This year’s Malaysian round of the MotoGP series has offered a glimpse of the future, for those with an interest in seeing it. While the series is locked in a series of arguments over the future of the technical regulations, the massive economic problems in its key television markets, and the Spanish domination of the sport in all classes, Sepang pointed the way forward, and that way is definitely east.
It starts with the crowds. Where crowd numbers have been falling almost everywhere at the European rounds, Sepang is seeing record attendances this weekend. Grandstand tickets are selling out fast, and despite the rain, fans are turning up in large numbers.
How much those numbers are being inflated by Australians flocking to the circuits they can fly to affordably to see Casey Stoner ride the last few races of his career is uncertain, but that they should be packing the grandstands in Malaysia seems unlikely. There are also plenty of local fans, coming to see riders from the region threaten the top of the time sheets for the first time in history, and not just make up the numbers at the rear.
They have had a treat this weekend. On Friday, local wildcard Hafizh Syahrin topped an admittedly wet session of Moto2 free practice by getting out early when it was relatively dry, but he had sufficient competition for his result to have been noteworthy.
On Saturday morning, Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami topped Moto2 FP3, once again by judging the conditions correctly. And on Saturday afternoon, the fans were in for a massive treat, when Zulfahmi Khairuddin bagged his first ever pole position in front of his home crowd, becoming the first ever Malaysian to start from pole in a Grand Prix. And on his 21st birthday too.
Another Brno, that is the hope of every MotoGP fan around the world after qualifying sessions like the one at Motegi on Saturday. The breathtaking battle in the Czech Republic, which saw Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo on each others’ tails all race long and the result settled in almost the final corner, was the natural outcome of two equally-matched men on very different, but equally-matched machines. There was nothing to choose between the two during qualifying at Brno, and there was nothing to choose between them during the race.
Motegi is shaping up to be similar. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have very similar pace, and both have the consistency, the talent, and the desire to push to the end. Jorge Lorenzo may have taken pole – the 50th of his career and one of his finest, with a blistering lap in near-perfect condition to destroy the existing pole record – but Pedrosa’s race pace is fractionally faster than that of the polesitter. Where Lorenzo’s near-robotic consistency has him lapping in the low 1’46.1s, Pedrosa is posting high 1’46.0s. The two men are separated by hundredths of a second only, and appear to have the measure of each other.
The wildcard in all of this is chatter. The problem, which has plagued the Honda all year, reappeared with a vengeance in the middle of qualifying for Pedrosa, leaving him struggling to get up to speed and to mount a serious challenge for pole. “Suddenly I had some big chatter,” Pedrosa said at the press conference, “I was in and out of the box trying to change things.”
The problem was all the more unsettling for being so unexpected. “It’s a bit strange,” Pedrosa said. “We didn’t have chattering in the morning or yesterday, just today in the qualifying. Not even in the first part of the qualifying.” Whether the issue is being caused by the setup Pedrosa uses when chasing a qualifying time remains to be seen, but if Pedrosa’s crew cannot eliminate it in tomorrow’s warm up, the Repsol Honda man’s title chances could be over.
Finally it stopped raining. The light drizzle that has plagued the Misano circuit since Friday morning petered out around lunchtime, making way for the sun to dry the track out. Though the riders were glad to see the back of the rain, it left them with an awful lot of work to do. The set up work from the three lost sessions all had to be squeezed into the single hour of qualifying, leaving space for the mad fifteen minute scramble for grid positions. “It was a pretty tight session,” Dani Pedrosa said after qualifying. “We had to test tires, set up, and get a feeling for the bike in just 60 minutes.”
Up until the start of MotoGP qualifying, it looked like Dani Pedrosa had the race at Brno just about wrapped up. The media center joke was that they might as well start writing his name on the trophy, so much faster was the Repsol Honda man. And then he crashed in qualifying, and started going an awful lot slower, in a tale that has echoes of Casey Stoner’s time at Ducati.
The crash was relatively simple – “maybe I was on the limit too much,” Pedrosa said, and Brno with its long corners, some flat and some downhill, means the riders are pushing the front for a lot of the time at the circuit – but the consequences were serious. Pedrosa returned to the pits, got on his second bike, and immediately had much worse chatter than before. Despite the setup being identical on both bikes. This is the kind of thing that Casey Stoner used to suffer at Ducati, two identical bikes that felt different, an issue that he never suffered at Honda. But the problem with hand-built prototypes is that apparently, even tiny deviations can cause a difference in feel, especially when pushed to their very limits by riders as sensitive as Pedrosa.
The issue highlights just how close Honda are to a solution. One apparently tiny difference between machines, and the difference is massive, from a bike that is almost impossible to go fast on to a bike that has some chatter, but is still rideable. Casey Stoner told reporters at the test at Catalunya that progress had been made by switching out a “two-dollar part”. There aren’t that many two-dollar parts on the bike, which means that somewhere a bushing or a spacer or an insert could be part of the solution. It also means that small variations in two-dollar parts – not known for requiring massive precision in manufacturing – could also be part of the problem.
Assen’s surface is pretty good when it’s dry, and it’s not too bad when it’s wet, but this is 2012, and there’s a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning.
Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The problem is the asphalt. The current surface means it is impossible to see when the track is damp, rather than wet, meaning that it is easy to get caught out, Ben Spies said, an explanation later verified by Wilco Zeelenberg, Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager. The track is fine when it’s dry, and when it’s wet, the water sits pretty evenly, making for a predictable surface. But the first few spots of rain are lethal. If that were to happen in the race, it could make for a very dangerous situation, Spies said.
The weather has been a cruel mistress at Silverstone this weekend, much as it has been every year MotoGP has paid a visit. The track is built around an airfield, and consequently sits on a plateau just enough above the surrounding area to catch any wind which may be about. On Saturday, that was a lot, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder all day, catching many a rider out, especially on the way into Brooklands. The wind also blew in occasional showers, though it blew them back out again just as fast, a small blessing on an incredibly difficult day.
Despite the conditions, three men braved the wind to take pole in each class, to varying levels of surprise. That Maverick Vinales should take pole in Moto3 is much as expected, Silverstone being the Spaniard’s third pole position in a row. Though his advantage is relatively modest, there has been no one to mount a serious challenge to his supremacy all weekend, and if he gets a decent start he will be a very hard man to beat.
Pol Espargaro’s Moto2 pole is hardly unexpected – the Spaniard is one of the main candidates for the title this year, and is looking particularly fearsome at Silverstone this weekend – yet it is his first ever pole in the class. A front row regular this season, things have really come together with the Pons team and the Kalex chassis, the bike performing exceptionally well in the windy conditions. Mostly, though, Espargaro’s performance is down to the man himself: he has led every session at Silverstone so far, his advantage over his rivals increasing each time.
The big surprise came in MotoGP, Alvaro Bautista snatching his first ever pole in the premier class. Luck – and judgment – were certainly on Bautista’s side, the San Carlo Gresini man timing his first fast run just right, the first light showers appearing shortly after he claimed the spot atop the timesheets. Though the rain may have hampered his rivals – Casey Stoner, in particular, was confident he could have gone a lot faster than he had, his crew finding a big improvement just before the rain came down – Bautista’s time was of itself highly respectable, and came on top of strong performances throughout free practice.
The rain, which has been chasing motorcycle races around this season, finally got bored and moved off on Saturday, giving the track at Estoril a chance to dry. The final corner, which proved so treacherous on Friday, was greatly improved – and made even better by the addition of a cone on the inside of Turn 13, marking where the wet patches were so the riders could take a line inside them. But the wet patches were still there, with water apparently seeping up from the ground to be sucked to the surface. The repairs to the track had been half the problem; the new asphalt was still so fresh that the bitumen was sucking up water from below. Not a lot the track can do about such a problem, and rather cruel to be punished for trying to fix the track in the first place.
While their resurfacing attempts may not have paid off as intended, the circuit management’s bargain basement approach to ticket pricing made a huge difference. The track was busier on a Saturday than any time I have ever been here, with many fans deciding that for the price of a tank of gas and a cheap hotel, they would head for Estoril. With tickets selling for between 2 euros for the cheapest single-day entrance to 20 euros for a three-day grandstand pass, the entertainment is also a little limited. Jumbotrons around the track are few and far between, the only one I have seen has been opposite the main grandstand. But for 2 euros, and with some great seating around Estoril, who is going to complain?