The 2015 Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix will be remembered and talked about for years. Not for the fact that Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa won the race. Not for the fact that Jorge Lorenzo took second place to pull within seven points of the championship lead. Today will be remembered as the day Valentino Rossi allowed his emotions to get the better of him, such that putting Marc Marquez in the weeds and out of the race became a higher priority than winning his tenth world championship.
A one-sided war of words had erupted between Rossi and Marquez during Thursday’s press conference, when Rossi, unprompted, went off on Marquez for pretty much everything he could think of outside of halitosis. While a number of the top riders have criticized Marquez for his occasionally reckless riding style, up until this week no one had made things personal, which Rossi did. Slinging a bunch of defamatory accusations at a fellow rider is not against the rules, but it showed surprisingly bad form on Rossi’s part. Many of us thought it was purposefully overstated, Rossi playing mind games with Marquez, snubbing his teammate and championship rival Lorenzo, and/or putting the race stewards on alert for any misbehavior on Marquez’ part that could work to Lorenzo’s advantage.
Looking back, Rossi’s comments now appear genuine and perhaps even understated. What had gotten personal in the pressroom became personal on track today, with ramifications both immediate and forthcoming. The only good news resulting from today’s antics is that the season finale in Valencia has moved up the intensity chart, from “relevant” to “riveting” to, now, “epic.”
Business as Usual at the Start
Thanks to a fast final lap in qualifying on Saturday, Rossi climbed up to the front row of the grid, pushing Lorenzo back to fourth, with the thoroughly revived Pedrosa sitting on pole after the fastest lap in Sepang history on a motorcycle and the ever-present Marquez sitting second. When the lights went out, Pedrosa led heading into the first turn, trailed by Marquez and Rossi, Lorenzo having been swamped at the start. No worries. Midway through the lap, Lorenzo sliced past both factory Ducatis into fourth place, setting up an Alien encounter for the ages.
On Lap 2, Lorenzo went through on Rossi into third place while factory Ducati #1 Andrea Iannone was experiencing a mechanical failure that would end his day. In Turn 4 of Lap 3, Marquez (intentionally?) ran wide, allowing Lorenzo through, at which point Pedrosa and Lorenzo got away from their teammates and the drama that would follow. It appeared that Lorenzo, staying out of the fray in the media, was simply pushing hard to put some track between himself and Rossi. At this point we can’t know whether Marquez allowed this to occur or not. Matt Brit, the color guy on the announcing team, did ask, “How often do we see Marc Marquez going backwards in the standings?”
Four Unforgettable Laps
Lap 4 started with Rossi going through cleanly on Marquez, at which point it seems Marquez must have changed the setting on his dashboard from, like, “3” to “Get that Italian bastard.” Lap 5 was simply ridiculous, as the two went through on each other perhaps six or eight times, seeming to get more aggressive each time. The action continued on Lap 6 as Rossi, having passed Marquez once again, made a hurry-up signal with his left hand that I read as, “Come on, stronzo, you want some more of this?” Marquez, unafraid with his dad and brother in the garage, responded in the affirmative, setting up the events of Lap 7.
In a vivid example of the notion that reality is subjective, people will have wildly differing opinions on what actually occurred midway through Lap 7. Rossi, in the lead, appeared to drift wide in a fast right-hander, running slower than expected. As Marquez approached on his left, the Italian looked to his left once, then again, then appeared to slow down even more while veering farther left off the racing line. Marquez, expecting Rossi to accelerate, found himself with a Yamaha M1 closing in from his right and the curb approaching from his left. The two made contact, Marquez’ right front with Rossi’s left rear, causing Marquez to collapse the front and end up in the gravel. Rossi, having disposed of his new nemesis, went on to finish third; the last 13 laps were uneventful. As in, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
FIM Rule Changes and Race Direction
Immediately after the collision, it was announced that Race Direction would be reviewing the incident. After the race, it was announced that Rossi had been assessed three penalty points for intentionally causing contact with another rider, similar to the penalty Hector Barbera had received in the morning for carelessly putting Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro in the gravel during the warmup practice. The automatic appeal from Rossi’s people was unanimously declined.
Please bear with me while I go David tt for a minute. The three points, by themselves, would not have resulted in any kind of sanction for Rossi either today or at Valencia in two weeks. However, Rossi had received a penalty point at Misano earlier in the year for slow riding in the racing line during practice. It is this seemingly innocuous fourth point that is going to cause Rossi some major heartburn at the finale. FIM rules state that once a rider reaches four penalty points in a calendar year, he must start the next race from the last position on the grid.
Thus, the season finale finds the two top riders separated by a mere seven points, with the leader starting from the ninth row, while the challenger, Lorenzo, is likely to start from the first. I remember watching Marquez win a Moto2 race at Valencia starting from the back of the grid in 2012, and thought it was one of his most amazing feats. It is simply inconceivable that a rider, even a Valentino Rossi, can pull something like that off in the premier class. The question, then, becomes how far in front of Rossi can Lorenzo finish, assuming both finish the race. The last time I saw one of the Aliens start from the back row – Pedrosa, after an issue with a jammed tire warmer several years ago – he crashed out on Lap 1 grinding his teeth to dust trying to get back up front. Before moving on, let me remind you that Lorenzo holds the tiebreaker due to his having won more races this season than Rossi. The Doctor’s seven point lead is actually six.
A Shocking Loss of Perspective
Today should have been a celebratory day for Valentino Rossi, as he became the all-time leader in grand prix racing starts with his 329th of a scintillating career. Today could have easily set up a spaghetti Western finish in Valencia, with the two top riders actually or effectively tied, facing one another, guns holstered and safeties off, at high noon in the middle of the dusty street. Instead, Rossi, the consummate veteran, the professional’s professional, allowed Marquez to get under his skin sufficiently to, in all likelihood, cost him a world championship.
Thus far this season, Rossi and Marquez have gotten physical three times. The first, in Argentina, left Marquez down and out, the first indication we received that his third premier class title might not be automatic. The second, in Assen, resulted in Rossi cutting the corner while Marquez ran wildly wide, giving Rossi his first win since Rio Hondo, the irony steadily building. Today’s clash left Marquez once again in the gravel as Rossi rode merrily on. The merriment, however, was short-lived.
Nothing gets sports fans going like a good blood feud, and we’ve got one now between two of the best ever, one at the tail end of his career, the other just beginning his own. Normally, it would be the younger combatant losing his cool and learning an important life lesson. Today, it was the grizzled veteran receiving a vivid reminder that one needs to keep his emotions off the track, that simply being annoying is not a violation of the rules, but administering an etiquette lesson at 100 mph is.
Looking forward to joining you all in Valencia in two weeks.
|2015 MotoGP Sepang Top 10 Results|
|1||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||–|
|2||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||+3.612|
|3||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+13.724|
|4||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+23.995|
|5||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda||+28.721|
|6||Danilo Petrucci||Octo Pramac Ducati||+36.372|
|7||Aleix Espargaro||Suzuki Ecstar||+39.290|
|8||Maverick Vinales||Suzuki Ecstar||+39.436|
|9||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+42.462|
|10||Stefan Bradl||Aprilia Racing Gresini||+44.601|
|2015 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 17 Rounds|