Fancy a challenge? Try finding a MotoGP fan who is surprised that Marc Marquez claimed pole position at Sepang on Saturday. It was the Repsol Honda man’s thirteenth pole of the season, setting a new record for the most poles in a season. It was a blistering lap, making him the first rider to set an officially timed lap under the two-minute mark, the clock finally stopping at 1’59.791.
That time has been bettered only a couple of times during the winter tests at Sepang, when cooler temperatures make for a faster track. But to do it now, when ground temperatures got close to 60°C, making the already slippery surface of Sepang even more greasy, is astonishing. Those kinds of track temperatures are almost, but not quite, enough to cook an egg.
Marquez’s record thirteenth pole also offers an insight into exactly what the secret of his success is. He not only holds the record for the most poles in a season, he is also the current leader in pole position frequency. Marquez has secured 50 poles from 113 qualifying session, giving him a strike rate of just over 44%.
The only rider to get near to his domination of qualifying was Mick Doohan, who started from pole from 42.3% of his Grand Prix races. The nearest of Marquez’ current rivals is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been on pole for 26.4% of his career in Grand Prix.
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.
Once again, a MotoGP race at Phillip Island is decided by tires. The tires Bridgestone brought to the Australian circuit were not up to the task, with riders crashing out all throughout the race. The front tires Bridgestone brought to the track were unable to cope with the conditions. The result was determined by tires, not by talent.
That, at least, is the narrative being heard around the internet after the bizarre yet fascinating MotoGP race at Phillip Island. It is an attractive narrative – a nice, simple explanation for what happened in Australia – but it is fundamentally flawed.
The tire situation was complicated, certainly. Jorge Lorenzo’s front tire showed very severe degradation, more than would normally be explained by the expect wear. Several riders crashed out on the asymmetric front tire Bridgestone brought. But to lay the blame entirely on Bridgestone is quite wrong.
The three men on pole for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races.
The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.
The “Rufea Team”, as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain.
Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn’t spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record.
But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers’ father Julià.
Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row.
Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.
But it is about more than talent, despite the abundance of it the trio have. All three have got where they are by hard work – hours and hours spent training, and training at full intensity – and by their commitment to their goals.
The Grand Prix Circus has barely had a chance to catch its breath after Motegi before the next round starts in Australia. With a few exceptions, perhaps, a number of teams being forced to either take a much longer route to Australia to avoid the landfall of typhoon Vongfong, or else severely delayed until the worst passed.
Still, to call spending even more hours on a plane or at an airport for what is already a very long flight can hardly be regarded as a spot of rest and relaxation.
Still, they have now all gathered at what is almost unanimously regarded as the best racetrack on the planet. Phillip Island is everything a motorsports circuit is suppose to be: fast, flowing, and deeply challenging. There are plenty of spots for a rider to attempt a pass, or try to make up time, but every single one of them requires either exceptional bravery, or the willingness to take a risk.
The many brutally fast corners which litter the track separate the men from the boys: Doohan Corner at turn 1, where you arrive at a staggering 340 km/h, turn 3, now dubbed Stoner corner for the way the retired Australian champion would slide both ends through it at over 250 km/h, the approach to Lukey Heights, which drops away to MG, or the final two turns culminating in Swan Corner, speed building throughout before being launched onto the Gardner Straight, and off towards Doohan again. At Phillip Island, there is no place to hide.
The crashes of Valentino Rossi and Andrea Iannone at Aragon two-and-a-half weeks ago raised a lot of questions about safety, leading to the Safety Commission deciding to start removal of all the artificial turf from around the circuits used by MotoGP.
Rossi’s crash, in particular, was severe, the Italian being clipped and knocked briefly unconscious by the back wheel of his Yamaha as he tumbled.
That Rossi did not suffer much worse injuries is in no small part down to his helmet. The AGV Pista GP helmet which Rossi helped develop provided an incredible level of protection for the Italian.
After the incident, AGV took the helmet away to analyze the damage done to the helmet in the crash. They issued a press release, complete with close up photos of the damage sustained, explaining the damage done and how the helmet had protected Rossi.
The press release makes for interesting reading, and the close up photos of the damage are especially revealing of just how well the helmet stood up in the crash. Make sure you click on the photos to view higher resolution versions. The AGV press release appears after the jump.