An increasingly tense 2015 MotoGP season took an unpalatable twist in the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Sepang on October 25 — won comprehensively by Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) but completely overshadowed by an incident between Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) and Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) that now has major ramifications for the championship.
The incident happened on lap seven, when Rossi and Marquez were embroiled in an almighty see-sawing battle for third position, losing time to second-placed Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha) in the process — the only rider who can take the title off Rossi in 2015.
At that critical juncture, Rossi took matters into his own hands in one of the most sensational moments of the year — if not years. After Rossi glided up the inside of Marquez at turn 13, he appeared to sit up, ease off the throttle and run Marquez wide at turn 14. The pair touched and Marquez fell.
The world champion returned straight to the pits, while Rossi continued, eventually finishing third. Race Direction saw Rossi's actions as deliberate and slapped him with a three penalty-point sanction after the race — on top of a penalty point he already had, which means he will start from the back of the grid at the season finale in Valencia on November 8. Rossi immediately lodged an appeal with the FIM Stewards against the decision of Race Direction, but it was unanimously confirmed.
Valencia is a difficult track to overtake on, so even though Lorenzo is still 7pts behind Rossi he must be the favourite to win his third MotoGP title on November 8.
This is what Rossi had to say: "Marquez knows it wasn't red mist that caused the incident. It's very clear from the helicopter footage that I didn't want to make him crash, I just wanted to make him lose time, go outside of the line and slow down, because he was playing his dirty game, even worse than in Australia. When I went wide and slowed down to nearly a stop, I looked at him as if to say 'what are you doing?'.
"After that we touched. He touched with his right underarm on my leg and my foot slipped off the foot peg. If you look at the image from the helicopter it's clear that when my foot slipped of the foot peg, Marquez had already crashed. I didn't want to kick him, especially because, if you give a kick to a MotoGP bike, it won't crash, it's very heavy.
"For me the sanction is not fair, because Marquez won his fight. His program is okay because he is making me lose the championship. The sanction is not good, especially for me, because I didn't purposefully want to make him crash, I just reacted to his behaviour, but I didn't kick him. You can't say anything in the press conference, maybe it changes something, but to me this was not fair, because I just want to fight for the championship with Jorge and let the better man win, but like this that's not happening.
"Like I said, I didn't want to make Marquez crash, but I had to do something because at that moment Jorge was already gone. The championship is not over yet, but this sanction cut me off by the legs and made Marquez win."
And Marquez: "We were having a good race up until the incident. At the beginning I made a mistake, but then I regained confidence. Valentino overtook me, I followed him for half a lap, and I saw that I could go faster than him, so I tried to overtake him back.
"We started a fight between us and I always passed without making any contact with him. At Turn 14 he passed me on the inside, I sat the bike up, he kept going straight ahead and I saw him looking at me. I didn’t know what to do.
"Then he kicked out at me, knocking my brake lever, and I crashed. I will leave the sanction in the hands of Race Direction. All I know is that I scored zero points and ended up in the gravel, but thankfully I'm fine.
"Both what Valentino said to Race Direction and what he did on the track have made me disappointed. I’ve never seen anything like it: a rider kicking another rider. It might be down to nerves, but I want to try to forget about all this and the important thing is that I'm fine physically. I hope, for the sake of the sport that this ends here."
The nominal start of the bad blood between Rossi and Marquez began at the pre-event press conference last Thursday, when Rossi accused Marquez of trying to help Lorenzo win the title. Any chance of rapprochement between the pair obviously wasn't going to happen in the 20-lap Sepang race, but no-one expected such an astonishing piece of drama, which will forever be remembered as the #SepangClash.
It was the talking point in the race, but it did take the shine off one of the most complete performances of the year by Pedrosa, who led from start to finish from pole position. It was his second win of the year and the 51st of his GP career
"I am very happy because it was a very nice Grand Prix!" said Pedrosa. "We had a good feeling from Friday, we were able to manage the weekend well and above all we had a bike that worked very well during every practice. I'm very happy to take this win for my team, which has been behind me all the way."
Lorenzo was second, 3.612 seconds down on his countryman, with Rossi in third position.
Bradley Smith (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Cal Crutchlow (Castrol LCR Honda) and Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing Ducati) completed the top six, followed by the squabbling Ecstar Suzukis of Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales.
Aussie pair Jack Miller (LCR Honda) and Ant West (AB Motoracing Honda) were 17th and 20th, while Damian Cudlin failed to complete a lap on the E-Motion IodaRacing machine.
1. Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda, 40m37.691s
2. Jorge Lorenzo, Movistar Yamaha, +3.612s
3. Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha, +13.724s
17. Jack Miller, LCR Honda, 1min02:828s
20. Anthony West, AB Motoracing, 1min24.749
DNF. Damian Cudlin, E-Motion IodaRacing Team, +20 laps
Pole position: Pedrosa, 1:59.053 = 167.6km/h
Fastest lap and new record: Lorenzo, 2:00.606 = 165.4km/h
Championship top 3
Rossi 312 • Lorenzo 305 • Marc Marquez 222
Frenchman Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) eats racecraft for breakfast, and the 2015 world champion again showed why with a superbly timed victory over long-time leader Tom Luthi (Derendinger Racing Interwetten).
Apart for a brief period at the start of the race Swiss rider Luthi held onto top spot, with Zarco never too far behind, but it all changed on the penultimate lap when Zarco moved onto the bumper of the polesitter.
Then on the final lap, with clearly way more side grip than Luthi, Zarco made his move and pulled away to win his eighth race of the year, as well as extending his already unbeatable championship lead over Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40).
German Jonas Folger (AGR Team) was a lonely third after Rins crashed out in front of him about mid-race distance, with the top six completed by Takaaki Nakagami (IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia), Lorenzo Baldassarri (Forward Racing) and Luis Salom (Paginas Amarillas HP 40).
Malayan rider Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Raceline Malaysia) kept local fans happy with an eighth place finish behind Sandro Cortese (Dynavolt Intact GP).
Aussie Josh Hook (Technomag Racing Interwetten) finished in 22nd.
1. Johann Zarco, Ajo Motorsport, 40m37.772s
2. Tom Luthi, Derendinger Racing Interwetten, +0.598s
3. Jonas Folger, AGR Team, +9.846s
22. Josh Hook, Technomag Racing Interwetten, +1m18.343s
Pole position: Luthi, 2:06.383 = 157.8km/h
Fastest lap and new record: Luthi, 2:07.321 = 156.7km/h
Championship top 3
Zarco 343 • Rins 214 • Tito Rabat 206
If Danny Kent wasn't nervous before Sepang, he will be now. That's after the Briton's third attempt at winning the title on his Leopard Racing Honda again ended in anguish, as he finished seventh in the 18-lap won in spectacular fashion by title rival Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) from teammate Brad Binder and Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia Honda).
Oliveira is now just 24pts behind Kent ahead of the finale at Valencia, setting up for what should be a nail-biting conclusion to another riveting Moto3 season. And once that's over, Oliveira and Kent will become Moto2 teammates in 2016…
Oliveira led a large chunk of the race while Kent started nervously, and at one stage was out of the points in 16th position. However, the Briton eventually settled and slowly started picking his way through the field, his progress assisted by a collision which took out his two teammates (2014 Sepang winner Efren Vazquez and Hiroki Ono), and then Karel Hanika (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Francesco Bagnaia (Mapfre Mahindra) also fell by the wayside.
With two laps to go the lead group was seven, and Kent was as high as fifth before being swallowed up on the final circuit by Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold Honda) and Jakub Kornfeil (Drive M7 KTM). Antonelli even got up to fourth at the finish, ahead of Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46 KTM).
If Kent had remained in fifth and Oliveira had still won, he would be the 2015 world Moto3 champion. But sport doesn't always take the charmed route, and at the moment Oliveira is the man of the hour.
“I didn’t know anything about Danny (Kent) from my pit board, so I just forgot about him and went for the victory," said Oliveira." On the last lap I didn’t want to be first on the final straight and luckily it was Brad (Binder), because he could push me down the straight.
"Like me, he also has a very fast bike. I’m really happy with the win and that championship is still alive. I know it's quite hard but I will fight until the end. Before beginning these three rounds I never thought that I could take the championship to Valencia. In the end I am very happy with the job the team has done."
Australia's Remy Gardner (CIP Mahindra), riding under an injury cloud, finished in 22nd position, coming back to down to earth after his 10th place finish at Phillip Island.
1. Miguel Oliveira, Red Bull KTM Ajo, 40m33.277s
2. Brad Binder, Red Bull KTM Ajo, +0.089s
3. Jorge Navarro, Estrella Galicia 0,0, +0.273s
22. Remy Gardner, CIP, +55.705s
Pole position: Niccolo Antonelli, Ongetta-Rivacold Honda, 2:12.653 = 150.4km/h
Fastest lap and new record: Binder, 2:13.571 = 149.3km/h
Championship top 3
Kent 253 • Oliveira 229 • Enea Bastianini 196
Final round: Valencia, Spain, November 6-8