Maverick Viñales Speeds To Malaysian MotoGP Race Victory

Marc Márquez races from 11th to second; Andrea Dovizioso completes podium.

Maverick Viñales
Maverick Viñales (12) qualified second, between the Petronas Yamahas of Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli, and led every lap of Sunday’s MotoGP race at the Sepang International Circuit for his second win of the 2019 season and the first in Malaysia for Yamaha in nine years. With one round remaining, the 24-year-old factory Yamaha rider is third overall in the championship, seven points ahead of Álex Rins.Yamaha

Change is the rule in MotoGP. Fabio Quartararo stunned the field on Saturday by his pole-setting pace and absolute lap record, but Maverick Viñales proved uncatchable in Sunday's 20-lap race. He was pursued by the two men on more powerful bikes who operate at the highest level of tire management, Marc Márquez in second, despite a hard crash in qualifying, and Andrea Dovizioso third. Valentino Rossi and Álex Rins were fourth and fifth.

In February, the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia was equally hot, but despite that, the final day of preseason testing was topped by four powerful Ducatis. Anyone considering that outcome would surely cite the importance of Sepang’s two straights, slow corners, and opportunities for hard braking and acceleration. It all makes sense, right?

Forget that. This past weekend at that same circuit everything was different. Yes, conditions were hot—average track temperature over the three days was 110 degrees Fahrenheit—but lack of grip combined with an abrasive surface held back the high-power bikes, filling the front row with less-powerful Yamahas, with Quartararo qualifying first and this year’s champion Márquez highsiding onto his head while chasing him. His reward was to start from 11th place.

Danilo Petrucci, ninth in the race, said, “We’re riding a second slower on average than we used to here in February, but the track [then] was in a slightly different condition.” Three corners have since been resurfaced. “There was much more grip on the asphalt,” the Italian added, “and it was a condition I was able to take advantage of to be very fast.” Márquez said, “Normally the engine is very important here, but the bikes at the front were Yamaha and Suzuki.” Dovizioso noted, “It’s so hot. The tires feel so soft. You have to ride in a really smooth way; there isn’t the grip front and rear.”

Jack Miller leads Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso
Jack Miller (43) leads Marc Márquez (93) and Andrea Dovizioso (04). Asked if he thought a podium finish was possible, Dovizioso replied, “Yes, because the pace was good. The Malaysia race is always strange because the drop of the tire is unbelievable, much more than in practice. I knew, if I could make a good start, I had my chance. I expected more speed, but grip was really low and we couldn’t be faster.”Dorna

In Saturday night’s Michelin tire briefing, Piero Taramasso said, “Riders talk of low grip from the high temperature. Tires spin a lot. This track is so abrasive; when [the tire] starts to spin it’s hard to control with the electronics.” His recommendation? “The medium rear gives good feeling; the medium front gives good stability. The Yamahas can push, first to last, for their tire consumption is under control.” Who will win tomorrow? “One Yamaha. And Michelin.”

The combination of the high-power bikes being prevented from using their full acceleration and the Yamahas and Suzukis having high corner speed tended to make maximum speeds less different than usual. Franco Morbidelli, sixth, noted, “We are losing on the straight, but looking at the speed chart this morning, the difference between us and the top wasn’t so big.”

At the start, three riders stood out: Márquez for getting to the front group from 11th, Dovizioso for unleashing his “starting-device-equipped” Ducati right up the middle, and Jack Miller for leading into turn 1 despite the Yamaha phalanx. Soon Viñales went to the front, pursued by Márquez, and order assembled itself out of the chaos of starting.

Valentino Rossi, fourth, chased Dovizioso for 20 laps. “The layout of this track is good for the Yamaha because you have a lot of long corners,” he said. “I tried the maximum because a podium is a lot better. I did the fastest lap and the lap record, but I was not able to beat Dovi; he was very strong in acceleration and on the straights.” Dovizioso posted the highest top speed, 205.8 mph, 5 mph faster than Rossi.Dorna

A mystery this season and last has been how the Petronas satellite Yamaha riders, Quartararo and Morbidelli, can be so often faster than Viñales and Rossi on factory bikes. Of top-qualifier Quartararo, who finished seventh, Rossi said, “Fabio continues to surprise. He rides well and is able to find better grip in acceleration, the very phase where I suffer more. I’ve looked at his data, but I don’t understand how he does it.”

If the difference doesn’t show in the data, what can it be? Bikes optimized for corner speed, Yamaha and Suzuki, are generally longer and have a lower center of gravity than bikes for point and shootists. That being so, they are less good at transferring weight to the rear during acceleration. This can make them more liable to spin. How could the rider improve this situation, controlling wheelspin and accelerating harder? One possible way is through body position—more upright and to the rear. Another is by lifting the machine sooner rather than by lifting smoothly and gradually, feeding power in proportion. Such differences ought to be visible, especially to other riders!

For at least three years, the Yamahas have suffered tire degradation in the last third of races. An easy source of blame would be that corner-speed riders must spend longer on the tender tire edges. But what if, instead, the cause has been at least in part the need to accelerate? Where a point-and-shoot rider can rely upon prompt weight transfer to load the rear tire close to 100 percent so it can accelerate the bike without spin, the corner-speed rider must keep the rear tire on the edge of spinning to get all he can from his bike’s lesser weight transfer.

Rossi and Viñales
Yamaha teammates Rossi and Viñales exchange congratulatory salutes. Air temperature at race time was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Track temperature was 111 degrees Fahrenheit, down from 125 at the start of the Moto2 race. Like most of the field, Rossi and Viñales used Michelin’s medium front and rear slicks. Only Dovizioso and Miller chose the soft front; five riders, including Márquez, opted for the soft rear.Dorna

On “normal” tracks, Rossi said, “We’ve improved a little but, compared to Honda and Ducati, we’re still a step behind. They exit the turns better and consume the rear tire less.”

Except this time, in the special conditions at Sepang, where the high-power bikes were disadvantaged by the combination of low grip and abrasiveness. This drove Dovizioso, Miller (eighth), and Márquez to the soft rear in search of grip. The large majority, 15 riders, were on the medium/medium combo that Taramasso had indicated.

Rossi said interesting things on the subject of riding style: “It looks like the riding style of the top riders has modified a little bit. It’s like, with the new bikes, new electronics, and different tires, you need to ride in another way to find the limit. In general, what we think is, it’s more in acceleration and less in corner entry. In acceleration, you need to be smooth to pick up the bike, but the style compared to two to three years ago is very different now.”

Andrea Iannone
Following his best finish of the season, sixth, one week earlier at Phillip Island, Andrea Iannone qualified 17th, three positions behind Aprilia teammate Aleix Espargaró, and crashed with nine laps remaining in the race. “The front tire temperature began to rise,” he said, “and I struggled until the crash.” Repsol Honda’s Jorge Lorenzo (99) was 14th, ending a four-race championship-point drought.Dorna

At least some of this difference must arise from the switch from Bridgestone to Michelin, and from the time it has taken for riders to adapt to it. The Bridgestone front tire was a phenomenon. “You can just keep on loading it,” Colin Edwards said in 2008. But when Michelin became the spec-tire supplier in 2016, there was a rash of losing the front because it wasn’t a Bridgestone. Yet at the same time riders praised the Michelin rear as having exceptional grip, better than the Bridgestone rears. Since then, Michelin has improved its fronts and lap records have fallen. Even so, the higher performance level of Michelin rears encourages pushing harder on exit, as Rossi noted.

Márquez understood the situation. “I tried to push alone in the first practice, but alone my lap time was 1:59.4 to 1:59.3. If I have somebody in front, I was able to do 1:59.0 to 1:58 high. But it was impossible to do a 1:58 low like they did.” This explains why he was shadowing Quartararo in qualifying, to “have somebody in front.”

Takaaki Nakagami and Johann Zarco
In his second race with LCR Honda replacing the injured Takaaki Nakagami, Johann Zarco qualified ninth and ran as high as eighth. A charging Joan Mir put the 29-year-old Frenchman on the ground with four laps remaining, resulting in a “long-lap” penalty. “I must be happy about the race,” Zarco said. “I had a good pace, and I was fighting with good guys. Hopefully, we’ll get a good result in Valencia.”Dorna

Miller saw Márquez’s crash. “I ran on at turn 1 and saw Marc highside,” he said. “I knew exactly what he’d done. He was dicking around so much [to remain behind Quartararo] and the left side [of the tire] gets cold. It’s quite hard, the left side here, and it got too cold and highsided him.”

What became of Quartararo in the race? “I opted for the soft and the biggest problem was the front, even though we all struggled with that tire. “I didn’t start off well and I had several problems on the brakes. I think it was really high [inflation] pressure on the front.”

Rossi strove lap after lap to get on the podium despite the higher speed of Dovizioso’s Ducati. “I was faster than Dovi in the long corners,” he said, “but in braking it was difficult for me to overtake, also because I always arrive in the braking zone a little bit too far behind. I passed him several times, but on acceleration he always repassed me.”

Rossi had the satisfactions that his third lap was the fastest of the race—a new race lap record, 1:59.661—and that he had been strong to the end of the physically toughest race on the calendar.

Marc Márquez
Ten world titles: Márquez is congratulated on his second place by brother Alex, who won the Moto2 world title at Sepang. “Viñales was faster than us today,” he said. “The first lap was incredible—also Dovi, like a rocket—but we destroyed the tire in the first three laps.” Márquez and Viñales dedicated their performances to Afridza Munandar, the 20-year-old Asia Talent Cup rider who died on Saturday.Dorna

Márquez, performing remarkably well despite his heavy slam the day before, managed to get within a second and a half of Viñales. “But then I did a big mistake in turns 7 and 8,” he said. “I went off the track, and came back in.” That cost him a second and revealed further pursuit as a foolish risk. Viñales’ response? “This time, I kept a little bit in the pocket, just in case Marc came back.”

After losing time in many races by slipping back at the start then killing rubber to recover positions, Viñales said, “Finally, I started good in the first laps and I was there.” He had signaled his readiness to be there by producing 10 1:59 or better laps in Free Practice 3. No one else could match the consistency of that product.

Onward to the last race, Valencia. Then nothing until the preseason tests begin.