In this episode the boys take us through the recent preseason MotoGP test at Sepang, which yielded some fruitful results for the factory teams.
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.
The first day of the Sepang MotoGP test is always met with some trepidation. For the factories, have they responded to the feedback from before the winter break correctly, and developed the bikes in the right direction?
For the riders, has their winter training program been enough to prepare them for riding a MotoGP bike, and will they hold up under the battering which nearly 300hp and carbon brakes will inflict upon them? And for injured riders, is their recovery going to plan, or are they ahead or behind on schedule?
With all these questions on their minds, the MotoGP paddock tends to ease in to the first day of the test. Especially if, as looks likely, the weather will hold and they will not lose much track time to the tropical rains which can fall in the afternoon.
The first day is used for verifying the data from the Valencia and Jerez tests, checking engine configurations once again, and getting the riders’ minds accustomed to the sensation of over 320 km/h again.
It is a day of gentle evolution, rather than radical revolution.
Though bikes have been circulating at the Sepang circuit already, the MotoGP season only really gets underway once the full field of full-time contracted riders takes to the Malaysian track on Wednesday.
After the long winter break, we finally get to see where everyone stands as the 2019 season approaches.
Well, almost everyone: injuries always play a smaller or larger role, as riders recover from surgery, or suffer new injuries while training for the coming season.
How close is MotoGP at the moment? If you just looked at the championship standings, you might reply, not particularly close. Marc Márquez wrapped up the MotoGP championship after just 16 of the 19 races, with a lead of 102 points.
He had won 8 of those 16 races, a strike rate of 50%, and been on the podium another five times as well. On paper, it looks like the kind of blowout which has fans turning off in droves, and races held in front of half-empty grandstands.
But that’s not what’s happening. The series is as popular as ever, TV ratings are high, crowds are larger than ever before, and social media lights up on every race weekend.
Rightly so: the show has been spectacular in 2018. Marc Márquez’ championship blowout belies just how close the racing actually is. How? Because there are eight or nine riders who can compete for the podium on any given weekend.
The five races leading up to Sepang bear this out. There have been four different manufacturers and six different riders on the podium, and that is with Jorge Lorenzo missing four of those five races.
The podiums are fairly evenly distributed as well: Honda have 6 of the 15 podium places, Ducati have had 4, Suzuki 3 podiums, Yamaha 2 podiums. Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha have all won races.
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.
Given the severity of the storms that have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next.
So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP was a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.
That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1’59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1’59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it.
“Lap times were fast today,” said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. “1’59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1’59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn’t just when the track was cool. We’re still a little way away from a 1’58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it’s the track conditions.”
There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. “Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can’t put my finger on one thing or another.”
Whatever the reason, there is no denying the track is fast. Seven riders got inside the two-minute bracket on Friday, Danilo Petrucci, seventh fastest man, just two tenths slower than the fastest man of the day, Alex Rins.
MotoGP heads 6400km north for the final leg of the Pacific flyaways, and the penultimate race of the season. The contrasts between Phillip Island, where the paddock has just departed, and Sepang, where they have just arrived, could hardly be greater.
Phillip Island famously has four seasons in one day, though all too often, those seasons are winter, spring, winter, and winter. Sepang has two seasons in one day: hot and humid, and hot and pouring with rain.
The rain can come as a blessed relief, though, in what is undoubtedly the toughest race of the year. “I think this will be the toughest race of the year,” Danilo Petrucci said. “Yesterday I went out for a run, and I was lucky that in the middle of the second lap when I was running that a thunderstorm has arrived, and I asked to the rain if it can come on the second lap of the race!”
“Joking apart, it helped me a lot yesterday. The last two years it has been wet, and it’s tough anyway, because in the wet, the problem is not the temperature, but the humidity, and it’s very difficult to breathe. You don’t breathe oxygen, you breathe oxygen and water. Last time we rode here in the dry was 2015, and the race was very, very tough.”
So there’s your choice: breathe oxygen and water, or struggle to breathe at all.
Stefan Bradl is to replace Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda at the next round of MotoGP at Sepang, this next race weekend. As HRC’s official test rider, Bradl was the easy choice to take the place of the injured Crutchlow.
Crutchlow was ruled out of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix after a huge crash at Turn 1 during FP2 on Friday. His right leg took a beating in the fall, fracturing his ankle in three places.
Crutchlow was flown to Melbourne, where an external cage was placed on his ankle to fix the bones in place while the swelling subsides. Crutchlow is due for further surgery on Thursday to have the bones plated.
That rules Crutchlow out of the race at Sepang, and makes him doubtful for the Valencia race in three weeks’ time.