It’s hard to tell if the jet lag is responsible for my almost hourly wake-ups at night, or if it’s the gallons of water we have been drinking, trying to stay hydrated in the oppressive heat of Kuala Lumpur. It’s also hard to fathom that Malaysia gets hotter than this, but it does — that’s the nature of an equatorial climate though.
It seems difficult to imagine, but this really is the most ideal time of the year to run the Malaysian GP. Sure there is the torrential rain that comes with the 90ºF temperature and its 50% humidity, but the summer months are even hotter. With track temperatures approaching 130ºF now already, we would have riders dropping like flies in June, July, and August.
It’s an attribute that comes with the track, just like how Qatar has its lights, Phillip Island has its mercurial weather patterns, and Laguna Seca has its Corkscrew turn. It is a part of what makes Sepang International Circuit a special venue, and part of what tests the mettle of the riders.
We wouldn’t know any of this first-hand though, as we have yet to be at the track so far in this trip. I have to remind myself that we are playing tourist for our Malaysian hosts, here more to experience the country than to report on the grand prix (thankfully, A&R has David and Tony for that job).
Instead Day Four sees us soaking up some more staples of KL culture, and of course us four American journalists singing for our supper…almost literally.
If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat.
But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
The downpour covered the track in several centimeters of standing water, making it impossible to ride. The session was delayed for twenty five minutes, starting after the rain had nearly eased up completely. Once the session got underway, the weather cleared up completely, the last ten minutes taking place in glorious sunshine once again.
The changes in the weather had a dramatic effect on the state of the track. It went from being fully wet, with water everywhere, to having just a thin layer of rainwater on it at the halfway mark, to being dry at most of the corners around the track once the session ended. Full wets were essential at the start of the session, but forty five minutes later, slicks were starting to become a viable option.
Thursday Summary from Sepang: The End of MotoGP’s Asian Peregrinations Beckon in the Sweltering Sepang Heat
Another week, another eight-hour flight, another race track. Sepang comes as the last of three grueling weekends chasing around the Pacific Ocean to race in Japan, Australia, and now Malaysia.
Even from the comfort of my European home (I lack the funds and, to a lesser extent, the inclination to pursue the paddock halfway around the world), it has been a tough schedule, and the riders and team members I have spoken to about it are all just about ready to come home.
Nearly a month away from home, sharing flights, hire cars and hotel rooms can be grating even for the best of friends. Add in the stresses and tensions of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and a lot of people are gritting their teeth and doing their best not to punch the people they work with. Some will even make it home without doing so.
The final leg of MotoGP’s odyssey sees the circus travel from Phillip Island, nearly halfway to the South Pole, to Sepang, not far north of the equator. Yet though they are a quarter of a world away, the two have one thing in common: weather.
The actual conditions may be different, the cold, changeable climate of Phillip Island a far cry from the sweltering heat of Malaysia, but at both tracks, the weather plays a much greater role in the proceedings than at other tracks. Judging conditions, and preparing for them, is crucial.
Where have the days gone? Well, the international dateline is partially to blame, as today’s installment of my trip to Malaysia officially comes to you from Thursday, local time. In that timespan, I’ve been on four airplanes, two monorails, and a handful of taxicabs — which really just means that not too much has really happened worth reporting.
The first 24 hours were spent sitting on a plane. First, Delta to get me from Florida to San Francisco (via Atlanta), and then Cathay Pacific to get me from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur (via Hong Kong). I endured 15hrs from America to Asia in the middle seat, between two lovely elderly Indian ladies, whose names I did not catch, so thus named them Fay and Doris, as it corresponded to their seat letters.
Fay enjoys Bollywood movies like it’s life’s greatest guilty pleasure, while Doris was a no-nonense kind of gal, who took a walk on the wild side this flight with her non-vegitarian meal choices. We became immediate friends during our journey, and promptly never spoke to each other once the landing gear deployed. Tyler Durden was right.
I’m off to Malaysia for the next week, to watch the Malaysian GP at Sepang International Circuit, and generally take in the touristy parts of Kuala Lumpur and the archipelago of Langkawi.
As close as I can get to paid vacation in this line of work, I will be the guest of the Malaysian government, which as far as I can gather, wants to make the Malaysian GP a sort of destination vacation for two-wheeled fans — a “come for the GP, stay for the beaches” kind of thing.
The big news on the final day of testing at Sepang was not what was happening on track, but rather what was happening off track. The announcement – trailed here and all around the media since early January – that Ducati would switch to the Open category was the talk of the paddock…and social media…and bike racing forums…and biking bars around the world, I expect.
Even though we knew this was coming, it is only now becoming clear just how much of a game changer this decision is.
The announcement was timed curiously, made at the end of the day when the bosses of Yamaha and Honda had already left the circuit and were unavailable to the press. Likewise, the press room had largely emptied out. It appeared to have been made to minimize the impact, especially on the other manufacturers.
Honda and Yamaha now have a couple of days to gather their PR might and put together a carefully worded position on the move by Ducati, which will both give the impression they are entirely disinterested in what Ducati have decided to do, while at the same time exuding a vague air of disapproval. Expect to see the verb ‘to disappoint’ in various conjugations.
On track, however, the situation was largely unchanged from the last couple of days of testing: interesting names at the top of the timesheet, belying the utter dominance of the Repsol Hondas, in the person of Dani Pedrosa. Valentino Rossi was the fastest man on the day, and leaves as the fastest rider of the test, pleased with the progress they have made.
But dig deeper, examine the times set during the long race simulations, and Dani Pedrosa comes out streets ahead, half a second or more quicker than the competition. Pedrosa’s average pace is faster than any other riders best lap on their long run.
Valentino Rossi leaves the second Sepang test as fastest overall, after finding a burst of pace early in the day to crack the two-minute barrier. So happy with his progress in testing this year was the Italian that he told the press afterwards he was already seriously considering a contract for 2015 and 2016, as long as his results during race weekends improve along the same lines as his pace in testing.
Dani Pedrosa took second spot, finishing with the same time as Rossi after chasing a time at the end of the day. But the Repsol Honda man had to cede top spot to Rossi, as Rossi had posted faster times during the day.
The clear progress Ducati have made with the GP14 was evident from Andrea Dovizioso’s time, the Italian setting the fastest ever time on a Ducati around the Sepang circuit. Clear improvement on braking and corner entry have made a big difference to the performance of the bike.
A cleaner track made for better times at the second MotoGP test at Sepang on Thursday, but conditions remain far from ideal. The track was still greasy, and the added heat made the situation worse. That meant the track remained empty for large parts of the day, the riders waiting for temperatures to come down at the end of the day.
When the riders did go for their fast laps, the usual suspects raised their heads. Aleix Espargaro was quick, Alvaro Bautista was quick, but if anyone was in any doubt about where the real power lies on the MotoGP grid, Dani Pedrosa quickly disabused them of their misconceptions.
The Repsol Honda man posted two scorching laps, faster than anyone else was capable of riding. At nearly three tenths of a second, the gap was convincing. When Dani Pedrosa decides to exert his authority, the world listens. Especially when his teammate is absent.
Pedrosa spent the day working on the front of the Repsol Honda, and deciding on which of the two chassis to use for the rest of the year.
The quicker of the two options was also less forgiving under braking, meaning Pedrosa elected to pursue the slower of the two frames. Sacrificing a little bit of speed for more stability and less effort to ride seemed like a suitable trade off.
But the talk of the second day of the test was not Pedrosa’s speed; that is taken as a given. The biggest talking point of day two was the lack of speed from Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Yamaha rider ended the day down in ninth spot, sandwiched between the two Tech 3 bikes of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith.
He was over a second slower than Pedrosa, the biggest gap since the rain-hit race at Le Mans last May. Worse still, he was the fourth-fastest Yamaha, with the Open Yamaha of Aleix Espargaro and the factory bikes of his teammate Valentino Rossi and Tech 3’s Pol Espargaro ahead of him.
His problem is simple: he cannot get the new rear tire to work. Whatever they do to the bike, Lorenzo simply has no grip, and no confidence.
If the first Sepang test threw up a few surprises, the first day of the second test turned into a bit a shocker. Anyone putting money on Alvaro Bautista, Aleix Espargaro and his brother Pol being the top 3 at the end of the first day would very, very rich indeed.
Though all three had good reason to be further up front – Bautista has a new rear shock from Showa which is a big step forward, Aleix has been fast throughout, and Pol has the new seamless gearbox from Yamaha – their speed should not be seen as presaging a revolution in MotoGP.
A dirty track, and several riders not chasing times gave the trio a chance to shine, which they seized with both hands.