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.
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.
Phillip Island is a glorious race track, in a glorious setting, with a history of serving up glorious racing, especially when the weather plays ball. On Sunday, it did just that, the circuit bathed in warm sunshine, almost taking the edge off the antarctic chill which can still hit the circuit in very early spring.
And great weather brought fantastic racing, starting with a spectacularly insane Moto3 race, followed up with a thrilling Moto2 race, and finally topped off with an intriguing and incident-packed MotoGP race.
The MotoGP grid arrived at Phillip Island mindful of the lessons of last year. In 2017, a large group had battled for the win for 20+ laps, until their tires were shot. Marc Márquez, having been mindful of his tires for much of the race, made his move in the last five laps, opening a gap over the chasing group of a couple of seconds. Everyone Márquez had beaten last year had spent the weekend concentrating on tire preservation for the last part of the race.
“Last year we lost the race because the last five laps, we didn’t have anything more,” Andrea Iannone said after practice. “Everybody had one or two tenths more than us, and at the end, finished in front of us.” Jack Miller, who had led the race for the first four laps in 2017, finishing seventh behind Iannone, made a similar point.
“What I learned from last year is try to manage the tire a little bit better,” the Australian said. “We’ve been playing a lot with the maps and setting up for the race. It’s not going to be a crazy fast race, almost from the get go, but it’ll wind up sort of five, six laps to go.”
“The secret,” said Niki Lauda, “is to win going as slowly as possible.” That racing maxim, first recorded by legendary writer and broadcaster Clive James (and how did I miss that he wrote about F1 in the past?) is as true now as it was back in 1984, when Lauda stated it to a press conference in Portugal. And as true as in the early 1950s, when Juan Manuel Fangio may have first uttered it.
If you want to see that maxim in action, watch a MotoGP race in 2018. The action is often thrilling, usually tense, and always absorbing. Race after race, we see podiums separated by tenths of a second, not tens of seconds. The reason for that is simple.
The field is close in terms of rider talent and bike performance, and the Michelin tires can be applied in many different ways, except for one: if you try to take off and disappear at the front, you risk using up the best of your tires, and being caught in the latter stage of the race.
So MotoGP has become a chess game. A battle of minds, as much as machines, of brains as much as bodies. Riders pace around one another like wolves around a herd of caribou, watching out for any sign of weakness, waiting to pounce and destroy their prey. And sometimes, getting it wrong and suffering a severe kicking from their intended victims.
Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don’t have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated.
That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend.
But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.
Will we see a Ducati vs. Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball.
He did two out laps, but couldn’t cope with the immense strain that the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.
“Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse,” he said afterwards.
“On hard braking I couldn’t push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t safe, so there was no meaning to continue.”
Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2.
The Italian wasn’t alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.
MotoGP’s Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are “The Flyaways”, formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock.
The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.
Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings.
Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.
Conditions, tracks, and cultures, all are different. Buriram lies in the heart of Thailand, a long way from the tourist-filled beaches. Motegi is up in the hills in central Japan, a place where the 21st Century meets a very traditional culture.
Phillip Island can be boiling hot or arctic cold, those two extremes often within 20 minutes of each other on what is essentially a vacation island. Sepang sits next to Kuala Lumpur, the epitome of a fast-growing Asian city, and a hodgepodge of cultures. The contrasts could hardly be greater.