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David Emmett

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And so hope and expectation meet reality. On Friday, we could stop fantasizing about just how good this season might be, and see for ourselves just how close the field is in the premier class.

Well, how close it is outside Marc Márquez’ insane record-crushing lap in FP2, made following Maverick Viñales around and using him as a target. It may only be Friday, but Márquez beat Johann Zarco’s pole-setting lap record from last year by three tenths of a second. And they will only be going faster gain tomorrow.

Any concerns that Marc Márquez might ease himself back into MotoGP, nursing the shoulder he had operated on last year until it was back at 100%, were laid to rest. “No, I ride full attack. I am riding full attack, I am pushing,” Márquez said.

Viñales, who knew that Márquez had been following him when he made his fastest time, joked about it being a magnanimous gesture towards a weakened rival. “Yeah, I knew he was there, but I know he is injured, so I tried to help him a little bit…” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider joked.

“Maybe I helped him too much! But it was important to see where our competitors are, so at the moment, we have to put the head down and work, work, work. They are ahead at the moment, some tenths ahead, so we need to keep working really hard.”

It is tempting before each season to say that this is going to be the best season ever. It is a phrase that oscillates somewhere between hope and expectation, though more often than not, it is hope which has the upper hand. The 2019 MotoGP season promises to swing the balance back toward expectation, as the sport goes from strength to strength.

The reason MotoGP went from having 17 bikes on the grid in 2010 and the races decided virtually by qualifying position is simple. Thanks to a mixture of coaxing and cajoling, bribing and bullying, Dorna managed to get most of the rule changes they wanted.

First, a switch back to 1000cc, bore limited to impose a theoretical rev limit (which has remained theoretical, as revs soar back above 18,000). Next, the adoption of spec electronics, forced through with the threat of CRT bikes, along with a promise by the factories to supply bikes at an affordable price.

Then the introduction of the more user-friendly Michelin tires. The concession system, whereby successful factories have engine designs frozen, giving less successful factories a chance to catch up. And finally, an influx of talent to fill a field of closely competitive bikes.

The Grand Prix Commission has approved the long lap penalty trialed by the MotoGP riders during the Qatar test last weekend.

From the first race in Qatar, riders who exceed track limits, or are deemed to have unfairly gained time, will be punished with being forced to take a trip through a lane placed on the outside of a slow corner, handing them a penalty in the order of approximately three seconds.

The penalty is to be used instead of forcing the rider to drop a position, although both penalties will remain available for the FIM Stewards Panel to impose as they see fit. 

The Qatar round of MotoGP is problematic for all sorts of reasons. Even setting aside the human rights issues, there are challenges from every direction in staging the race at the Losail International Circuit, just north of Qatari capital. Those challenges are due to the choices being made, and the choices are being made because of money.

The biggest problem is that the choices being made are all slightly at odds with one another. Qatar wants to be the first race of the MotoGP season, and pays a large premium for the privilege. Enough to cover air freight for the series for all of the flyaway races during the season.

That need not of itself be a problem, but to make the race look more spectacular, the circuit wants to hold the race at night, under the incredible set of floodlights which light up the track.

And of course, because it is the first race of the season, Dorna want to hold it at a time when it will receive maximum media attention. The right time slot for the race in key European markets is important.

The good news is that the next time the MotoGP assembles inside a racing circuit, nobody will be able to use “it’s only testing” as an excuse. From now on, everything counts.

The bad news is that strong winds and low temperatures made the last day of testing a treacherous affair, disrupting testing plans, and causing a spate of crashes. (Which, in turn, disrupted testing plans even further.)

The really good news is that it looks like we are in for another immensely competitive season, with fifteen riders ending the test within a single second, and the list of realistic candidates for the title weighing in at around seven: the Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha factory riders, plus Alex Rins at Suzuki. Winning will be tough, but finishing on the podium if you can’t win will be the key to taking the title.

But first, there was one last day of testing to do. The wind proved to be a real problem, testing plans being reshuffled because riding was difficult, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, when the wind was at its strongest. The wind blew sand onto the track, which didn’t help grip, and the cool temperatures made that even worse.

The track temperature dropped below 20°C around 8pm, the time the race is scheduled to start in just under two weeks, and rider after rider went down. Among the fallers: Bradley Smith, Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, Cal Crutchlow, Takaaki Nakagami, Marc Márquez, Miguel Oliveira, Tito Rabat, Jorge Lorenzo, Pecco Bagnaia. And that is probably not a complete list.

Indonesia is to get a round of MotoGP and WorldSBK from 2021. Confirmation of the news came faster than we expected, as Dorna issued two press releases on Saturday, announcing that both World Championship series it manages will race at the new circuit to be built at Mandalika in Lombok.

That MotoGP would race there is not a surprise, but that WorldSBK would also visit had not been much talked about.

But, this follows the same pattern as the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, where WorldSBK was sent to the track first as a trial run, before MotoGP went to race there.

The agreement announced by Dorna envisages both series going in the same year, starting in 2021.

Motorcycle racing is a profitable business, it turns out. The leading UK financial paper Financial Times reported yesterday that Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm that owns Dorna, among many other assets, has hit upon a relatively novel way of paying out investors, by transferring the roughly 40% of Dorna that it owns between one Bridgepoint fund and another. 

The proposed sale is a result of a review carried out by merchant bankers Lazard at the end of last year, with the aim of fixing a value and finding potential buyers. According to the FT, several private equity firms expressed an interesting in buying Bridgepoint’s stake, including former owners CVC. 

I do not make a habit of marking the birthdays of motorcycle racers, but Valentino Rossi’s 40th is worthy of an exception to my self-imposed rule. His 40th birthday is clearly a milestone, though any birthday can hardly be regarded as an achievement. To reach his 40th birthday, all Rossi had to do was keep living.

But of course, the fuss being made of Valentino Rossi’s 40th birthday is not because of the age he has reached. It is because he reaches the age of 40 a few months after having finished third in the 2018 MotoGP championship, racking up five podiums and a pole position along the way. It is because the media, his fans, and Rossi himself regard that as a disappointing season.

It is because he enters his 24th season of Grand Prix racing, and his 20th in the premier class, the first year of a two-year contract which will see him racing until the age of 41 at least.

It is because he is one of the leading favorites to wrestle the MotoGP crown from reigning champion Marc Márquez (15 years younger), along with Jorge Lorenzo (9 years younger), Andrea Dovizioso (8 years younger), Maverick Viñales (16 years younger).

And he will race against, and be expected to beat, Franco Morbidelli (16 years younger) and Pecco Bagnaia (18 years younger), two riders who enter MotoGP thanks in large part to the tutelage and support they have received from the VR46 Riders Academy, the scheme set up by Rossi to nurture young talent where the Italian motorcycling federation FMI were falling so woefully short.

It was 7:30 in the evening, and we were standing on the porch of the Petronas Yamaha SRT hospitality chalet, talking to Fabio Quartararo about how his day had gone when the rain came.

It was a brief, intense shower filling the air with the sweet scent that comes when rain falls after a period of intense heat. It seemed a somehow fitting end to one of the most intriguing MotoGP tests in years.

The weather had played a major role in the test, though this time, for all the right reasons. Normally, test days at Sepang are disrupted in the late afternoon by a heavy rainfall, leaving teams trying to cram as much work as possible into the mornings, and hoping that the track dries out in the afternoon.

Every shower brings dust and dirt to the track, washing away some of the rubber laid down on the track, slowing the track down.

But not this time. There was a brief thunderstorm on Monday night, but that was the last rain to fall at the circuit until Friday night. Three full days of a dry track, the pace increasing as more and more rubber got laid down. It should hardly be surprising that Jorge Lorenzo’s fastest ever lap of the circuit, set last year, should be broken.

But that it should be broken by nearly six tenths of a second, and by six riders, is a sign both of just how good the track conditions were, and just how competitive the field is currently in MotoGP.

How that competitiveness came about is a matter for another day, when I have time to take a much deeper dive into the many revolutions and evolutions currently underway in the paddock. But for now, a few short notes and instant reactions to the three days of testing at Sepang.