MotoGP heads to the torrid heat of Sepang, and the threat of biblical deluge. Will West and Vermeulen profit, and will Casey Stoner's scaphoid hang on for two more races?
As the MotoGP circus wings its way across the Strait of Malacca towards Kuala Lumpur, it will be as if they were also traveling back in time. For at last year's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, there was only one subject of discussion, and that was the possible consequences of introducing a single tire rule. This year, there will once again be only one subject of discussion, the possible consequences of introducing a single tire rule.
The difference between this year and last is that in 2007, the single tire rule was just a proposal, a bargaining ploy to get Bridgestone to supply Valentino Rossi with tires for 2008. This year, the single tire rule is a done deal, confirmed at Motegi, and with Bridgestone the only company to have submitted a bid by the October 3rd deadline, the Japanese tire maker is certain of the contract. While last year at Sepang, the paddock waited for details of a deal to be announced, this year, they will be waiting for details of the contract, and how it will work.
But the same sense of trepidation will hang in the air. In comments to the press, Bridgestone's Motorcycle Sport Manager Hiroshi Yamada has already hinted that the number of tires available for riders will be drastically reduced, and that the construction of special tires for riders with specific needs - riders such as Toni Elias and Dani Pedrosa - will cease, with everyone left to cope with a limited choice of compounds and constructions. An announcement will be made on October 18th, but until then, fear, rumor and hearsay will fill the paddock.
Through The Looking Glass
Which is a shame, for the Sepang track actually offers the possibility of a good race. Viewed in isolation, the raw track specification fills the hearts of right-minded motorcycle racing enthusiasts with dread. The circuit was designed by that bane of motorcycle racers, Hermann Tilke, and is a very wide track featuring long straights, tight hairpins and slow chicanes, designed to help make for close racing in Formula 1.
But unlike its counterpart in Shanghai, designed to the same brief, the way the Sepang circuit joins those F1-based features is infinitely more imaginative, and flows from one corner to the next in a way quite alien to the Chinese track. If anything, the long straights and tight corners actually enrich the experience of the track, offering riders a chance to catch up in one area what they lose in sections where their machines are less capable.
The track starts with an almost interminable front straight, the bikes appearing to be cast adrift in a sea of tarmac, getting close to 190mph as they hit the braking zone for the first corner. That first corner is a tight buttonhook of a right hander, forcing the rider to dump 125mph as quickly as possible, before flicking the bike back hard left for Turn 2. Though you may have plenty of opportunity to outbrake people going into Turn 1, in doing so, you can easily open yourself up to give back what you just gained in that hard flick left.
Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow
A long, fast right hander then opens up, leading you on to another tight right, offering another opportunity to dive up the inside on the brakes. From this point, the track begins to flow, with a fast left followed by a faster right, before a short straight takes you into a double apex right. Like many double apex turns, the brave, the devious and the foolhardy can attempt alternate lines, braking later to dive up the inside into the first corner, carrying more speed into the turn to pass on the short section connecting the two turns, or turn into the second corner earlier, blocking the apex for the man head of you and stealing his position.
But once again, care is needed. Any pass through the double apex right leaves you badly short of drive on the short straight leading up to Turn 9, and if you do not defend your line, you end up with people flying past on the way into the left hand hairpin.
The hairpin at Turn 9 is another favorite passing spot, a chance to outbrake other riders, but like Turn 1, the corner is followed by another flick, right this time, before braking hard while leaned hard over for Turn 11, and off towards Turn 12. Brake too hard to pass at Turn 9, and your rivals will carry more speed out of 9 and into 10, and be on you and past going into 11.
Once out of Turn 11, you have two more chances to pass. The first is the section from Turn 12 through Turn 14, which starts with a fast left, followed by a long right which closes up into an almost hairpin at Turn 14. The mirror image of the final sequence of turns at Valencia, once again you are hard on the brakes at full lean, and bravery and cunning can get you ahead into Turn 14 and onto the straight.
If you do enter the straight first, you'd better pray for some horsepower. The straight at the back of the grandstands, like the front straight, is a long and lonely place, and tucked tightly under the bubble of the screen, you can only hope that anyone following doesn't whip out of your draft along the straight to jam their bike up the inside into the final hairpin and onto the back straight.
But that final hairpin presents dangers of its own. The last chance to get ahead of the man in front of you, the temptation is great to wait just another fraction of a millisecond before braking, and giving in to that temptation can bring you either gravel or glory, depending on your timing. Like the final corner at Mugello, it is far too easy to get drawn into a braking battle and end up hopelessly wide, and completely out of touch. Get it right, and you cross the line ahead. Get it wrong, and you watch the chasing hordes pass you by, dropping a handful of places in a handful of seconds.
That mix of long straights and hard braking, combined with the punishing heat and humidity, takes a very high toll on the riders. Add to this the fact that they Sepang is the third flyaway race in a row, and it comes close to the end of a long and arduous season, which has left many riders battered and bruised to varying degrees. Riding at full intensity for the duration of a MotoGP race in the tropical Malaysian heat is a real test of physical endurance, and the weak tend to fall along the wayside.
Battered, But Unbowed
The tough conditions at Sepang will for the biggest test yet for Casey Stoner. The Australian is still struggling with a broken scaphoid, soldiering on to the end of the season just so he can test the new Ducati GP9 at the post-race test at Valencia. Stoner's broken wrist didn't slow him down in front of his home crowd, the Australian winning the Phillip Island race with relative ease two weeks ago, but Sepang could be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Where Phillip Island flows, with only a couple of hard braking sections, Sepang has two of the hardest braking sections of the season on two consecutive corners, both at the end of 190mph straights. It also has two more tight corners which you approach at high speed, which will place even more strain on Stoner's weakened wrist. The circuit's saving grace are the two long straights, allowing riders to rest, even if just for a few seconds, and take the strain off injured bones.
Even with an injured wrist and the loss of fitness which it brings with it, Casey Stoner has got to be the favorite to win at Sepang. The Australian won here last year, capping a long series of strong results for Ducati in Malaysia. And Stoner has just had a couple of weeks holiday at home in Australia, a chance to recuperate from a long and hard title defense. There can be no doubt that Stoner is coming back to win the last two races of the season. The only question is whether his wrist is up to the job.
Rubbing It In
The main candidate to prevent Stoner from taking another victory will be the man who took his crown. Valentino Rossi is outstanding at Sepang, just as he is elsewhere. With 4 victories to his name at this track, and with his bike and his tires truly competitive, he will want to finish the season with another couple of wins to add to his tally.
But to do that, he will have to avoid the mistakes of the last race and last year. Both at Sepang in 2007 and two weeks ago at Phillip Island, Valentino Rossi qualified way down the grid, putting himself out of contention before the race had even started. All year long, Rossi has stated that if he is to keep up with Stoner, he needs to start from the front row. The Doctor will have to put his qualifiers to good use for the penultimate time if he is to achieve that. If he manages that, he will be very hard to beat.
The other main contender at Sepang will be Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard has finished on the podium in both of the two MotoGP races he has ridden here, and after his disastrous mistake at Phillip Island two weeks ago, he is keen to make amends. Pedrosa started from pole in Malaysia in 2007, and must be a very good bet to manage the same feat this year. The combination of Pedrosa's light weight and Honda's powerful pneumatic valve RC212V should give the Spaniard an extra burst of speed, making it possible to match and maybe even beat this year's and last year's champion.
Spanish For "Teamwork"
And Pedrosa badly needs a result. The Spaniard, his manager and his sponsor engineered a mid-season switch to Bridgestone tires, only for the whole series to go single tire a couple of races later. In addition, a surprisingly public war of words has been going on in the press over the past few days between Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden and his manager Alberto Puig.
Hayden told a Spanish newspaper that he believed Puig ran the HRC program, and Puig immediately struck back, branding Hayden a hypocrite, and accusing the American of not being able to set up a bike without Pedrosa's setup data. In the prerace press conference, Hayden then told the press that he hadn't seen any of Pedrosa's data for months, while Pedrosa had access to every other Honda rider's data any time he liked. He then restated his belief that it was Puig who held the power in the HRC team.
The whole mess is most unseemly, and exactly the kind of affair that Honda likes to keep behind closed doors, rather than paraded brazenly in public. There are already paddock rumblings that Honda has given Pedrosa one more year to become world champion, before they look for someone else to take his place. And with Alberto Puig's behavior increasingly reminiscent of some of Max Biaggi's finer outbursts, HRC attitudes towards both mentor and rider are likely to harden.
The pressure on Pedrosa is starting to build. He is still just 3rd in the championship, and under threat from Jorge Lorenzo in 4th. After electing to run the #2 plate to emphasize that he finished ahead of Valentino Rossi in 2007, Pedrosa could well finish down in 4th this year, and have to decide whether continuing with an unearned #2 would be a humiliation or a spur on to greater heights. The young Spaniard has so far been extremely cool under pressure, showing few signs of buckling. He has another chance to show just how well he copes with both the pressure of winning and the strain of a difficult team relationship on Sunday.
The First Man You Need To Beat
Probably the man most determined to beat Pedrosa is his team mate. Nicky Hayden has seen his form improve dramatically since Assen, though tire woes and a broken bone in his foot intervened, and is coming off two podiums from the last three races. Hayden immediately took to the air valve RC212V like a duck to water, and the Sepang circuit will suit both the bike and Hayden's style. The American has finished 4th in Malaysia 4 of the 5 visits he has paid to the track. He will be determined both to finally get onto the podium, and finish ahead of Pedrosa, to demonstrate both to Honda, but more importantly to Alberto Puig, that he should not be dismissed too lightly.
The other serious podium candidate is surely Jorge Lorenzo. The Fiat Yamaha man has now completely recovered the confidence he lost in the huge crashes he suffered early in the season, and is well on his way to securing the rookie of the year title, ahead of the other strong candidate for that title, Andrea Dovizioso.
But Lorenzo has another target in his sights. Like Hayden, Jorge Lorenzo is determined to beat Dani Pedrosa, though in Lorenzo's case, it is for the title of top Spanish rider, a battle he has spent a long time fighting with Pedrosa over. Now just 27 points behind Pedrosa, taking 3rd place away from the Honda rider will require a bit of help from other riders and the strongest possible ride from Lorenzo. Beating Pedrosa is all the motivation Lorenzo needs.
Once Upon A Time
In previous years, there would have been two other names that would have been likely candidates for the podium. But in 2008, for differing reasons, Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi are less likely to feature in the race for the silverware.
Capirossi's success in previous years was predicated on the Italian's superb bond with the Ducati 990. Capirex was a formidable opponent every time the series visited the Malaysian track, but the Suzuki is a different proposition. Despite the excellent times the team posted in testing here earlier in the year, the Suzukis have been very much mid-pack for most of the season. As good as Capirossi is here, he is unlikely to overcome the Suzuki's lack of top speed and drive out of corners.
Marco Melandri has the opposite problem. The Italian will suffer from having to ride a Ducati, rather than not having a Ducati to ride. Melandri finished 2nd here last year after a very strong performance, keeping Casey Stoner honest all the way to the end. But since his switch to the Bologna factory, Melandri has become a perennial backmarker. Even a return to a track he rides well at is unlikely to make much difference there.
Like Melandri, the Kawasaki team will find it almost impossible to match their performance from last year. Kawasaki started from 4th and 5th on the grid in 2007, with Randy de Puniet finishing in 4th, while poor Ant West was pulled in for a ride through penalty, ruining a strong start to the race. This year, Kawasaki have been dismal, and with both John Hopkins and Ant West complaining of a lack of grip at both front and rear, they are likely once again to be contesting for the final point on offer, rather than podium places. West will be glad to be leaving for a competitive team in World Supersport next year, while Hopkins will have to wonder what will happen once his big money contract with Monster Kawasaki comes to an end in 2009.
If you're looking for outsiders at Sepang, then you need look no further than the satellite teams. Ducati, Yamaha and Honda all have teams and riders in with a fighting chance of a podium here aboard satellite equipment.
The prime suspect must surely be Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian has performed miracles on about the most standard satellite Honda available, and is currently running 5th in the championship, some 37 points behind his former 250 nemesis Jorge Lorenzo in 4th. With a contract from HRC to ride the factory Honda under his belt, Dovizioso is looking to finish the season on a high.
Dovi's satellite RC212V may be a little underpowered down Sepang's mighty straights, but the Italian had plenty of practice of that last year, and is sure to put those lessons to good use. If he can stick with the front runners from the first lap, he could well spice up the battle for the podium.
And if James Toseland's performance at Phillip Island is anything to go by, a battle is exactly what it might turn into. The British Tech 3 Yamaha man gave a lesson in how World Superbike champions ride at Phillip Island last time out - much to the dismay of Dovizioso, who suggested JT might be better off taking up kickboxing - and some of those skills are likely to come in handy at Sepang, too.
There are a couple of points on the track - Turns 1 and 2, the double apex right at the bottom of the track, the combination of Turns 9 and 10 - which suit Toseland's aggressive attitude down to the ground. And having tested here extensively during the preseason, the Briton should know the track well enough to have a chance of improving on his best result. Toseland has finished 6th place 6 times this year. This could be the weekend he goes one better.
His team mate will want to do well here too. Colin Edwards has been given a stiff talking to by Yamaha racing bosses recently, on the remarkable coincidence between the point at which he signed a new contract to continue in MotoGP for another year and a sudden slump in results. If the Texan continues to be beaten by his team mate, he could find himself swapping seats with another Texan, Ben Spies, and off to ride a Yamaha in World Superbikes.
Like Colin Edwards, Shinya Nakano is fighting for his seat in MotoGP. The Japanese rider saw his career take a nosedive after he left Kawasaki to join the star-crossed JiR team, and has only recovered some of his former pace since switching back to Bridgestones aboard the Gresini Honda. Nakano is now testing the 2009 spec satellite RC212V, and as such is expected to do well. With his seat at Gresini gone to Toni Elias next year and his only hope of staying a return to Kawasaki aboard a third - or possibly even fourth - Kawasaki to be fielded by Aspar, he needs to finish the season with a couple of strong results to bolster his claim to remain in MotoGP. 5th place in Phillip Island was a good start, but he will need to match that at both Sepang and Valencia.
The man taking Nakano's place will surely be another dark horse at Malaysia. The Ducati is strong at Sepang, and since getting new rear suspension at the Sachsenring, Toni Elias has gone from strength to strength, even scoring a couple of podiums. But his last 3 races have shown a slump in form, and Elias will want to erase that memory before returning to the bosom of the Gresini Honda team. The Alice Ducati is fast enough, so a strong result for Elias has to be a serious possibility.
Elias' team mate has not had such a good year aboard the Ducati, despite soldiering bravely on while other Ducati riders were throwing up the hands in despair. Like Ant West, Sylvain Guintoli is taking a step back to go and ride a Suzuki in the British Superbikes Series, and like West, Guintoli will want to make an impression before he leaves. That should at least be easier for the Frenchman aboard the Ducati than it will be for the Australian on the Kawasaki. But like West, Guintoli has spent too much of the season languishing at the rear of the field, and will be pleased to be off to more competitive machinery next year.
Here Comes The Rain Again, Again
There is one more factor which may well end up playing a major role at Sepang. The weather is always difficult at Sepang, with the tropical heat and humidity sapping energy from both riders and bikes - one of the reasons the track is examining moving to a night race, as happened at Qatar. But this weekend's weather is looking even more difficult than usual. In a year plagued by rain, the Sepang race weekend looks like being more of the same, with scattered thunderstorms predicted for the entire weekend.
At another track, that might not be such a problem. But Sepang is right in the middle of the tropics, and a thunderstorm there can leave the track completely flooded, as it did back in 2006 causing qualifying to be canceled. Though the drainage has been improved since then, it is nigh on impossible to build drains big enough to get rid of the foot or so of water which a tropical downpour can dump on the track in the space of an hour. If it does rain, it could make riding difficult at the very least, if not plain impossible.
And of course, if it rains, it should be wet enough for the real wet weather riders, Ant West and Chris Vermeulen. The two Australians are peerless in the rain, and a properly wet track might give the pair a chance to finish their season off in style. Rain on race day would change the equation entirely, and could mean all bets are off, both in terms of the result, and whether the race can be run on time at all.
So let us hope that it stays dry on Sunday. For the combination of a track which offers the possibility of some close racing, and a pack of riders with either nothing to lose, or everything to lose if they fail, should spice up the racing quite nicely. If it gets as hot as the local cooking, we should be in for a real treat come Sunday.
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