We humans love a heart-warming story and this day nearly brought us one. After joking that he had to get this race—the third in as many weeks—over with because he was running out of toothpaste, Valentino Rossi, who will be 40 on February 16, took the lead from second on the starting grid at the Sepang International Circuit and for 16 incredibly consistent laps seemed set to make the story come true. By lap 12, Rossi's lead had grown to 1.247 seconds.

Meanwhile, Marc Márquez in second got a bit ahead of himself. "The first lap was not the best of my career," he said, "and I had to overtake some riders [he won pole position but was penalized six places for riding slowly on the racing line in front of Andrea Iannone]. But then I saw that Valentino was pushing really hard from the beginning. So I pushed too, but I was riding like qualifying and I overheated my tires.

“After I overtook Johann [Zarco] for second [on lap 5] I started to struggle a lot. I started to feel uncomfortable. I lost the front in the last turn and saved it on my elbow. Then I said, ‘Okay, cool down, try to be smart, and understand the situation with the tires.' I did that and, step by step, I could see I was catching Valentino 10th by 10th.”

There it is in the data, as Rossi’s lead shrank by 0.31 second, then 0.06, 0.14, and 0.10. “I pushed for 15 laps the same,” the Italian said, “and when I touched the throttle [in turn 1] the rear slide a bit too much and the bike go down. I’m so happy anyway because we lived the dream for 15 laps.”

Valentino Rossi
“It was a great shame because this was my best race of the season,” Valentino Rossi said. “I felt comfortable, I had a good pace, I pushed, and I had the chance to win, but unfortunately with four or five laps to go I fell. I don't understand what happened.”Photo courtesy of Yamaha

With Rossi out, Márquez led from Zarco by more than four seconds. The racing was over. Maverick Viñales, having qualified poorly despite excellent pace, had started 11th. Working his way forward cost him tire condition, but it looked as though he would have been in the fight had he started up front.

“Everything in MotoGP is so close now so you have to start at the front,” Viñales explained. “When you’re fighting your way up from the back, you destroy the tires.”

In the tread rubber, the mysterious Payne Effect acts through the accumulating strain cycles to slowly disperse the originally tight clusters of carbon black. The result is a change in rubber behavior that riders call “tire drop.”

Alex Rins
“Our pace was strong and I was able to close the gaps to the other riders and pass them during the race,” Álex Rins said. “We have found important things and learned more for next year. I’m very excited to go to Valencia, especially as we are feeling very strong with the bike now.”Photo courtesy of Suzuki

Possibly accelerating this process on race day is what Michelin MotoGP manager Piero Taramasso reported on the starting grid: that track temperature was a new record high, almost 22 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it had been on Saturday in FP4. How many teams on the grid were consulting software similar to the MegaRide rumored to be used by Ducati? It supposedly predicts how rubber will change under various circumstances.

Andrea Dovizioso, who has won races this year and challenged Márquez repeatedly, was a disappointing sixth on Sunday. “For me, something was wrong,” he said. “I had to ride in a completely different way. From the beginning, I couldn’t brake. I couldn’t make the speed in the middle of corners.”

Iannone was out on lap one, last turn. “Marc lost the front and then the rear,” the Suzuki rider said. “I didn’t want to touch him so I braked and I crashed. If I didn’t brake maybe I would have touched him and we would have both crashed. It was an instinctive reaction.”

Iannone’s teammate, Álex Rins, starting eighth, moved up without drama to pass Zarco for second on the last lap. “Our Suzuki is going very good,” he said. “Since the middle of the season, we did a very big step. We were able to hold the slipstream and fight with Yamaha and Honda on the straight.”

Riders of all four top manufacturers have reported gains either in late season (Yamaha and Suzuki) or overall (Honda and Ducati). Márquez noted, “It looked like Yamaha was not so good before, and now suddenly since Thailand they are really strong.” Of his own performance, he said, “We achieved our target for this year, which was to try to be consistent in all the tracks. I dominated the championship, but I struggled.”

This year’s Honda is the best since 2014, when Márquez won by larger margins, but, “When you save maybe 10 crashes this weekend by the elbows, it’s because you are pushing.” Honda must take careful note of this, for when a rider must dig this deep to win, a better machine is mandatory.

Johann Zarco
“I think the key for that podium was the beginning of the race,” Johann Zarco said. “I was thinking about overtaking Valentino [Rossi], but he was fast. I tried to stay behind Marc [Márquez], but four laps to the end Álex [Rins] was faster than me. I tried to fight again, but I didn’t have any rear grip.”Photo courtesy of Yamaha Tech 3

Rossi said, “We can [now] be competitive for all the race. Also Maverick was not so bad, and also Zarco. Because Maverick started from very behind, no? This time, the three Yamahas were quite competitive.”

Naturally, the videos push Márquez’s many near crashes, as he blurs the line between up on two wheels and down and out. For many viewers, this is as hard as quantum physics was for Newtonians: “Just tell me which the electron is, a wave or a particle? It can’t be both.” But again and again, Márquez shows that the two states, up and down, are not either/or; he can turn the one into the other.

Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo practiced on Friday but his left arm fractured a few weeks ago in Thailand has not yet healed. “I’m still feeling a lot of pain when I brake and change direction, and my times are not competitive.” Test rider Michele Pirro stepped in. He qualified 14th but crashed out of the race.Photo courtesy of Ducati

Márquez’s saves and crashes show that the other three manufacturers and their riders are making it harder for him to win, pushing him to extremes in which he must make up for the detail deficiencies of his bike. Like all the others, he continually says, “We must work.”

Jorge Lorenzo, out with an injury, called attention to Rossi’s superhuman lap-time consistency in the race. Had the Yamaha rider’s pace just been a few hundredths quicker, the happy ending might have been the reality.

After the final round of the championship in Valencia, the preseason test there will show us the 2019 bikes and the edge of the future.