It has been a while since we have had a chance to host a show, so there is much to discuss, and the guys get right down to it.
Amongst the discussion of the various rounds, there are some good side conversations about the internal workings of the GP factories, the career of Dani Pedrosa, and what makes a rider the “Great Ride of All Time” in the eyes of the MotoGP paddock.
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.
The summer break – if an extra weekend off can be counted as an actual break – marks the end of the first half of the 2018 MotoGP season, but it also marks a significant point in the MotoGP Silly Season.
With Marc van der Straten telling the riders and crew of the Marc VDS MotoGP team that the team will not be competing in MotoGP in 2019 and beyond, the final shape of the 2019 MotoGP grid is almost clear.
There was no official announcement to mark the withdrawal of the Marc VDS squad, it was indirectly confirmed when the team sent out a press release announcing that they had extended their deal with Alex Márquez for the Spaniard, younger brother of Marc, to remain in Moto2 for another season.
Emilio Alzamora, who manages both Márquez brothers, had been pushing for Van der Straten to keep at least one grid slot in MotoGP for Alex Márquez, a move which had the strong backing of his brother Marc.
Alex Márquez remaining in Moto2 is tacit confirmation that there is no seat in MotoGP for the Spaniard.
Another weekend, another racetrack, but exactly the same story. We all gathered once again to hear what Dani Pedrosa had to say about his future, and once again, Pedrosa had nothing to say.
“I know there are a lot of people waiting and wanting to know some information, but unfortunately not yet,” Pedrosa told the pre-event press conference.
“I can’t give any different news from what I already in Barcelona. I expect to, but still things are going slow, so we don’t know at this moment exactly. Sooner or later I will have something to say!”
Once bitten, twice shy, the media were a little more prepared this Thursday. Dorna had put Dani Pedrosa into the press conference, a little safer situation than the masses crowded into the HRC hospitality at Barcelona.
We were acting on a little more information as well: journalists have been talking to a range of sources since Barcelona, and so there is a much better sense of where we stand on the Petronas-Yamaha story, as I explained on Tuesday.
There was some hope Pedrosa might announce something, but a realistic expectation he would not. So the disappointment when the Repsol Honda rider told there was still no news on his future was much more limited at Assen than it had been at Montmeló.
Where do we stand? Sepang International Circuit boss Razlan Razali is at Assen this weekend, but unavailable for reporters, as he is in wall-to-wall meetings finalizing various details.
That suggests that the deal is basically done, and he is now going through the laborious business of tying up loose ends. There is a lot of work to be done to get a MotoGP team off the ground from scratch.
The team will consist of Dani Pedrosa and Franco Morbidelli, though Pedrosa has still not put pen to paper on a deal. In theory, Pedrosa could still choose to retire, but he is not talking like a man on the verge of hanging up his helmet.
Pedrosa still has the fire, the only question is sorting out how much he is willing to settle for at the Petronas Yamaha team. The bike will be a full factory Yamaha, possibly an update or two behind the Movistar Yamaha team, but still highly competitive.