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.
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.
The first major change to the 2014 MotoGP schedule has been announced. Though the dates remain the same, the order of the Asian flyaway triple header has been reshuffled, with Sepang moving from first of the three to last.
The Grand Prix classes will now head to Japan first, for the Japanese GP at Motegi on 12th October, before heading south to Australia for the Phillip Island round a week later, on 19th October. The weekend after that the MotoGP paddock visits Malaysia, for the last of the three overseas races at Sepang on 26th October.
If there was any doubt that Race Direction in MotoGP is trying to impose a stricter code of behavior on riders in all three Grand Prix classes, the bumper crop of penalty points issued at Aragon and Sepang makes their intention clear.
At Aragon, three penalty points were awarded: One for Alessandro Tonucci in Moto3, for staying on the line during qualifying, and one for Sandro Cortese for the incident in the Moto2 race, when he touched Alex De Angelis, causing the Italian to crash.
The most discussed penalty was of course the one issued for Marc Marquez, who was penalized for the touch on Dani Pedrosa, which severed the cable to Pedrosa’s rear-wheel speed sensor, confusing the electronics and causing the unlucky Pedrosa to be ejected from his Repsol Honda.
Sunday at Sepang provided a fascinating mix for motorcycle racing fans. A blistering Moto3 race, an impressive, if shortened, Moto2 race, and some breathtaking action in MotoGP. History was made several times over, and best of all, the races took place in front of a sellout crowd. Over 80,000 fans packed the stands in Malaysia, proof, if any were needed, of the slow, eastward drift of motorcycle racing’s center of gravity.
In the MotoGP race, Dani Pedrosa did what he had set out to do two weeks earlier at Aragon, before he was so rudely ejected from his bike. Pedrosa had a look of grim determination on his face from the moment he rolled up at Sepang, and it barely left him all weekend. He had come to do a job, the pain in his hips merely spurring him on to get what he had been robbed of by an overeager teammate and an exposed sensor.
If Saturday at Sepang taught us anything, it is that if the new qualifying system for MotoGP is exciting, the new qualifying system with a little rain mixed in is utterly breathtaking. A brief shower at the end of Q1 left the area through turns 6 and 7 very wet, while the rest of the track was still mostly dry.
Add in the searing tropical heat which dries the surface quickly, and the color of the Sepang tarmac which tends to disguise wet patches, and qualifying becomes even more tricky. And then there’s the fact that Sepang is a long track, the two-minute lap time leaving the riders precious little time to turn laps while waiting for the surface to dry out.
Strategies went out the window, and already stressed mechanics were forced to work themselves into even more of a sweat as they rushed to set up two bikes, one dry and one wet, just in case the rain returned. Some riders went out early and despite being warned, found themselves thrown out of their seats and given a proper scare.
With qualifying being just fifteen minutes, the most likely scenario was that the last rider to cross the line would be the fastest, unless it started raining again.
Stefan Bradl has been forced to miss the Sepang round of MotoGP, after fracturing his ankle in a crash during FP4. The LCR Honda rider fell at Turn 1, sliding unhurt towards the gravel, but clipped his foot on the carpet on the outside of the kerb, which had been picked up by the handlebar of his Honda RC213V.
The impact was enough to fracture the right medial malleolus (the spur on the inside of the tibia visible as part of the ankle), ruling him out of action for Sunday’s race.