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Race report: Malaysian MotoGP

Photo: Repsol Honda

SEPANG INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The weather dropped its drawers completely for the Moto GP event after two magnificent dry races in Moto2 and Moto3. Typically of the equatorial location of the track, it literally never rains but it pours, and the circuit and the 97,000+ spectators were thoroughly drenched before the stars of the show came out to do their stuff.

Practice and qualifying had run in a mix of wet and dry so the teams at least had an idea of set-up, but it’s never easy to find the best set-up after swapping back and forth all weekend. In the event, Ducati did the best job, with three riders in the top 10 at the flag, including the top two places. Jorge Lorenzo led more laps than his team-mate, but Andrea Dovizioso kept his slender title hopes alive by capitalizing on a late-race mistake by Lorenzo to get by and take the win.

Lorenzo had already been ordered by the team via a dashboard message to let Dovi through, but claimed after the race he hadn’t seen the message. And yes, the moon really is made of green cheese.

Honda’s Marc Marquez came home a lonely fourth behind Tech3 Yamaha “rookie” Johann Zarco, who once again showed that he’s perhaps the best in the field at managing his tires. Zarco led from the start to about 1/3 distance and proved again that he’s always a danger for a podium, even with a year-old bike and in his first season in the class.

Dovi’s win and Marquez’s fourth means the Spaniard carries a 21-point lead into the final race in Valencia on November 12. With 25 points up for a win, Dovi has to collect another victory – he’s already got six this year, after only collecting two in his entire former Moto GP career – and hope for Marquez to have a problem and finish no higher than 12th.  

But as they say, never say never. As Dovi put it, “It was a truly perfect weekend … our Desmosedici was very fast, and we managed to administer the gap in the best possible way even though track conditions were very difficult because there wasn’t much grip … I know it will be very difficult at Valencia [but] we’ll be going to Spain with confidence to try and bring home the victory.”

Marquez, who’s never really liked Sepang, decided by mid-race to settle for fourth, as he was well ahead of the rest of the field, with his team-mate Dani Pedrosa protecting his rear. “The track was extremely slippery … I got a good start, and I tried to push at the beginning because I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of the group … I saw that both the Ducatis were very fast, so I decided to not take too many risks, to be calm, and to get good points for the championship. I thought about trying to get Zarco but the risk was too big just to have an advantage of 24 points instead of 21.”

The factory Yamahas were once again nowhere in the wet, the 2016 bikes that Tech3 uses obviously much better in damp conditions for reasons the team hasn’t been able to fathom. Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales had excellent pace in the dry, but when the rain hit it was basically “abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” with Rossi managing a difficult seventh and Viñales ninth.

Rossi said, “We didn’t have any grip, it is very difficult to ride the bike, also very dangerous.” His team-mate echoed the sentiment, adding, “I didn’t even check the position [after the race] because I thought I was last!”

The others in the top 10 were Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati) sixth, Jack Miller (Marc VDS Honda) eighth, and Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM) 10th. It was another good weekend for the KTM team, with Bradley Smith not far behind his team-mate in 12th. Petrucci’s ride was particularly impressive, as he started dead last on his spare bike after having a technical problem with his machine on the warm-up lap. Dead last to sixth makes you wonder what would have happened up front if he’d started from his grid position, considering how good the Italian is in the wet.

The final race of the year at Valencia in Spain in two weeks may well be a classic, with Dovizioso vs. Marquez, Ducati vs. Honda, fighting for the 2017 title. It’s a tough track to pass on, and one that’s seen more than its share of last-lap histrionics over the years, so Marquez’ big points lead going in doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all.

Moto 2

The Moto 2 race continued the KTM team’s amazing late-season form, with a 1-2 for Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder duplicating the result from Australia a week ago. Oliveira simply got the holeshot and walked away from the field by half a second a lap or more. It looked easy, but was obviously exhausting, not helped by the 34-degree heat and spots of rain in the last few laps. He was exhausted after the race, looking like something washed out of a flooded graveyard and barely able to manage his victory interview!

“Today I had to give everything,” said the Portuguese rider. “I can hardly speak. This was not the strategy I had in mind before we started, as Franco and Brad had a very good pace, so my plan was to ride behind them. But I saw that I could give a little more on the first few laps and I went for it. I gave everything I had!”

Unfortunately, the championship battle between Franco Morbidelli and Tom Luthi was settled even before the race, when Luthi crashed heavily in qualifying, breaking his left ankle. It was a long-shot that he’d be able to chase down the genial Italian anyway, but was still a sad way to end the chase.

Morbidelli ran second to Oliveira for much of the race, only ceding the spot to Binder in the last few laps. He said after the race, “I feel bad for Tom, but also good for me!” He and Luthi will be team-mates with the Marc VDS Moto GP Honda squad next season.

The top five was rounded out by Mattia Passini and Francesco Bagnaia. Passini in particular must have been pleased, as he seemingly spent half the weekend on the deck, only managing about four laps in qualifying. Speaking of that, at times the race looked more like a junior motocross event than a world championship road race, with no fewer than 12 riders crashing out of the 29-bike field.

Moto 3

It was an unusual Moto 3 race, with three riders – Joan Mir, Jorge Martin, and Enea Bastiannini – getting away from the group despite the drafting opportunities at Sepang and madly battling to the flag. Mir, already crowned this year’s champion at the last race, wasn’t about to relax and roll over after securing the crown, and engaged in a tight passing and re-passing battle with the other two, only getting out in front for good two laps from the finish.

Mir’s team-mate on the Leopard Honda team, Belgian teen Livio Loi, collected an excellent fourth, a great followup to his second behind Mir in Australia a week ago. As he’s currently still looking for a ride in 2018, these results won’t do his job search any harm.  

Behind Loi’s rather lonely ride, the racing for fifth was more typical of a normal Moto 3 contest, resembling nothing so much as a tank full of piranhas fighting over a chunk of bloody meat. The UK’s John McPhee came out on top of that one on the last lap. He had a magnificent fight back from a position in the high teens after he’d been forced off-track to avoid a crashing rider half-way through the race. That keeps him seventh in the series, and despite his team leaving the series for 2018, he’s already landed a new ride on a KTM with the French-based CIP team.

World Moto GP Championship Standings after 17 of 18 races

  1. Marc Marquez, Spain, Repsol Honda, 282 points
  2.  Andrea Dovizioso, Italy, Ducati Team, 261
  3. Maverick Viñales, Spain, Movistar Yamaha, 226
  4. Valentino Rossi, Italy, Movistar Yamaha, 197
  5. Dani Pedrosa, Spain, Repsol Honda, 185
  6. Johann Zarco, France, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 154
  7. Jorge Lorenzo, Spain, Ducati Team, 137
  8. Danillo Petrucci, Italy, Pramac Ducati, 121
  9. Cal Crutchlow, U.K., LCR Honda, 104
  10. Jonas Folger, Germany, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 84

Next and final race November 12, Valencia, Spain

 

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