With the excitement of the Phillip Island MotoGP™ round having barely subsided, the grand prix caravan has already moved onto Sepang in Malaysia for what is universally recognised as the toughest stopover on the calendar.
If the intense heat and humidity of Sepang isn't enough, the 5.543km circuit has been resurfaced and partially modified since most of the MotoGP™ riders last visited in February, making for a few extra challenges this weekend.
One rider who has sampled the resurfaced layout is Briton, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), who is coming off a brilliant win at Phillip Island – his second success in 2016. Crutchlow has been magnificent in the second half of the season, with only World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) scoring more points during that time.
“I’m really looking forward to Malaysia; it’s an important part of the world for the motorcycle industry and our sponsors," said Crutchlow. “With the pace we have shown recently I really hope we can do a good job, although I don’t expect us to be as competitive at that track. We tested the new asphalt earlier in the season, so I can’t wait to see what we are capable of this weekend.”
For Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) and Marquez, Sepang marks a year since their much-publicised relationship meltdownhit rock bottom. The pair came into contact, with Marquez crashing while Rossi finished third behind Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) and Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha).
Rossi was then sanctioned for his part in the misdemeanour and had to start from last on the grid at the final round in Valencia, with Lorenzo going on to win the championship.
Twelve months on the tensions have subsided somewhat, and Marquez's immediate aim will be getting back on track after crashing out of the lead at Phillip Island. Rossi, meanwhile, is 24pts in front of Lorenzo, and can shore up second place in the championship with a good result.
Lorenzo was a subdued figure at Phillip Island, seemingly still struggling with the Michelin tyres – in both the wet and dry. He'll want to rediscover some of his old venom as his days with Yamaha approach the end before he joins Ducati in 2017.
Pedrosa will sit out Sepang as he continues to recover from a broken collarbone, to be replaced by Hiroshi Aoyama, while Andrea Iannone (Ducati Team) returns from his own injury woes to partner Andrea Dovizioso.
Suzuki Ecstar pair Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro are in strong form, while Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) will be pushing hard to dislodge Crutchlow as top Independent Team rider.
Aussie Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) hits Malaysia after a solid 10th place at Phillip Island, his best result since Sachsenring's round 11.
“I missed the winter test in Malaysia earlier this year but I don’t think it will be a major disadvantage because the track has changed a little and the surface is new," said Miller. "I’m happy there is new asphalt because the track was getting quite bumpy.
"I’m curious to see how some of the corners have changed but we should be able to figure it all out pretty quickly. Phillip Island was a solid race and hopefully I can have another exciting fight but with a better result.”
The only championship still up for grabs, and what a see-sawing battle it has been between Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini), Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP40), reigning world champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) – and now Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten).
Just when it appeared to have come down to a two-rider battle between Lowes and Rins, Luthi has rocketed into contention. At Phillip Island, the Swiss rider won in a thriller over Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0), while Rins crashed and Zarco was well back in an uncharacteristic 12th place.
It was the first time Lüthi had taken back-to-back wins in not just the intermediate class, but in his career. The 2005, 125 World Champion, has been a consistent race winner and frontrunner, but had never achieved what he did in Australia.
Luthi is now 22pts behind Zarco with two rounds remaining, while Rins is 25pts in arrears.
At Sepang in 2015, Zarco and Luthi fought out a race-long duel, with Zarco just getting the job done, while Jonas Folger finished in third.
Morbidelli is the only other man mathematically still in play for the crown – but with a gap of 49pts to the front, the Italian would need to win both races, have Zarco not score in both and gain big chunks of points on both Lüthi and Rins.
Malaysian rider Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Raceline Malaysia) will be pushing to take on the usual frontrunners at Sepang – and could prove another dark horse after having previous podium form at home.
Aussie Remy Gardner (Tasca Racing Scuderia) will be looking to bounce back at crashing at Phillip Island.
After massive attrition in Australia resulted in only 20 finishers – with World Champion Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) dominating at the front – Moto3™ should take on a more normal outlook in Malaysia.
With Binder free to focus on just winning, the major intrigue is in the battle for second place in the championship between Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3™ Honda) and Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda), with 21pts separating the duo.
Bastianini is suffering a cracked vertebra after a crash at Phillip Island, while Navarro finished on the podium at Sepang last year which will give him some extra confidence.
Others who will fight it out at the front at Sepang include Joan Mir (Leopard Racing KTM), Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46 KTM), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing Moto3 Honda), Francesco Bagnaia (Pull&Bear Aspar Mahindra) and Fabio Quartararo (Leopard Racing KTM).
The three world championship races at Sepang will be held over the following distances and times:
- MotoGP™: 20 laps, 110.9km, starting at 3:00pm local time (6:00pm AEST)
- Moto2™: 19 laps, 105.3km, starting a 11:20pm local time (4:20pm AEST)
- Moto3™: 18 laps, 99.8km, starting at 12:00pm local time (3:00pm AEST)