Sunday Summary at Sepang: Of Championships, Red Flags, Rulebooks, & Riders on a Roll

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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.

After Maverick Viñales’ shock decision to quit his team, it got a lot easier for Sandro Cortese to wrap up the Moto3 title at Sepang, needing only to keep a watchful eye on Luis Salom during the race and not finish behind him.

Salom had made Cortese’s task even easier a week previously, by launching an ill-considered dive up the inside of Jonas Folger at the start of the last lap at Motegi, incurring a penalty which dropped him five grid positions at the start. Cortese started from the front row, while Salom had his work cut out, starting from way back in 10th. Cortese could more or less cruise home at Sepang and secure the title.

But that is not the way that riders want to win championships. To win a championship in style, you should win the race which gives you the title, and that is exactly what Cortese set about doing. Riding calmly and conservatively for the most of the race, happy to let Jonas Folger and, to the rapturous applause of the fans, Malaysian rider Zulfahmi Khairuddin battle it out for the win.

For a long while, it looked like Khairuddin would make history as the first ever Malaysian to win a Grand Prix, but at the end, Cortese could hold himself back no longer. The German dived up the inside of the Malaysian at the penultimate corner, and though Khairuddin tried to come back going into the last turn, it would be to no avail: Cortese clinched the championship in worthy manner, with a calculated, conservative win.

The German had taken risks when he needed to, and stayed calm when he didn’t, and rode both a brilliant race and a fantastic championship. Khairuddin took 2nd, making history anyway as the best result ever by a Malaysian rider, while Folger took 3rd.

Careful observers noticed something special about the Moto3 podium at Sepang: for the first time this season, there was not a single Spanish rider on the podium. In fact, Spain was without a representative on the podium in the smallest GP class for the first time since 2008.

You have to go back four years and two days, to this same race, to get a podium in either 125cc or Moto3 without a single Spaniard on it. That 125cc race at Sepang in 2008 was won by the Hungarian rider Gabor Talmacsi, with Britain’s Bradley Smith in 2nd and the Italian Simone Corsi taking 3rd. Spanish success in Grand Prix racing is well-deserved, but it is a healthy development to see a wider range of nationalities taking the honors.

The same was true of the Moto2 podium, though you don’t have to go back so far to find the previous instance of a podium without a Spanish rider. In fact, only to the previous race in a downpour, the soaking wet race at Le Mans. But while the names on the podium were no real surprise at Le Mans – Tom Luthi, Scott Redding and Claudio Corti have proven their worth in Moto2 this year – the faces were much less familiar at Sepang.

Alex De Angelis has won races before, though it has been some time now, but Ant West and Gino Rea have spent all year struggling, West with a Moriwaki chassis, though the team recently switched to a Speed Up, and Rea with Showa suspension, the Gresini team another to abandon the Moriwaki, this time in favor of the Suter.

Rea and West are proven racers, both men with wins to their name. West is a master of the wet – his World Supersport victory at a torrential Silverstone remains one of the most impressive wet-weather wins on record – and freed of the limitations of requiring a perfect set up, West once again shone. Rea, too, was impressive, and was unlucky not to get the win: Rea took the lead in the final corner on lap 16, and crossed the line to start lap 17 in the lead.

He led for two thirds of a lap, but the red flag came out too early, before the rest of the field had crossed the line to finish lap 16. The rules say that when a race is red-flagged, the result of the last lap where all of the riders who haven’t been lapped have crossed the line will stand. If Race Direction had waited another 30 seconds, Rea would have have won his first Grand Prix. They didn’t, and so the young Brit was demoted to 3rd, victory going to De Angelis and Ant West taking 2nd.

The biggest cheer of the race, though, went up for Malaysian wildcard Hafizh Syahrin. The 18-year-old, who rides in the Spanish CEV championship, had even led the race for a while – the second Malaysian to do so that day – but had lost touch with leaders once the rain started to fall more heavily. He still crossed the line in 4th, his team celebrating the result like a victory, and rightly so.

Syahrin had come from a long way back to score his result: the Malaysian had started from 27th on the grid, coming through to bag 4th. The same was true of the podium, too. De Angelis had made up fewest positions, starting from 9th to take the win. West had done better, moving up 17 places, starting from 19th to finish 2nd. Rea, meanwhile, had been 22nd on the grid, and had crossed the line in 3rd on what would count as the final lap. The podium men had improved their positions by a total of 44 places, which a better statistician than I would likely confirm as some kind of record.

Unlike Moto3, the Moto2 championship would not be settled at Sepang, though Marc Marquez looked on course to wrap it up after the first few laps of the race. After a strong start in the wet, Pol Espargaro started going backwards, later explaining that as brilliant a bike as the Kalex was in the dry, they were still struggling in the wet. Once he was passed by Marc Marquez, the Catalunya Caixa rider had the title in the bag. All Marquez had to so was to stay on the bike and bring it home.

That would turn out to be too much to ask, however, Marquez locking the front and crashing out 3 laps before the race was red-flagged. Espargaro crossed the line in 11th, doing just enough to keep his title hopes alive, but still 48 points behind Marquez, he must win the last two races and hope that Marquez does not finish at either Phillip Island or Valencia.

The outcome of the MotoGP race would also be determined by the red flags, and the decision would prove to be controversial among a section of the fans. The race turned into a repeat of the previous two races: Jorge Lorenzo led away from the line, Dani Pedrosa the only man capable of following. Pedrosa bided his time until the halfway mark, then pounced once the rain started to fall more heavily. The pass had been a conscious decision, taken once Pedrosa realized the race could be red-flagged because of the weather.

Once he was past, Pedrosa was gone, leaving Lorenzo for dead as the Yamaha man’s choice of tires came back to bite him. Lorenzo had selected the softer of the two compounds of wet tires, and had chewed up the middle of his tire at the start of the race, when the track was much drier. Pedrosa, on the harder of the two compounds, still had some tire left. He made good use of it once past Lorenzo, pulling a big gap very quickly.

Lorenzo’s choice of tires almost cost him more than just the lead. Casey Stoner started reeling Lorenzo in once the Yamaha man’s pace dropped, and looked to be just a few corners away from being passed by the Australian when the red flags finally came out.

Such was the amount by which Lorenzo’s pace was dropping off that even a 3rd place could have been in danger from a charging Nicky Hayden, though the gap between Lorenzo and the Ducati man was still significant. The red flag on lap 14 meant that Lorenzo lost only 5 points to Pedrosa, retaining a comfortable 23-point lead in the championship. If the race had been allowed to continue, and both Stoner and Hayden had got past, then his advantage could have been slashed to 16 points.

Much has been made in some quarters of Race Direction deciding to red-flag the race shortly after Jorge Lorenzo started raising his hand to indicate to the marshals and Race Direction that he thought conditions were too dangerous to continue. Many see the signal as an attempt to influence Race Direction once he realized he was in danger of losing a lot more points to Pedrosa if Stoner were to get past, and the decision by Race Direction as a sign that they were caving in to pressure.

That idea simply does not hold water. Conditions were clearly poor, and getting worse all the time. The riders, almost to a man, agreed that the timing had been absolutely right. Even the dissidents believed that the race could not have gone on much longer. Dani Pedrosa, the man with the most to gain from the race continuing, told the press conference that he could not open the throttle more than half along the front straight, and that the race could have gone on for a maximum of one more lap.

The biggest optimist of the field, Casey Stoner, believed they might have been able to manage two more laps, but that too would have been pushing the limits. Stopping the race at that point had been understandable – Stoner said he had had ‘quite a lot’ of aquaplaning the last time that they crossed the line – but calling it earlier would not have been correct.

Even if the race had been stopped prematurely, it would have made little difference to the outcome. Stoner would clearly have gotten past Lorenzo either on lap 14 or lap 15, but the race would have had to go on for the best part of another complete lap before everyone still on the track crossed the line to make the result count.

Given that the rain was getting worse, the race would not have gone on for much longer than the point at which Race Direction decided to bring out the red flags. By the time the bikes arrived back in pit lane, standing water was starting to form, and ten minutes or so later, conditions became positively diluvial. Worse still, the sky darkened a lot, visibility falling so that Turn 1 disappeared into the rain and mist.

The decision to red flag the race sent teams and journalists scurrying for their rulebooks. Unlike Moto2 and Moto3, where the race can be called completed once two-thirds distance has been reached, MotoGP has to restart the race and complete the full distance, with a minimum of 5 laps. So the riders and the bikes sat in their garages, waiting to see if conditions would improve sufficiently for the race to be restarted.

Meanwhile, the staff charged with team logistics were starting to look nervous, as a sizable chunk of the paddock were booked on flights to Australia for that evening. Conditions only got worse, and Race Direction had no choice but to call the race off. Once again teams reached for their rulebooks, to check whether full points or half points would be awarded.

The rule is clear, if worded rather intricately: the phrase used is two-thirds distance rounded down to the nearest lap. The riders had completed 13 of the 20 laps, which fits the criteria precisely, but it does not make for simple mental arithmetic.

Jorge Lorenzo was overjoyed that the race had been red-flagged, not so much because he feared that Casey Stoner might come past, but more because he feared falling and giving up many more points to Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo had a massive moment on the way into the final corner at the end of lap 13. That could have been a very costly mistake indeed, and would have shaken up the championship completely.

It would also have injected some much-needed excitement into a class that badly needs it. Even despite the rain, the racing in MotoGP was processional, and with Jorge Lorenzo managing his lead in the championship conservatively, there is not much excitement in the title chase either.

The only question now is how well Jorge Lorenzo can stand up to the pressure. Dani Pedrosa is riding better than he ever has, and has already beaten his previous record for the number of wins in a season. Sepang was a record-breaking event in many ways for Pedrosa: with victory in Malaysia, Pedrosa wrapped up his first streak of three back-to-back wins.

His win in the rain was his first ever victory in the wet, not just in MotoGP but in any Grand Prix class ever. He had always been afraid of the wet, Pedrosa explained afterwards, and it had taken years of training to remove that fear. Exactly what that training was, Pedrosa refused to reveal. “It’s better I don’t tell you, because it’s very strange. But it worked.” Pedrosa said.

Most worrying for Lorenzo is that Pedrosa now seems capable of winning at will. Though the Yamaha is a fantastic machine, with impeccable handling, plenty of power and virtually no chatter, Lorenzo is still being beaten every race by Pedrosa, on a bike that Pedrosa, Stoner, and Stefan Bradl all agree has appalling chatter. That chatter is caused by the new generation of Bridgestone tires, and a cure has so far eluded HRC.

But if Pedrosa is beating Lorenzo so easily with a bike that has such awful chatter – so bad it even occurs in the wet – then what resistance will Lorenzo be able to put up next year, once Honda have found a solution? The 2012 title may be well within Lorenzo’s grasp. The defence of it could prove to be very difficult indeed.

Photo: Yamaha Racing

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.