2016 has been a weird season. Eight different winners in MotoGP, in eight consecutive races.
Tire issues in Argentina caused the race to be split into two parts; a mass false start in Moto2 at the first race of the year in Qatar; torrential rain at Assen causing the race to be abandoned; bike-swap shenanigans at the Sachsenring; and wet tire degradation at Brno.
With all that happening, why would anyone expect the Sepang round of MotoGP to be any less weird?
The expectation of weirdness has also meant that everyone has half expected there to be a ninth winner in MotoGP. Fans and journalists have come to accept this as the new normal, that every race throws up a new surprise.
A ninth winner would fit in perfectly with the string of surprises we have seen this year. The question is, of course, who might it be?
With six of the ten factory riders on the grid already having won a race, and the Aprilia RS-GP still too far off the pace to compete for victory, it came down to two realistic candidates: Suzuki’s Aleix Espargaro, and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso.
With the Ducati being the faster bike, and already having racked up a win and several podiums, Dovizioso was the betting favorite. But both were regarded as long shots.
The riders may have been complaining that the new surface of the Sepang circuit takes too long to dry out, but about one thing, they are all agreed. It has fantastic grip.
“We have this problem of the track drying up, it’s very difficult,” Jorge Lorenzo told the press conference, agreeing with his teammate. “But the grip is perfect, it’s amazing the grip.”
That was obvious in the afternoon, when the MotoGP riders took to a track still soaking after the tropical downpour, which had caused the preceding Moto3 qualifying session to be red flagged.
The lean angle the riders were still getting despite standing water was remarkable. That was even true after the Moto3 downpour had ended, and the track was awash. The top Moto3 riders were still improving their times on a track which was wetter than at the start of the session.
The same grip had helped in the morning, when there were still a few wet patches on the track. As the sun started to burn the water off, Maverick Viñales dipped under the two-minute mark, posting two laps of 1’59.9.
That was on a track which was still not completely dry, the riders able to power through almost as if it had never rained.
The weather has not been kind to MotoGP in 2016. At the nine events since Barcelona, it has rained at some point or another at five of them. At two more, Austria and Motegi, it was the cold rather than the rain that was a factor.
Even Sepang, where in most years, it only rains once the riders have finished practice, has seen the rain ruin riders’ plans.
Heavy rains overnight left the track covered in damp patches, despite the resurfacing of the circuit, which was done to address the issue of standing water in some corners.
More rain at lunchtime meant the afternoon sessions were done on a wet track that dried slowly, despite the tropical sun beating down.
The track should have been dry in the morning, after the sun had had four hours to burn off the water. But patches remained at various points around the track, most away from the racing line, but there were some spots where the water remained on the racing line.
“The dampest part of the track is Turn 3 –that’s the slippiest,” Scott Redding said. “Turn 3 still had a lot of patches. Turn 4 had some too, especially on that acceleration point. There were a few into Turn 14. The angle that you have most, where Zarco went down, it was just everywhere around there. You had to work out a line, the way through there, without hitting any puddles.”
Two down, one to go. The last of the flyaways is always the hardest, in many ways. Three races on three consecutive weekends means that riders never have time to heal from even the small injuries they receive each weekend, from minor falls, or the blisters on their hands.
Spending many hours cloistered in aircraft flying long distance makes catching colds, flu, or other respiratory diseases inevitable. Team members being cooped up together for nearly four weeks means relationships are at best strained, at worst verging on violent.
Then there’s the contrast in climate. Even at its best, Phillip Island can be chilly, so traveling from there to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia is a physical shock. To step on a plane in the freezing cold, then step off it to be drenched in sweat is tough for people already drained from so much travel and racing.
Then to race for 45 minutes in punishing heat and humidity, at a track which is physically very challenging, because of the heavy braking zones around the track. The stress, mental and physical, is enormous.
Perhaps it was that stress that caused the MotoGP series to explode at Sepang last year.
Smarting from being beaten into fourth place at Phillip Island by Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, and Andrea Iannone, Valentino Rossi seized upon the theory apparently put forward by his friend and business partner Alessio ‘Uccio’ Salucci, that Márquez had decided to conspire against Rossi to hand Jorge Lorenzo the 2015 MotoGP title.
Márquez had attempted to accomplish this by beating Lorenzo in Australia. And in the press conference at Sepang, he launched his accusations against the Repsol Honda rider.
After missing the last four races due to injury, Andrea Iannone is to make a return to the factory Ducati team. Iannone had fractured his T3 vertebra in a practice crash at Misano, and was ruled out of the race.
Since then, Iannone has been forced to miss the MotoGP rounds at Aragon, Motegi, and Phillip Island.
At Aragon, Iannone was replaced by official test rider Michele Pirro, but Pirro was unable to race at the overseas circuits as he had important test work to do for Ducati, getting the Desmosedici GP17 ready for Jorge Lorenzo, who will get his first chance to test the bike at Valencia, after the last race of the season.
After Casey Stoner turned down the opportunity, Hector Barbera was promoted from the Avintia squad to take over Iannone’s bike, while Australian Mike Jones stepped in to replace Barbera at Avintia.
Episode 27 of the Paddock Pass Podcast sees Steve English and Neil Morrison catching up mostly on the MotoGP happenings at the Italian GP in Mugello.
Wrapping up what has been an eventful week with the riders’ contracts for the 2017 season, the show then focuses on the racing action in Italy, with mentions about the Moto2 and Mot3 races, which were equally enjoyable to watch.
The guys also give some attention to the World Superbike paddock, talking about the series’ recent racing in Sepang, and looking ahead on the calendar for WSBK at Donington Park.
With the Isle of Man TT starting this weekend as well, there is plenty of racing action to fuel the Paddock Pass Podcast, so keep your ears tuned for more shows.
As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook, Twitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!