MotoGP: Round 17 – Sepang, Malaysia – Sun Oct 19

With all the titles long-since decided, the Malaysian MotoGP was really “for fun”. Except that no one but a true sadist could really enjoy those stifling, ultra-humid conditions. Well – no one except for Valentino Rossi, naturally.

Rossi is like Michael Schumacher in that it doesn’t matter how many titles, how many races have been won in a career: the one just coming up still means absolutely everything in the world. And so Sepang all came down to whether anyone else had the heart and the sheer pace of Rossi to stop Valentino from taking his 9th win of the season.

Dani Pedrosa clearly had the heart: he dearly wanted to prove that his mid-season switch to Bridgestone tyres had been justified, and his pole position in a highly entertaining Saturday qualifying session gave him the ideal opportunity to chalk up a win. Sure enough he got off to a superb start – his light body mass always a help in overcoming the initial inertia as the lights go out.

Rossi got off to a solid start in that he just about managed not to get swamped by the entire field as we’ve seen in the past. However, he was beaten back into 3rd by a brilliant start by Andrea Dovizioso who flew off the second row and took a tight inside line to slot in behind Pedrosa. And he had enough pace to give Rossi some problems before the world champion was finally able to out brake him and set off in pursuit of the race leader.

Once that break happened, Pedrosa and Rossi had a big gap over the chasing pack of Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden, Shinya Nakano (who had blasted up from 15th on the grid) and Casey Stoner, stuck back in 6th. Hayden made several thrilling attempts throughout the race to overtake Dovizioso for the final podium position but was beaten back every time, until his Michelin tyres started to go off and he had to accept fourth place.

Up front, Rossi closed up on Pedrosa and sat right on his tail for several laps until the mid point of the 21 lap race, at which point he decided it was time to make his move with a late-braking move around the back of the circuit on lap 11. After that Rossi pulled out a 4s lead over Pedrosa, who in turn had an 8s lead over Dovizioso, and the race classification was pretty much a lock from then on.

Rossi admitted that he had always expected the win here today: “It was a long, long race and was difficult, but I was prepared because I’d done a lot of simulations at this track in the winter,” said Rossi. “I wanted to win here in Sepang because we worked very hard on the M1 in the winter, and after the second simulation when we were very, very fast, I said to my tyre man ‘we will win the grand prix’. I knew this track is very good for the Yamaha, and the type of corner is very suitable for my riding style.”

Pedrosa conceded that Rossi was faster here this weekend: “At the end Rossi was faster than me,” he admitted. “Usually at the end he puts on pressure and it’s difficult to follow him, but we were closer this time. So I’m happy that we can reverse it with the new bike. We are getting faster every race, which was important, so if we can get closer at the next race this means we are going in a good way.”

And Dovizioso was just delighted with his performance and with the podium position: “Before I finished the year it was very important for me to get a podium,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for us. During the season there were many races where we were near the podium, but it was very difficult for us, so I’m really happy and want to say thank you to all the team.”

Casey Stoner looked off-form throughout, struggling even to hold on to the pack ahead while running in 6th. After the race he looked tired and drained, relieved for the race to be over, and he put the blame on his ongoing problem with his fractured scaphoid bone that will need surgery after the season is over. “I had no feeling whatsoever from my injured hand today, it just wasn’t working,” he said. “It meant I had to put all the pressure on to my right hand and in such physically demanding conditions it was really difficult. It started cramping up and I couldn’t even get the throttle fully open down the straights.”

He added, “To be honest I don’t think we quite found a perfect set-up this weekend but I can’t complain about that because I wasn’t able to push the bike to the limit today,” he said. “It’s been a tough weekend and we have another one coming up at Valencia, which we will push hard to get through with as good a result as possible before finally looking ahead to the operation.”

But it was very much job done for the outgoing Aussie world champion: with the 6th place finished he puts 2nd place in the MotoGP riders’ championship beyond doubt, with Dani Pedrosa no longer able to make up the gap with only 25pts left available at next week’s season finale at Valencia. “At least we have the runner-up spot already in the bag, which is an achievement I think myself and the whole team can look back on and be very proud of,” said Stoner.

The race saw two retirements: James Toseland tussled with Anthony West and Randy de Puniet early on and lost ground, and then pushed too hard trying to recover his position and lost the front end going into a turn, putting the bike into the gravel on lap 3.

And Jorge Lorenzo crashed out at turn 1 of lap 13, confessing he wasn’t surprised after struggling with his Michelin tyres at the start and dropping multiple positions before the first turn, and having a few dicey moments during the race before finally crashing out. He confessed to not being himself: “I didn’t feel good today and I was riding much worse than yesterday.

“I had many problems with my tyres in the first few laps and in fact I had a lot of warnings about the crash, but in the end I just couldn’t avoid it. I got a bad start and it seems this part of the race is getting more difficult every time. If I had a better start I could have tried to go with Valentino and Pedrosa but today was terrible. We have to change something here because at the moment it’s quite difficult. I was having some problems in braking and acceleration and this is really a pity because I thought I had the chance to be on the podium today.

“Apart from these problems I know I didn’t have the same feeling in myself as I had yesterday, so it really wasn’t a good day!”

The Spanish rookie will be hoping for a strong finish to the season on home ground next weekend, but he will face strong opposition in his compatriot Dani Pedrosa who has won both the Spanish rounds of the 2008 season thus far.

And of course – Valentino Rossi has the winning habit and will see no reason to cut it short before the close season.

Race result:

Pos  Rider             Bike          Time
 1.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha   (B)  43:06.007
 2.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda    (B)  +   4.008
 3.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda    (M)  +   8.536
 4.  Nicky Hayden      Honda    (M)  +   8.858
 5.  Shinya Nakano     Honda    (B)  +  10.583
 6.  Casey Stoner      Ducati   (B)  +  13.640
 7.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki   (B)  +  15.936
 8.  Colin Edwards     Yamaha   (M)  +  18.802
 9.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki   (B)  +  23.174
10.  Randy de Puniet   Honda    (M)  +  25.516
11.  John Hopkins      Kawasaki (B)  +  27.609
12.  Anthony West      Kawasaki (B)  +  41.399
13.  Sylvain Guintoli  Ducati   (B)  +  45.617
14.  Alex de Angelis   Honda    (B)  +  49.003
15.  Toni Elias        Ducati   (B)  +  59.139
16.  Marco Melandri    Ducati   (B)  +1:03.328
17.  Nobuatsu Aoki     Suzuki   (B)  +1:48.363

Not classified:

     Rider             Bike          Laps
     Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha   (M)  12
     James Toseland    Yamaha   (M)   2

Championship standings:

Pos Driver  Points
1   Valentino Rossi     357
2   Casey Stoner        255
3   Daniel Pedrosa      229
4   Jorge Lorenzo       182
5   Andrea Dovizioso    161
6   Nicky Hayden        144
7   Colin Edwards       134
8   Chris Vermeulen     125
9   Shinya Nakano       117
10  Loris Capirossi     111
11  James Toseland      100
12  Toni Elías           92
13  Sylvain Guintoli     63
14  Randy de Puniet      60
15  Alex de Angelis      57
16  John Hopkins         55
17  Marco Melandri       51
18  Anthony West         50
19  Ben Spies            20
20  Jamie Hacking         5
21  Tadayuki Okada        2

Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      386
2   Ducati      296
3   Honda       295
4   Suzuki      174
5   Kawasaki    86
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