The Grand Prix Circus came to Sepang with three titles in the balance. Only one of them got wrapped up on Sunday, though, tropical rainstorms throwing a spanner into the works of the other two, but generating some fascinating racing. The fans had one fantastic dry race, one fantastic wet race, and a processional MotoGP race that looked much the same as it would have had it been dry.
There was a packed house – over 77,000 people crowded into the circuit, a highly respectable number for a flyaway round – cheering on local heroes, there was confusion over the rules, and there were a lot of new faces on the podium.
There was also a much better balance of nationalities on the podium: where in previous races, the Spanish national anthem has been played three times on a Sunday, at Sepang, it was only heard once. Most of all, though, the Moto2 and MotoGP races ran in the wet would be determined by the timing of the red flags, with Race Direction’s decisions on safety also having an outcome on the results of the races, and in the case of MotoGP, possibly implications for the championship.
As was forecasted, the rain made its appearance for the start of the Malaysian GP being held at Sepang. The wet weather of course meant all bets were off for what could happen on this third-to-last round in the MotoGP Championship, and the adverse conditions increased the possibility of some “off-road excursions” by the riders. No one had more to lost from such a proposition than current points leader Jorge Lorenzo.
Sitting 28 points ahead of Dani Pedrosa, the factory Yamaha rider needed only to stay upright on his machine to retain control of the 2012 MotoGP Championship title, but with the rain in Sepang, that simple task could prove to be more difficult than anyone imagined. Needing to grab back as many points as possible, no one probably welcomed the rain more than Dani Pedrosa…well, except maybe the Ducati riders, which made for some high-stakes in the otherwise low-action race
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.
With the weather constantly the x-factor in the 2012 MotoGP Championship, the Malaysian GP unsurprisingly has seen Mother Nature play an integral part at Sepang. Limiting on-track practice time, things were surprisingly dry for MotoGP’s qualifying session, though riders came out of the pits immediately to bank some solid lap times. As the session wore on though, and the weather held, a display of talent proceeded, and another track record succumbed to the 1,000cc prototype machines.
It was a strange day in Malaysia. Part of the strangeness was down to the weather. The familiar pattern of disrupted sessions as the rain fell, but not hard enough to allow the MotoGP riders, in particular, to spend much time on the track in the afternoon.
There was a twist, however, a particularly Malaysian one at Sepang: the heavy shower which passed over the track at the start of the afternoon session for MotoGP left part of the circuit soaking, with water a couple of centimeters deep at turns 1 and 2, while the rest of the circuit quickly dried out almost completely. It at least added a little novelty to the disruption, along with the frustration of another wasted practice.
The real strangeness came at the start of the day, however. It took about 10 minutes for observers to notice that Maverick Viñales had not gone out on track and there was suspiciously little activity in the Avintia Blusens garage. Once they noticed, low-level pandemonium broke out: within seconds, a throng of Spanish journalists crowded out of the media center and hastened on their way into the paddock, to find anyone and everyone and learn what they could.
As they drifted back in, and as TV pictures started to appear showing an empty Blusens garage, Viñales walking through the paddock accompanied by his father and the Dorna media officer, and team managers Raul Romero and Ricard Jové gathered in discussions, it was clear that there was something very wrong.
When it was revealed what that was – that Viñales had decided to quit the team with immediate effect – it sent a shockwave through the paddock. Riders quitting teams with races left in the championship is unusual; to do it while that rider is second in the title chase and still in with a shot at the championship is unheard of in motorsport.
The Sepang round of MotoGP could see all three championships clinched this weekend, with Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Sandro Cortese all closing in on their respective world championships. The job is easiest for Cortese, all the German has to do to become the inaugural Moto3 champion is finish one place behind Maverick Vinales and the title is his. After getting a little too excited at Motegi, Cortese will doubtless be heading to Sepang in a much calmer frame of mind.
Marquez also faces a relatively manageable task, but unlike Cortese, he does not have his fate entirely in his own hands. If Pol Espargaro wins at Sepang, then the earliest Marquez could be crowned champion would be at Phillip Island. If Espargaro does not win, the Marquez is in with a very good chance: should Espargaro finish the race in third or worse, then Marquez only has to finish directly behind him; if Espargaro finishes second, then Marquez has to win.
On current form, it would be hard to bet against Marquez, but Sepang was the circuit where the Spaniard was badly injured last year, suffering damage to his eyes which limited his vision and threatened to end his career. It will be interesting to see whether the memory has spooked Marquez, but judging by his performance this year, that seems faintly ridiculous.
Jorge Lorenzo faces the biggest challenge, with only a 28-point lead over Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo will not only have to win at Sepang, but he will also need Pedrosa to finish no better than thirteenth. Given that the only time that either man has finished outside the top four has been due to mishap, the chances are the title chase will go down to Phillip Island, at the very earliest.
After the tragic events at the cancelled Malaysian GP, and the subsequent tragic death of Marco Simoncelli, there were whispers regarding whether Valentino Rossi and/or Colin Edwards would retire after the incident that cut-short SuperSic’s life. These whispers and thoughts turned into idle chatter, which then lead to unfounded speculation.
It is of course only natural in this FOX News world that we live in that every possible angle and outcome be explored before any sort of precedent for those mental exercises presents themselves. Perhaps a lessen on the difficulties of basic human communication, even the most well-intended and honest speculation can be misperceived and distorted as it is retold, which in this case lead to a mass hysteria that the nine-time World Champion would retire from MotoGP racing.
Marco Simoncelli has tragically died today, after crashing in a horrific accident during the second lap of the Malaysian GP. Trading corners with Rizla Suzuki rider Álvaro Bautista and battling for fourth place, Simoncelli began the race in Sepang with his usual full-of-heart riding style. Certainly a podium contender for the day, the Italian lost control of his motorcycle in Turn 11 after losing the front. Propping the bike on his knee in order to save the slide, Simoncelli heroically but unfortunately stayed upright, cut back across the track, and collided with fellow racers Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi.
While Rossi rode away unhurt, and Edwards injured only his shoulder, Simoncelli suffered the brunt of the impact, and lay helmetless on the track after the incident. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff at Sepang, Simoncelli could not be resuscitated and succumb to his injuries at 4:56pm local time. Accordingly the Malaysian GP has been cancelled. Asphalt & Rubber joins the MotoGP paddock in mourning the loss of one the most beloved riders in series, and send our thoughts and prayers to Marco’s family, friends, team, and loved ones.
Ciao Marco, SuperSic forever.
Photo: © 2011 Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved
After a tragic accident involving Marco Simoncelli, Colin Edwards, and Valentino Rossi, MotoGP has decided not to resume the Malaysian GP. The decision came down as Marco Simoncelli battled for his life at the track-side medical center, with Race Direction stating that it would be inappropriate to restart the race while Simoncelli was in such a precarious position medically. Succumbing to his injuries shortly after the cancellation was announced, heartbreak swept the paddock with the news that Marco Simoncelli died at the age of 24.