Press releases from some of the MotoGP teams and factories ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang:
Phillip Island is a magnificent circuit. Perched on the edge of the Bass Strait, it is a visceral thrill in a spectacular setting. It is fast, flowing, the very essence of what a race track is supposed to be. But all that glory comes at a price. It is also a dangerous place. When you crash at Phillip Island, then it hurts, and more often than not, it hurts a lot.
Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes points out that in the 1990s, the FIM commissioned a study into crashes at various tracks. The track with the most crashes, Estoril, had the fewest serious injuries. The track with the fewest crashes was Phillip Island. But it was also the track with the most injuries. The difference? Estoril was the slowest track on the calendar, thanks to a couple of tight turns, while Phillip Island was the fastest. Newton's second law is immutable, and enforced 100% of the time.
It had been widely trailed, and long expected, but KTM have finally confirmed that Dani Pedrosa has agreed to be a test rider for the Austrian factory for the next two seasons. Pedrosa will take on the role alongside current test rider Mika Kallio.
Rumors that Pedrosa would take on a testing role with KTM have been circulating for some time, ever since it became clear that Pedrosa would not be part of the Repsol Honda team. The Spaniard had been linked to the Petronas Yamaha seat as well, but in the end, he felt that some of the joy had gone out of racing, and he didn't feel he had the intensity to keep racing beyond the end of this year.
That KTM should sign Pedrosa as a test rider is not that surprising. Mike Leitner, KTM's MotoGP team manager, was Pedrosa's crew chief with Repsol Honda up until 2014, after which Leitner left to work on KTM's MotoGP project. Leitner knows Pedrosa extremely well, and has spoken highly of his sensitivity to the bike.
Once upon a time, disciplinary measures in MotoGP were simple. If a rider was felt to have transgressed the rules, they were hauled up before the Race Director and given a punishment, and that was just about the end of it. Sometimes, riders appealed against those judgments, and sometimes, the FIM even found in their favor.
But times change, cultures change, social mores change. What was once regarded as acceptable is now frowned upon. Physical contact and riding with the intent to obstruct others became less and less acceptable. Suspected transgressions were examined more closely and judged more harshly. The increase in the number of cameras covering the track, and the vast improvement in resolution and picture quality, helped identify more potential offenders. In turn, this created more pressure on Race Direction to punish these transgressions.
Then came Sepang 2015. When the two biggest names clash on the track amid a bitter personal feud, then the pressure on the series organizers to treat the situation with kid gloves becomes almost unbearable. In the fallout of that ugly incident, Race Direction was reorganized, and the disciplinary duties moved to a separate body, the FIM Panel of Stewards. The official explanation was that this would allow Race Direction to get on with the job of managing the race, while the Stewards could focus on assessing whether a particular action needed to be punished or not.
The Forever War
MotoGP's Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are "The Flyaways", formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock. The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.
Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings. Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.
Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It depends how you look at it. "The Buriram circuit is really, really good, the asphalt is working in a good way with hot conditions, that is not easy. Also the runoff areas are really good, the pit boxes," Marc Márquez said, carefully avoiding any discussion of the layout. Andrea Dovizioso was not exactly complimentary about the layout. "The track is not the best in our championship, but at the end, everything works well." Hardly gushing praise.
It may not be the best track layout in the championship, but it served up a veritable feast of racing. Two scintillating support races, with fierce battles both in Moto3 and Moto2, and then the fifth closest podium in premier class racing, and the fourth closest top 15 in Grand Prix history, the gap between first and fifteenth just under 24 seconds. The last three laps of the MotoGP race were all-out war, with the lead swapping multiple times as a result of impossible passes. And over 100,000 fans braving the searing heat, cheering on their heroes with as much passion as you will find anywhere in the world. Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It is when you measure it in terms of spectacle and atmosphere. The Thai Grand Prix is a worthy addition to the calendar.
The layout may not be fast and flowing throughout, but the fact that it is split into two halves with very different characters helped to keep the field close. The necessity to preserve tires did the same: Michelin had prepared for a cooler monsoon heat, not the unusual dry heat which meant track temperatures were 10°C higher than anticipated. All this, combined with a final corner ideally suited to do-or-die passing attempts, and a short run to the line meaning it really had to be all or nothing going into the final turn, and we had a recipe for fantastic racing in Thailand.
The next four MotoGP races are a glimpse of the sport's future. The first and last of the foursome, in Thailand and Malaysia, are truly in the heart of all MotoGP's tomorrows. The growth of the sport of motorcycle racing is explosive in Southeast Asia, and the expected crowds – already talk of crowds of up to 150,000 on Sunday – speak for themselves. If Indonesia ever manages to overcome the political instability and endemic corruption which plagues the country, and finally completes a circuit or two, we could be complaining of having four races in Indonesia, rather than Spain.
But the addition of a round at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand highlights the issues with the current MotoGP schedule. The first five races of 2018 were spaced over 9 weeks. The last five races are crammed into just 6 weeks. By the time the MotoGP riders jump on their 2019 bikes, on the Tuesday after Valencia, they are exhausted, physically and emotionally, and ready for a break.
The timing of the Pacific flyaways is unfortunate in other ways too. The Thai round in Buriram takes place in early October, at the tail end of the rainy season. The Sepang round in Malaysia, in early November, takes place in Sepang's eastern monsoon season, with October and November being the wettest months in that part of Malaysia.
How do you win a MotoGP race? In the Michelin era, you need a strategy. With all six tires which the French manufacturer brings to each weekend capable of lasting the race, selecting the right tire for your bike, and your setup, is crucial. Once the race is under way, you have to manage your pace, know when you can push hard, and when you have to sit and wait. Watch for weakness by your rivals, try to match them when attack without wrecking your own chances. With spec electronics and a wide range of tire options, MotoGP is a more intellectual game.
But it has also become more of a gamble. To find the ideal setup, the best strategy is to focus on the race during free practice, rather than worry about qualifying. But that risks leaving a rider stuck in Q1, and having to juggle front tires for Q2. You get an extra rear tire if you go through from Q1 to Q2, but not an extra front.
It is a common enough sight in Grand Prix racing: slower riders cruising around at the edge of the track, waiting for a faster rider to come by so they can get a tow. It is especially common at the Motorland Aragon circuit. With its massive back straight of nearly a kilometer in length, a decent slipstream can be worth an awful lot.
It is less common to see slower riders cruising for a tow in MotoGP. In Moto3, sure: with horsepower at a premium, cutting down on drag equates to free speed. In Moto2 as well, as the fact that the bikes all produce exactly the same horsepower means that riders have to find an advantage anywhere they can. But MotoGP? A lack of horsepower is not really a problem in the premier class. The bigger problem is usually transferring it to the tarmac to generate drive, and translate that power to speed.
But Aragon is different. Sure, tucking in behind another bike can give you extra speed using their draft, but above all, using another rider as a target makes you that little bit faster. "MotoGP is so close now that if you can follow someone, get a bit of a tow, that's obviously going to improve your time," Bradley Smith explained on Saturday afternoon. "We don't see it very often in MotoGP, to be honest, as much as it was today, but it shows how important it is here in Aragon."
Reference, not tow