The VROOM Blog #MalaysianGP – The Beast is back! Enea Bastianini dominates on Sunday in Sepang

 In Blog, MotoGP, News

MotoGP was back in action this weekend as the final triple header of the season kicked off in Malaysia. I use ‘kicked off’ as in ‘started,’ not to suggest that anything exciting happened, because while there were some interesting results on Sunday at Sepang – that race was quiet possibly the dullest one of the season.

Once again Alex Rins was out of action, with the LCR Castrol team announcing before the weekend that he would be replaced by HRC World Superbike rider Iker Lecuona for this round and for the Qatar GP next weekend. Lecuona would be joined on the grid by a second World Superbike rider this weekend as Alvaro Bautista made his much-anticipated return to the MotoGP paddock for a wildcard. Hopes were high for Bautista who arrived in the paddock fresh from wrapping up his second World Superbike Championship, and having had some successful tests on the bike at Misano earlier in the season.

Heading into the weekend, there were just 13 points separating title rivals Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin, and the two riders had different approaches to the week off between the Thai GP and this weekend. While championship leader Bagnaia headed home to Italy before flying out to Malaysia, Martin stayed in Bali, which in theory would allow him to skip jet lag, and remain acclimatised to the heat and humidity.

There is still no news on who will replace Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda next season, but there were a few rumours surrounding the seat in the paddock this weekend. Fermin Aldeguer was the name everyone was talking about early in the weekend, with the young Spanish Moto2 rider confirming that there had been a phone call from Honda, but that there was no contract on the table at the moment.

Alberto Puig was quick to pour water on that story however, telling Spanish broadcaster DAZN that he didn’t know where the story had come from and that it was “100% false.” Puig then said that Pol Espargaro returning to the team was a “real possibility.” Pol himself said that while it was nice to be considered, he would be staying with the KTM family for next season.

The name that seemed to be in contention at the end of the weekend was Luca Marini, with some media outlets reporting that the deal is done and it is just a matter of time before an announcement is made. Luca was asked about the situation on Sunday, and he didn’t have much to say other than that it is “a privilege” to be in this situation, and that all he wants is what is best for his career.

I’m not sure how a move from the best bike on the grid to one of the worst would be the best thing for his career right now, but Honda will work things out and be competitive again sooner or later, so if he can secure a contract for longer than one year, he may reap benefits in the long-run. And Marini could be an asset to Honda – he has always been perceived as a “thinking rider,” so he may be able to provide them with useful feedback.

Whoever they sign, they need to move quickly – Puig admits the situation is “very serious” and that they need to have a rider in place before the end of the season, so that they can participate in the Valencia test.

Should Marini make the switch to Honda, there would of course be a vacant seat at VR46. While Fabio Di Giannantonio might seem like an obvious choice to side-step from Gresini to VR46, it seems that Fermin Aldeguer may get the nod to move up to the premier class next season. I think VR46 (on a Ducati) would be a better place for a premier class rookie rather than Honda at the moment, and it would be good to see Pedro Acosta have some competition in the rookie of the year battle.

Friday morning’s FP1 session saw Marco Bezzecchi take an early ride through the gravel at turn 15 – he did well to keep his Ducati upright and rejoin the track. Aleix Espargaro crashed at turn 15, with his Aprilia promptly catching fire. The flames were quickly extinguished by the marshals, and Aleix headed back to the pits to jump on his second bike.

With 10 minutes left of the session Franky Morbidelli climbed to the top of the times, before Fabio Quartararo made it a Yamaha 1-2 a few minutes later. I can’t remember the last time I wrote Yamaha 1-2! It didn’t last for long, with Luca Marini and Augusto Fernandez soon lapping faster than Quartararo, before Franky was bumped back to 4th. The session was topped by Jorge Martin, ahead of Alex Marquez, Johann Zarco, Morbidelli, and Quartararo.

Championship leader Bagnaia completed the session in 15th place, while wildcard Bautista was 22nd with only Iker Lecuona behind him.

Practice on Friday afternoon saw a flurry of fast laps at the start of the session – presumably the riders were putting in banker laps in case the clouds that were looming overhead burst before the end of the session. After 10 minutes, we had seen a crash for Aleix Espargaro, and Alex Marquez was leading the way, ahead of Marc Marquez who had used his brother for a tow, with Quartararo, Zarco, and Bagnaia rounding out the top 5.

By the half way point of the session, Jorge Martin was at the top of the times, and Aleix Espargaro crashed again with 27 minutes left on the clock. As the final quarter of the session got going, Aleix crashed again – his 3rd of this session, and 4th of the day! Meanwhile, Brad Binder set a fast lap to top the session, while Joan Mir and Raul Fernandez spent a few minutes knocking each other out of the top 10.

Most riders headed into the pits with just under 10 minutes to go, and it was Alex Marquez who was fastest at this point. Everyone headed back out with around 5 minutes left on the clock, and with 2 minutes left, Raul Fernandez crashed at turn 9. Jorge Martin jumped to the top of the times with 30 seconds remaining, but Alex Marquez left it right until his final lap to set the fastest lap of the session.

Alex would be joined in going directly into Q2 by Martin, Miller, Binder, Viñales, Marini, Quartararo, Bagnaia, Bezzecchi, and Zarco. Everyone else would have to battle it out in Q1.

FP2 on Saturday morning was delayed by 35 minutes following two red flags in Moto2. Marco Bezzecchi had a very slow speed crash at turn 9, and the session was topped by the Yamahas of Quartararo and Morbidelli, with Binder, Alex Marquez, and Zarco completing the top 5.

Q1 started with the usual nonsense from Marc Marquez as he tried desperately to follow another rider for a tow – honestly, if they switched to a Superpole style of qualifying Marc would be screwed. Today’s rider of choice for Marquez was Franky Morbidelli, and Franky was not impressed – he stopped riding down pit lane until Marc left the pits, but Marc just did his usual and rode slowly on track until Franky passed him and then jumped on the back of him.

After one lap, it was Franky and Enea Bastianini who held the top two slots. With 9 minutes remaining Pol Espargaro crashed at turn 9 and did what he often does – he took ages to get up and walk away, instead choosing to remonstrate with himself while still kneeling on the track. Just get up! It’s a live track and not only does it keep yellow flags out for longer, ruining laps for other riders, but if someone else has the same accident you did, you could get hurt! It really frustrates me when riders – especially experienced riders – behave like that.

Both Enea and Franky were on fast laps with red sectors which were cancelled due to the yellow flags brought out by Pol’s crash. As riders headed back out on track for their final runs, Marc was once again waiting for Franky, and Franky was having none of it – riding slowly and gesturing at Marc. This carried on for so long that Aleix Espargaro was able to go top and knock Franky out of the top two.

Marc was eventually riding ahead of Franky, and Di Giannantonio jumped to the top of the times, with Bastianini back up to 2nd place. Marc crashed in the final seconds of the session having made a ridiculous move on Augusto Fernandez.

In the end it was Di Giannantonio and Bastianini who would be heading through to Q2, with Franky having missed a golden opportunity to progress through himself, due to being sucked in by Marc’s towing antics. It’s easy to say that Franky (or any of the riders he chooses to follow) should just ignore him and get on with it, but so often we see riders try that only for Marc to use their tow to record a faster lap time and head through to Q2 at their expense. It’s kind of a catch 22 situation I suppose – you can either “get on with it” and tow him to a faster lap, or you can spend so long shaking him off that you don’t have enough time to set a fast enough lap.

I know that there aren’t any rules against it, but I’ve said it before – it doesn’t feel very sporting. Casey Stoner said as much when he was part of the TNT Sports team at Phillip Island a few weeks ago.

Anyway, Diggia and Enea joined the earlier top 10 in Q2, and after one lap of action, Luca Marini was holding provisional pole, although Jorge Martin took it from Marini with an all-new lap record before everyone pitted for fresh rubber ahead of a final run.

Enea Bastianini had headed out on track earlier than most, and was just starting his flying lap as the rest were leaving pit lane. He jumped to 2nd place, before Diggia crashed at the final corner, bringing out the yellow flags. Luca Marini also crashed, and his bike was stranded at the edge of the track. Thankfully the marshals were able to get it shifted, but the yellow flags as they did so impacted laps for both Martin and Bagnaia.

As the chequered flag came out, Jorge Martin crashed at turn 4, before Bagnaia jumped to the top of the times to claim pole position from Martin. They would be joined on the front row by Enea Bastianini. Row two would be made up by Alex Marquez, Marini, and Bezzecchi, meaning that the top 6 on the grid were all Ducati riders. Brad Binder was the first non-Ducati in 7th, with Quartararo, Viñales, Miller, Diggia, and Zarco making up the rest of the top 12.

Enea Bastianini was delighted to have secured a front row start, branding his season so far “a disaster.”

Following on from the qualifying sessions, a new rule was announced regarding the white flag that is deployed when riders are allowed to change their bikes due to rain. From now on, the flags can be displayed on a warm up lap if rain begins and the race has already been declared a dry race, meaning that riders can pit for their second bike, and start the race from pit lane should they feel the change is necessary before the race starts.

As the riders lined up on the grid ahead of the Sprint, there was a rush of activity around Jorge Martin’s Ducati on the front row. He had lost a fork wing on the sighting lap, and his team were working to replace it before the Sprint got underway.

Bagnaia made the most of his pole position to lead Bastianini and Alex Marquez into turn 1, with Martin having dropped to 4th ahead of Miller, Binder, Bezzecchi, and Marini. Alex Marquez passed Bastianini for 2nd place, before Bastianini was also passed by Martin and Miller. There had been contrasting starts to the race for the Yamaha duo, with Franky having moved up to 11th, while Quartararo had dropped down to 19th.

Lap 2 saw Alex Marquez pass Bagnaia into the final turn, only to run wide and allow Bagnaia and Martin through. Alex lunged through on Martin at turn 1 on the next lap, but ran wide again meaning that Martin held on to 2nd place until Alex tried again, this time taking 2nd from Martin and leaving Martin shaking his head. Marc Marquez crashed at turn 14, but he was able to remount his Honda and rejoin the race.

Enea Bastianini passed Binder for 5th place, before Joan Mir crashed at the final turn on lap 3. Like his teammate, he was able to rejoin the race. Bastianini was a man on the move – he passed Miller for 4th place while setting the fastest lap of the race. Ahead of Bastianini, Alex Marquez was trying to pass Bagnaia for the lead of the race, it took him a couple of tries, but he was able to make the move stick on lap 6 and immediately began pulling away from the Italian. Martin passed Bagnaia for 2nd place a few corners later.

Bagnaia picked up what looked to be a takeaway container on lap 7 – it clung over the front right wing of his Ducati, but was gone a lap later. Teammate Bastianini was behind him in 4th place, and he looked to be faster than Bagnaia, but would he pass him and take points away from him in the championship battle?

No, he wouldn’t, but he didn’t let up on the pressure he was applying on the final lap. Alex Marquez took the chequered flag to take his second Sprint victory of the season, ahead of Martin and Bagnaia, with Bastianini in 4th and Binder in 5th place. Miller, Bezzecchi, Zarco, and Marini rounded out the points finishers.

With Martin finishing ahead of Bagnaia the championship lead was cut to 11 points. Bagnaia didn’t appear to be very happy with his 3rd place finish, saying that they (he and his team) had done “the maximum” but that wasn’t enough to win, before abruptly walking away when interviewed post-race by Simon Crafar.

Martin said that he felt that everyone was “on the limit” but that he was happy to finish ahead of his “main opponent” – I find it quite interesting that both Martin and Bagnaia are now referring to each other as their “rival” or “opponent” rather than using their name.

The riders had a lucky escape weather wise, as around 15 minutes after the Sprint medal ceremony the rain was absolutely bucketing down. Fabio Quartararo was fined by the stewards for undoing his helmet as he rode back down the pit lane after the race, with the stewards citing the rule about having all equipment on properly. Fabio was less than impressed with the fine, and was very outspoken when asked about it on Sunday afternoon after the GP race. He said that he didn’t think the stewards were doing their jobs properly, and that they close their eyes and pick a penalty for the riders they don’t like, and “that’s me.” He also pointed out that this isn’t a new thing – he often undoes his helmet strap as he rolls back down pit lane.

I can see his point – it seems a petty fine. Yes, that is a rule, and technically the pit lane counts as a live track, but why couldn’t they have taken him aside and asked him not to continue doing it rather than jumping straight in with a fine? And what about when riders stop and throw their gloves or boots into the crowd on a cool-down lap and then ride the rest of the lap with no gloves or boots? We haven’t seen fines handed out on those occasions…

Morning warm up on Sunday was topped by Quartararo ahead of Binder, Bastianini, Alex Marquez, and Aleix Espargaro.

Before the MotoGP race on Sunday, we saw two significant results in Moto3 and Moto2. Moto3 rookie Collin Veijer took his maiden victory in the class ahead of Ayumu Sasaki – who was not impressed with his teammate passing him for the win when he is fighting for the title, but that’s another story! – to become the first Dutch rider to win in any GP class since Hans Spaan at the 1990 Czech GP. Just in case you wanted to feel old, not only was Collin Veijer not born then, he wasn’t born for another 15 years!

In Moto2, we saw our champion crowned as Pedro Acosta took 2nd place in the race behind Fermin Aldeguer which was enough to secure the 2023 crown. Pedro’s championship celebration saw him stop in the “Shark Zone” before walking along a blue carpet with huge photos showing his rise over the last few years. There were 5 photos in total, starting with the dream beginning in 2012, before moving on to show him as the Red Bull Rookies Champion in 2020, the Moto3 World Champion in 2021, his “challenging year” – in which he was still rookie of the year – in 2022, before finishing with Moto2 World Champion in 2023.

At the end of the carpet was some poor soul (it was over 30 degrees outside) in a shark costume who presented Pedro with his champion’s helmet. I do wonder why he doesn’t have a helmet deal with Shark when the shark is his thing! He donned his champion’s vest and helmet before jumping back on his bike to perform a massive burnout before riding back to the pits.

Pedro Acosta is the youngest ever Moto2 World Champion, and the 2nd youngest person to win the intermediate class in any form – only Dani Pedrosa was younger way back in 2004. Pedro looked done in after the race, and was even sick during his parc ferme interview. He headed up to the podium, where he was unable to celebrate by spraying prosecco as the legal drinking age in Malaysia is 21!

The MotoGP race got underway, and although Bastianini was quickest off the line, Jorge Martin was the leader into turn 1. Martin ran wide though and dropped back to 5th place, leaving Bastianini to lead from Alex Marquez, Bagnaia, and Bezzecchi. Jack Miller passed Quartararo for 6th place, before Martin passed Bezzecchi for 4th. Over laps 3 and 4 Martin and Bagnaia battled over 3rd place, exchanging positions a few times before Bagnaia made the final move on Martin stick at turn 5.

Joan Mir crashed out of the race at turn 4 to record Repsol Honda’s 50th crash of the season. An astounding stat on its own, but when you consider how many race weekends he and Marc have missed this season, its even worse! Miguel Oliveira crashed out of the race on lap 6, while Aleix Espargaro crashed out on lap 9.

Franky Morbidelli passed Luca Marini for 10th place on lap 12 before Brad Binder crashed out of 9th place at turn 12. Taka Nakagami crashed and remounted on lap 13, and honestly the crashes were pretty much the only thing happening. This race is surely up there as one of the most boring ones there has ever been – the front four were all separated by between 1 and 4 seconds, and there were hardly any passes happening at all.

On the 19th of 20 laps, Franky passed Diggia and Miller to take 7th place, before Enea Bastianini went on to take his first win of the season, and his first in factory red. Bastianini would be joined on the podium by Alex Marquez and Pecco Bagnaia, with Jorge Martin having to settle for 4th place. It was a strong race for Fabio and Franky who finished in 5th and 7th respectively, with Bezzecchi finishing between them.

Enea’s win sees him become the 7th different race winner of the season (remember – Sprints don’t count!), and means that all 8 Ducati riders have now stood on the podium this season. The championship lead is now 14 points as Bagnaia finished ahead of Martin, and Bezzecchi is out of contention for the title – it is officially a two-horse race between Bagnaia and Martin with two rounds (and 74 points) remaining.

There had been rumours in previous rounds that Ducati might look at moving Martin into the factory team at the expense of Enea Bastianini given Martin’s performances this season, and because many think that Ducati wouldn’t want to see the number 1 plate being run on a satellite bike. This weekend, Ducati’s Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said that although they had confirmed Enea for the factory team for next season, “it is a reality” that they should consider Martin given his current level of performance. I think it would be harsh to replace Enea for next season – it isn’t like he has been underperforming, he has been out injured for many rounds – but I suppose I can see it from Ducati’s point of view. I do feel though that the Pramac seat is the better one in some ways – you have the same equipment as the factory team without the pressure of being in the factory team.

Either way, this weekend belonged to Enea, and it was brilliant to see him return to the top step after such a challenging season so far. Bagnaia will no doubt be rubbing his hands with glee – his teammate’s return to form comes at a time when he could really use a wingman. You know I’m not a fan of team orders, but there’s no denying that Enea is likely to be expected to help Bagnaia out if he is able to.

Next up is Qatar this coming weekend, and I’m really looking forward to not having to stay up through the night to watch!

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