After the carnage in Phillip Island, the prospects of the various Aliens have changed significantly. If pending 2014 champion Marc Marquez is to challenge Mick Doohan’s all-time record of 12 wins in a season, he needs to win here. Dani Pedrosa, having spent the bulk of the season in second place, now finds himself fourth, looking up at both of the factory Yamahas, who made hay at his expense Down Under. Jorge Lorenzo, who many gave up for dead back in May, could finish the season in second place. As could teammate Valentino Rossi, who, at age 35, is entering the realm of “timeless elegance,” the finely crafted Swiss watch of motorcycle racing.
That the events at Phillip Island were unusual is borne out by the fact that the last all-Yamaha podium in MotoGP took place at LeMans in 2008. With Tech 3 Yamaha sophomore Bradley Smith having stayed upright long enough to register his first premier class podium, there was plenty of weirdness to go around. One thing is certain – the new Bridgestone asymmetric fronts don’t work in cold weather. Whether they will work in hot weather, or any weather at all, remains to be seen; it will likely be quite some time before riders volunteer to try them again.
MotoGP returns this week to the tropics in Kuala Lumpur, where it’s always mid-summer; no concerns about windy cold weather here. And it returns with Repsol Honda Golden Boy Marc Marquez in a definite slump, having won just once since Indianapolis in August and having crashed in three of the last four events. Back in August, eclipsing Doohan’s 1997 record looked like a foregone conclusion; now, it appears to be a longshot. Personally, early in the year, I used to think that one of the amazing things about Marquez was that he never lost concentration. Now, it appears certain he has lost something; call it concentration, or motivation, or interest; whatever it was back in July is now gone. For now.
Recent History at Sepang
A recap of recent events at Sepang must necessarily start with the 2011 round. Heading in the premier class race that day, the charismatic and fearless Marco Simoncelli had survived a series of incidents early in the year that had given him a reputation for recklessness. He crashed out of the lead at Jerez early in the year, and got into a verbal shoving match with Lorenzo during Round 3 at Estoril. He crashed carelessly in the rain at Silverstone, and took Lorenzo out of the race at Assen. He enjoyed his first career podium at Brno, followed that with three solid 4th place finishes, and podiumed in second place at Phillip Island the preceding week. The bizarre, arcing low-side that took his life at Sepang came just as he seemed to be hitting his stride as a rider, when his future was at its very brightest.
Recall that was the same weekend that Moto2 phenom and title contender Marc Marquez hit an unseen puddle of water in FP1 and went ragdoll, ending up with a concussion that gave him double vision for six months and almost stopped his career before it really ever started. This accident, in turn, handed the Moto2 title to Stefan Bradl, who leveraged it into a promotion to the premier class with LCR Honda that he has now worked himself out of, to dangle the preposition.
The 2012 race can be summed up in these four words: James Ellison finished ninth. Six of the 20 starters crashed out of the race. Pedrosa won, followed by a cautious Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, who was there only to tune up for his annual and final Phillip Island coronation the following week. The race was called after 13 laps. And, just for the record, Nicky Hayden finished fourth in Sepang for the sixth time in his premier class career. If MotoGP were to keep a stat for Most Fourth Place Finishes at a Single Venue (Career), Hayden would own it.
Last year at Sepang, Pedrosa gave one of the performances that, in years past, would have seen him win by 12 seconds. He slingshotted out of the five hole at the start and was sitting on leader Lorenzo’s pipes midway through the first lap. He then basically pushed Lorenzo out of his way and took the lead for good on Lap 5. Teammate Marquez, after a few bumps and grinds with Lorenzo, would take over second place and protect it all day, effectively ending Lorenzo’s quest for a repeat of his 2012 title. That Pedrosa would end up winning by a mere three seconds confirms what we all know – there was no Marc Marquez out there when Dani was running away and hiding from the field in previous years.
This Stuff is Harder than it Looks
In traveling to Sepang this week, I’ve learned a few things about this sport that I hadn’t understood before. We watch the riders and crews competing during practice and races and see a lot of concentrated effort focused on maximizing performance. We see none of what goes on behind the scenes. Nothing of the brutal travel schedules that have these guys crossing timezones like they’re lane markers. Nothing of what it takes to pack the entire grid into three 747s immediately after the race so things can get unpacked and on track in time for the next one. Nothing of the high stakes negotiations that take place between owners and sponsors, venues and race organizers, the host countries and the rights holders that ultimately pay the freight for this breathtakingly expensive pursuit.
Malaysia itself is a study in contrasts. Vast, gleaming skyscrapers built in the middle of steaming jungles. All of the trappings of Western culture – Westins, Victoria’s Secrets, and Johnnie Walker Black (who helped me write this article tonight) in the midst of a Muslim-majority country complete with remote villages lacking the most basic services. A vibrant multi-cultural mix of Malays, Chinese, Singaporeans and Indonesians competing in a market economy within a complex set of rules and social mores of which Westerners are completely oblivious. It is, in turn, dramatic, elegant, scary and emblematic of paradise lost. In my home town of Indianapolis, I used to remark on the land under active cultivation only, like, seven miles from the state capitol building. Here, one notices the glass and steel skyscrapers within a few miles of triple canopy jungle.
Malaysia calls itself The Land of Adventure (they’re not referring to the 20-some hours it takes to get here from New York, which is an adventure in itself.) The adventure will continue this weekend as the big bikes of MotoGP hit the tarmac of the gorgeous Sepang circuit dodging rainstorms in hot pursuit of fame and fortune. We’ll have race results right here on Sunday evening.