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Factory Ducati #1 rider Andrea Dovizioso could hope for but one thing as the starting lights went out at the wet Sepang circuit – win the race and keep the title chase alive heading back to Spain for the finale. Trailing defending champ Marc Marquez by 33 points entering the day, he needed to cut the deficit to less than 25 to avoid having to endure another nauseating Marquez title celebration. By winning the race, and with Marquez off the podium, the 2017 title will be decided in two weeks at Valencia, and is more likely to end with a whimper than a bang.

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Marc Marquez leaves Sepang with a 21-point lead over Andrea Dovizioso, which means the 2017 MotoGP title will be decided at Valencia.

Practice and Qualifying

Friday provided a dry session for FP1 and a wet session for FP2. Dovi topped the charts during both, looking very relaxed for a guy down 33 points with two races left. Marquez, typically, took his time in FP1, looking around, then got serious during the wet afternoon session and trailed only Dovizioso at the end of the day.

Saturday was hot and “dry” all day, if you think of 90% relative humidity as “dry.” FP3 was decisive in culling the herd, as all but two of the riders set their fastest times of the weekend in the morning, topped by Dr. Rossi, who came out of nowhere on Friday to headline FP3 on Saturday. Those passing directly into Q2 included both factory riders from the Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Ducati teams and the two satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller, who has been on something of a roll since breaking his leg.

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Jack Miller had a good start in Q2 while Marc Marquez crashed early in the session. Marquez was able to recover and qualify seventh.

Q1 was pretty orderly, as my boy Alex Rins and KTM heartthrob Pol Espargaro made it through to Q2, Espargaro directly after laying down his bike very late in the session. This set the stage for Q2, which I would like to summarize by simply listing the riders who sat pole during the 15 minute session:

  • Jack Miller (after Marquez crashed on his first flying lap)
  • Johann Zarco, looking fast all weekend
  • Dani Pedrosa, loving the hot track
  • Jorge Lorenzo, loving the dry track
  • Johann Zarco again, and for quite awhile. Then, quickly, as the session was ending
  • Dani Pedrosa
  • Valentino Rossi
  • Andrea Dovizioso
  • Johann Zarco once more, and, finally
  • Dani Pedrosa, for his first pole since Catalunya

The final minute of the session was a blur, one which pushed Marquez to the seven spot, topping row 3. After a first lap crash, he changed bikes, put in one fast lap in which he was out of shape most of the time, got off the bike and had it put away for Sunday. Previously, FP4 was the scene of what some are calling The Save of the Century, when he traveled perhaps 60 yards on his rear wheel and right knee, his front wheel, akimbo, laying down a thick black line, before righting himself and continuing gingerly down the road.

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Dani Pedrosa usually does well at Sepang, taking his fifth career MotoGP pole position in Malaysia.

So, Sunday’s race would feature Pedrosa, Zarco and Dovizioso on the front row and Rossi, Viñales and Lorenzo on Row 2, with Marquez, Rins and Iannone comprising Row 3. With loose cannons Zarco and Andrea Iannone in the mix heading into Turn 1, it seemed Sunday’s race, for some riders, could be rather brief. Not a good thing with a championship at stake late in the season. No one wants to be collateral damage, or the cause of it.

The Race

Once the red lights went out on Sunday, Marquez appeared to have been shot out of a howitzer, taking the hole shot into Turn 1 hot, then watching Johann Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo slip by as he settled into third, Dovizioso trailing in fourth. On Lap 4, Dovizioso and Marquez did a little do-si-do after which Dovizioso took over third place and Marquez dropped back to fourth, where he would finish. So far so good for the Italian challenger, though Lorenzo and Zarco would still need to be dealt with. At that point, there was plenty of race left.

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Johann Zarco started strong and earned his second podium of the season, securing rookie-of-the-year honors.

By Lap 9, Zarco appeared to be having issues with his soft rear rain tire, as first Lorenzo, then Dovizioso, went through on him. (Though he would not win today’s race, Zarco did clinch the Rookie of the Year award, as well as the Top Independent Rider for 2017, and he will be a hot property in next year’s silly season.) Thus, with factory Ducati rider Lorenzo leading factory Ducati rider Dovizioso, the talk in the commentary booth turned to “team orders,” that euphemism loathed by racing fans in which money and/or politics is injected into the rather Darwinian proceedings on track, occasionally producing some perverse results. The Ferrari F1 team back in the 90’s, head and shoulders above the rest of the field, with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello driving, used to take turns winning races, to the disgust of fans around the world. Such concerns were alive and well in Malaysia today.

Lorenzo did not appear to be having any of it. The triple MotoGP champion, winless in 2017 with an ego as big as the great outdoors, had said, earlier in the year, that if Dovi needed “help” in Valencia he would try to provide it. This, however, was not Valencia, although it might as well have been. Had Lorenzo beaten Dovizioso today, with Marquez slotted fourth, the championship would have been decided.

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Team orders? What team orders?

Other than Alex Rins getting disqualified for taking a shortcut back to the pits on Lap 12, things proceeded apace until Lap 16. At turn 15, the hairpin between the back and front straights, Lorenzo lost his grits, ran wide, nearly came off, and left a bright red stripe on the asphalt where his left knee slider was all that stood between him and a painful visit to the kitty litter. While this was going on, Dovizioso quietly slipped through and took the lead he would not relinquish.

The Big Picture

Marc Marquez’ ride today was reminiscent of his outing at Brno in 2014. He had won the first 10 races that year. He was virtually a mortal lock to win the title. He had been fast all weekend in practice. Yet, once the race rolled around, he appeared disinterested in challenging for the lead and an untouchable record 11th consecutive premier class win. Instead, like today, he rode a conservative, low-risk race to a 4th place finish with no harm done. His effort today sets up a deciding match in Valencia, but not the kind we were hoping for.

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While Marc Marquez probably would have liked to have wrapped up the championship at Sepang, he remains well positioned heading into the finale at Valencia.

Marc Marquez returns to Spain in two weeks leading by 21 points. The number of permutations and combinations on offer next time out plummeted today. Dovizioso must win the next race to have any kind of chance for the championship; should he finish second or worse, Marquez is champion again. Assuming, for a moment, that Dovi wins, Marquez would have to finish 12th or worse, the odds of which, with a title on the line, are incalculably high. Back in the day when I had a friendly bookie in St. Louis, such a parley – Dovi wins, Marquez scoring fewer than five points – would pay around 200-1. So, though we may have the pleasure of watching the title decided at the last race – our fervent hope all season – it holds about as much drama as watching iron rust.

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One world championship was decided at Sepang. A third-place result for Franco Morbidelli secured him the 2017 Moto2 title.

Preparing for Valencia

Here at MO, we have a number of things on our plate for the next two weeks. The final tranching of the riders. Trying to figure out a way to pump some drama into the last race of the season. Most worrisome of all, coming up with a classic quote that captures the essence of a great campaign that may have lasted two weeks too long. Andrea Dovizioso has enjoyed his finest MotoGP season ever this year, tripling his number of career premier class wins and pushing the eighth wonder of the world to the brink to the very end.

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No matter what happens at Valencia, Andrea Dovizioso can call 2017 a success, having set personal records for wins and points.

Andrea Dovizioso in 2017 is destined for one of two undesired labels. The first is “plucky,” which will be his if he finishes second this season. The second is “lucky,” which will be his if he wins in Valencia and Marquez finishes out of the points, having been collected, for example, by an Andrea Iannone or an Alvaro Bautista, each on his way to another undistinguished season. Riders in Valencia may be somewhat cautious around Marquez, not wishing to be the villain, or goober, who keeps him from his appointed fourth premier class title in 2017.