This weekend the flyaways finally come close to an end as MotoGP heads to Malaysia for the penultimate round of 2016 at the Sepang International Circuit.
Sepang means high temperatures, heavy humidity and a lot of rain. The climate and the track itself, which is one of the longest in the calendar, mean that the Malaysian Grand Prix is incredibly demanding on the riders. Staying rested and most importantly, hydrated will be key for them this weekend and as Valentino Rossi pointed out “it is always very hot and you must always be very careful with what you eat and drink.”
While the extra heat can cause issues for the riders themselves, it will be a welcome relief for Jorge Lorenzo, who really struggled in Australia due to the lack of temperature in his tyres. He’s expecting to have no such issues in Sepang, so should be pushing at the front, despite never winning at the Malaysian circuit in MotoGP before.
The track itself is one that riders and teams know very well, simply because they spend so much time testing there in the pre-season, but this year there’s a small spanner in the works… the track has changed. After they tested at Sepang in February, it’s had a bit of a revamp with alterations and a completely new surface, so it’ll be interesting to see how much of their test data will remain relevant.
Because so much has changed, Friday will see everyone fully focussed on their setup; working out how the tyres are affected and their own mechanical settings. Braking will be very important thanks to the heavy braking areas, especially turn 15, while stability is top of the agenda thanks to the new camber in many of the corners. Handling and corner exit speed out of the tighter turns and the sweep of turn three are other areas that Sepang will demand the teams focus on.
“I’m very curious about the track, to see how much smoother the surface is now and how much faster it will allow us to lap.” – Marquez
Weight balance needs will vary between the teams, with Yamaha’s Ramon Forcada saying that stressing the front will be an issue for them, while at Suzuki Maverick Vinales is more concerned about stressing the rear tyres in the high temperatures.
In terms of tyres, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Michelin have prepared for this race. Obviously, much of February’s test data became almost immediately irrelevant, which considering Loris Baz’s rear tyre exploded is probably a good thing, but they did test a couple of months ago with Cal Crutchlow and a few factory test riders. The grip level is expected to be much better this year thanks to the new surface and everyone will be very happy about that. Michelin has brought front slicks in soft, medium and hard, to be paired with asymmetric rears in medium and hard. Because it’s going to rain at some point, wets in soft and medium are available to riders, while intermediates are also an option for them.
Because the surface is smoother and grippier lap times will be affected. When Formula 1 visited they apparently found quite a big change, while World Superbikes also beat previous times when they raced in May. Once the riders have scouted out the changes and made the relevant adjustments, times for MotoGP will likely drop with the new World Champion Marc Marquez saying “I’m very curious about the track, to see how much smoother the surface is now and how much faster it will allow us to lap.”
Another aspect of Sepang are the long straights that run either side of the main grandstand. To maximise their performance here, Aprilia are bringing a new engine specification, so it will interesting to see if this proves a step forward as the season comes to an end.
In terms of who we can expect to see at the top, it would normally be Dani Pedrosa who is always in good form in Malaysia, but sadly the Spaniard is still sidelined with his injuries from Japan and will be replaced by Hiroshi Aoyama, who has actually won at Sepang twice before in the 250cc class.
With Pedrosa, not an option, Yamaha will be hoping to finally get back on the top step after being without a win since Barcelona, and the warmer temperatures should help them, as should the track changes that will create an even smoother line for them to follow. Rossi has the most wins at the track, with 5 in MotoGP and he classes it as one of his favourites, so expect him to be in top form, along with his team-mate Lorenzo.
Honda’s Marquez is, as always, impossible to rule out. He’ll want to come back after his first DNF of the year in Australia, while the race winner Cal Crutchlow will have a triple-boost as not only is he now a double race winner; but his family will be joining him in Malaysia and it’s his birthday this weekend. Can the British rider make it three in 2016, I’d say that’s unlikely as the other factories should be performing better this weekend, but a top five is a possibility.
The Ducatis will have both Andrea’s back on board again, as Iannone returns for the first time since he injured himself in Misano, and the Italian team will be looking forward to blasting past their rivals on the straights.
Suzuki showed real promise in the pre-season and they’ve improved massively since then, so they could be fighting for podium places again this weekend.
With the track changes, new surface and Malaysian weather, Sepang is always a tricky one to predict. The main hotspots for track action should still be turns 1 and 2 after the front straight, the 90-degree turn 4 which is perfect for outbraking, turn 9 and of course, the all-important turn 15. It’s this last turn where you’ll really want to pay attention; riders will be trying new lines thanks to its new profile and there are more options available to them, so while some will get it right, others will likely get it wrong.
The winner of Sunday’s race could be decided at the last corner, rain will play its part and the tyres will again be key, along with how well the riders adapt themselves and their bikes to the changes.
Who will win? I don’t know, sorry. But it should be fun to watch, as long as we don’t get any of 2015’s funny business!