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All or nothing: Sepang sets the final countdown in motion

All Or Nothing: Sepang Sets The Final Countdown In MotionThe heat is on as the last triple header welcomes the title fight, with just 13 points in it and 111 still to play for.

This is it. The final stretch, the final triple header of a history-making season. There are just three race weekends to go, at the end of which we’ll have a 2023 Champion. The three Tissot Sprints and Grand Prix races that remain are not, in fact, worth any more than they were in Portugal, or Mugello, or even last time out. But as the finish line appears on the horizon, it feels like it’s now all or nothing for the remaining 111 points – and the top two in the title fight are split by just 13. So here we go. It’s time to go racing at Petronas Sepang International Circuit.

Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) remains the Championship leader on the way in, and he’ll be the Championship leader by the conclusion of the Sprint at Sepang too, by a minimum of 1 point. That’s about all that can be guaranteed after a rollercoaster few Grands Prix for both the top title contenders. For Bagnaia, it’s been a mixture of tough Fridays, visits to Q1, rabbits pulled out of hats to make some history on Sunday and a good few reminders exactly why he’s the reigning Champion. At Sepang last season, he also proved why he would go on to grab that title as he held his nerve to out-duel now teammate Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team).

For Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing), meanwhile, it’s all been about pure pace. Or so it seemed, until Buriram. There, the number 89 was not actually faster than Bagnaia and Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), and he had to get the gloves off, soak up some serious pressure AND play the tactics to perfection right to the line. But that he did, and if previously being the fastest wasn’t enough of a confidence boost, knowing he came out on top against that competition is just another. Those memories of his crash out the lead in Indonesia have hopefully been put to bed after proving, just like in Japan, that his nerves can be as steel as required – and he’ll need them to be after crashing out of the lead in Sepang last season.

Binder won’t be easy competition to deny, however, and he has little to lose. No pressure in the fight for the crown, an ever-present desire to get absolutely stuck in, serious speed and an RC16 that’s rocketed through the ranks since the Sepang Test make quite a combination, and he really, really wants that win. But Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) will want to make sure he’s the rider taking it to Bagnaia and Martin instead this time round, aiming to arrive at 100% fitness and not having been on the podium since that stunning win in India before his broken collarbone. Time is running out for the number 72 to stay in contention for the crown, but as we’ve seen before… when it’s hooked up for Bezzecchi, it’s game over for the rest. Can he come out swinging?

The rest of the Ducati armada will aim to do just that, too. Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) wants more this weekend and was the fastest in the Sepang Test. Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) was right in the podium battle in Buriram before crashing out. Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) is now a premier class winner, and Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) was on an awesome run before a tougher Thai GP. There’s also a wildcard in the mix, in more than one way, as newly-crowned 2023 WorldSBK Champion Alvaro Bautista wildcards with the Aruba.it team. And his times raised some eyebrows in testing, as they should as he returns to a venue he’s raced more in the premier class of Grand Prix racing than most of the riders around him…

Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), meanwhile, had a few things to remind people of in Buriram, as did one rider he duelled in a fabulous flashback: Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™). Marquez got the gloves off with Bagnaia, Quartararo, Bezzecchi AND Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) across a much better weekend in Thailand, and he’ll want to do more of the same at Sepang. Quartararo, this time around, got the better of the number 93 too, and last year in Malaysia he rode a stunning race to keep his title hopes alive. Can they get back up there again this weekend?

Speaking of Aleix Espargaro, it’s been a slightly tougher stint for Aprilia recently despite flashes of awesome speed. Both the number 41 and teammate Maverick Viñales suffered in the heat at Buriram, but not from the ambient conditions – from the bike. So that will be mission: priority to try and solve as the paddock rolls into Sepang. Viñales’ record at the venue is a truly stellar one too. Miguel Oliveira (CryptoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team) and teammate Raul Fernandez had tough Thai GPs as well and will want a lot more from Malaysia, a home race for many in the team including founder Razlan Razali.

The list of those wanting more continues for many. Jack Miller (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) may top the list as his mid-season woes continue into late-season woes, especially looking at the speed of Binder as a comparison last time out. Fellow RC16 rider Augusto Fernandez (GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3) will be frustrated in a different way after good pace in Buriram took him straight to Q2, but a run off on Sunday then dropped him back. He won the duel after catching teammate Pol Espargaro though, something the number 44 will want to reverse at Sepang if their paths cross once more.

Joan Mir (Repsol Honda Team) will want to home in on teammate Marc Marquez and the top ten, and likewise Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) with Quartararo. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) took more points but had a deficit to Mir at the flag in Thailand, and Sepang offers another chance to move forward. He’ll have a teammate this time round too, with Iker Lecuona stepping in at LCR Honda Castrol as Alex Rins continues his recovery from a follow up surgery.

It’s a 23-strong field ready to take on a Sprint and a Grand Prix race at Sepang, and the grid is packed with stories, headlines and targets every rider is looking to hit. But for the top two, it’s 30 laps deciding who heads into Qatar with the first match point – because the crown is always on the line in the penultimate round of the season. Will it be Bagnaia or Martin? And can Bezzecchi bring himself back into contention? Do NOT miss the Petronas Grand Prix of Malaysia, because we’re about to find out.

SHOWTIME AT SEPANG

We’re underway at 15:00 local time on Saturday for the Sprint, before the GP race on Sunday fires up at the very same 15:00.

Tissot Sprint: Saturday 15:00 (GMT +8)
Grand Prix Race: Sunday 15:00 (GMT +8)

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