, and was left sitting at the edge of the track on the inside of Siberia, waiting for medical marshals to arrive and tend to him.
There were calls at the time for the race to be red flagged, and according to exhaustive reporting by The Race's Simon Patterson, the marshals on the scene called for the medical car to evacuate Navarro, which would have automatically invoked a red flag. But Race Director Mike Webb decided to allow the race to continue.
Webb explained to The Race that the combination of the fact that Navarro was sitting up (and therefore conscious), on the inside of a corner, where crashes are extremely rare, and double yellow flags were being shown, the signal to riders that there was an obstruction on the track, led Race Direction to allow the race to continue. For the full details, and statements from marshals, spectators, and Mike Webb, read the story over on The Race website.
From an observers perspective, the incident looked really bad. I watched that part of the race from the helicopter view in the video on the MotoGP.com website. From there, it is clearly visible that Navarro sat at the side of the track for two laps, as riders came past under yellow flags, before he could be evacuated to the Medical Center by ambulance. It looks like the clearest example of when a race should be red-flagged, though I do not have access to the panopticon that is race control. The sheer quantity of video data available to Race Direction is vastly more than ordinary viewers ever see.
The whole incident had deeply disturbed a number of riders as well. Several had publicly stated their dismay on social media, and in the press conference at Sepang, Marc Marquez made his concern very clear.
He would be raising Navarro's crash and the way it was handled in the Safety Commission on Friday, Marquez said. And he would be asking why no red flag was shown. "I will ask why, because from what we saw from the TV, it was unacceptable," the Repsol Honda rider said. "This is my opinion. But maybe there was some reason. So for that reason, my opinion from the TV is unacceptable, but first of all I want to ask why they don't stop the race."
Ever since Dorna took over the running of grand prix motorcycle racing in 1992, they have made safety a priority. And huge steps have been made in this respect: strict standards have been imposed for circuits, runoff vastly increased, obstacles removed, and ever higher safety standards imposed for the gear which riders wear and the bikes they ride. They have earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt. But this incident stretches that benefit to the limit. It seems foolish to throw away all that credit for a single race.
Hopefully, no such incidents will occur at Sepang. MotoGP, and the Malaysian fans, deserve to see three exciting races run as safely as possible. It's been a long three years away.
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