Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix looked like it would become another Marc Marquez benefit. Sepang is always hot, and the hotter that the series-spec Bridgestone tires run, the bigger the 8-ball behind which Jorge Lorenzo’s corner-speed style finds itself. That style requires high and consistent grip all the way around turns. For the Honda men on their “V-shaped line,” risk is more controlled and limited to the apex zone.
Top time on the first day of practice went to Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, who won last year at Sepang. Lorenzo languished in fifth. “I didn’t have confidence in the middle of the corners and also with acceleration,” he said. “I had a lot of spinning, and the bike is very aggressive.”
Qualifying put everyone back in the usual order. Rain fell briefly just before 15-minute Q2, and the riders’ job was to make their bids for a perfect lap as late as possible, in hope of having the driest surface. Lorenzo pitted after almost crashing (turns six and seven were still wet). Marquez got it right, winning his eighth pole of the season and setting a new lap record in the process.
“I knew that the final lap of the session would be definitive,” Marquez said, “because the surface was drying out and conditions were getting better by the minute.”
Valentino Rossi, who was in love with his setup (“I can really push”), was second, the injured and hurting (when is he not?) Cal Crutchlow third, Lorenzo fourth, and Pedrosa fifth. Riders agreed on conditions. “It came down to who was willing to take the most risks right at the end when the track was improving.”
“We could only push 100 percent on the last lap,” said Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso. “I kept a bit of margin in those two corners [six and seven], but I pushed hard on the rest.” His teammate, Nicky Hayden, added, “It was really hard to see where the track was wet, where it was dry, and to understand how much grip it had.”
Marquez had timed his qualifying lap perfectly, read the surface perfectly, and set a new qualifying record by .3 of a second. But reality never shows all its cards. Before Lorenzo mysteriously added wonderful starts to his repertoire, Pedrosa was the start master. Marquez starts well enough, but he is no miracle at it. Also, people have got so accustomed to Marquez being The New Ace that they have forgotten Pedrosa remains a card-carrying alien. And in recent races, he claims to have found new personal strength.
Lorenzo predictably led at the start of Sunday’s race, but here came Pedrosa, shooting forward from his second-row starting position. After five laps, Pedrosa eased into the lead. “We were much slower than the others today,” Lorenzo said, “especially after three or four laps. At the beginning, we were not so bad, but once the rear tire dropped, we weren’t strong enough braking, and the other guys recovered so much ground. In the middle of the race, we also started to lose out on acceleration, too.”
Marquez, too, was eventually able to pass Lorenzo, but Pedrosa was out of reach. “When I finally managed to overtake Jorge and make the pass stick,” said Marquez, “I tried to reduce the distance that Dani had put between us. I saw that it was too risky.” Not everything is possible.
Rossi and Alvaro Bautista disputed fourth, that lofty castle finally falling to Rossi. Crutchlow fetched sixth (surgery on his swollen arm is scheduled for the end of the season, but he ignores the little stuff). “At the start,” he said, “I couldn’t stop the bike with the soft front tire, and I had a few moments. I was also struggling with a lack of rear grip.”
And the Ducatis? Hayden was out with “strange noises” stopping his factory Ducati. Once a steering-damper mount broke, Andrea Iannone’s Pramac Ducati proved “dangerous and impossible to ride.” Dovizioso was eighth. After breaking his ankle in FP4, LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl did not start.
As this season’s outcome solidifies, conversation shifts to silly-season gossip and wondering what strange new rules Dorna has in mind for jazzing up 2014. Onward to Phillip Island in Australia and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.
1. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) – 298
2. Jorge Lorenzo (Factory Yamaha) – 255
3. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) – 244
4. Valentino Rossi (Factory Yamaha) – 198
5. Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha Tech 3) – 166
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