The heat is on: Sepang ready to serve up a storm

2018-10-30 01:56
MotoGP™ ready for the hot, expansive and challenging Sepang International Circuit

Yamaha arrived in Australia on their worst ever losing streak but after a stunning victory for Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) at Phillip Island, the drought is over for the Iwata marque. Now we head for a very different venue in a very different climate, however: the Malaysian masterpiece of Sepang International Circuit. Hot, long and challenging, Sepang is far from the cool breeze and chilly evenings of the Island and could well throw up a very different race.

Viñales looked unstoppable in Australia and was back on the top step for the first time since Le Mans in 2017, boosting his confidence and adding a spring to his step on the way to Malaysia so he'll be one to watch for sure. For teammate Valentino Rossi it wasn’t quite the same weekend, however, as the ‘Doctor’ fought for second before then getting relegated to sixth by the flag. Viñales has reversed the trend of late and that means the two are now separated by only 15 points in the Championship – will he continue to turn the screw? Or will the vastly different venue turn the tables once again?

15 points is now also the gap between Rossi and second overall Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) – so it’s all in play behind newly-crowned Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). Ducati took a 1-2 at the venue last year, too – and Dovizioso won that and the 2016 race. Will the Italian be able to do the hattrick and win in 2018 too? He said Phillip Island was important to see how they’d improved this season, given it had always been a more difficult venue – and he took third, and fought for second. That’s a big leap forward so back on ground with a stunning track record, can anyone bet against ‘DesmoDovi’?

His teammate last time out, Alvaro Bautista, also had great pace at the Island on the GP18 so it wasn’t a one-pony trick for the Borgo Panigale factory. But he now returns to the Angel Nieto Team as, in turn, Jorge Lorenzo returns from injury. Keyhole surgery undertaken and on the mend, the five-time World Champion should be fit to race – so what can he do? Second last year was a good showing but even more pivotal was Lorenzo’s form in testing earlier in the season: he was at his poetry-in-motion best to put in the fastest ever lap of Sepang International Circuit.

Not so fast, however – at least on paper. The fastest official lap, from a race weekend, remains Dani Pedrosa’s 2015 1:59.053 and the ‘Little Samurai’ has some serious form at Sepang: five poles and three premier class wins. Higher temperatures raise expectations too, so what can Pedrosa do coming back from a DNF?

His teammate Marquez, meanwhile, also ended up with a 0 in Australia. Hit from behind by Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and sustaining too much damage, he agreed it was a racing incident but both didn’t manage to finish – leaving a few usual suspects out of the mix at the front. Marquez has only one win at Sepang in the premier class, taken in 2014, but he’s been showing similar signs to that season’s domination a few times in 2018 – and the title is already done. Will he be straight back on top?

For Zarco, it’s a different situation. With Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) out through injury in Australia, it presented somewhat of an open goal in the Independent Team rider standings to Zarco and Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Racing), although neither were ultimately able to capitalise – instead it was Team Suzuki Ecstar on the move in the standings and threatening all three after a second place for Andrea Iannone and a fifth for Alex Rins. Now, though, Zarco and Petrucci have another shot at it and Crutchlow’s 148 points is within reach for both. Will Suzuki gain again or can they pull clear? The Hamamatsu factory aren’t in the fight for top Independent Team rider but overall position is important too…

One man who will hope it’s more an Independent Team weekend again is home hero Hafizh Syahrin (Monster Yamaha Tech 3). Heading into his first home Grand Prix in the premier class, the Malaysian crashed out in Australia but took a top ten in Japan and is on form in terms of pace. After key rival for Rookie of the Year Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) took P8 at Phillip Island, those top honours may now be out of reach for Syahrin but his home race stands alone in some ways: thousands of fans in one of the most packed and vocal venues in the world will be behind ‘Pescao’, and he’ll want to do them proud.

The heat is on at Sepang and another piece of the puzzle will be played out at 300km/h around the fast and challenging circuit – so who can tame the Malaysian masterpiece? Find out on Sunday 4th November.
Championship Standings
1 - Marc Marquez (SPA) HONDA 296 points
2 - Andrea Dovizioso (ITA) DUCATI 210
3 - Valentino Rossi (ITA) YAMAHA 195
4 - Maverick Viñales (SPA) YAMAHA 180
5 - Cal Crutchlow (GBR) HONDA 148
Oliveira’s last stand at Sepang
After a tough Australia for both the title contenders, Malaysia sets a different scene once again…

Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) won the 2017 race at Phillip Island and this year was a different story for the Portuguese rider after a tough race that saw him come home outside the top ten, but it wasn’t the disaster it could have been. Key rival Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46) also struggled, and in the end Oliveira took some solace from keeping the fight alive and cutting the gap at least by a bit – one point. Now, however, a race later means the margins change again and Bagnaia arrives at Sepang with a 36-point advantage. To be crowned Champion, he needs to be 25 points clear of his rival at the flag.

If he finishes ahead of Oliveira then, it’s game over – and he has a lot more room to manoeuvre than that. If Oliveira fails to finish or fails to significantly cut the gap, it’s an automatic Check Mate for the Italian and he’ll take the title. So Oliveira will be gunning for glory with nothing to lose in his last stand at Sepang; as it is, it’s not enough to allow him to do anything but attack.

The guys sharing the track with the duel for the title could have a big say in the outcome too. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) was back on the top step last time out for his third podium of the season – all of which have been wins – and the South African beat Joan Mir (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) to it by a fitting 0.036. They’ll be riding high into Malaysia, as will the likes of Augusto Fernandez (Pons HP 40), who took a stunning fourth fighting for the podium, and Dominique Aegerter (Kiefer Racing) will take some heart from a much-improved race weekend Down Under. Lorenzo Baldassarri (Pons HP 40), Dynavolt Intact GP duo Marcel Shrötter and Xavi Vierge, Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) all have serious pace too.

36 points is a lot to play with for Bagnaia, but the field on which these battles is fought is a well-populated one. Will we see the Championship contenders back at the front at Sepang? Oliveira won last year so he’ll want to repeat that this season and turn Australia around – but how will Bagnaia play it? Find out at the Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix on Sunday.
Championship Standings
1 - Francesco Bagnaia (ITA) KALEX 288 points
2 - Miguel Oliveira (POR) KTM 252
3 - Brad Binder (RSA) KTM 193
4 - Lorenzo Baldassarri (ITA) KALEX 152
5 - Joan Mir (SPA) KALEX 149
Martin faces first chance at the crown in Malaysia
The Spaniard extended his advantage in Australia after yet more bad luck for Bezzecchi

It’s an up and down year for Moto3™ title protagonists Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3) and Marco Bezzecchi (Redox PruestelGP) and after the myriad twists and turns of the season so far there was yet another at Phillip Island. Despite recovering in style from a tougher qualifying, Bezzecchi was crashed out through no fault of his own and failed to score – meaning the gap extends back out from a single point to 12. But with Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3) taking second in Australia to Martin’s P5, he’s also closed back in to 20 points down. Now, it’s time for Malaysia and a first match point.

So who will Sepang International Circuit favour? Martin is the only one of the three to have been on the podium there before, but the form book is far from the script for this season. Will KTM power or Honda corner speed win out? Will the weather stay dry or will it be a rainy race to remember? And finally, will it decide the title?

Martin is, again, the only one of the three who could wrap it up at Sepang. If the Spaniard can extend his gap at the top to 25 points or more he’ll be the 2018 Moto3™ World Champion. An exact 25 point gap is enough for Martin because, should Bezzecchi equal him on points overall, he’ll have more wins – that’s one arena in which the Spaniard can’t be caught.

So a win for Martin would mean Bezzecchi needs at least P4 to keep his hopes alive, but it would be curtains for Di Giannantonio’s charge as he’d be 25 points down and unable to equal Martin on number of victories, just like his compatriot Bezzecchi. But thousands of possibilities exist and Moto3™ is far from a numbers game – or a sport of three. A grid full of talent, speed and determination is a further complication for the trio fighting for the title, and there are home heroes too: Adam Norrodin at Petronas Sprinta Racing is Malaysian and his Japanese teammate Ayumu Sasaki will also want to keep pushing forward on his current charge at Sepang, which is the team’s home round.

Hot, humid and challenging, the Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix is sure to be a thriller – with Sepang set up to showcase the kings of slipstreaming to perfection in Moto3™.
Championship Standings
1 - Jorge Martin (SPA) HONDA 215 points
2 - Marco Bezzecchi (ITA) KTM 203
3 - Fabio Di Giannantonio (ITA) HONDA 195
4 - Enea Bastianini (ITA) HONDA 150
5 - Lorenzo Dalla Porta (ITA) HONDA 131

Source: Idemitsu Asia Talent Cup

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