Sepang International Circuit is a world-leading facility. With the main grandstand sandwiched between the main and back straights, fans are bombarded with the sound of MotoGP from two sides as the riders hit some spectacular speeds. A little south of capital metropolis Kuala Lumpur, Sepang’s 5.5km of freshly surfaced asphalt tests everything a bike has to offer, with the highest ambient temperatures of the season pushing riders to their physical limits. Used in pre-season as a test venue, the track is the ultimate combination of long straights and varying corners, and in 2016 the grid return to a new track surface – as well as some modifications.
Run offs have been adjusted to provide a better compromise for racing on two wheels and four, kerbs replaced – and the asphalt changed. With Malaysian rain often seeing the skies open quickly at Sepang, the new track surface is designed to give better grip in the wet, as well as redirecting streams of water off the racing line. The camber of some corners has therefore changed, too – the key one being Turn 15, which is now adverse camber and has different ways to attack it whilst setting the same laptime.
Last year’s winner in Malaysia will sadly not be lining up to try and do it again, injured and replaced by Hiroshi Aoyama. Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) broke his collarbone in a crash on Friday in Motegi, and is sitting out the Malaysian GP as he recovers. Having completely dominated the race in 2015, Pedrosa’s performance will be a tough act to follow – as will the entire race weekend.
Pivotal, exciting and controversial, Sepang 2015 changed the headlines again in a season of incredible motorcycle racing. As the title fight hit boiling point between Movistar Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, Sepang saw a turning point that changed the colour of the season finale. This year, the landscape is very different as the paddock heads to the Malaysian GP – but memories are often not short.
The man with a point to prove will be Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Marquez. Freshly crowned as the 2016 MotoGP World Champion in Motegi, the rider from Cervera then let himself off the leash in Australia, and made a mistake. Away at the front of the race and free of pressure, the Spaniard lost his Honda into Turn 4 and was left ruing his first DNF of the year. Although both team and manufacturer are still locked in title fights and the Champion won’t play it reckless, Marquez has an added incentive to push at Sepang, as the memory of 2015 sees him aiming firmly at the top step. If his crash in Australia was reminiscent of 2014, the Repsol Honda rider will be hoping the same is true of his Malaysian GP – when he took the victory after fighting off Valentino Rossi.
Rossi could prove the key man in his way. After a stunning fight back from 15th on the grid in Australia to take a podium, the Italian legend is now clear of teammate Lorenzo in P2 in the Championship – but says his focus is on having good races, not on the points. With a good record at the track, including six wins, and recurrent pace in 2016, the 9-time World Champion will be out for glory in Malaysia.
Teammate Lorenzo had a tough Australian GP. With weather playing havoc throughout the weekend, the 3-time MotoGP World Champion wasn’t quite able to replicate his pace from previous years at the Island. Malaysia, however, brings warm temperatures and different tyres once again – and another chance of a stunning comeback like the previously-reigning Champion has pulled off all year. Now under some pressure from Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Maverick Viñales for P3 in the title and fighting to gain points back on the man he defeated last year – Rossi – for P2, the ‘Spartan’ will lay it all on the line in the final two rounds of the season.
Viñales proved his mettle once again in Australia. Moving from 13th on the grid to complete the podium, Rossi’s future teammate and his Suzuki are now constant threats at the front – and Sepang should prove no different. With warm temperatures in Malaysia and any big deficit in top speed for the Hamamatsu factory long gone, Sepang should see Viñales – and fellow Phillip Island podium contender and teammate Aleix Espargaro – as frontrunners once again.
The Ducati Team are another hoping to replicate some of their recent results, after Andrea Dovizioso took an impressive P2 in Motegi and was just off the podium in Phillip Island. With Andrea Iannone hoping to be back on the grid from injury, too, the Borgo Panigale squad will be eager to get out on track in Sepang, not least down the long straights of the venue – where the Ducati is sure to top the tables. ‘DesmoDovi’ is also targeting the man who just took him back in the Championship – Australian GP winner Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda).
Phillip Island saw Crutchlow take a stunning second career win and the Brit continue his incredible roll in the second half of 2016. High on confidence and with the results to back that up, the rider from Coventry is not only the top Independent Team rider in the Championship, he’s also back ahead of Dovizioso after another 25 point haul for victory, and gaining serious ground on Pedrosa as the Spaniard remains sidelined through injury. 24 points ahead of Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) in the fight to be top Independent Team rider in 2016, Crutchlow need only gain one point on the Spaniard in Malaysia to secure the title, with the fight for that honour now a two horse race.
MotoGP gets back on track in Malaysia this Friday at 9:55 local time (GMT + 8), as the penultimate round of the 2016 Championship heats up at Sepang International Circuit, and the riders test themselves against one of the toughest races of the year.
MotoGP World Championship Standings
1 – Marc Márquez (SPA) HONDA 273 points
2 – Valentino Rossi (ITA) YAMAHA 216 points
3 – Jorge Lorenzo (SPA) YAMAHA 192 points
4 – Maverick Viñales (SPA) SUZUKI 181 points
5- Dani Pedrosa (SPA) HONDA 155 points