The atmosphere hangs heavy over the Sepang International Circuit, both literally and figuratively. The thick gray haze casts a pall over the circuit, dulling the light, restricting vision, cloying at the throats of everyone at the track, and in the region.
There is another oppressive weight over the proceedings, this time of expectation. There is the pressure of a MotoGP title battle going down to the wire, and a Moto3 championship that should have been wrapped up two races ago, before a new rival emerged on the scene.
Then there is the electric tension created by Valentino Rossi, when he decided to use the pre-event press conference to accuse Marc Márquez of helping Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
Since then, it has been impossible to view any action by either Rossi or Márquez with an objective eye. Rossi’s accusations, Márquez’ defense, and Lorenzo’s entry into the arena color everything that happens, on and off the track.
Phillip Island, like Mugello, is one of the tracks which any motorcycle racer worth their salt puts at the very top of their list of favorite tracks. And rightly so: swooping over gently undulating ground sitting atop cliffs overlooking a bay on the Bass Strait, it is perhaps the greatest of the natural race tracks.
It has everything a race track should have: a collection of fast, sweeping corners which richly reward bravery; a couple of hard braking corners fast and slow at which to overtake; a superb and treacherous combination of turns in Lukey Heights and MG at which to make a last ditch passing attempt, and a long enough run to the finish line to make drafting a possibility.
Add in arguably the most breathtaking setting on the calendar, and you have just about everything.
With the title chase so incredibly tight, it is inevitable that every MotoGP race from now until Valencia will result in journalists and writers – and I include myself in that group – spend most of their time writing about the clash between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
The outcome of that confrontation matters, as it will decide the 2015 MotoGP championship.
This is tough on the rest of the MotoGP field and the riders in other classes. They, too, are riding their hearts out, aiming for – and in Moto2 and Moto3 attaining – glory, yet they are ignored as the rest of the world gazes in wonder at a few names at the front of MotoGP.
They do not deserve such treatment, but life in general, and motorcycle racing in particular are neither fair nor just.
There were plenty of tales to tell at Motegi, however. The biggest, perhaps, is the tale of tires. To some extent, this has already been covered in already, as tire wear ended up determining the outcome of the race.
Saturday at Motegi had offered the mouthwatering prospect of the battle we have been waiting for all year. Valentino Rossi had cracked his qualifying jinx and lined up on the grid next to Jorge Lorenzo.
The pair were close in qualifying times and in race pace, and with 14 points separating them in the championship, there was a lot at stake. Finally, we might get to see Rossi and Lorenzo go head to head in the struggle for supremacy, and to seize the momentum in the MotoGP title race.
As has so often been the case, the hopes of the fans withered on the vine on race day. The rain wrecked any chance of a straight and open battle between the two protagonists in the title chase, throwing the day’s schedule into disarray, and turning what could have been an all-out war into a cagey battle of tactics.
We may not have been given what we hoped for, but there was still plenty for the fans to get their teeth into. Jorge Lorenzo looked to have the race sewn up by the halfway mark, but a slowly drying track blew the race wide open.
There were very few direct battles, at least not up front, but an increasingly dry line radically changed the dynamic of the race. There was tension, there were surprises, myths, and shibboleths were shattered.
The championship took on a new impetus, and the strain of the fight going down to the line started to take its toll. This is going to be a tough year for the men who would be champion.
Has Valentino Rossi finally mastered qualifying? The Italian has struggled since the format changed, from the extended hour of qualifying which started out as free practice and ended up as an all-out time attack, to the frenetic fifteen-minute dash for pole.
His biggest problem, he always explained, was getting up to speed from the start: leaving pit lane and going flat out from the very first meters. He had spent a lifetime slowly sidling up to a blistering lap, rather than getting the hammer down as soon as the lights changed.
The switch from an analog to a binary format had been hard to swallow. Millions of older fans sympathized, as they faced the same struggle in their own lives.
Lorenzo, on the other hand, has thrived in the new format, having learned the skill while doing battle with Casey Stoner. The Australian’s greatest legacy was his ability to go as fast as possible the moment he left the pit lane.
I was once told by Cristian Gabarrini, Stoner’s crew chief, that when they looked at his sector times, they would see that he had set his fastest sector times on his out lap. To beat Stoner, Lorenzo had to learn to emulate him.
It’s only Friday, but already, one championship has been decided. Tito Rabat’s mission to outscore Johann Zarco was tough enough before he crashed at Almeria and broke his wrist, but trying to handle the immense braking stresses of the Japanese circuit with a freshly plated radius proved too much to ask.
Rabat’s attempt was brave, but ultimately doomed to failure. After riding in FP1, Rabat realized that it wasn’t so much the pain, but rather a lack of strength in the arm needed to control the bike safely. Forced to withdraw, Rabat’s title defense came to an end, and Johann Zarco became the 2015 Moto2 World Champion.
It was a rather bewildered Zarco who faced the press later on Friday. His mind was still focused on Sunday’s race, rather than on becoming champion. He could barely comprehend that he had already won the title.
Mentally, he had prepared to celebrate on Sunday, after the race, so the title had come unexpectedly early. It did not put him off his stride, however. Zarco was twelve thousandths slower than Tom Luthi in FP1, and nineteen thousandths faster than Alex Rins in FP2. He remains the man to beat in Moto2, exactly as he has been all year.
Motegi was the stage for a parade of the walking wounded on Thursday. The first question to half of the riders in the press conference was, “How’s the injury?”
The answers mattered quite a lot, given that Jorge Lorenzo is engaged in a battle to the wire with Valentino Rossi for the 2015 MotoGP crown, Marc Márquez has proved to be capable of being the joker in the podium pack, and Andrea Iannone is the dark horse always looking to disrupt proceedings at the front.
If any of those three are severely hampered by their injuries, it could have a major impact on the outcome of the championship.
There is, of course, one minor problem with asking riders how their injuries are, and how much trouble they are causing: you never know just how close to the truth the answer they gave you actually is.
This is not necessarily because they are trying to deceive you, but as Valentino Rossi himself pointed out, often, a rider does not know just how much trouble an injury will cause until they actually get on a bike and ride. “For me, I think it’s impossible to know,” he replied, when asked if he thought Lorenzo might be hampered by his injury at Motegi.