Movistar Yamaha teammates and rivals Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have taught us a few things about themselves as this riveting 2015 MotoGP season blazes into The Pacific Rim for Round 17 at Sepang International Circuit. Rossi prefers rain, short, pudgy tracks where he can record lots of qualifying laps, and applying pressure from the rear, as it were, on race day. Lorenzo likes things bone dry, prefers longer tracks to shorter ones, and strongly prefers running from the front, as roughly half of his premier class wins have come in races in which he’s led every lap. Conditions here on race day are a pure lottery; the race could as easily be decided on Saturday as Sunday.
Assuming the weather conditions don’t interfere, Lorenzo would appear to have an advantage over Rossi on Saturday, as Rossi’s qualification maladies continue to hurt him, more so at long circuits like Sepang. The Malaysian track had been dominated by Yamaha and Ducati for most of the ten years leading up to 2011. Since 2012, however, Hondas have captured the checkered flag here every year, and look fully capable of doing so again this year. The Honda RC213-V likes a racing surface that is hot, slick and greasy, kind of a young-John-Travolta racing surface, if you will. The problem for the non-Italians on the grid is the afternoon rainstorms that pop up most days – Rossi, Dovizioso and Petrucci are all mudders.
Once again, we believe Lorenzo is under more pressure than Rossi. Lorenzo not only needs to beat Marc Marquez, he needs to beat Rossi and hope Marquez beats Rossi too, in order to have a realistic crack at the title in Spain come November. Rossi needs to podium and not worry too much about anything else. If he’s feeling reverent, he can pray that Marquez and Lorenzo take each other apart, leaving the door open for him to win and clinch. But unlike in years past, God’s Bishop of Rome is now Hispanic, taking away the spiritual home court advantage enjoyed by Italians like Rossi for decades.
Conceivably, God could be pulling for Lorenzo this time around.
Recent History at Sepang
In 2012 it rained pitchforks and hammer handles on Sunday, with 30% of the 20 bikes that started the race failing to make it to the red flag that fell at the end of the 13th lap. Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, on a futile hot streak, with no real way of catching Lorenzo for the year, managed another win, followed by Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and ol’ Nicky Hayden, who drove his Ducati to a solid fourth place finish. Rossi, enduring the second year of his perdition with Ducati, wrestled his Desmosedici to a “just okay” fifth place, not what The Doctor had been used to for most of the previous decade. (Pedrosa would crash out the following week at Phillip Island, effectively handing the title to his Mallorcan rival.)
Pedrosa won again in 2013, beating Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi to the flag as the factory Hondas handed it to the factory Yamahas. Pedrosa, you will recall, had been clipped by Marquez at Aragon two weeks earlier, crashing out shortly thereafter. This week Pedrosa was not having it, going through on Marquez on Lap 5 and never looking back. Marquez, the 2013 title within easy reach, stayed out of trouble all day, and there was little left for Lorenzo other than beating Rossi. Marquez would earn a DQ the following week in Australia, postponing his coronation as the boy king of MotoGP until Valencia. Lorenzo, sore about being denied his third title by Marquez, went off on him at the Thursday press conference, accusing him of dangerous tactics and Dorna Race Direction of collusion.
Last year Marquez added to his record collection by taking the pole and the win, with Rossi and Lorenzo giving maximum, ultimately futile chase in The Year of Marquez. The samurai celebration at Motegi the previous week, when Marquez clinched the title, gave this race a vaguely artificial feeling. Nonetheless, the grid was taking it seriously, enough so that eight riders failed to complete the race. Pedrosa, in the chase for runner-up for 2014, crashed twice, putting his hopes aside for yet another year. LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl would finish fourth, coming close once again to a second premier class podium, to go along with his second place trophy from Laguna Seca in 2013.
Rossi’s Challenge: Qualify on the Front Row
As one of the longest circuits on the calendar, Sepang brings its own special set of problems to the riders during Saturday’s qualifying sessions. The amount of time it takes to turn a lap means the riders can only manage two qualifying runs, rather than the three they often attempt at shorter tracks. Rossi, for all his gifts and extraordinary skills, has yet to master the 15 minute qualifying format. Which is why we suggest Sunday’s race, even the 2015 title, could be decided on Saturday.
If Lorenzo and Marquez qualify up front and Rossi gives us another of his 8th place starts, we’re pretty much assured of a shootout at Valencia in two weeks. If qualifying produces results like this, AND the rain stays away for the race, it is not beyond comprehension to suggest that Lorenzo could lead the way heading back to Spain.
Rossi’s history here is deceptively, well, deceptive. Although he’s enjoyed six premier class wins here since 2000, the most recent came back in 2010. Perhaps it’s fair to say he USED to be brilliant here. Recently, not so much. But Lorenzo’s history is even worse – not a single win at Sepang in the premier class since 2008. And although he finds his way to the podium most years, he absolutely needs to win on Sunday, or hope for a mistake by Rossi. A third place finish behind Rossi this week would render Valencia moot, as Rossi, needing only to finish, say, in the top seven, could accomplish that with his eyes closed.
Lorenzo needs to make it happen on Saturday and again on Sunday. This is a track he should own, and a race in which he needs to assert his will on the field as he’s done many times before. If it rains, it will simply be that much more difficult. This is not the time of the season when double world champions go around making excuses. They either get done what needs to be done, or they don’t. These are defining moments in one’s career; it will be fascinating to see how both Lorenzo and Rossi approach their work on Sunday. The subplot, of course, will involve the likes of Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone, who have what it takes to make life even more difficult for the two Yamaha studs.
We have secured a copy of the American release of Hitting the Apex, and I’ll be reviewing the film here before Round 18. If the trailer is any indication, Hitting the Apex, which follows MotoGP from 2007 to 2013, will be another classic racing film from director Mark Neale, who also brought us the Faster and Fastest Grand Prix documentaries.