MotoGP: Viñales out to capitalise but Ducati the ones to beat

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Yamaha arrived in Australia on their worst ever losing streak but after a stunning victory for Maverick Viñales at Phillip Island, the drought is over for the Iwata marque. Now we head for a very different venue in a very different climate, however: the Malaysian masterpiece of Sepang International Circuit. Hot, long and challenging, Sepang is far from the cool breeze and chilly evenings of the Island and could well throw up a very different race.

Viñales looked unstoppable in Australia and was back on the top step for the first time since Le Mans in 2017, boosting his confidence and adding a spring to his step on the way to Malaysia so he’ll be one to watch for sure. For teammate Valentino Rossi it wasn’t quite the same weekend, however, as he fought for second before then getting relegated to sixth by the flag. Viñales has reversed the trend of late and that means the two are now separated by only 15 points in the championship – will he continue to turn the screw? Or will the vastly different venue turn the tables once again?

15 points are now also the gap between Rossi and second overall Andrea Dovizioso– so it’s all in play behind newly-crowned champion Marc Marquez. Ducati took a one-two at the venue last year, too – and Dovizioso won that and the 2016 race. Will the Italian be able to do the hattrick and win in 2018 too? He said Phillip Island was important to see how they’d improved this season, given it had always been a more difficult venue – and he took third, and fought for second. That’s a big leap forward so back on ground with a stunning track record, can anyone bet against Dovi?

His teammate last time out, Alvaro Bautista, also had great pace at the Island on the GP18 so it wasn’t a one-pony trick for the Borgo Panigale factory. But he now returns to the Angel Nieto Team as, in turn, Jorge Lorenzo returns from injury. Keyhole surgery undertaken and on the mend, the five-time World Champion should be fit to race – so what can he do? Second last year was a good showing but even more pivotal was Lorenzo’s form in testing earlier in the season: he was at his poetry-in-motion best to put in the fastest ever lap of Sepang International Circuit.

Not so fast, however – at least on paper. The fastest official lap, from a race weekend, remains Dani Pedrosa’s 2015 1:59.053 and Pedrosa has some serious form at Sepang: five poles and three premier class wins. Higher temperatures raise expectations too, so what can Pedrosa do coming back from a DNF?

His teammate Marquez, meanwhile, also ended up with a zero in Australia. Hit from behind by Johann Zarco and sustaining too much damage, he agreed it was a racing incident but both didn’t manage to finish – leaving a few usual suspects out of the mix at the front. Marquez has only one win at Sepang in the premier class, taken in 2014, but he’s been showing similar signs to that season’s domination a few times in 2018 – and the title is already done. Will he be straight back on top?

For Zarco, it’s a different situation. With Cal Crutchlow out through injury in Australia, it presented somewhat of an open goal in the independent rider standings to Zarco and Danilo Petrucci, although neither were ultimately able to capitalise – instead it was Suzuki on the move in the standings and threatening all three after a second place for Andrea Iannone and a fifth for Alex Rins. Now, though, Zarco and Petrucci have another shot at it and Crutchlow’s 148 points is within reach for both. Will Suzuki gain again or can they pull clear? The Hamamatsu factory aren’t in the fight for top independent but overall position is important too.

One man who will hope it’s more an Independent Team weekend again is home hero Hafizh Syahrin. Heading into his first home Grand Prix in the premier class, the Malaysian crashed out in Australia but took a top ten in Japan and is on form in terms of pace. After key rival for rookie of the year Franco Morbidelli took eighth at Phillip Island, those top honours may now be out of reach for Syahrin but his home race stands alone in some ways: thousands of fans in one of the most packed and vocal venues in the world will be behind him, and he’ll want to do them proud.

Simon Patterson

By Simon Patterson

MotoGP and road racing reporter, photographer, videographer