Round 18 – Sepang – Preview
MotoGP finishes the Pacific tour this weekend as the Sepang International Circuit hosts the final race of the three-week fly-away trip and the penultimate event of the season with the Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix taking centre stage.
Malaysia signals the final race in a busy five-week schedule for the MotoGP paddock, which has seen races in Thailand, Japan, Australia and now the final venue at Sepang.
There’s plenty still on the line too, with the team title, the fight for top Independent and the battle for the top three overall still very much at boiling point – so who will leave the Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix walking the tallest?
Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) seems a good candidate. He’s got a good record at Sepang and he’s on a roll of winning form, so who would bet against the reigning Champion? This weekend could be an even bigger one than many too, as the team title could be decided. Repsol Honda are now just one-point behind Ducati overall, and Marquez has been the biggest contributor. Can the Spaniard make it three out of three?
“We enjoyed a great victory in Australia as me, the Repsol Honda Team and the bike are working very well together. Now we arrive at the last race of the triple, but it’s not time to stop and relax. Sepang is another track where I think Yamaha will be fast, as will Ducati, but the target is of course to try and fight for victory again. We will see how the weekend goes and adapt as we need to.”
The Ducati Team, however, won’t go down without a fight – and especially not at Sepang. Andrea Dovizioso has a top record at the track and will be eager to bounce back from a tougher Australia. He was confirmed as second overall Down Under so that’s less pressure in the rider standings, but the team spoils are important for him and teammate Danilo Petrucci, and they’ve been ahead for some time.
“The Sepang circuit is for sure the one I prefer more than any other in the world championship. On this track I have some great memories and I’m able to ride to my best characteristics, but at the same time it’s one of the most demanding races on the calendar. Heat and humidity are two factors that have particularly affected us in the past, so let’s see what will happen this year. On paper I think that we can be competitive in all conditions, with or without rain, as we have shown in the past, but nowadays in MotoGP it’s really difficult to make predictions.”
Petrucci, after a crash at the start of the Australian GP, lost his record of being the only rider so far to have scored in every race too, and he’ll want more for himself and the squad.
“Unfortunately the crash at Phillip Island had some repercussions and, even though nothing is broken, my ankle is still hurting and it’s difficult for me to put my foot down. I hope that the pain will go down in the next couple of days and that I can race normally. In any case, Sepang offers us another chance to accumulate points and we have to make the most of it. We still have two races to fight for third place in the world championship and for the Teams’ title, which is now my main aim.”
The man he collided with at Phillip Island, Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT), will also want a lot more from the weekend. After his FP1 crash saw him fighting to get back near the front on race day last time out, it’s time to reset and try to impress in front of the home fans – not his, but the team’s.
“Australia was a tough weekend and my mission since then has been to let my ankle recover as much as possible. Fortunately, it was not further hurt in my crash on Sunday. I want to be as fit as possible as my target is to be at 100% for Malaysia. It’s a high target, but it’s important to set my sights high and have that mindset. Obviously, we tested in Sepang in the pre-season, and that’s a big benefit in my first year. We want to be fast as it’s the home race and a great place to reward the team and Petronas for all their support. We did a pretty good job at that test at Sepang and we return with a lot more experience under our belt. For sure, it will be really special with all the Malaysian fans so we want to reward everyone as best we can.”
Malaysia is Petronas turf and the quickest rookie on the block will be gunning for some big glory – as will his teammate Franco Morbidelli, as he also had a tougher race last time out. Quartararo is also up for top Independent Team rider honours and the Petronas Yamaha SRT outfit are fighting for top Independent Team, so there’s plenty to play for.
“It’s going to be a nice weekend with so many fans supporting us at the home race for Petronas and the team. It’s a circuit I like a lot as it’s technical and interesting; it’s really a complete track. We don’t expect the weather challenge to be the same as we saw in Phillip Island, that was a particularly frustrating situation as a rider, especially as we couldn’t get the bike as I wanted for Sunday. Of course, we know it’s likely to be quite a draining race with the heat and humidity, but that’s why we do so much training. For all the team’s home support we want a good result.”
Phillip Island was also a tougher one for Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP. Maverick Viñales was the fastest man all weekend – Marquez also said as much – but disaster struck just a few corners from the finish line as he battled the reigning Champion. How will he feel heading into Malaysia? He knows, at least, he had the speed to challenge the number 93 in Australia, even if it didn’t all come together at the end, and he’s not too far behind Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) in the fight for third overall.
“We were very competitive last weekend on Phillip Island and used the race to learn. The consumption of the tyre was good and my pace too. The bike was working well, and the team did a great job all weekend, so we are ready to fight again in Malaysia now. It will be a very different kind of round. The temperatures in Sepang are always really high and that adds an extra difficulty, but we‘re ready. We had a good test at this track during the pre-season, and I‘ve been feeling good on the bike lately, so we will be trying hard to fight at the front again this weekend.”
Viñales’ team-mate Valentino Rossi also had a tougher latter half of the race in Australia, although ‘The Doctor’ led the race in the initial stages and took a solid points finish in his 400th GP. But he’s not about solid points finishes, so it’s a bit of a bounce back on the cards for the number 46 – at least in terms of his pace throughout the whole race.
“Now we‘re going to Sepang, where we also tested during the pre-season, but it‘s always difficult to understand where we stand before the race weekend starts. I was very strong in Malaysia last year. The last race at the Phillip Island circuit wasn‘t fantastic, but it was also not so bad, there were some positive points. The Sepang track is of course completely different and has very different conditions from what we experienced at the last round. This GP will be a lot more demanding physically for everybody, but we‘ll see. For sure we will do our best again.”
Rins, meanwhile, is under threat from Viñales and Petrucci for third, but he also has something else to think about of late: rookie team-mate Joan Mir. The debutant took his first top five finish at Phillip Island and he’ll be looking to build on that, as well as turn the tables on an incredible race for fellow rookie Francesco Bagnaia (Pramac Racing), who beat him to fourth. Bagnaia, however, was the second fastest man at Sepang in testing, so he’ll be feeling pretty confident about beating Mir – and taking the fight to team-mate Jack Miller once again.
“I think Sepang could be even better for me than Phillip Island, because I have already ridden there during the test, so I’m more familiar with how it feels on a MotoGP bike. Also, I have won in Sepang in the past, so I’m expecting a good weekend. Everything is going well with my GSX-RR and I feel close to the podium now, maybe my first one can be achieved there…”
Miller is the man who stands to ruin the Petronas Yamaha SRT party for Quartararo in terms of the Independent Team rider standings, and the Aussie took a stunning home podium last time out as top Ducati. Can he reel in even more ground?
And can Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) get back on the box? The Briton was second Down Under to take his best finish of the season, and that at the track where he suffered his huge and potentially career-threatening crash last year. His is a longer shot at stopping the young hotshot Frenchman, but the maths say it’s possible….
The fight for points at Sepang is sure to be another hard-fought battle, and Red Bull KTM Factory Racing and Aprilia Racing Team Gresini, the latter of which took their best finish last time out, will be hoping to complicate matters even further for those looking for a place in Q2, the top ten and the top five.
Piero Taramasso – Michelin
“The end of this long and exhausting tour of Asia and Oceania is drawing to a close, but that does not mean we are ready to relax, because the Malaysian GP is a very important race and also one that requires the utmost respect. Over the last three events we have had a huge mix of weather, from torrential rain to high temperatures and we now expect to roll that all in to one weekend here in Malaysia, but without the chill we had in Australia! We have probably more data from Sepang than any other circuit, but it still is a track that demands total respect, as it’s very technical, has an abrasive surface and usually the asphalt can be very hot. This is one of the venues where the tyres face the possibility of the greatest difference in conditions, not only over the weekend, but hourly, as we can have torrential rain and then the track dries quickly. The correct rubber is needed to work in those situations and from our intensive testing and knowledge of the circuit we know we have that.”
Malaysian MotoGP Schedule (AEDT)