The MotoGP flyaway races are a headache for Dorna in a lot of different ways. There is the logistics, the calendar, a host of legal and customs issues, ensuring that facilities are up to scratch, in terms of safety, medical facilities, pit garages, and more.
They have most of these things pretty much nailed down – something which comes with having run the series for over 25 years – but the one hurdle they face every year is TV schedules.
Sport has infinitely more value when it is shown live, because the very fact that the outcome of a contest is unknown is what provides half the thrill. Anyone who has suffered the wrath of the mob after posting spoilers on Social Media will understand that.
So when MotoGP goes east, to Thailand, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia, the series runs into a dilemma. These are key markets for the factories, and growing markets for Dorna in terms of TV audiences. But they are also a problem when it comes to Europe, whose broadcasters contribute a very hefty sum to Dorna’s finances.
Live audiences drop off a cliff for races which start at 6am, and so Dorna do what they can to shift the race start into a more audience-friendly window. Far more people will be willing to get up on a Sunday morning at 8am for a race than they would be for a 6am, or – heaven forfend – a 5am start.
Dorna have dealt with it by trying to push the race start back as far as reasonably possible into the afternoon (that’s afternoon, local time). But at the past couple of races, that policy has run into serious problems. At Phillip Island, a 4pm start means the temperature can drop significantly between the start and the end of the race.
And in Sepang, starting at 3pm puts the race right in the window where the daily afternoon rains drench the track, and disrupt the race. For the past couple of years, the riders have been pushing Dorna to change their minds and reschedule the race. On Saturday at Sepang, they finally got their way.
In a perfect piece of synchronicity, (or perhaps it was the final straw that forced Dorna’s hand?), a new race schedule for Sunday was announced while the on-track action had been halted due to a torrential tropical downpour. Rain started falling in FP4, but in the space between that last session of free practice and the start of Q1, the rain became so heavy that Race Direction was forced to call a halt to proceedings and wait out the rain.
While we were waiting, we found out that Dorna had agreed to move the race start 2 hours earlier. No longer would the MotoGP race start at 3pm, the lights would now go out at 1pm. The Moto3 and Moto2 races have also been moved earlier. The Moto3 race now starts at 10am Malaysian time, and Moto2 at 11:20am.
This is a sensible decision, if potentially a difficult one for Dorna. There are specific local problems with starting the races later at most of the Pacific flyaway races. For Sepang, there is the customary afternoon downpour, that usually arrives some time between 3pm and 4pm, especially as the Grand Prix takes place in the winter rainy season.
Sunday’s forecast was for heavy rain at 3pm, and the prospect of a postponed race. After the debacle at Silverstone, that is not something Dorna wants to have to deal with again. The cost of TV delays may be greater than the cost of running a race earlier.
The decision to start the race earlier was met with universal approval. “For me, it’s a clever choice to have the race earlier at 13:00,” Valentino Rossi said. “We will have more chance to a dry race, but especially we will have more chance to race. Because if we wait 3:00, maybe we don’t race.”
Listening to the Riders
“It is better to race early as the rain starts after lunch, so you never know at what time, but normally later is worse,” Andrea Dovizioso agreed. Aleix Espargaro also agreed it was a good decision. “Absolutely, a super good move,” the Aprilia rider said with his customary enthusiasm. “Because we know how it works here in Malaysia. It always starts to rain at lunchtime, so the closer the race is to the morning, the more safe.”
The riders had spoken about the change in the Safety Commission, and is if to demonstrate the dangers of heavy rain, the meeting had taken place in a downpour, the sound of the rain drowning out the meeting. “Yesterday, we talked, because also in the Safety Commission, it was raining very, very hard, and it was impossible to talk,” Aleix Espargaro said. “We couldn’t even listen to what the others were saying in the outside house we were talking in.”
The conversation had been one they had held before, Andrea Dovizioso said. “We spoke about it yesterday but we spoke last year, the year before, Australia and here. Sometimes it is possible to change, sometimes not. From Europe it is worse to race at that time, we know, we don’t have to ask just about the racing as we also have to follow the TV. We are trying to speak in a mature way.”
Once the rain stopped falling, qualifying got back underway. The soaking track started to dry quickly in parts, one of the advantages of the tropical heat in Malaysia. A damp track with rapidly changing conditions automatically gives Marc Márquez an advantage, the Repsol Honda rider peerless when the track is like that.
The Spaniard proved that point on his first flying lap, taking provisional pole, then pushing on his second lap to put over 1.2 seconds on the rest of the field. After a slow lap to cool off his tires, he pushed again, a little too hard this time, sliding off at Turn 4. Undaunted, Márquez headed back to the pits and jumped on his second bike. After a slow out lap, he pushed again, unable to beat his own best time, but still a tenth of a second quicker than anyone else on the grid.
The key had been a setup change they had found in FP4, Márquez explained. “It was crucial the laps that I did in FP4 on dry conditions because we already understand something on the setup,” the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. “Then for the quali, we changed already.”
“We adapted, and I went out and I felt immediately better than FP4. So then I was trying to keep pushing, but unfortunately I lost the front at Turn 4. But the good thing is that I took the second bike, I went out, and again I did 12.6, that was a good lap time, so, happy.”
One Step Forward, Six Steps Back
Márquez was easily faster than the rest of the field – over half a second quicker than Johann Zarco, and nearly nine tenths quicker than Valentino Rossi in third – but his crash ended up costing him the first place on the grid. Márquez was ruled to have impeded Andrea Iannone on his out lap, and was given a six-place grid penalty, meaning he will start the race from seventh place, moving Iannone up to the front row.
“I arrived from Turn 8 really fast, and Marc was riding slow,” the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. “When I arrived at Turn 9, I braked much before, and also turned with low speed, and I didn’t accelerate well, I lost three, four tenths, minimum.” Márquez had not done it intentionally, Iannone believed, and he had not pushed for Márquez to be penalized.
“Sometimes this is possible to happen,” Iannone said. “When you ride slow, it’s not possible to stay on the good line. You stay on the outside line. He stayed on the line. But no problem. Marc said sorry Andrea, so no problem. For sure, I’m not a type of rider who goes to Race Direction and push, penalty, penalty, penalty. Everybody is like this, I’m not. I’m different.”
Perhaps the reason Márquez got tangled up with Iannone is because Iannone was trying to get a tow from Andrea Dovizioso. Márquez had seen Dovizioso and moved aside, then looked behind and seen a Suzuki. That had been Alex Rins, however, a little bit further behind than Iannone.
“I was going out from the box and just I let Dovizioso pass,” Márquez said. “Then I was in the hairpin and I looked behind and I saww only one Suzuki, that was Rins, but because Iannone maybe was on the other side and I didn’t see him.”
In the press conference, before he knew he had been penalized, Márquez explained that he had done his best to get out of the way. “I tried to avoid him. This is all that I can say. I didn’t see,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. I did the fastest lap, so this is the most important for me.”
Because this is a grid penalty, Márquez’ pole position will stay in the record books, the 80th of his career, and his 52nd in MotoGP. Having already secured the BMW M Award for best qualifier, it won’t make any difference there either.
Márquez was confident, after the setup changes made for FP4, which had proven effective, as he finished that session as fastest. “We did a big change from yesterday and we improve a lot,” Márquez said. “Now the pace is much better and is very equal to Dovizioso and Viñales.”
He had also changed his riding style. “I tried to check the video, tried to analyze. Tried to see what Dovi was doing, who was fastest, what Viñales was doing,” Márquez explained. “Two different riding styles, so I tried to find the best compromise. Of course, I will not say what I changed, but I changed a few things.”
“Together with the setup – already yesterday I understood that I was not riding in a good way. But together with the setup, now I’m able to ride like I want. Sometimes you know that you are not on a good line, but you are not able to do it with the bike, with that setup. So now I have the setup. I can follow the line that I want and it makes life easier, especially for the race pace.”
Is Yamaha Back Again?
Johann Zarco, who finished second in Q2, had also made a change from Friday which had helped him control the rear end sliding on corner entry. “Looks like we can have dry conditions tomorrow during the race, and in this case I can be competitive, even if I started on Friday struggling, because I was not able to manage the bike, to control it well,” Zarco said.
“Too much spin. I was worried because maybe I thought we cannot find a solution, but we found it on Saturday morning. I was happy to control the bike and be with the top guys.”
Valentino Rossi qualified in third, somewhat to his own surprise, given that the Yamaha had previously been so bad in the wet. “Last year for us with the 2017 bike was a nightmare, the wet,” Rossi said. “We always wake up in the morning and open the window slowly, scared that it will be wet. This bike is a lot better. You can feel. I feel good with the bike. On the wet, I can ride in a good way that is not so bad.”
He had been glad that qualifying had been possible, as if it had been canceled due to the weather, and the grid formed on the basis of free practice, Rossi would have found himself much further back, starting from the third row. Wet or dry, Rossi was reasonably confident of being competitive.
“On the dry, I am not so bad,” he said. “Especially Friday I was strong. Today I worked more with the used tire, and my pace was quite good, but especially Marquez and Viñales were stronger than me. So we need to work and try if we can improve for tomorrow.”
Fast Dry, Slow Wet
Rossi wasn’t the only rider to tip his Movistar Yamaha teammate in the dry, but Maverick Viñales put himself at a big disadvantage by qualifying eleventh. Where Rossi had good feeling in the rain, wet conditions had been a complete disaster for Viñales. That left him frustrated, angry, and blaming his team once again.
“The problem was my setup was not working well in the wet,” the Spaniard said. “I think the team needs to provide me with a better setup, otherwise we are always like this, two seconds from the top. Normally I was really fast in the wet when the bike is working. They need to pay attention to what setup we do in the rain because I cannot do nothing – just sliding, sliding the rear.”
It was above all frustrating, he said. “It is, because we didn’t bring enough intelligence to understand the setup and find the way to ride in the wet, because I always felt strong in the wet. All the time I opened the gas the bike didn’t go forward. I lost so much. Just if I had a little bit more grip on the rear maybe I could be on the second row and that would have been the most important thing for the race.”
What had been most frustrating was the fact that he is very quick and confident in the dry. “FP4 went so good,” Viñales said, despite a crash on a rivulet of water when it first started raining. “I was so happy despite the crash in the wet. The bike was working so well. I think after three more laps I can hit some 59s and that’s awesome. The bike is working so good in the dry right now.”
Viñales took comfort from his poor start at Phillip Island, in a race which he went on to win. “After the practice I said, ‘OK, in Australia I was P10 on the first lap’ and then I made my way through,” he said. “This track is a bit easier to overtake. We are pretty strong in the starts, I changed my way. So let’s see if I can do the best start of the season and I can win some places.”
Judging the Front
Andrea Dovizioso had also crashed on Saturday, though he had fallen during qualifying, as he started his final lap, and was up on his personal best time. It was a bit too much for the front tire, though. “I was a bit too fast,” Dovizioso said, “but the reason why is the front tire is very hard. In the straight braking we are able to brake very strong, but on the angle nobody has a lot of grip. So everybody has to manage that, and it was very difficult as you don’t have a lot of feedback.”
Dovizioso is confident of his pace in the dry, however. “I have a good feeling. Today Maverick and Marc improved a little bit in their speed so I think we are very, very similar. I think we are the three riders with a similar pace and we are able to fight for the victory. Valentino is fast and Zarco improved in the afternoon also so them too, they have a chance to stay in the group.”
If you had based your judgment of Dovizioso’s time in FP3, you would not have predicted he would be qualifying on the second row. The factory Ducati rider finished just seventeenth on the timesheets.
But he had stuck with a single medium rear tire all session, and not chased a quicker time, comfortable that his time from Friday would put him through to Q2. His pace in FP4 confirmed that confidence, ending third and just two tenths behind Márquez.
Dry or Wet?
So how does the race play out? Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez were clearly the two fastest riders in practice, though Viñales starting from the fourth row has given himself a hill to climb.
Andrea Dovizioso was a fraction slower than the two Spaniards, but if he can stick with Márquez, he can use the sheer speed of the Ducati to his advantage. If Viñales can make his way through the field, then he has a chance, but that will require someone to hold the front runners up.
That may just be possible, given the fact that there is a sizable group who are all pretty quick, and all on much the same pace. Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco, Andrea Iannone, Alex Rins are all fast, and only a fraction slower than the favorites. The two Pramac Ducatis of Jack Miller and Danilo Petrucci could cause headaches, though their single lap pace is much better than their race pace.
In a way, the grid penalty handed to Marc Márquez has livened up the Malaysian Grand Prix. Instead of starting from pole, he starts from the third row, with a bunch of riders ahead of him. That puts him behind Andrea Dovizioso, and much closer to Maverick Viñales, and gives a wily old fox like Valentino Rossi a chance to escape.
Or perhaps it will keep the group together sufficiently for one of the Suzukis to get the win they have been so close to recently.
At least the earlier start has given us a chance of actually seeing a dry race. Though there is a possibility of some light rain around 1pm, it shouldn’t be an absolute downpour. That means that at least the race will happen, even if it does rain. And if it does rain, then all bets are off.