Talking points ahead of the Malaysian MotoGP™
The MotoGP™ title fight comes down to this – two rivals with very different approaches on the same machinery, with a steamy Sepang and a stubborn South African to contend with as the final triple-header of the season kicks off in Malaysia.
Phillip Island was widely lauded as the best race of the 2023 MotoGP™ season … for all of eight days, after Jorge Martin, Pecco Bagnaia and Brad Binder produced a scrap for the ages in Thailand, with Martin making amends for Australia with a win that sets up a grandstand final three events.
The first of those? This weekend’s Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix (November 10-12), the first leg of a triple-header that will settle the intra-Ducati fight to become world champion between the hunter (Martin) and the hunted (Bagnaia).
Are we likely to get a better than best show once again this weekend? MotoGP™ being what it is, you can never rule that out – but while Phillip Island is a unique track and Thailand a relative newcomer, Sepang is way more familiar to the teams and riders because of its longevity on the schedule, and because pre-season testing takes place there more years than not.
With Bagnaia enjoying – more like ‘protecting’ – a 13-point lead over Martin atop the standings, here’s what we’re watching.
Low pressure, high stakes
Sometimes, the devil is in the detail. A couple of hours after the race ended at Buriram, news filtered through that Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro had been shuffled back from fifth to eighth, costing him three world championship points. It wasn’t a big deal for Espargaro, in isolation – he retained fifth place in the standings – but it is when you look into why he was penalised, and what that could mean.
For the second time this season, Espargaro had been found to have run more than 50 per cent of a race with a front tyre pressure below the minimum limit; a first offence comes with a warning, a second with a three-second time penalty. Those three seconds at Buriram saw the Spaniard slip behind Fabio Quartararo’s Yamaha, Marc Marquez’s Honda and Luca Marini’s Ducati in the classification.
To summarise, front tyres must carry at least 1.7 bar/24.6psi of pressure (1.9 bar/27.5psi for rear tyres) for at least half the race. Teams will under-inflate tyres at the start of races to mitigate the effects of rising tyre pressure that comes when running right behind a rival, or in a pack, or on a baking-hot track surface. More pressure means less grip, which means more sliding and less front-end feel.
The detail we mentioned? Espargaro was one of four riders noted for running incorrect tyre pressures in Thailand, another of them being race-winner Martin. A subsequent Martin breach, then, carries a three-second penalty – given how close the races have been and how tight the points tally is, this is a low-key story that could have large consequences.
Binder rages against the machine
That machine, of course, is a Ducati – winner of 27 of this year’s 33 races, and whose riders occupy four of the top six spots in the standings. The odds are stacked against Brad Binder and his KTM, but the South African simply rips the throttle harder, increases the ferocity of his already-robust overtaking, and finds himself in places he shouldn’t be.
In Thailand, Binder was brilliant – second to Martin in the Sprint, he was second across the line in the main race before having to drop a position for a track limits infringement on the last lap. That Binder should be in the mix is no surprise – he’s a career-best fourth in the standings – but the gap between he and his fellow KTM/GasGas stablemates has become alarmingly large.
Teammate Jack Miller was 16th in Thailand while Binder stood on the podium, and the only riders the Australian beat were GasGas pair Augusto Fernandez and Pol Espargaro, that trio 17 seconds or more behind Binder. Miller, struggling with drive grip out of the slow corners all weekend at Buriram, was frustrated with his predicament – but full of praise for Binder.
“Every time we have this (tyre) casing in, I seem to suffer,” he said.
“I’m not really able to get it to work, or understand it very well. I tried different lean angles, picking the bike up earlier, short-shifting … Quite clearly the bike’s able to work with these tyres, Brad did a fantastic job all weekend and showed the KTM way.”
The heat is on
Aleix Espargaro was relatively quiet about his tyre pressure penalty in Thailand, which may have been because he was trying to get his body temperature down. It was warm but not crazily hot at Buriram – the air and track temperatures were 31 and 40 respectively on race day – but heat and Aprilia has become a recurring theme.
Espargaro retired in India with a heat-related problem, while Thailand was even worse for the Aprilia riders. Maverick Vinales retired, saying he was losing “mental clarity” with the heat, while Raul Fernandez admitted he nearly stopped as well, hanging on to one championship point in 15th despite feeling “bad, bad, bad.”
So are Aprilia’s riders lacking fitness or focus? Neither. The Italian manufacturer’s bikes have often struggled with heat in the past, but this year’s machine takes that to an extreme. Hot air from the engine tends to get trapped behind the screen at the front of the bike, meaning its riders are inhaling air that, according to the-race.com’s Simon Patterson, is upwards of 70 degrees Celsius.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Espargaro revealed in his post-race debrief. “It was the hardest race of my life. When I came into the pits, I thought I was going to die. In the last five or eight laps, I couldn’t even see the reference points to brake.”
Aprilia knows the problem and is doing all it can for a longer-term fix, but Malaysia in November – Malaysia at any time, really – might spell more heat problems this weekend.