Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang: Weekend preview – MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3
Sepang International Circuit is a world-leading facility. With the main grandstand sandwiched between the main and back straights, fans are bombarded with the sound of MotoGP™ from two sides as the riders hit some spectacular speeds. A little south of capital metropolis Kuala Lumpur, Sepang’s 5.5km of freshly surfaced asphalt tests everything a bike has to offer, with the highest ambient temperatures of the season pushing riders to their physical limits. Used in pre-season as a test venue, the track is the ultimate combination of long straights and varying corners, and in 2016 the grid return to a new track surface – as well as some modifications.
Run offs have been adjusted to provide a better compromise for racing on two wheels and four, kerbs replaced – and the asphalt changed. With Malaysian rain often seeing the skies open quickly at Sepang, the new track surface is designed to give better grip in the wet, as well as redirecting streams of water off the racing line. The camber of some corners has therefore changed, too – the key one being Turn 15, which is now adverse camber and has different ways to attack it whilst setting the same laptime.
Last year’s winner in Malaysia will sadly not be lining up to try and do it again, injured and replaced by Hiroshi Aoyama. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) broke his collarbone in a crash on Friday in Motegi, and is sitting out the Malaysian GP as he recovers. Having completely dominated the race in 2015, Pedrosa’s performance will be a tough act to follow – as will the entire race weekend.
Pivotal, exciting and controversial, Sepang 2015 changed the headlines again in a season of incredible motorcycle racing. As the title fight hit boiling point between Movistar Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, Sepang saw a turning point that changed the colour of the season finale. This year, the landscape is very different as the paddock heads to the Malaysian GP – but memories are often not short.
The man with a point to prove will be Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Marquez. Freshly crowned as the 2016 MotoGP™ World Champion in Motegi, the rider from Cervera then let himself off the leash in Australia, and made a mistake. Away at the front of the race and free of pressure, the Spaniard lost his Honda into Turn 4 and was left ruing his first DNF of the year. Although both team and manufacturer are still locked in title fights and the Champion won’t play it reckless, Marquez has an added incentive to push at Sepang, as the memory of 2015 sees him aiming firmly at the top step. If his crash in Australia was reminiscent of 2014, the Repsol Honda rider will be hoping the same is true of his Malaysian GP – when he took the victory after fighting off Valentino Rossi.
Rossi could prove the key man in his way. After a stunning fight back from 15th on the grid in Australia to take a podium, the Italian legend is now clear of teammate Lorenzo in P2 in the Championship – but says his focus is on having good races, not on the points. With a good record at the track, including six wins, and recurrent pace in 2016, the 9-time World Champion will be out for glory in Malaysia.
Teammate Lorenzo had a tough Australian GP. With weather playing havoc throughout the weekend, the 3-time MotoGP™ World Champion wasn’t quite able to replicate his pace from previous years at the Island. Malaysia, however, brings warm temperatures and different tyres once again – and another chance of a stunning comeback like the previously-reigning Champion has pulled off all year. Now under some pressure from Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Maverick Viñales for P3 in the title and fighting to gain points back on the man he defeated last year – Rossi – for P2, the ‘Spartan’ will lay it all on the line in the final two rounds of the season.
Viñales proved his mettle once again in Australia. Moving from 13th on the grid to complete the podium, Rossi’s future teammate and his Suzuki are now constant threats at the front – and Sepang should prove no different. With warm temperatures in Malaysia and any big deficit in top speed for the Hamamatsu factory long gone, Sepang should see Viñales – and fellow Phillip Island podium contender and teammate Aleix Espargaro – as frontrunners once again.
The Ducati Team are another hoping to replicate some of their recent results, after Andrea Dovizioso took an impressive P2 in Motegi and was just off the podium in Phillip Island. With Andrea Iannone hoping to be back on the grid from injury, too, the Borgo Panigale squad will be eager to get out on track in Sepang, not least down the long straights of the venue – where the Ducati is sure to top the tables. ‘DesmoDovi’ is also targeting the man who just took him back in the Championship – Australian GP winner Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda).
Phillip Island saw Crutchlow take a stunning second career win and the Brit continue his incredible roll in the second half of 2016. High on confidence and with the results to back that up, the rider from Coventry is not only the top Independent Team rider in the Championship, he’s also back ahead of Dovizioso after another 25 point haul for victory, and gaining serious ground on Pedrosa as the Spaniard remains sidelined through injury. 24 points ahead of Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) in the fight to be top Independent Team rider in 2016, Crutchlow need only gain one point on the Spaniard in Malaysia to secure the title, with the fight for that honour now a two horse race.
MotoGP™ gets back on track in Malaysia this Friday at 9:55 local time (GMT + 8), as the penultimate round of the 2016 Championship heats up at Sepang International Circuit, and the riders test themselves against one of the toughest races of the year.
The 2016 Moto2™ season has been an exercise in expecting the unexpected. With the early leaders caught and passed by a fight back from reigning Champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) by mid-season, it was then Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP40) with the best traction – closing to within a point of the Frenchman’s lead. As the paddock heads for Malaysia, there’s a new man in P2: Tom Lüthi (Garage Plus Interwetten.)
In 2015, there was a duel for the race win in Moto2™ at Sepang: between Lüthi and Zarco. Mentioning the memory after taking the win in Motegi ahead of the Frenchman, the Garage Plus Interwetten rider both remembers the result and has shown he’s learned from it. The dark horse of the Moto2™ Championship is on a roll, and after pole last year at Sepang, a lesson in tactics and then two victories in the last two races, he heads for Malaysia as the man on the move – as Zarco and Rins try to get back in gear.
Zarco last took a full house of pole, win and fastest lap at the Austrian GP, and since the Frenchman has only had one podium finish – in Motegi. After a winning run that saw him reel in the victories following the Catalan GP, the drought is a tough one. On the other side of the coin, Alex Rins had taken over 30 points out of the Frenchman and headed into the flyaways only one point down, but then gave his rivals some breathing space back after the Spaniard crashed out in Motegi after injuring his shoulder on the Friday – and then a little more as he had a DNF in Phillip Island. But what Zarco gained on one rival, he lost to another.
Phillip Island was the first time Tom Lüthi has taken back-to-back wins in not just the intermediate class, but in his career. The 2005 125 World Champion has been a consistent race winner and frontrunner, but had never achieved what he did in Australia. He held his nerve once again as he took an amazing photo finish win from Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) in a tactical masterclass, a week after doing similar in Japan in front of Zarco. With two rounds to go, the Swiss veteran is now the closest challenger to the Frenchman – despite missing out on the Czech GP after a highside in qualifying – and has none of the pressure that has been raining down on Zarco and Rins.
Since being sidelined, Lüthi has won three out of five and gained 53 points on the French Championship leader – an average of around eleven per race. With two remaining and a deficit of 22 points, the crown is by no means out of reach.
Fourth placed Franco Morbidelli is the only other man mathematically still in play for the crown – but with a gap of 49 points to P1, the Italian would need to win both races, have Zarco not score in both – as well as gain big chunks of points on both Lüthi and Rins. Although the title is a long, almost impossible shot, Morbidelli had an incredible Phillip Island so close to the win and is on an amazing run of podium form. Maybe he won’t be Champion, but he could have a big effect on who is crowned, as could all those in Moto2™ who fight for the podium in one of the most competitive grids for years.
Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Raceline Malaysia) is a local on that competitive grid in Sepang, who will be pushing to take on the usual frontrunners – and could prove another dark horse after having previous podium form at home. Ramdan Rosli will also be flying the Malaysian flag with Petronas AHM Malaysia, and will wildcard the event.
Sepang International Circuit makes for great racing, and that’s what Moto2™ is all about as the season finale approaches. Zarco can take the crown with a race win, but the hurdles in front of the Frenchman seem to keep growing. A repeat of 2015 would be enough – but then the reigning Champion had already won the crown. There is now much more to lose – and for Lüthi and Rins, a lot less.
The Australian GP would have been a dream for Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo), had he not already wrapped up the World Championship in Aragon – with none of the key protagonists below him in the title fight taking points. After a red flag brought out by a crash for John McPhee (Peugeot MC Saxoprint) that also collected Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3), Andrea Migno (Sky Racing Team VR46) and Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0), none of them scored – and neither did any of the riders locked in the battle to be Rookie of the Year.
Those rookies – Joan Mir (Leopard Racing), Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46) and Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing Moto3) – all crashed out in Australia, and Francesco Bagnaia (Pull&Bear Aspar Mahindra) was another affected in one of those on-track incidents: leaving it status quo in the title fight nearer the front.
Andrea Locatelli (Leopard Racing) and Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0) were the riders to gain. As Binder disappeared, Locatelli had an impressive ride as the next man on the track – ahead of the 16 rider train behind fighting for the podium. It was rookie Canet who won that fight over a stunning performance from Darryn Binder (Platinum Bay Real Estate), and the Spanish rookie will be full of confidence now he’s ticked off his first World Championship podium.
Last year, Brad Binder took second behind eventual Championship runner-up Miguel Oliveira, with Jorge Navarro also on the podium. Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) was a close fourth from pole, and track records can sometimes prove important –but they can also easily be changed.
Sepang International Circuit will prove a big challenge. Bastianini is suffering a cracked vertebra but still en route to Malaysia as he defends his lead in P2 from Navarro, and many others are bruised after the Australian GP – proving a case of advantage Binder in some ways once again. But with the two long straights in Sepang – as well as the now adverse camber Turn 15 that separates them – Moto3™ will remain anyone’s game as the masters of slipstreaming take on the venue.
Pitlane opens at 9:00 local time (GMT +8) on Friday in Malaysia, as the scars from the fight in Australia are reset and another incredible battle prepared.