Sepang looks like being a Repsol whitewash this weekend, with Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Andrea Dovizioso spread across the front row of the grid for Sunday's race, and FP3 the only session where there wasn't a Repsol 1-2-3 on the timesheets, Marco Simoncelli getting in among the orange, red and black bikes. On Friday, it looked like being a Pedrosa runaway, but his teammates have closed the gap considerably since then. Only the most contrarian investor would risk betting against a Honda victory - and only the brave would take the very long odds on offer for a Honda 1-2-3 - but Pedrosa is not quite the certainty that he was after the first day of practice.
The Spaniard was blisteringly fast out of the box, but as the weekend has progressed, the rest of the pack has closed up, with little to choose between the three Repsols after qualifying. Part of this has been down to tires: Pedrosa has immediately taken a shine to the softer tires, while Stoner has been working with the hard tire all weekend, always his preferred option as a race tire. The problem that Stoner has had has been an inability to get the bike to both turn and grip, sacrificing one to obtain the other. Sepang looks like being one of the surprisingly few weekends when Stoner and his crew have not been able to find a good setup from the start, and the Australian will have his hands full with both Pedrosa and Dovizioso for the win.
Beyond the other factory bike of Marco Simoncelli, there is no one left to challenge the Repsol Hondas. Of the factory Yamaha riders, Jorge Lorenzo never made it to Sepang because of the finger injury he sustained at Phillip Island, and Ben Spies has now been forced to pull out of he race on Sunday. The Texan had a very fast and very painful crash in Australia, badly damaging his ribs and suffering a serious concussion, and he is paying the price in the sweltering heat of Malaysia, at a track that has two of the toughest braking zones of the season on two consecutive corners. Balancing nearly twice your own body weight two times in the space of twenty seconds is hard for the fittest of people, but with damaged ribs it's simply excruciating. Spies' problems were apparent during practice, the Texan crashing twice trying too hard, and in the end he took the sensible decision to sit out the race. Spies was 14th and 16th on Saturday: risking another big crash for a couple of points was not the sensible choice, especially not with the final round and an important test directly afterwards in two weeks' time.
The Ducatis, on the other hand, are actually not too bad. A modification to the geometry and weight distribution did Nicky Hayden the power of good, ending FP3 in 5th and qualifying 6th on the grid, equaling his best qualifying of the year, at Phillip Island just seven days' ago. But in contrast with Australia, Hayden was rather dissatisfied with this 6th spot, believing he had a little more in the tank. The front row was pretty much out of reach, but he could have gone at least one spot better.
Hayden's teammate Valentino Rossi was much happier also. Though he only qualified in 9th, the Italian had been much faster in the morning, and could have qualified better if he hadn't crashed in the last twenty minutes of QP, forcing him out on his second machine with a slightly different setup. Rossi had improved markedly since yesterday - 13th in FP2, 8th in FP3 - and closed the gap in qualifying to under a second.
But there was the crash. Another front-end loss, this time as he got on the gas through the tight Turn 10. Rossi joked on Twitter that he had got through more sets of leathers this year than he had in all his time with Yamaha, but the front-end problems are no laughing matter. The crash, caught in slow-motion by Dorna's TV cameras, illustrated the problem perfectly: Rossi turns the bike in, lets off the brake and just as he touches the throttle, the front wheel vibrates heavily and pushes, the rear end then losing grip and washing out from beneath him. That vibration - Rossi used the attributive participle form of a verb of old Germanic extraction preceding the word "vibration" - is what has plagued the Ducati all year. When the vibration occurs, the front end tends to fold, and it has been the fear of that vibration - appearing without warning - that has held Rossi back all year, he confessed.
The cure, he felt, was to load the front, but Rossi, Burgess and his crew have yet to find a way of doing so. This is why the Italian has been pushing for a redesign of the tank and footpegs, so that he can get more weight over the front to load the front tire. Ironically, the crash was exactly the same as the ones that Casey Stoner complained about in the first half of 2010, with exactly the same symptoms. Stoner and his crew, led by Cristian Gabbarini, found a solution to the problem at Aragon last year, by moving Stoner up and back, and forcing his weight further forward, putting his upper body at a greater angle. Rossi, Burgess and co have yet to find a similar solution for the Italian.
Despite the problems, both Hayden and Rossi are closer to the pole than they have been all year. Hayden was less than half a second off Pedrosa in the morning, and though both he and Rossi are too far behind to challenge for the podium, a top 5 finish for one or the other is not entirely out of the question.
To do that, they must beat off Colin Edwards and Alvaro Bautista, both of whom are having an outstanding weekend at Sepang. The Suzuki always goes well in Malaysia, the hot track making it simple to get heat into the tires of the GSV-R, and Edwards has simply gone back to the setting the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team found during the tests in February. Both men are on course for their best results of the season, and they should form an interesting group fighting over 5th with the Ducatis.
In fact, there are a couple of reasons to think that the race may actually be pretty exciting. First and foremost, the Sepang race has been shortened by a lap again just as it was last year, and is 20 laps, or 111 km, the second shortest on the calendar behind the Sachsenring. With 5.5 fewer kilometers to cover on 21 liters of fuel, fuel consumption goes from critical to well within the safety margins, and the riders have a little bit of extra room to play with. Sepang is a demonstration that the fuel limits - imposed by the manufacturers, and defended fiercely by them in the Grand Prix Commission - make a mockery of the racing, and MotoGP would be a much better series with a liter or two extra fuel.
Added to the extra fuel could come the rain, with thunderstorms and heavy rain arriving at the circuit every day around 4pm local time. The MotoGP race is due to start at 4pm on Sunday, and so we could be in for a flag-to-flag race, or even a fully wet race. If it rains, all bets are off, and the order established in practice should be completely overturned. The Ducatis go remarkably well in the wet, but then anyone who saw Casey Stoner's incredible victory at Silverstone earlier in the season knows that Stoner and the Hondas aren't too bad in the rain either.
In the support classes, the Moto2 championship is showing a remarkable symmetry with MotoGP. Where the MotoGP title was wrapped up a week earlier than expected due to injury, Stefan Bradl has a realistic chance of becoming the 2011 Moto2 championship at Sepang, rather than the title going down to the wire at Valencia. Marc Marquez may have lost his shot at the title in the huge highside on the first lap of FP1 on Friday, caused by a large patch of water on the track which the marshals were not warning the riders about. Marquez could not ride on Friday, and skipped Saturday morning as well, only taking to the track to post a qualifying time on Saturday afternoon before returning to his hotel and further treatment on his injured neck and shoulder. Reliable Spanish sources are reporting that Marquez dislocated his shoulder in the crash, though the team have denied this.
So Marquez starts from the back of the grid - or almost, 36th out of the 37 who will take to the track tomorrow - while Bradl starts from the front row. Unlike last week, when Marquez slashed his way to third from the back of the grid, a penalty imposed for his crash with Ratthapark Wilairot during practice, no such effort can be expected of the Spaniard at Sepang. It was a fully fit Marquez who pulled that stunt at Phillip Island, not the rider in obvious severe pain who will start at Sepang. Marquez needs just three points - a 13th place finish - to prevent Bradl from taking the title in Malaysia, though if Bradl doesn't win, then the title fight will go to Valencia. Marquez will be hoping that Thomas Luthi can finally get his first victory in Moto2, or perhaps that Andrea Iannone can storm through from 13th.
A similar situation could decide the 125cc championship: Johann Zarco had a miserable qualifying session, suffering mechanical problems and crashing out, leaving him down in 15th on the grid. Nico Terol, meanwhile, will start from pole - his 7th of the season - and needs just a single point advantage over Zarco to clinch the title. Realistically, unless Terol suffers some kind of problem, the Spaniard should leave Sepang as champion.
Three long, hot races are on the cards for Sunday. They should be well worth watching.